Washington, DC Immersion Memoir 3

July 1, 2017


The Einstein statue in all its glory is now visible from the street; riding the bus back to the hotel from the Smithsonian Festival, I saw it and I gasped, quietly but it truly caught my breath. It has always been one of my favorite monuments and I am glad that they cleared the bushes around it.  When I lived in DC in the 90s, I often visited it and always took visitors to see it although it was hidden and it took effort to get there. My life in DC! I relished the way life happened in the same space where the monuments and history happened. I would visit museums—free entrance at all Smithsonian museums—during my lunch hour and on weekends. I went to lectures, concerts, and had wonderful conversations with bright engaged people–my coworkers at NEA, friends I met through other friends, acquaintances. Things were happening!

Today, Saturday, walking by the rose garden on our way to the Arts & Industries building where we are set up with Veronica Castillo’s ceramics I recalled my Saturday morning forays to Eastern Market and the wonderful flower stalls where I would buy a bunch of glorious flowers—sometimes I would pick gladiolas or gardenias, or other less common ones. Usually I bought a bunch of common seasonal flowers–sunflowers in fall, tulips in late winter–that would then grace my table all week long. Bursts of color in what I considered a drab kitchen.  Of course, I also bought vegetables, cheese, meat, and antiques. It was Eastern Market where I picked up food for the week as well as the occasional piece of furniture. I still have the antique side tables I paid $5.00 for each one. Later I had a woodworker in Laredo fix them up. When I moved to Missouri I left one with Elsa and the other elsewhere. I’ll have to retrieve them as I miss them; they are reminders of those glorious Saturday mornings in DC. Where we would have a pancake breakfast inside the market or walk over to Le Pain Quotidien for a quiche or an omelet and read the Washington Post.

The restaurants in the area were fantastic–probably still are. I loved the Greek restaurant on Pennsylvania near the Library of Congress and the small neighborhood Argentine restaurant/grill within walking distance of my friend Alicia’s home. It was not uncommon to run into DC figures dining in the eating spots in the neighborhood. One day, at a restaurant, I got up to go to the restroom and ran into Sandra Day O’Connor who was at the table next to ours. In those pre-9/11 days, things seemed more relaxed and less tense.

“El trajin” as the Spanish call the daily grind of life did affect me, though, and I developed migraines. Headaches I had suffered once before, when I was Interim Dean at Texas A&M International University came back with a vengeance. I recall one such incident. The migraine struck as I was on my way to the office in the Old Post Office Building one spring morning. I was going down on the escalator at the Eastern Market metro when I saw a distortion of the escalator steps. I was not sure what was going on and the whole ride into town and on the short walk to the office after I got out of the metro stop, I kept willing myself to not notice and be strong. But when I arrived at the office, Dan Sheehy, who was the Director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program asked if I was ok. Obviously, I was not and he sent me home. I obeyed because I didn’t know what else to do. By then, the migraine was full-blown, and I could hardly see. I took a cab home and stayed home for 3 days with the excruciating headaches. It was shortly after that episode that I sought medical help. I wish I could report that living elsewhere the headaches went away entirely, I can’t. They still come sporadically and predictably—when I don’t heed and succumb to the “triggers” of chocolate, alcohol, bright lights. But, I am happy to report that I have not had a migraine in a while and when I do feel one coming on—usually the aura is in the form of lights or sight distortion—I just take the tiny pill and voila it’s under control. Not entirely gone, but abated and minimized.

Once a month, the Chicanas in DC got together for brunch. We were a lively and numerous bunch; Elvia, Alicia and others who had been there since the 80s told me that it wasn’t always so; when they got to DC barely a handful of Latinas worked there.  Sometimes up to 50 women gathered for our monthly meal. Usually it was around 20. Brunch at fancy and not so fancy restaurants where we could talk and network became “a thing.” I loved it as it provided a sense of solidarity. I met many women there as well as got reacquainted with Tejanas like my tocaya, the attorney Norma Cantú who was there serving as undersecretary in the Department of Education. Our being in DC together did cause confusion. When HispanicLink reviewed Canícula, they put her picture instead of mine! We had met when we were founding members of the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas in the mid 1980s; she was at MALDEF and I at what was then Laredo State University. I and other women from our Las Mujeres group attended the first conference; over 200 mostly Chicanas from all over the state met to organize ourselves into an organization that still survives 30 years later.

DC in summer. Hot and humid. Sudden thunderstorms with thunder and lightning electrify the air, cool the afternoon that minutes before had been hot and sticky as we sit drinking a mango smoothie on the mall during our break from working at the festival booth. The light at dusk on a Saturday evening as we walk to the theater reminds me of so many similar evenings over 20 years ago when life was a dream. We walk past Jaleo the tapas restaurant that opened just about the time I was leaving DC to go back to Texas. I let go of that past, yet treasure the memory. Forever keep the good feelings and the newness of first-time experiences in my heart. A heart that feels weary and sad these days of political incredulity, of “I can’t believe it”ness at every turn. But a heart that also harbors hope, like a magnolia bud about to burst into bloom. A heart that rejoices in simple things. A mango smoothie. A sudden breeze to offer respite from the heat. A hug from a friend. A smile on a child’s face when they see Veronica magically shape a face from a tiny ball of clay.

Washington, D.C. Immersion Memoir 2

June 30, 2017

A prom dress, the NEA and just me being me…

In September of 1993 I arrived in Washington DC to begin my Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) position at the National Endowment for the Arts. I had been in DC before working on the American Folklife Festival in 1987 and again in 1992. So when Dan Sheehy, then director of the Folk and Traditional Arts at NEA asked that I apply for the Senior Arts Specialist, I did. I went for the interview and loved the people I would be working with not to mention the work in support of traditional arts and artists.  A few years earlier, I had been a recipient of an apprenticeship grant from Texas Folklife to work with Maria Soliz, one of the expert quilters we had taken to Washington in 1987. So I was familiar with the Folklife program at the NEA.

Today’s forays back to the past included a visit to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History where I saw my prom dress in display in a new exhibit. I was carried back to 1965 and the Martin High School gym where I had the time of my life! My friend Tony Vela was my “date” and we hung out with other friends and danced the night away. At one point, I was leading the bunny hop! I love to dance and did so whenever I got the chance; that night was no exception.  I made the pale pink lace bodice beaded with tiny pearl beads that spring. I remember spending hours looking at magazines and pattern books deciding on the style; once I had chosen what I wanted—simple and elegant were my criteria—we went to the fabric store to purchase what we needed, including the 20 inch zipper the same color as the fabric. A pale pink like the underside of a seashell. I had wanted sleeves, but opted for sleeveless after debating in my own mind, the difficulty of sewing in sleeves. All along Mami was there coaxing, clarifying, assisting, but she wanted me to make it myself and offered only instructions.

How is it that the Smithsonian acquired my prom dress?  It’s not a long story but it is an example of serendipity. I had worked on a report to the Smithsonian on their Latino collection. And Nancy and Steve had been pleased with my work. They collected several important pieces, including a complete Escaramuza outfit from the hair ribbons to the boots of one of the leading young women in the tradition donated it all to the Smithsonian. She was married and had two young children and although she was still actively involved in the tradition, she was no longer riding and performing, so she felt she could donate the traditional outfit. So, when the museum was looking for stuff from teen culture in the 1960s, they asked if I had anything. I said I would think about it, but all I could think of were the albums I had in storage. As it turned out, I couldn’t get to the storage shed in San Antonio and they only got one for Los Peppers, a group from Laredo.

About a week after my  conversation with Nancy, I went home to Laredo and my sister and I started cleaning out a hug “colote” an industrial sized bin where my mother had stored clothing. Among the various items we found several dresses from when I wore a size 2.  And the prom dress. I remember when we saw it, I was moved to tears and immediately tried it on. Miraculously, it fit! Although now I am wearing a size 8 or 10, depending on the style. So I took it as an omen and when I got back to San Antonio, called Nancy and the dress was soon on its way to them.

But coming back to DC has also spurred memories of when I lived in the district, on 7th and D street NE, in fact. Memories of the many friends I made during that brief stay that was cut short by the Congress led by Newt Gingrtich cut the funding and I had to return to Laredo earlier than expected.  My two Puerto Rican friends—the only other Latinx in the institution—at least that I knew of–were let go, I lasted till the end of the year, but soon I too had to go.

The time in DC was well spent and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the city—its theater, its music, its large central American population (I learned to love pupusas!), en fin, I loved the city. I taught continuing education classes at Georgetown, finding the self-motivated students hungry for Latina and Chicana literature.

The images flash in my mind’s eye full of color and music and laughter. Saturday mornings shopping at Filene’s Basement or at the discount store where there were no dressing rooms just a huge room where you took the clothes and disrobed and tried on clothes in the company of dozens of women who were doing the same. We bought groceries at BJ’s ate at the Chinese restaurant in Shirlington before going to see the latest artsy film.  My weekdays were spent at the office calling and filling out forms, evaluating the material and filling out paperwork; my consolation was the writing work I did at night. Canicula was revised and finished during that time; I wrote a review of one of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel, Carry me like Water for the Washington Post.

In the end, the work was rewarding, but I knew it was temporary. And important! I also fell in love, walked under the cherry blossoms in spring, took long walks in RockCreek, met up with Max Holland from Nebraska days, visited bookstores, ate lunch at outdoor cafes, and lived like any city office clerk, which I kept telling myself I was not.

I met artists, musicians, writers, and of course, young staffers and interns. It was the Clinton era and the young people flocked to DC to work as staffers or interns and work for free.

When it was time to leave and go back to Texas, my heart shrank at the thought of returning to my old life in Laredo. But it was worth it! I stopped working the festival when I left, think. And now. I am back,  back to eating lunch on a hot muggy summer day under a tent that is trying its best to protect us but like a new mother unsure of what to do remains minimally efficient. The red checkered tablecloths on the participant tent tables remind me of previous festivals. We will be talking about the tradition tomorrow and Sunday. My heart aches thinking of the past festivals peopled by good folks, some who are now gone! I shudder passing through the Marriott’s front door—there it is again, Déjà vu.