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.



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