Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ain't I a Latina/o?: Embracing Latinos/as Outside of the Major Groups

A German-Venezuelan family.
When I first visited Cartagena, in 2008, for a Caribbean studies conference where I was speaking, I was so happy to see the incredible diversity of the city.  However, what really astounded me was that, unlike my experience in the United States, most folks seemed to be quite comfortable with not only every racial group (on a social level, mind you; the system of racism is everywhere), but also everyone's national background.  If your parents had a different country of origin, but you had made your home Colombia, for example, they had no problem calling you "Colombian."  I know that my experience with my father's country is quite limited, so perhaps there is an idealization that has occurred in my interpretation of the social system there, but I cannot help but wish for that idealization here in the United States, especially among my fellow Latinos/as.

Last night I had the privilege of attending two Latino/a events: one in the Bronx, and one in Harlem.  The former was at the Bronx Museum and it focused on the work of Piri Thomas, and the latter was at La Casa Azul.  There were two things that occurred that made me think and wonder about a more ideal world.

The first was when fountain of wisdom, Elba Cabrera, spoke about her relationship with Piri Thomas, and how she was disappointed that he did not donate his papers to the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños.  They were, instead, donated to the Schomburg Center.  I immediately thought, "Yes, she's right.  The Puerto Rican community has supported Piri and he should have done that."  But then, something in me thought, "But Piri was also Cuban.  He wasn't just Puerto Rican.  And, a huge part of his legacy has to do with Afro-Latinidad, which is what Schomburg dedicated his life to."  Who has the right to claim Piri's legacy?  Why didn't Cubans claim him?  If his papers are at the Schomburg, does that downplay his Latinidad?  If so, how is that possible?  How is it possible that a center that is named after an Afro-Latino seems to imply to some of us "only Black without the Latino"?

The second moment came at La Casa Azul.  It was a truly wonderful event with dear friends celebrating their work and accomplishments and there were few dry eyes in the house by the end of the night.  We were all blessed to be there.  However, my enlightenment came at the end of the evening when the authors who were celebrated spoke about current exciting writers movements: both agreed that the most exciting work is happening in Texas and Fresno, among the Mexican American/Chicano population.  My first thought was, "Well, that may be their experience, and that's fine."  But then my second thought connected me to the earlier event and I asked myself this question: Why do we often look to our own Latino/a communities as if they have the best to offer?  The statement made at the end of the event made me feel the same way I have felt when I've been in classrooms where the professor and many of the students agree that most of the best writing comes from England or France or Russia.  La Casa Azul by no means promotes only one Latinidad--it is one of New York's very best bookstores and I buy books from every kind of Latino/a or Latin American writer you can think of each time I'm there.  I only highlight this one moment as springboard to write about something that has been brewing in me for a long time.

As someone who has Cuban, Colombian, Black, White, and indigenous ancestry, I have had trouble finding a group that will claim me fully.  When I was younger, I found great pleasure in identifying with artists like Tina Turner or Ricardo Montalban, but people in my own communities did not necessarily claim me the way I felt I could claim them.  There have been moments when I was too white for the Black community, too black for the White community, not a real Latina/a for either the Puerto Rican community or the Mexican American/Chicana community, even though I spoke the same languages, read the same authors, listened to much of the same music, and ate very similar food.  I think of this problem when I think of Piri's papers.  Where does his legacy belong?  Can one group claim him?  Interestingly, lots of Latinos/as don't see the boundaries some of us do.  Piri himself, just like Pedro Pietri, and many others, never felt the need to create boundaries between the groups, not just in the Latino/a community but also in the greater community itself, as they had great friendships with folks in every cultural group.  People like Amiri Baraka and Martin Luther King, Jr., felt and lived the same way.

What do we do with our mixed people, or to be more blunt, people like me?  When the Spaniards arrived in what they named the Americas, they had a very specific plan, which is shown in the casta paintings.
The Spanish created this system of hierarchy in order to ensure economic and social stability, purely through race.  We still perpetuate this system today.  It could be argued that we do this through our media system, and there is plenty to prove that, but it is also true that the system is so ingrained in several generations, that it gets perpetuated without much need for repeated imagery (not that anyone takes much chance; our books, films, and newscasts still support the imagery/system).  What the system promotes is that the less you mix and the lighter you are, the more valuable you shall be.  The most mixed and darkest folks are at the bottom of the value grid.  They have no shoes and they have the accoutrements of harder labor.  The names also signify what one's value will be.  For example, in the 14th cell, two mixed people produce a child whose race is "tente en el aire," which translates to "in limbo."  Was Piri in limbo?  Am I in limbo because I cannot claim one country of origin?  Is my work less valuable because I cannot claim one race?  Do I not deserve a support system, a community?  To draw from Sojourner Truth, Ain't I a Latina?

Despite the desire to imply that people can belong to one and only one community - it's easier, for heaven's sake(!) - we know this idea is a myth.  There are plenty of whiteness studies that have shown that all the idea of whiteness does is erase a variety of ethnic influences that exist in each person.  Similarly, the idea of just being "Colombiana" can erase aspects of one's ancestry, too.  This Huffington Post article reminds us that there are Latinos/as of Asian heritage, of German descent, and Middle Eastern descent, to name a few - and NOT because they moved to the United States and married someone from one of those cultures here.  Those cultures exist in Latin America.  They are in our history/ancestry already.  People like Miriam Jimenez-Román and Juan Flores have written extensively about Afro-Latinos/as.  On the flip side, this blog points out the great number of Latinos/as who identify as White Hispanics and who, culturally, don't claim much of Latino/a culture at all.  Who gets to claim Louis C.K.?  Who gets to claim Aubrey Plaza?  Who do they want to be claimed by?  Perhaps they'd rather be a part of a community that isn't based on race/ethnicity, but is based on their artistic interests?  Is that wrong?

There is a group called Latinas and Latinos of Mixed Ancestry (LOMA), and they seek answers to such questions.  The group desires to create a space for Latinos/as with one Latino/a parent and one non-Latino/a parent, Latinos/as with parents from different Latin American countries, and racially mixed Latinos/as.  On their site, they write, "So it appears that there are a growing number of mixed people with Latina/o backgrounds but not identifying with their cultural roots. But what is this group actually thinking? What are their sentiments on issues such as immigration, racial profiling, the economy and healthcare reform? Where do these people even live?"  They also cite U.S. Census statistics that show that as many as 10 million mixed Latinos/as could have a Latino/a cultural background but not identify with it, possibly because of their mixed status.  

Ten million!  Have those of us who are mixed Latinos/as not identified with any Latino/a groups because it would simply be too difficult?  Would we go unclaimed by them if we did?  Or do we find the parameters of such groups too narrow?  For example, I identify with punk music much more than salsa.  When I find myself in Latino/a writer communities, a lot of the Latino/a writers preserve the culture by writing about topics like abuelas/os and the food, but my work does not tend to be about such things because I didn't know my abuela very well and the food has been written about so extensively, I have nothing to add.  Now, if you want to know about a hitchhiking, moshing, Chicago Latina who became a professor, I can do that (memoir forthcoming).  Is my experience still a Latino/a one?  I think so.  

I think the mixed Latinos/as that LOMA is reaching out to, people like Louis C.K. and Aubrey Plaza and Zoe Saldaña, break the stereotype that artists like Sofia Vergara perpetuate, and I think they break the myths of the castas grid.  I understand the need create groups that support our goals, but I also understand that some of us don't fit - and may not want to fit - into such clean cut categories.  My hope, in the end, is that when we encounter those who we feel might not fully fit into our group, we think twice, see if they need a community and then offer it, even if we feel there are differences.  Perhaps those differences can be exciting.

(I wrote this poem/fable that touches on the issue above.)

The Myth of Limbo: Tente en el Aire

There once was a land
where the sun people danced
and the rain and honey flowed.
The babies lived and
the harvests grew and 
the villages ate what they sowed.

But then strangers arrived;
they were hungry and scared.
They were dirty and crazy with grief.
When they saw the sun land
and the riches all around,
their jealousy made them all thieves.

The strangers stole all the food,
they harmed all the people,
and they used swords to rule and divide.
They confined the sun village
to a small area, and separated themselves
so the two worlds would not collide.

But you cannot keep the spirits
of children from each other.
One from each side did meet.
They compared each others' hair;
stared into their different colored eyes;
they did cartwheels and danced with their feet.

The two left the divided lands,
found home in a cave, and there
grew and gave birth to their own.
They hid their little mixed girl away,
but tragedy struck when they went
looking for food outside the home.

The police of the divided lands
saw them foraging, two who
should be separated, together.
Both were executed in center
squares of each separate group.
Thus, their little girl was left alone, forever.

In her fear, she needed a voice
to comfort her lonely days, so
the girl began to sing out loud.
The voice was sweet and melancholy,
carried in the wind far along.
From the divided villages, it drew a crowd.

Me abandonaron
Estoy sola
¿Cuando regresaran por mi?
¿Sera antes de yo morir?
Ojalá que si...
Ojalá que si...

The two groups saw the girl
and could see in her features
she was the child of the murdered couple.
They screamed in fear and disgust,
grabbed rocks in their hands and
tried to stone and bury her under jagged rubble.

She kept singing
through bloody tears.

I've been abandoned
I am so lonely
When will my family come for me?
Will it be before the dirt takes me?
Yes, hopefully...
Yes, hopefully...

With each verse,
each side threw more
stone to silence the song...

and they did,
for a moment.

But since then,
at the meeting place 
between the separated sides,
on especially quiet nights,
you can hear her calling
from the air, from her sky-bound limbo:

Me abandonaron
Estoy sola
¿Cuando regresaran por mi?
¿Sera antes de yo morir?
Ojalá que si...
Ojalá que si...

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Can Queer Folk Be Racist? Of course.: Be the Change You Want to See

Fear of a Mixed Baby Planet 
There are few of us who haven't heard of the lesbian couple who are suing their sperm donor bank because the mommy was inseminated with the "wrong" sperm, which happened to contain DNA for Black phenotype features.  There has been justified outrage at their decision to make their discomfort of raising a mixed baby in their racist community a public issue for everyone to see on shows like NBC's "Today."  "Couldn't they have handled the sperm bank's mishap in a more mature way that will not emotionally scar their child?" is the main question on the minds of many.  However, there is a secondary question that has intrigued me more: Can queer folk be racist?  I find the number of people who have brought up this question to be astounding.  The question is on every thread I've seen regarding this news item.  Of course queer folk can be racist.  Of course.  And the topic is not new in any way, shape, or form.

Dr. Justin C. Young, on "The Huffington Post," recently called for gays to unite, and states, "While we have the public appearance that things are going well, as a community there are signs of internal division and segregation and it's time to fix it."  Chong-suk Han, in "A Different Shade of Queer: Race, Sexuality, and Marginalizing by the Marginalized," states that current media images of queer culture promote "a monolithic image of the 'gay community' as being overwhelmingly upper-middle class – if not simply rich – and white."  His criticism doesn't include shows like RuPaul's "Drag Race," but one could argue that RuPaul's show doesn't depict everyday queer life.  In the end, the implication is that a different shade of queer is "othered" within the LGBTQ community, just as in the larger, dominant culture.

A little while back, Scott Stiffler, a New York City writer/performer, compiled information about gay White supremacists and cited several independent films that address the issue of racism within the queer community, and a year earlier, Bradley Campbell interviewed Jamez Smith, about his encounters with racism within the queer community of Minneapolis.  Most recently, Sierra Mannie, in "Time" magazine, asked White gays to stop appropriating African American female culture.  I find this last issue to be especially compelling because, as a teen and young adult, I absolutely loved that Black and queer culture were intertwined, most of all in nightclub and art movements.  However, in the 1980s, when I grew up, one could argue that these intertwined cultures lived right next to each other in the arty spaces of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Today, in the land of the Interwebs, there might be less intertwining and more appropriation by, for example, a rural or suburban youth who has had no real exposure to African American culture yet feels the need to emulate it because he/she has heard the work of Sylvester, or seen the work of Mapplethorpe, or watched films like "Paris is Burning."   I do understand the discomfort/cringe that comes from seeing someone try to emulate what is supposedly female/Latina/Black/Asian, when it is clear that the person has no real understanding of the culture he/she is trying to pay homage to (Gwen Stefani's portrayal of "chola" culture comes to mind).   But I digress.  The point is that racism among queers is something that queers have been trying to address for a long time.  This new development has brought it to the forefront.

In my own experience, I remember going to a queer female gathering in the early 2000s, in NYC, and I was the only Latina there.  There was one African American woman and she never spoke.  NEVER SAID A WORD.  She didn't even say "hello."  When we talked about 9/11, which was on everyone's minds back then, I tried to be part of the round table discussion.  My only comment was one of hope, but I received death stares from other women and one woman even exclaimed, "Uh!"  I knew it couldn't have been because of anything controversial I might have said; my comment was benign (something like, "I have faith that we will get through this.") and it was similar to what others said.   I know I was unwelcome there.  I, of course, never went back.  

However, my main experience has been one of loving inclusion.  The majority of queer gatherings I attend are extremely diverse and open, which is why I strongly believe that this incident provides an opportunity for everyone to speak about prejudices, in general.  A common comment about the couple in question is criticism for their desire to live in a racist community to begin with.  Many feel that it would have been unacceptable to raise a White child, or any child, in a racist community.  Why create another White racist?  Let's take this further.  Han mentioned in his essay that current depictions of queer culture portray middle- to upper-class queers; can we get some love for working class queers?  

Academics have been talking about the intersections of race, gender, and class for decades.  We now have the opportunity to take the conversation out of the Ivory Tower and remind the general population that if you want to end racism, you have to end sexism.  You can't fight for Black men if you are still raping Black women.  If you want to end sexism, you have to end classism.  You can't expect women to achieve equality if you still believe that some people deserve to be poor.  If you want to change how we see/define gender, you cannot be an elitist or a racist or bigoted in any way.  If you want others to stop behaving in a bigoted fashion, YOU have to stop behaving in a bigoted fashion, and that includes all kinds of bigotry.  You cannot expect equality for all if you don't advocate for more ramps and spaces that are inclusive of the disabled.  You cannot end racism if you are a nationalist who hates people from other countries.  You cannot expect respect from others if you have already decided that you will not respect a population of people because of their religious beliefs.  You feel me?

And the most important part of this conversation, for me, has to be what I learned from Dr. Sonja Lanehart and Dr. Joycelyn Moody, at a conference years ago at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  There was a discussion where someone said something that I thought was ignorant and racist during a Q&A session.  My first reaction was to attack this person fiercely, but my mentors had a different approach.  They provided the person with historical context that she had never been exposed to and by the end of the session, she left the room a bit more culturally enlightened.  I saw this approach by my dad, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta, too.  He didn't hate bigoted people, which is not to say he sat back and accepted their behavior.  Instead, he tried to guide them and teach them, while still giving them their dignity.  It worked very well, many times.  

He tried to be what he wanted to see: someone who saw possibilities in everyone, someone who saw opportunities in the situations that make us uncomfortable, someone who was ready to be proactive instead of reactive.  I love that vision and I hope others might find it useful.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why I Still Write Checks, Or How I Learned to Love People

To write checks, or not to write checks...that is the question!
A large group of my friends and some new acquaintances gathered recently to chat about upcoming projects while having good food and wine.  When the bill came, some people forked over cash but the majority pulled out debit cards and a conversation about how we represent money came up.  One person, who I do not know very well, went on an angry tirade about people who still use checks.  "If you are still using checks, first of all, WHY?" he said sarcastically.  His sentiments are echoed by many.  His words were funny, but I kept my mouth shut about what I really felt.  I certainly understand the desire to eschew checks when one is paying for groceries (it holds up the line) or at a restaurant (too inconvenient), but I had much to say about why I still use checks.  I doubted he would understand my reasoning, so I stayed silent.  It ultimately comes down to loving people and wanting them to be able to eat, as far as I'm concerned.  Let me explain.

1. If one stops using checks altogether, that implies that one has to automate everything.  That is the most dangerous thing I can possibly think of.  I absolutely do not want to give any entity the option of going into my account and taking whatever it thinks I owe it.  This kind of behavior amounts to having a safe in your house that you've given countless strangers the combination to.  If an organization makes an error and decides that you owe it everything that is in your account, it has the authority to empty your coffers.  Indeed, when Vincent and I moved back to New York from Texas, a very unethical man at the truck rental in New York took all our money out of our account because he was convinced we did not return a car trailer that we never used for the trip.  Car and truck rental agreements have a clause that allows the company to take out whatever they see fit from your account, if you use a debit card, or to charge you whatever they want to your credit card.  The rental amount is "open."  Similarly, automatic payments to other companies have the same clause that allows them to go into your account.  Obviously, it is bad business to abuse this power, but why put yourself at risk if you can avoid it?  The "convenience" of automatic bill payment is a myth for some of us.  There is nothing convenient about it for me.  This site and this one have several arguments against going paperless for bill payment.  The conversation here explains that countries in Europe that decided to go entirely paperless have had larger numbers of fraud as a result, too.

2. Said fraud and errors are harder to commit if people are involved.  Furthermore, for just a few cents per check, stamp, and envelope, I can voice my desire to keep jobs.  There are lots of people involved in the processing of bill payments: people who make stamps, people who make envelopes, people who process and deliver mail, people who deliver the checks I order, people who open up the bills I send to various organizations and process the payments.  By avoiding automation, I allow folks to keep their jobs in the U.S. Postal Service, at my bank, and at all the organizations I make payments to.  I literally think about that every time I write and mail a check.

I don't mean to "shame" folks who don't have the time to write checks; I completely understand how difficult it must be to remember what bills must go out couple of times a month when you are also raising a family, working full time, and have other activities on your plate.  But when I hear about banks continuing to profit when they are downsizing and laying off workers, I want to be able to do my part to let the banks know that I need humans to be part of my interaction with them.  I have the time to do it because I don't have three kids.  Whenever I call my bank, I always insist on speaking with a human, too.  Technology, in the form of frustrating phone prompts or purely virtual money, is not always the answer.  I think of the moment, in The Handmaid's Tale, when Offred realizes she has no money she can access and that none of her plastic cards recognize her collected worth.  The abstraction is frightening.

3. Writing checks creates a paper/electronic photo account (that can be printed) of a monetary transaction and makes the transaction tangible.  It's not as good as when banks used to mail your checks back to you, stamped with the date the transaction went through, but you can print the photo version on good paper and have a record.  I still get paper statements mailed to me, too.  Writing out
The oldest paper book, the Nag Hammadi (Egypt)
 is 1,693 years old.
the record also allows me to physically take within what is happening with my money.  An electronic withdrawal that a machine at one organization makes from a machine at my bank (or is it just virtual, just energy, not connected to hardware at all - I don't even know!), a withdrawal that I may come to forget over time because it is constant and I don't see it or write it, ceases to exist in my consciousness.  I always know how to budget accordingly because I have regular interactions with my account and with paper records.  It is all in my hands and I interact with it.  Without paper records, we place way too much power in someone else's hands.  It's not convenient to have paper records - they are bulky - but they are tangible and they store for very long periods of time.  Electronic records are at the mercy of others.

Ultimately, one could argue to just do everything with cash.  You can't mail cash to pay your bills.  And, in the end, just like with Offred, we are all at the mercy of the economic trends; if someone important decides that my cash isn't worth anything, I will have to accept that.  Money, and what it represents, is always at the mercy of people outside of ourselves.  I never wanted to have a bank account to begin with.  I do not like having to put my money in a place where it becomes an intangible thing that someone else controls and uses for their own profit, often in ways that harm the larger world.  I used to cash my checks as long as I could before it became a necessity to have a bank account.  When I finally did get a bank account, I didn't want an ATM card because I felt it left me too vulnerable; the bank told me that I got one automatically, whether I wanted it or not.  Great.  In the end, it turns out you HAVE to have either that or a credit card to function.

Soon, we will have to function without checks, I suspect.  Until I am told that I can no longer use them, I will continue to do so.  I will continue to create a paper trail that other humans have to be witness to.  I will continue to voice my opinion, by writing checks, that it is more important to work together as a team and have good work for everyone, instead of having convenience that only makes the very few very rich.  I will continue to take responsibility for what is happening with my money, instead of letting a machine take on a responsibility that is too weighty for automation.  I will continue to do the unpopular thing for reasons that some folks seem way to busy to think about, unless they have the time because they have been laid off or downsized.

What they do is miraculous.  I'm thankful for it!
Or am I wrong?  Do you think about the person opening envelopes somewhere?  Or the mail carrier who works through rain or shine?  Or our booksellers, or the small business owners, or the people at call centers, all of whom have little to no work now because we've created things like Amazon, or automated phone systems?  Do you think of those folks?  I do.  I can't stop thinking about them.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The "Anti-Vegas" Las Vegas Journey

My in-laws, in their element, in Vegas.
How could I not want to make them happy?
What do you do in Las Vegas if you are the type of person who has never had any desire whatsoever to go to Sin City?  Let's be clear - there are no prudes here, just a humble woman who wanted to please her in-laws by going to the one place they like to vacation every year.  When I was a kid rumbling around Chicago and getting caught up in its nightlife scene, what I loved about it was that it was always an adventure.  I never had to go to the same places, I never knew what to expect, and nothing ever felt cliche'.  One night you could end up having a midnight swim on a high-rise rooftop, another night you could find yourself listening to an orchestra belt out some Beethoven, and on yet another night you could find yourself dancing on top of a bar with old ladies who spoke a language you did not know.  It is this type of excitement I get from New York City, where I live, too.  How could I go from my amazing life to places like Miami Beach or Las Vegas for spring break, like my college friends, and be expected to enjoy watching lugheads drink themselves silly and engage in acts that would land them on a reality show?  I had no interest in it then.  I have no interest now.

But being the adventurer that I am, I was determined, now at the ripe age of 42, to find a Vegas that I would like, darn it!  I knew it would make my in-laws happy and there had to be something there I would like, right?  So, here is a recap of my anti-Vegas trip.  I've seen a couple of other "anti-Vegas" posts out there, but none are as comprehensive as this one.  I hope this helps those of you out there who love a good drink - genuine gin martini, anyone? - but totally recoil at the idea of wasting good alcohol by engaging in the can't-taste-it-except-when-I-end-up-puking-it-up practice of beer bongs and beer pong.  I hope it helps those of you who want to use your imagination, instead of stunt it by getting in fights on the strip (yeah, lots of those exist so why be there?).  I hope it helps those of you who would rather spend your cash on a real, tangible thing rather than on the hope of getting a return at the slots - hope is priceless, in the end.


Day One:

Vincent, my husband, and I singed ourselves at the pool with the in-laws but left quickly before the sun sucked every drop of water from our bodies like a H20 vampire, cleaned up, and then went for lunch and good coffee (a rare thing in the land of Starbucks) at Emergency Arts.  In the way-cool arts complex, there is Beat Coffeehouse and Records, which has yummy food that is vegetarian friendly and French press coffee.  In addition to the funky collection of old records, which range from Vegas acts to jazz to '70s rock, there is a maze of galleries with excellent artwork.  There is also a chapbook library where you can leave your own poetry chapbook for all the visitors to see - there are hundreds of chapbooks there that we definitely took a minute to look at.  We spent the rest of the day exploring the downtown area and enjoying the excitement
Here I am picking a ripe doll part from the
dead doll tree outside of one of the Emergency
Art galleries!
around the World Cup.  I have to say, Vegas is the perfect place to enjoy the World Cup because everyone is full of cheers and enthusiasm.

Then, after a very Vegas buffet dinner with the in-laws, we got back on our anti-Vegas track and went to The Neon Museum.  Granted, the museum is obviously about Vegas, so it's not exactly anti-Vegas, but it is anti-cliche' Vegas.  Case-in-point, we never met anyone who had been to the museum on their trip to Vegas.  People gamble and shop, but learning about the history of the place isn't first on their list.  It was on ours!

The night tour, that takes you through a winding path of old signs, is guided by a tour guide that has a waterfall of information.  The folks at the museum were extremely knowledgeable about all Vegas history and, specifically, the history behind the facades of the hotels and bars.  Who would've thought that I would learn about women's history in Vegas?  Turns out many important women designed those world-famous neon marquees.  Who would've thought that I would learn African American history in Vegas?  Turns out the very first integrated nightclub in the United States was in Vegas!  I won't give you the names and facts so that you can experience the museum the way I did.  I strongly recommend this tour.  They have day  tours, but I can't imagine that being as magical as the night tour.

The Neon Museum sign incorporates elements from
various signs used on the strip throughout its history.

This is my favorite old sign - it's huge!  But there are so many more - I took
most of my pictures on the trip at this site.

Day Two:

We probably had a drink at the hotel bar the night before but turned in early because of jet lag, had a cheap bagel breakfast on day two and then set off for Skin Design Tattoo.  This tattoo parlor is not on the strip.  No one got inebriated and decided to get a horrible tattoo in questionable circumstances.  No, I planned the tattoo well in advance, researched the facility, and contacted Skin Design months before I was ever in Vegas.  The idea was to get a wonderful work of art by a world-renowned group of artists.  Robert Pho, who opened the space, is known for his photo-realistic work.  Vic Vivid is an excellent color artist who has trained under Pho.  I spent hours in Skin Design and by the end of the session, I was dizzy because I hadn't eaten lunch.  It was all worth it.  Vic, who is extremely kind and professional, is actually Colombian, like me, so we chatted about that.  But the best part of the experience was the art.  Here is Vic's interpretation of an artwork by Camille Rose Garcia:

Amazing, right?  Vic Vivid does beautiful work!

Vincent picked me up and we were off to Lotus of Siam to meet his parents for dinner.  They raved about this off-the-path place and they were right to.  This Thai restaurant is not on the strip but it can get very crowded.  It has an impressive photo collection of all the famous people who have dined there.  It doesn't look like much from the outside - it is in a strip mall - and while you'll recognize the pad thai and massaman curry, most of the dishes are not anything you've heard of before.  It is an EXCELLENT meal and very anti-Vegas.  The restaurant is casual and the atmosphere is lots of fun.  You also get to choose the heat of your meal - if you are used to eating real Mexican food in Chicago, L.A., or the South, you can do a five or a six, and if you are used to real Indian food, you can go higher.  Everyone else should stick to three or lower.

Day Three and Four:

We were at the Grand Canyon for two days.  Totally anti-Vegas.  'Nuff said.

I had to keep my arm covered because of the healing tattoo - luckily there
was a breeze!

If you're looking for an excellent place to eat at the Grand Canyon, go for the place with the view of the Canyon: The Arizona Room. You can get good meat, poultry, and fish dishes, many which are specified as "sustainable," and there are a couple of vegetarian options.  Their local wines are great, too.  The restaurant isn't fancy looking - which is great for folks who have been on their feet all day - and the service is given with a sweet smile.

We drove back on Day Four, late in the day, so that we could sleep in and nab more pics on the way back to Vegas.  That night the plan was to see my old friend Nicole, from Chicago.  She saw from a post that I was in town and even though she had plans to leave for Paris in the next 48 hours, she made time to have dinner with us and meet my better half.  Meeting and hanging with old friends and sharing our lives?  Yep, that's kind of anti-Vegas, I think.  It was a gracious moment within all the hullabaloo.

Can you recognize Nicole?  Here's a hint: she and her hubby
help bar owners in the red.  ;)  Isn't she gorgeous??

Vincent's parents joined us at the end of dinner, met Nicole, who is unbelievably charming and witty, then Nicole said her good-byes and the rest of us went exploring.  We saw someone dressed up as a KISS member in a wheelchair (couldn't get a good pic), we heard many awful street bands, and because it wasn't yet the official weekend, we thankfully avoided much mayhem.  The strip was busy but calm and it gave us all a chance to laugh with each other.  Family getting closer?  Not sure if that's anti-Vegas, but it was definitely wonderful.

Vincent's dad took this one!

Day Five:

At this point I was tired!  Where was I going to get energy??  Luckily, Vincent's mom, Kathy, treated me to a spa massage.  She and her sister, JoAnn, like to do it and they were kind enough to make me one of the girls.  I've had trouble in the past with such things - I don't like strangers to touch me - so imagine my panic when I saw that the person who was going to massage me was a young man, from Long Island, no less!  Despite my modesty, the massage was incredible and boy did I need it after all the walking for the past four days.  The young man was totally professional and, thanks to Kathy, I felt rejuvenated for the rest of the trip.  This isn't exactly anti-Vegas, but it does counteract the damage Vegas may have done.

Back into explorer mode!  When Vincent and I regrouped, we decided to take some architecture in.  We chose to take a look at the Frank Gehry designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.  Yeah, that's on NO ONE's Vegas bucket list, but it was on ours!  Here's how cool it is:

Is it just melting under the Nevada sun?

Then, we decided to look at Vegas from its highest point, The Stratosphere.  UNLIKE civilized places in the world, such as The John Hancock Center in Chicago, The Stratosphere charges money to go up to the tower.  That is VERY Vegas.  Still, the view, especially during the day, is not.  There are few people, which means there aren't drunk people trying to hog up the view.  And, what did we do when we were up there?  We read poetry.  By Maria Negroni.  Yes, the few people who were there were probably traumatized.  We had a low-key dinner later with the family and tried to plan the rest of the weekend over the meal.

A close-up of the lovely view at The Stratosphere.

That night, it being the official weekend and all, we decided to hit a few bars off the strip.  The first was Downtown Cocktail Room, which is dark, cool, and red.  We got there around 9 p.m. and it was still quite mellow, with couples chatting and sitting on overstuffed chairs and lounge music playing.  Vincent and I probably own at least 50% of the playlist, so we were happy.  The drink menu is interesting in that it rates the drinks according to "sense of adventure."  A drink rated a "1" will be something most people can enjoy safely, while a "4" is for people who want to experience new ideas and flavors.  We loved it!  And our server was great: she complimented my new tattoo and assumed we were locals.

The next bar was Commonwealth, just around the corner.  This is a gorgeous, spacious, two-story facility with a 1920's vibe.  All the fixtures and decor are antiques, or at least resemble them, and the drinks are refreshing and spirited.  The music here was livelier than the previous locale and the patrons were a bit younger, but there wasn't any of the desperation one might see down the street at the Fremont Experience.  These folks were fun and polite.  In addition, our server was charming and thoughtful and also assumed we were locals.  I was now starting to wonder what about me made me seem Vegas, when I was on an anti-Vegas trip.  Eh, I just went with it.

The lovely wallpaper and old-timey decor at Commonwealth.

Even though it was now past midnight, we still weren't tired - refreshing drinks, indeed - so we decided to head over to Container Park, which our friend Rachel suggested.  Rachel is a unique person with a delightful enthusiasm for life, so I knew it would be interesting.  There is a big, fiery, praying mantis beckoning people to enter the park and on the weekends they have live bands, so we walked a couple blocks to see what was up.  The multi-story, outdoor facility, which is made of old truck containers, has many shops (which were closed at the hour we went) and lots of restaurants and bars, many of which were open.  Vincent had very good coffee at The Beatnik there.  In the center, there was a huge jungle gym and that's what we went for.  We were NOT the only adults playing with bridges and slides.  Container Park is definitely anti-Vegas!  Loved it!

Then, as is often the case with me, I began to crave ice cream.  Alas, Container Park did not have this.  We knew we would have to brave the strip on a Friday - ugh!  Somehow, we ended up in Paris, and I was pleasantly surprised.  We found our gelato in a bakery on a charming walkway in Paris, and then we came across a statue that summed up what we really honor in Vegas: the folks who have to clean up after our asses.  The service in Vegas is beyond what I've normally experienced anywhere else in the world and all I could think about all week was how humbled I am at the folks who have to serve so many people all week long.  They deserve sainthood!  Well, here is the statue that commemorates their work (I wish it were Vegas-sized, actually):

Don't forget to tip and say "please" and "thank you."

Day Six:

It's not over yet??  No.  In fact, maybe our long stay is why people have been confusing us for locals.  The in-laws like to stay a nice long time, whereas most folks do a three-day, spitfire trip.  We have been getting to know Vegas, intimately.  And our eyes and noses are burning as a result - golly, the air is dry out here!

On this day, we slept until noon.  I think Vincent got up for breakfast.  I did not.  A lady needs her beauty rest, 'kay?  He was right back in bed after eating, though.  We weren't out of the room until about 1:30 p.m.  Then we headed for what we like to call "linner" - a bad portmanteau of "lunch" and "dinner" - at yet another off-the-strip eatery called Lola's Louisiana Kitchen.  You cannot get a table at this tiny restaurant for dinner; the wait will be at least two hours.  You can, however, walk in for lunch and have an unhurried meal.  It WILL be decadent, so plan for it.  This was, for the most part, my only meal that day.  The banana pudding for desert is heaven.

Now, the next thing we did, I can say is the most anti-Vegas part of our trip.  That night, we saw a 3-D Kraftwerk show at the Chelsea Theater in the Cosmopolitan Hotel.  I guarantee you that 80% of the people visiting Las Vegas do not know who Kraftwerk is (sigh).  That's okay - all the more space for us to enjoy one of the best bands to ever exist.  It was one of the best concerts I've ever been to.  Punto.  I have pictures but they don't do it justice - all the graphics were leaping out over the band members in full 3-D glory.  What Vincent and I really loved was the lyrics that questioned our ties to machines, our ability to be fully human, our ability to have individual thought (in Vegas!!), and the damage we do with our technological knowledge.  Super anti-Vegas!

They also had graphics that questioned technology's role in the bombings
at Fukushima, Hiroshima, and many other places.

Can you believe we did something else after this?  Yep.  We went to The Double Down Saloon, which is Vegas' punk bar.  There is never any cover and they have bands playing many nights of the week.  The people here are definitely locals and they were some of the nicest people we encountered on the weekend.  While it was horrific entering and exiting the strip for the concert on the weekend because of the countless drunken jerks, this off-the-strip bar was totally welcoming.  We stayed for a couple of bands and bopped our heads to the ear-fizzing music, and the bouncer was even kind enough to take our picture, despite being corny tourists.  These guys did NOT confuse us for locals.  They knew we were visitors, but treated us well, just the same.

The Double Down Saloon's motto.

Can you tell Vincent was tired?

No, the night is not over - we met Vincent's parents and discussed our adventures at the hotel.  I don't think we got to bed until 4 a.m. this night, which is typical for Vegas, but somehow we managed to vary it a bit on our trip.  Not every night was a rager for us, which is just fine in my book.  Not raging every night in Vegas and staying healthy in the process - yeah, that's as anti-Vegas as it gets.

Day Seven: 

I think it's safe to say that we are superhuman because we are still able to walk and speak coherently after a week in Vegas.  Yeah!  What's next?  The Mob Museum, which is overpriced but astoundingly thorough.  You get three floors of well-researched and displayed history that covers not just the Vegas mob, but the entire history of the mafia in the United States.  It is a funny, informative, and terrifying collection of information.  We were simply unable, in our exhaustion, to read every bit of information, but we were there for a good two to three hours.  I strongly recommend this high-quality museum.  You won't be disappointed.

Here's a map of the Chicago territories in the early 20th century.

Then, an excellent sushi dinner with the family, more laughs, and we had nice late evening with Vincent's father at Napoleon's Lounge, where we heard the ultimate Vegas lounge act, The Dueling Pianos.  We were expecting jazz, a la anti-Vegas, but it turned out to be more of an updated version of Bill Murray's lounge act on Saturday Night Live.  It was not anti-Vegas, but it was funny.  We heard them play Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby's Got Back" on the pianos.  Other than that, it was a lot of Jimmy Buffet (ugh).  Still, it was great to sit and joke with Vinny and his dad.  It was a nice way to end the trip.

The dark wood of the lounge and the leather seating was very comfy!

Day Eight:

We are leaving!!  And we are ready to leave!  Just get us out of this hectic town!  It has been like being in Times Square for a week!  Enough!  

While waiting for our flight time to arrive, we visited Vdara, which has the tagline, "Do Vegas Differently."  It is the only hotel we stepped in that does not have a casino.  It was a peaceful haven with calming decor - aaaahhhh....  Then, a quick lunch at La Comida before we were off to the airport.  It has good Mexican food and a wide range of tequilas and margaritas - the staff is convivial, too.

But where was I?  I WANT TO LEAVE THIS PLACE!  Home, home, home!  Can't wait to finally leave Vegas?  Well, that's the most anti-Vegas thing of all!  

May you have your own wonderful anti-Vegas trip and if you do, please share what you did in the comments section...not that we ever plan to return.  ;)