Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Featured Speaker at Hudson County Community College (where it all began...)

Never did I think that I would return to the place where I became a professor in earnest. I started teaching as an adjunct at Hudson County Community College when I was 29 years old, just about to turn 30, and I had just moved in with a bunch of musicians and artists - a collective my dad referred to as "a commune" - in Jersey City. I wasn't at work a month when I was interrupted by my boss in the ESL Department with the news that the top of the World Trade Center was on fire. So many of my students had family who worked there. I grew so incredibly fond of my students there, so much so that I'd have them walk over to my apartment so I could lend them a book, or I'd give them a big hug when seeing them shop in the same vegetable market. It was awesome teaching at HCCC.

But what I must admit is equally delightful about returning to the place where I became Professor Acosta, is that I am Dr. Acosta now. I remember going to an orientation meeting at HCCC and someone looking at me and asking, "And what do YOU do?" We both taught the same classes. I also remember having someone else tell me, "You REALLY have to PROVE yourself," when I applied for a full time job after working there for five years. Well, I think I've proven myself. And it is awesome to know I've done that.

Please join me at the reading on the 15th!  Both Nancy Mendez-Booth and Vincent Toro are EXCELLENT writers and readers, so it should be great fun. (Thanks to Nancy for the hook-up!) Take the PATH to Journal Square and celebrate this reading with me, for it is a celebration, indeed!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Logan Square Cirque du So-Hip Moves into My Church (or When Truth is Stranger than Fellini)

The new look of the Big Top!
Yesterday, a childhood friend sent me this article, which details how the church where I grew up; where my Princeton and University of Chicago-educated, Colombian, minister father helped lead the Logan Square community toward education and faith, all with incredible humor and sensitivity; where I and countless others learned to become the best versions of ourselves, will become a circus training center. Yes, a circus training center.

When I heard the news, visions of bratty hipsters with overpaid brokers, spouting phrases like, "Oh, we can really do something with those high ceilings, and the stained glass will cast such a lovely glow over everything...," came into my head. I wanted to punch their smug faces and scream, "You know nothing of what has happened in this space! You cannot appreciate it and your petty talents will never come close to the grandeur of the viejitas who taught me everything I know here. Screw you and your stupid double-jointed, pelvic-bone-on-top-of-skull pseudo artistic acrobatics! Blah!" The article itself has the kind of troublesome phrases that most certainly belong in a Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach screenplay, stuff like, "Chicago is sort of becoming a home and a mecca for the contemporary circus movement" [Seriously - are you listening to yourself? Why are we trying to elevate the circus?? Please keep it low, where it belongs!] and "Every time I see a church get turned into condos I'm like 'No!'....It could be something so cool." Yeah, cool, like a circus. That's what I think of when I think of cool.

Did anyone ever think that there could be a cool place where Latinos/as congregate and learn to become awesome people by discussing philosophy, helping the disenfranchised in the community with food and education, and making sure to dance and cook like it's nobody's business? Nah, that's not cool enough, right? Because who cares about what Latinos/as do to make their worlds incredible. Let's swing from trapezes, instead, and ensure a community center closes down. Granted, swinging from trapezes does sound like fun, but I never thought that someone would do it in the place that all of my childhood friends and I consider a Mecca of sorts. I never thought the place I consider holy would turn into marketplace (story sound familiar?). Somehow (read: SARCASM), it cheapens the space, kind of like how clown paint makes me think of cheap, like velvet paintings to glittery, watery spectacles called "cirques" that take place in the cheapest of all places, Vegas. I mention this because, apparently, the organization that bought my childhood home of contemplation trains Cirque du Soleil flying goofballs. Look, I love cheap. I'm not a John Waters fan for nothing - give me the kitsch and I'm there! - but I guess I needed this place to remain, perhaps, a historic landmark. That seems more fitting. White people get historic landmarks all the time; why not Latinos/as? People DO know that we have been a huge part of Logan Square's history, right??

Let me explain. I cannot speak for the current leaders and current congregation that has allowed this travesty to take place, nor can I speak for the United Church of Christ which, apparently, doesn't give a f*** about its Latino/a community centers, but I can speak for First Spanish United Church of Christ, where my father was the leader from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. Here's some of the stuff that took place, because of my father's work and the incredible work of the congregation that supported his vision: 1) Dad brought an extension of Elmhurst College to the church, and that branch educated countless Latinos/as and non-Latinos/as in the Logan Square area who could not attend college otherwise; 2) First Spanish had a day care, La Progresiva, where tons of little kids got excellent nutrition and care while their parents worked all day - many of these parents could not have afforded daycare, otherwise; 3) Dad, who also worked for Lutheran General Hospital, as a therapist, brought a branch to the Logan Square area and he helped countless families and single folks get their lives back on track (normally, therapists at that time charged a minimum of $80 per session, but Dad regularly gave sessions to folks for $20 because he knew they couldn't afford more; he also was not a Woody Allen-esque infinite analyst who took advantage of patients - Dad's patients had goals and there was a set date they had to meet them by, so the sessions definitely came to an end); 4) we, of course, had a food kitchen and regularly fed folks who didn't have food; 5) we had a ton of donated clothes which we gave away to the needy and, on occasion when we had too much, we sold for about twenty-five cents an item - people LOVED our penny sales for the 1960s dresses and perfectly kept kitchen appliances; 6) we worked with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in order to make several events take place, the best being the Logan Square Festival, where all the area churches and organizations put on a neighborhood-wide party with games, contests, music, dancing, and food - there was NOTHING better than the Festival day/night, which kept us busy with laughter and friendship among a wide array of ethnicities, including but not limited to Polish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Korean; other events included the Logan Square Olympics, which had kids from all over competing for trophies, and the Logan Square Summer Camp, which gave kids arts, sports, and educational activities during the school-free summer months; 7) Papi (that means Dad!) also made sure to have a service every year that celebrated anyone who graduated at any level, so us young people saw education, from kindergarten to doctoral studies, being honored on a regular basis - that left an incredible impact and definitely encouraged us all to strive to be well-informed people; 8) our pulpit was a place where the unexpected took place: El Reverendo (that's Dad!) quoted people like Martin Luther AND Juan Luis Guerra, he often wore Hawaiian shirts and leis (simply because he loved them), and his sermons could include analyses of world politics, the latest Susan Sarandon film, or how his penis made him feel awkward when he was a kid - totally not joking and yes, my face was red during that one - Papi was an EXCELLENT writer and educator and if there is anything that everyone remembers about First Spanish, it is his love and his sermons; 9) the congregation regularly went on camping trips to UCC locales, like Tower Hill, in Sawyer, Michigan, and Pleasant Valley, in Woodstock, Illinois, and as a result, many of us had a wonderful exposure to the natural elements not found in the city, which often reminded us of our countries of origin, or if we were born here, gave us knowledge of non-urban spaces; these places also exposed us to racism on a regular basis, because non-Latino/a UCC churches, also there, treated us like mierda, but that strengthened our character, too; 10) we all cared for each other, everyone's mom or dad being everyone else's mom or dad.

For that last number, 10, I have a set of things I want to add which cannot fit in my awkwardly punctuated, run-on paragraph. At First Spanish, when I got into an argument with my mom, Gladys took me aside and helped me make up with her. At First Spanish, when I was having trouble in college, Reimundo took me aside and reassured me, told me I could do it. At First Spanish, when I decided to spike my hair up and wear black lipstick, my mom said, "Wear what you want! (Just try to include a bra, please!)." At First Spanish, when my closest friend, Nancy, and I had a huge falling out, our families got together and sat around and talked about it, all so that we could remain friends. She is still my oldest friend to this day. At First Spanish, whenever anyone had a baby or a wedding, everyone was ready to gather to celebrate with that person. At First Spanish, whenever anyone had a divorce, or a drug/alcohol problem, they were not shunned from the church (at least not by the best members); everyone gathered to help that person keep moving forward, in love. At First Spanish, whenever illness took over, we could stand up and ask others to keep our worries in mind, and they all did, and they often visited bed-ridden members with food, or just to keep them company. At First Spanish, my dad put our HOME NUMBER on the front of the program that everyone would get at each service, and whenever our phone rang, he answered, any time of day or night, and no matter how small or big the problem, Papi was there for that person. At First Spanish, everyone cared about everyone else. Punto.

This did not go unrecognized. Between 1975 and the early 2000s, you could not go anywhere in Chicago with my father, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta, without someone recognizing him. Papi even received a commendation, for his exceptional efforts, from the now retired Mayor Daley. The document has faded under sun exposure, but it's still there. Papi cannot remember much of what he contributed to, as he has Alzheimer's disease now, but his incoherent ramblings always have a specific subject: First Spanish. He goes on and on about helping the children, helping the young people, doing things in the community. He may not remember our names, but he remembers his mission, the congregation's mission. And so do I.

Hip acrobatics cannot erase what took place there. When I look at that building, I will always feel what Logan Square was, what it should still be - a community. I find it incredible how people can look at something and not wonder anything about what was once there, what it has been, where it comes from. It's kind of like meeting a person and never asking him/her what his/her influences have been, and just imposing what you want right now. But I guess history can be incredibly inconvenient because it just might make you adjust your vision, and for that, we'd have to be flexible, kind of like an acrobat.

*I am currently writing a creative non-fiction memoir called First Spanish: Logan Square in the 1970s to 1990s, and I recently worked on it in June 2015, at a residency in Spain, at Can Serrat. I hope to publish it soon.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Can Serrat Residency

For the month of June, I will be at the Can Serrat Writer's Residency, along with Vincent and our good friend Ching-In Chen, and many other visual artists and writers.  I'm incredibly excited to have this time to concentrate on several projects I have, including writing poems in response to James Blood Ulmer songs, continuing my sci-fi novella, The Script, and continuing my work on First Spanish, which is about Chicago's Logan Square, pre-gentrification.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Hindsight" by No Peeking Productions at The Dopeness

Please come out to an exciting No Peeking Theater Event, which brings poetry and spoken word to life. The production will immerse the audience in living memories by creating smells, sounds, tastes, and texture that represent the poetry and spoken word being performed.  And, as an added thrill, you are blindfolded (!) so that your other senses are heightened.  Sounds (and feels and tastes, etc.) like a cool night!

Multiple poets and performers have contributed to the project, including myself and Nicole Miranda, who wonderfully interpreted my words in the production "In Full Color." This time around, Nicole will interpret my poem, "Historia."

Dates are May 28th, 30th, and 31st.  Please note that there isn't a Friday performance. I will be at the May 28th performance. Hope to see (or hear) you there!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Full Color featuring Women of Color Monologues

On March 26,28, and 29, an adaptation of one of my poems, from my collection Chica!Go!: An Afro-Latina Punk Odyssey, will be featured in "In Full Color," a series of monologues written and/or performed by women of color.  Please come to one or all of the nights!  All the women involved are incredible and you will not be disappointed.

Here are the details:

Art House Productions presents
68 Productions'


"In Full Color" features 13 women of color sharing their stories in celebration of Women's History Month. From dealing with curly hair and men with "yellow fever" to being mistaken for a terrorist, these women give us a glimpse of what life is like in their skin.

Performers include Jennifer Cendaña Armas, Karen Eilbacher, Samille Ganges (reading a piece by Alicia Wright), Inés García, Yvonne Hernandez, Amanda Levie, Nicole Miranda (reading a piece by Grisel Y. Acosta), wendelin, Nerissa Tutiven, Shirin Terhune Vazir and director Summer Dawn Hortillosa, co-founder of 68 Productions.


Thursday, 3/26 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, 3/28 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, 3/29 at 3 p.m.

Art House Productions, 136 Magnolia Ave., Jersey City.
(Summit Avenue behind the Journal Square PATH) Wheelchair accessible. Limited free parking available.

Tickets $8 in advance, $10 at door.
A portion of the proceeds will be donated to WomenRising.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Racism in BOYHOOD is the Worst Kind

Roland Ruiz, who has two significant scenes, is billed
under "Barber," "Bully #1 and #2," and "Make Out Girl."

I propose to you that a film with the subtle racism of "Boyhood" is worse than a film with the overt racism of, say, "Birth of a Nation," for example.  When we see "Birth of a Nation," after returning from the bathroom because of becoming sick to our stomachs, we know without a doubt what the problem is and we can easily criticize the film - despite its merits in editing - for its horrendous content.

A film like "Boyhood," on the other hand, has been praised universally for its "life-like" dialogue and visual realism, largely due to the fact that it was shot over the course of 12 years.  Much like "Birth of a Nation," it is being praised for its innovative technique and will likely be shown in many a film school, just like "Birth of a Nation" often is.  However, unlike "Birth of a Nation," the racism depicted in "Boyhood, " I suspect, will not be seen as clearly as the racism in the former film.

Let me explain.  "Boyhood" is a film about a family.  Truth be told, I'm not sure why the film is called "Boyhood" because it seems to be more about the entire family than just the male child in the family.  Nonetheless, the film follows the growth of the family over 12 years in Texas.  The family is white and everyone around them is white, except for one character, who is a migrant worker.  We only see Enrique, the migrant worker, twice in the film.  There are two problems with this dynamic: 1) the idea of "reality" which the film is clearly trying to convey; and 2) the problematic Enrique storyline.

1) "Boyhood" is a film that will be praised for years to come for its techniques in presenting "reality."  If you are only looking at the family in an isolationist kind of way, the film does seem realistic.  The characters are not polished, their dialogue is awkward with believable levels of emotion, and the difficulties and joys they face are ones we are familiar with.  HOWEVER, the setting is completely unrealistic in the sense that anyone who lives in Texas KNOWS that you cannot walk five feet without encountering people of Mexican descent.  We see Patricia Arquette's character, simply known as "Mom" (which I think is a bit reductive), travel throughout the state, have various jobs - including one as a professor at Texas State University - and at no level in her life do we see friends who are of Mexican descent, co-workers who are of Mexican descent, or even people in restaurants who are of Mexican descent.  I was LOOKING.  As someone who lived in Texas for five years, and whose parents lived in San Marcos, where Texas State University is located, I know for a fact that this is an impossibility.  The bulk of people in these areas are of Mexican descent - some of them are White Latinos/as (which can pass for plain, ol' White), but many of them are not - and you can see these folks in everyday life.  Furthermore, you simply cannot avoid having them in your own everyday life.  If you somehow manage this task, you must be trying very, very hard, and the Mom character is not depicted as that kind of person.  She would literally have to stay in her house 24/7 and shoo people away from her door who are delivering her mail.

The reason this type of racism, by elimination, is so insidious, is because in such a supposedly realistic film, it implies that deleting reality is normal and even wholesome.  When we see a hard-working family being real and caring toward each other, and oddly removed from a state that has a majority of people of color, we think that this kind of removal is understandable and normal.  We simply don't think anything is wrong.  It's like watching "Friends" (which showed NYC homogeneous instead of realistically multicultural) except you are convinced that it's not a bad TV show; no, you are actually watching art, art that deserves awards, but which does the exact same thing as "Friends," in terms of our perception of the world/reality.

2. The actual storyline that actor Roland Ruiz was forced to bring to life - bless him, we all need work - is the horrific "save me White person" trope that has been depicted in countless films, from "Dangerous Minds" to "The Blind Side."  A simple Google search will bring up many criticisms of this pervasive form of racism.  Not only does his presence in the film stand out more because of the lack of other Latinos/as throughout the film, but the interaction he has with Mom is so ridiculous that one simply cannot ignore how it underscores the deletion of reality/brown people throughout the film.

In the first scene Enrique and Mom are together, he is fixing some plumbing issues and Arquette says that he's smart and should go to school.  I cringed and hoped that was the end of it.  Unfortunately, years later, we see him coming towards Mom in a restaurant, beaming, and the friend I was with knew the words before they came out of Enrique's grateful mouth: "You changed my life!"  Mom's brief statement had inspired him to turn around his life.  Ugh.  Both of us were furious.  I met hundreds of Latinos/as in Texas while I was there and the majority of them were extremely educated and capable people - even the ones who ALSO, not ONLY, knew how to do physical labor.  You cannot go to Texas State U. and not encounter Latino/a professors.  There are overachieving, type-A Latinos/as everywhere!  At every level of society!  I should mention that I was not in some Ivory Tower when in Texas; I lived in a variety of neighborhoods, including the working class West Side of San Antonio, and taught everywhere, including a juvenile detention center.  So to think that Enrique needed this woman, who was struggling herself, to give him advice and introduce education as a "novel" concept is more than condescending.  Furthermore, people who talk to you for less than one minute do not change your life.  If Linklater wants a realistic film that spans years, he should know that.

Some folks will argue, "Well, what's wrong with the Mom character being nice?"  You must look at the overall structure of the story.  If you delete all people of Mexican descent from the imagery onscreen, then only have one interaction with a person of Mexican descent, and that one interaction is one of a white savior uplifting the Mexican, THAT IS RACIST.  But, because it is cushioned in the decade-plus depiction of a warm, interesting family, we will accept it.  We will say, "Oh, but it's still such a wonderful film."  We will say, "Oh, but didn't Linklater really accomplish something with this." We will say, "Look at how brilliant we can be."  We won't say, "Damn, we made a really racist film."  Ever.  I mean, it's not like we have the KKK running around lynching people, right?

No, there is no lynching taking place.  Only sweetness abounds in this film.  And for us Latinos/as, it's the kind of sweetness that places us in the same category as a dog, who you teach tricks, who makes you happy when he does said tricks.  Or perhaps the same category as wallpaper, lovely wallpaper you only notice when you want to admire your interesting-looking surroundings.

But the truth is we are not dogs or wallpaper.  We are like keratinocytes, which make up the main part of your skin, Mr. Linklater.  You don't think of us much, but we are very important to everyone's existence.  We build, we protect, we are flexible, and those of us in the know are very aware that if we went missing, the world would be exposed to all kinds of dangers.  I can tell when we are missing.  When will you be able to?

Con carino,

UPDATE: Salon.com asked me to write an expanded essay on the topic of Whiteness and Latinidad in film. It can be found here.

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