Mis amigos y mi familia cerca de y lejos,
(Friends and family, near and far)
I am beginning this letter on the final night of the final day of 2017. Earlier this month I made a commitment to write a letter each day of December, which, while not entirely successful, has put me in the mood to compose a year-end epistle.
I have just returned from a week in Oaxaca, Mexico, which was my first international venture since I returned from France in 2013, and the first real traveling I’ve done since moving to California. The trip was something that I needed in more ways than I could have anticipated, and it reminded me of things I had forgotten about who I am and what it means for me to live and be in this world.
Consequently, I’ve decided to use my relationship with Mexico as a way of sharing 2017.
In January, there was the inauguration of a president whose election had been shrouded with rumors of walls and emails and distasteful discussions of immigrants and people of color. Days after the 2016 election, I attended Luzia, a Cirque du Soleil show that uses light and color and music and acrobatics to bring all of the life and joy and mystery of Mexico under a big top. It was my first real cirque show and I was absolutely beside myself with delight. The greatest joy I find in being a culture writer is getting to speak with performers, writers, and directors, and hearing them share what it means to embody and execute their art. I published an article for SF Weekly in November, and loved the show so much that I followed it to San Jose and published another piece in January.
Though I had been dreaming of Oaxaca ever since I sipped my first mezcal with Santigo Suarez and sampled chapulines (grasshoppers) and mole at Oakland’s Calavera in 2015, I didn’t realize at the start of this year, that the marigolds and mariachis, hummingbirds, jaguars, and fiestas of Luzia would become reality for me by the end of December.
(FOOD and POLITICS)
By late-January, the new presidency was underway and a travel ban was passed that affected many of the people I have come to know and love in the Bay Area, including my Yemeni ESL students and much of the workforce in the Bay Area food industry, a space in which I have been writing and working since grad school. Food has been and will always be political, but in February it became especially so, at least in this part of the country, where industry leaders joined together to generate awareness of the issue and to raise money in support of immigrants, refugees, and DACA recipients. I covered some of this response in a piece about Comal, an elevated Mexican restaurant in Berkeley that serves modern interpretations of traditional Oaxacan fare and employs numerous Latinos.
Because a freelancer (or at least this freelancer) cannot live on journalism alone, I take on a handful of tutoring gigs at the start of each quarter (mostly high school students getting ready for their ACTs). Thanks to a chance encounter at a spin class, however, I spent Valentine’s Day (and most Tuesdays and Thursdays of the spring) with Santiago, a 13-year-old boy who loves math and basketball, hates writing, and wishes he could spend his spring break anywhere but Mexico, where most of his mother’s family live. Santi was both my student and my teacher, and often one of the highlights of my week. Working with him brought back memories of middle school life and the use of my high school Spanish. Santi’s aunt is a principal in Mexico City and when she came to visit in March we chatted about language theory and writing styles. She was the first person I thought of when the earthquakes happened later in the year, and though she and her family were fine, many of the students were significantly affected.
I continued writing, tutoring, and proctoring ACT and SAT tests through March and April. I ate at a lot of restaurants, attended a number of cultural events and performances, interviewed a few high profile people, and occasionally looked for longer-term work (which I had been doing for close to two years at that point). Somewhere in the midst of that I watched the first three seasons of Jane the Virgin, a modern miniseries that introduces American audiences to the addictive drama of the telenovela. Whether this was meant to distract me from the hills and valleys of my own love life (which could be a miniseries of its own), or to reassure me that my reality isn’t as dramatic as it sometimes seems, I’m not sure. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
(DIVERSITY and INCLUSION)
In May, I accepted an offer to join the AdWords content strategy team at Google, where I have been working since mid-June. Google makes a big deal about diversity and inclusion, at least at one level, and this is something I appreciate. In July, an ERG (Employee Resource Group) called HOLA (Hispanic Opportunities in Leadership & Advocacy) hosted a few members from the traveling cast of Hamilton to speak about being a person of color in the world of performing arts. Though I entered the lottery nearly every day of the show’s San Francisco run, I was never able to score tickets, and I couldn’t afford them otherwise. I did, however, attend the Hamilton Talk at Google (which was amazing), and I finally gave in and listened to the soundtrack of a musical that I believe is a vital work of art, especially in the current social and political climate of our nation.
(The SF SYMPHONY)
Also in July, I got press tickets to more performances at Davies Symphony Hall than anyone really has a right to attend, including the US premier of the Jalisco Philharmonic, a young and vibrant group of musicians who intrigued and impressed me with every movement and orchestration. I don’t think I can adequately express how much I love the symphony. One of the things I enjoyed most was seeing the way the demographic of the audience altered to suit each performance. The Jalisco performance was the first time that I heard Spanish in the symphony restrooms and saw people dancing in the foyer during the intermission. My favorite song of the summer was Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2. Give it a listen.
(SMALL GROUP LEADING)
In August, I started co-leading a small group that I’ve been a part of for the past two years. We are single and married, transplants and locals, long-time believers and new to the church. We meet for two hours every Wednesday, and I appreciate hearing and seeing our stories unfold. Three of the group members work at Pixar, which means I’ve had the opportunity to visit the campus and I sometimes get unique perspectives on movie production, including this year’s release of Coco, a heart-warming story about loving your family and following your dreams. It is a film that the director described as “a love letter to Mexico.” I highly recommend it (see more below).
Coco released in Mexican theaters on October 27th, just in time for Dia de Los Muertos, a multi-day Mexican celebration of ancestry and remembrance that runs concurrent with the Catholic celebration of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day. There are marigolds and shrines, sugar skulls, candles, and lots of comida (food). This year I marked Halloween (and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation) by spending the first of many hours on my therapist’s couch. I am a very big believer in the importance of stories, especially the ones that we believe about ourselves, and by the end of October, I was stuck when it came to embracing my own. Sometimes we fail to meet our own exceptions. Sometimes we hold onto beliefs that we don’t realize aren’t true. Sometimes we need help pulling back the layers of defense that protect wounded places and healing the hurt that keeps us from thriving. It is an investment I could have made years ago, and one I am glad to be working through now.
Coco released in US theaters November 22nd, just in time for Thanksgiving, which was a holiday that I spent in Nebraska with my entire family—parents, siblings, in-laws, two nieces, and a Star Wars-crazy nephew who wins me over more each time I see him. I didn’t see Coco in a theater until after I returned to California, and when I did, it moved me in ways I had not anticipated. (I know, I know—I should expect this from Pixar). The abuelas, the calles, the small stores and hand-made tortillas; the marigolds, the altars, the banderas, the alebrijes—all of them prepared me for the month that was to follow and my first real experience of being in Mexico.
(TRAVELING to OAXACA)
In December, I spent my first Christmas ever outside of Lincoln, Nebraska as a part of a week-long stay in the city of Oaxaca in a state in south-central Mexico. The 22nd of December I found myself inside Santo Domingo, a gold-foiled church near the center of a colonial city. I did what I do when I travel to new places—wander through churches, stop by cafes, and make connections with people because I know no one and need everyone.
“Los Estados Unidos?” asks a suntanned boy of seven.
“Si,” I say, as if my tennis shoes and yoga pants don’t easily give me away. I pull out a camera I haven’t used since the day that I purchased my iPhone and begin to remember how much I had forgotten about myself in the years since: how to untether, how to get lost, how to plan for a day or make no plans at all and end up in exactly the same situation; how to connect with the oneness of an intangible world that is dirty and delightful and one day at a time.
Oaxaca undoes me. I tramp through its streets, drink its coffee, taste its spirits, and savor its culinary offerings; I split open my toe on its cobblestone streets, wallow in poor purchases, regret misadventures, and relish new relationships that are made in a hodgepodge of broken English and beginner Spanish.
After returning from Europe in 2013, I had said that I would not travel solo again. But I am better company than I remembered, and so is the world at large. Its people are as good as I hoped they would be, and there is more than enough for my life to be full. This is what I re-learn in the week that I spend in Mexico, where I interview master chefs, play with children, join in parades, share evenings with strangers, and make friends in ancient ruins. This is what I bring back when I return to the San Francisco airport—an insatiable desire to know and be known.
And this is my hope for you and for me in this new year we have started—that we would know and be known and be willing to grow in the ways that are required for such things to take place; that we would exercise grace, especially with ourselves, and be open in ways that stretch our hearts and expand our minds.
Grace, peace, and un prospero año para todos!