Our Good Life

The ten year anniversary of September 11th is tomorrow. Although that means many things (most of which I'm not going to dive into here), let's remember something: Patriot Act or not, it's pretty good to live in America.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not always easy, but it's good.

Somewhere in America, an immigrant is opening up their own business. There is a child being born. A vegetarian has unlimited food options. Women can marry each other. Someone can wear overalls to church, just because they want to.

Here in Washington, DC, many people forget about the good life, but back home in LA - a city of immigrants - there is an unshakeable feeling that life there was a privilege. For people from war-torn or broken countries, simple afternoons filled with the scent of homemade meals, fresh laundry, and laughing children is the good life.

Tranquility might not make the 6 o’clock news, but it’s the tick-tock of the new American heartland.

So, as Kanye says, throw your hands up for the good life.


The Vargas Story

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas' My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant essay in the New York Times has shocked just about everyone. I was shocked to learn that Vargas, whom I met briefly through Georgetown's Journalism program, built his Pulitzer-winning career entirely without papers. (Wow!) Other, more conservative Americans were shocked to learn that smart, accomplished people like Vargas are among the ranks of the undocumented in this country.

That's a great thing, but here's the not-so-good thing: not every illegal immigrant has the privilege to be able to publicly declare their status. If most undocumented immigrants did what Vargas did, they wouldn’t be cooed over, they’d be deported.

Although the larger, Open Society Institute-funded goal behind Vargas’ Define American project is to increase support for the passage of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) and the DREAM Act, it is, in actuality, a career boost for Vargas and a clear reinforcement of the power line between the haves and the have-nots. What is supposed to be a story about lack of privilege is, inadvertently, a story showcasing privilege.

This high-profile essay will act as a shield for Vargas against the actual legal ramifications of declaring his status, illuminating the sharp class divides that, ironically enough, make immigrants out of people tired of the fact that legal and economic exceptions will never be made for them in their home countries.Vargas will probably get a book deal from this essay, but millions of undocumented workers need something else from its publication. They need the passage of CIR and the DREAM Act. As a testament to all those people that can't wedge the the New York Times between themselves and Immigration Customs Enforcement agents, let's celebrate Vargas' story and lobby to change the laws that shaped it.

Migrations and Salutations

In the halls of the Arcadia Methodist Hospital, migration and immigration mean two different things entirely. The Emergency Room sign says “Emergency” in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and even sorrow speaks different languages.

“Mom, you’re going to be fine. I know. I love you.” (Wipe tear off cheek.) She’s going down the hall, off to surgery.

“Everything’s going to be fine, okay? K, I’ll see you in a bit. (Kiss)


In the waiting room, the children of Saint Gabriel fill the waiting rooms with In and Out burgers. It is a sea of black jeans, highlights, and acrylic nails. Cousins have come. Girlfriends have come.

Families sit in circles, with black ponytails swishing above the straight-backed chairs.

People are accompanied.

Around the corner, the nurse in the elevator releases a quiet sigh.

"How are you?" I ask.

"Oh, I'm fine; just a bit tired, that's all.

I'm a glutton for self-punishment. I commute everyday from Hemet."

Amongst the quiet chit-chatting of everyday realities, a loud wail suddenly interrupts the silence.

Down the hall, a ponytailed woman in a zip-up jumpsuit is sobbing uncontrollably. Wailing in Spanish on a flip phone.

“But I did call his brother to tell him! He just doesn’t pick up!!!!”

Her sorrow is unbearable. Someone has died, and she can’t reach the people she needs to tell. Although she is in Arcadia, Mexico isn’t. Not only is her husband gone, her loved ones are far away from her.

In the ICU, my mother’s mind is elsewhere as her body sits in Unit 6. She breathes calmly. Her mind might be elsewhere, but she is there. With me.

Rudo Y Cursi give Diaspora a new name

Hispanic Heritage Month is coming to an end, and Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (might) have given us something to celebrate.

Or something to cry about.

The two teamed up to executive produce the Focus Features film Sin Nombre, a powerful drama about Central Americans emigrating to the U.S. via Mexico. And according to Sin Nombre, the name of the Diaspora is called miseria: misery.

For those of us concerned with cultural memory, what does this mean for what the word “Latino” means in the U.S.?

In Sin Nombre, to be Latino is to be displaced; an identity of never quite getting it right; of an identity of struggle. But there is a swagger in attempt; a glamour in trying. Sin Nombre narrates a land where Kool Aid, caló, and cochinita pibil mix under a relentless sun. Sin Nombre (which means ‘nameless’) is a chronicle to the millions of people that leave the lands where NAFTA has destroyed the remnants of what global capitalism called an economy, and come risk their lives on the top of trains bound for Texas, Arizona, and California. This journey is plagued by gangs – Mara Salvatrucha, specifically - from start to finish.

In real life, Gael and Diego - the stars of Rudo y Cursi - are neither rude, nor cheesy. They are urban intellectuals. Their fan base is, as well; their fans are folks that spend their days devising solutions to immigration as a transnational policy problem, not a personal one. Dressing up as poor rancheros and actually being poor rancheros are two different things entirely; so what does solidarity mean, both on and off film?


Gang life as a Latino cultural legacy is a tricky one indeed. ‘Mi Vida Loca’ has been made into a cottage industry of Homey dolls and maroon-colored tee-shirts for Hispanic America. And while ‘homey’ is a cute term of endearment and white tank tops are good ways to show off nice biceps, gangs themselves are uh …not good things.

In my family, self-identifying as a Latino was to self-associate with gangs. In the cusp creole land that is east Los Angeles County (Whittier), the dividing line between white and Latino had to do with gangs. My mother, Maria Delsoccorro, with her almond eyes and long black hair, didn’t want to call herself Latina. She liked books, not fights.

“Why would I want to do that?,” she asked. “The Latinas carried knives in their hair.”

Caló (Chicano Spanglish) even carried itself into the land where carne asada is called steak. “Oh yeah, the huisa girls,” my Irish-American father remembers. Huisa, which means girl, was thought to mean chola, or the word for female gangster. Chicanas were huisas, and huisas were cholas. Semantics = sociology= Chicana girls were gangbangers.

Times change; after age 20 or so, I decided that I, as a bookish woman, would self-integrate into Latino circles. The Latino world I rotate in out here on the East Coast is filled with talk of community mobilization, and security studies, and cluster development. The guero (light) Latinos, the ones I fit in around, talk about getting a Masters vs. a Ph.D; we listen to Jorge Drexler. Sometimes people throw up a “w” hand sign for West Coast, but it is, at the end of the day, a joke.


History aside, Sin Nombre reminds us that that la vida loca really is loca – and moreover, is horrifying.

Filled with brutal murders and a stomach-churning feeling that wherever you go, you won’t be wanted, Sin Nombre reminds us just how frightening, and confounding, the dividing really line is.

The subjects of this film feel that they don’t belong anywhere – and not like postmodern, Cultural Studies whining – but economically and socially feel homeless in their own Hemisphere. It is the fear that the world has locked you out, completely.

After surviving an attempted rape at the hands of the MS-13 gang lord with the letters ‘m’ and ‘s’ tattooed on either side of his face, the co-star’s greatest joy is to take a cold shower with her clothes on.

Pride aside, name-calling aside, these films make you wonder, does to be Latino mean to be always not-quite-there-yet? Is this what we are? And if so, why does it have to be like this? 

Why is misery such an everyday part of (inter) American life?

Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario stumbled upon the subject of Honduran immigration through Mexico by finding her Honduran maid crying in her kitchen one day, mumbling about trains. Sin Nombre is written in impeccable Spanish by hapa director Cary Fukunaga from the East Bay. More people need to create work about this subject, and give Latino life a wider range of names.

Color Me Mine

I found the Pax Americana in the mall.

And not just any mall, but my parents’ mall in the well-watered suburbs of greater Los Angeles. It is possibly the most democratic mall in all of the United States; nineteen-year olds with acrylic nails can buy twelve-dollar stretch jeans, and the affluent housewives of lower Pasadena can buy Nordstrom cardigans and plum-colored, high-comfort pumps.

In Macy’s, an elderly Chinese man is seated comfortably in the oversized armchairs. He has come to enjoy the air-conditioning, his retirement, and paint a while.

Smiling contentedly in the noon-day silence, he paints pictures of clothing mannequins using Chinese calligraphy pens.

It’s America as a mannequin and Macy’s as an art studio, but it is a peaceful one, nonetheless. Americana did not leave American print making when Norman Rockwell passed; this gentleman too is drawing America, as he sees it and as he sees fit.

Q & A with Ethiopian community radio host

Off the Air with Abebe Belew of Addis Dimts Radio, D.C.

D.C. resident Abebe Belew is the host of the Addis Dimts radio show, a weekly Amharic talk show broadcast in D.C. via 1120 WUST AM/New World Radio and received in Ethiopia via 17845 kwh 17 mb. Emily Goulding caught him offline for a few minutes to ask him about radio, politics and power suits here in the Capitol region…

1. How did you decide to become a DJ? Were you a DJ in Ethiopia?
Well, actually I was a comedian in Ethiopia. And I was a traditional dancer, I used to work for a famous theater called the Ras Theater. Later, I became a host for an Ethiopian TV show called Variety Show. When I came here, I went back to my old job, entertaining Ethiopians at university campuses and stuff like that. Now, I have my own radio talk show here in Washington. I’m broadcasting on Sundays from 1pm to 2pm from D.C. all the way to Ethiopia.

2. How do you decide what your show topic is for the week?
It’s all about Ethiopians. It can be about sports, comedy, politics- any kind of topic.

3. What’s your favorite thing about being on the radio?
The main reason I decided to have a radio show is freedom of speech. Here, my show can one day be about restaurants, the next day about comedy. There is no such thing as private or free media in Ethiopia, so I’m living my dream by running free media.

4. When you call your family back home and tell them what it’s like to be Ethiopian in Washington, what do you say?
I tell them to come here to see it, it’s a very big difference. I grew up in a very strong culture, our culture was everything. The rule of law has no place in Ethiopia, so if it wasn’t for our culture, we wouldn’t be able to live in there. Our culture helps us live. Like for poor people, it doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong, they just don’t have freedom. In that aspect, the United States is a dream that I wish all Ethiopians could see. Freedom is a great thing for all humanity.

5. Do you feel that you have a certain social responsibility as a radio host?
Yes, yes, I have a big responsibility both here and back home to represent all sides. Whatever people think, I give them a chance to explain. I feel a great responsibility to stand up for what I believe, for free media, for giving a chance to every point of view.

6. Do you know who Piolín de la Mañana is? Sí venimos a triunfar?
I haven’t heard of him, but I don’t think he’s a journalist, he might be an activist. If he believes a rule is wrong and wants people to go out and fight, I don’t think that’s wrong, but if he’s a journalist, he can’t just take one side.

7. What’s the most difficult topic that’s ever come up during an interview?
Religion is the most difficult topic to discuss. In Ethiopia, we are mostly Orthodox, but we’re also Muslim, so whenever those two religions have things going on, it’s very difficult to host that program. Also, as a radio host, I can’t know the outcome of my program. You never know who is listening or what they’re going to do.

8. What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you while at WUST-AM?
The weirdest thing that happened to me is that people think I’m not good enough to be a journalist. They think that just because I was a comedian and a dancer, I can’t be a journalist. That’s weird to me, because I believe anyone can be anything they want to be.

9. Who wears nicer suits, Zenawi or Afewerki?
Zenawi (laughing). No, he’s actually a really funny-looking guy. In Ethiopia, people draw pictures to see who can make something that looks the closest to Zenawi… when you draw a goat and you take off the horns, you’ll see that it looks a lot like Zenawi.

10. And between Clinton and Obama?
Hillary looks better in a suit. Obama’s head is too little, so it looks kind of silly. Obama would look good in a runner’s outfit, or in a basketball uniform.

11. So who should I vote for?
If you don’t vote for Hillary, you should vote for me. (Laughs again.) Hillary has lots of experience, but I’ve never done anything in politics before, so if you don’t want experience, you should vote for me.