Friday, August 22, 2014

Survival Tips for Living in the Barrio

by La Viper

So I’m a West Coast turned East Coast and returned West Coast overeducated Latina and I’m living with my mom in the barrio. Sounds like the plot of a brand new sitcom on ABC right? Well, actually, it’s my life.
After two weeks of moving in to care for an ailing Latina mother, these are some survival strategies I have picked up, not unlike those vatos on Survivor who eat worms and stuff.
Speaking of eating, there is no trying anything new in the barrio. My mother only believes in using whatever brands of packaged cooking oil, food, etc. she is used to.
Any unfamiliar food “smells bad” which means it is not fit for human consumption.
Also, you can’t eat anything that a fly lands on.
Bodegas are called tienditas here.
My mother has a whole rating system for the tienditas in the barrio based on how flat the sodas are. The lowest rated tiendita owners go to the 99 Cent store and buy the soon-to-expire sodas, rip off the 99 cent sticker, and sell the sodas for two dollars!
It’s okay to buy sodas at the mini-mart on the gas station at the corner by the gay bar. They may price gouge more than the other tienditas, but their sodas are fully bubbly.
People in the barrio also suspect tap water. They buy bottled water. Little bottles of water. Lots of little bottles of water.
So with all these bottles of soda and water that are consumed, you think there would be some sort of recycling program? Nope.
My sister started her own Barrio Recycling Program. Which consists of putting bottles and cans in a separate bag from regular trash so the trash pickers don’t have to do as much work. (Or find the old pair of chonies you threw away when they rip open your trash bag).
Trash pickers are just some of the characters in the barrio. They are part of the scene here, like the neighbors.   You have to shred anything you don’t want to see someone on your street wearing. (Ooops).
Speaking of the neighbors, they are most likely your enemy.
If something gets stolen or there is poop on your front door, a neighbor was responsible.
My mother started her own Neighbor Revenge Program which consists of leaving her habanero chile plants out on the stoop so that her neighbor steals them, eats them, and two fiery orifices later, might think twice about taking something else.

The B65 is now in Los Angeles!

Hey everyone! I'm back in Los Angeles now. For the foreseeable future anyway.  Even though I ride the Los Angeles Metro now (with something called a Tap card), I still consider myself some sort of hybrid New York flavored Angeleno. (Does that make me sound like I taste like pee)?

So what follows are the accounts of my misadventures in L.A. It's like when I Love Lucy moved from New York to Hollywood.  Yeah, it's just like that. Except I live in the barrio of East Hollywood with my mom. For the foreseeable future anyway.

I hope there will be stories of celebrity stalking and hilarious episodes of spaghetti eating. For now, my first dispatch is a survival tips for living in the barrio.  I might even use my fake chola name/heavy eyeliner wearing avatar as a nom de plume. It's La Viper by the way. Nice to meet you.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


So after seven years in New York City, I'm finally leaving. This time for real. Like I quit my job and I'm heading west for real. So, in the interest of self treatment for all of the weird feelings and pangs I'm feeling, I'm drawing cartoons to capture what pleases and annoys me about this city that I love.

Even though I'm no artiste, I started drawing in grad school to express my feelings of wanting to get out of whatever three hour class I happened to be in. Now I am drawing to express my feelings of wanting to leave and wanting to stay in this seven year learning experience that I happen to be in.

This is the cartoon me. 

What follows is a series of Perks! and Not Perks! about living in the city. This is how I express my complicated feelings of grief. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Top Ten Signs That You Live in Park Slope

10. You stand behind a fourth grader to buy bubble tea.

9. You live on the same block as Captain Picard from Star Trek.

8. Your landlady calls you “Boo.”

7. You shop at Trader Joes because you (at least 25%) believe the Park Slope Coop is a cult.

6. You refuse to sign over your soul to said Park Slope Coop in exchange for cheaper produce.

5. You want the French guy at the French coffee shop to act French already!

4. You see a single man of child bearing age walking on 5th Avenue without a child and want to ask him if he’s lost.

3. You experience a moment of panic when you think you hear one of the many kids from the many schools in the neighborhood say, “Hi Miss Celina.”

2. You simultaneously have an existential crisis and miss the hipsters in Williamsburg when you hear a bunch of really square drunks singing the national anthem outside your window on Saturday night.

And number 1... You were almost run over by a trio of stroller pushing moms coming at you head on (more than once).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Pioneer

This morning, I was walking down South 2nd to get breakfast. I moved here a year ago, to a very Puerto Rican block in a very Puerto Rican part of Williamsburg. I told myself that when I move out of here, I’m going to have to know more about boriquas and maybe write a memoir called When I Was a (Wannabe) Puerto Rican. Everyone here speaks Spanish to me and doesn’t care if I’m Puerto Rican or not.

I look up at the spot where a string of ragged Puerto Rican flags used to wave in the breeze between buildings on either side of the street. It might have been the winter that defeated the sagging flags. I don’t know.

I started to walk away when I heard a voice say to me in Spanish. “Look…It’s a two-motor plane.”

It was an elderly Puerto Rican woman behind me, pointing up at a small plane the same pale gray as the sky. She’s like the other Puerto Rican ladies who suddenly ask me questions or confuse me for their grown daughters from afar. She’s one of those ladies that are looking for someone to talk to.

“These are the planes they came here in. The pioneers. The first Puerto Ricans to come to this country came in those planes….”

I remembered a movie I just saw about Latino immigration. I had a flash of Puerto Ricans boarding a plane headed to New York after serving in World War II.

“ I didn’t know they used them anymore. It used to take 6 hours to get here.”

“Really?” I said.

That didn’t seem to satisfy her, and she walked the other way as I walked in to have a good fake Mexican taco with Oaxaca cheese and chorizo made by a hipster with a hairnet.

Only a week ago, her conversation would have meant nothing to me. I didn’t really know why Puerto Ricans had emigrated in such large numbers to New York. Their story of colonization and oppression is different from that of Mexicans and Cubans, whose stories I know first hand, hearing my parents’ stories and mimicking their journeys by moving across the country by myself.

I also got a cortadito with soy milk, which I give much credit to the hipsters for making because I’m in a caffeine crisis and I’m lactose intolerant. As I eat the overpriced taco that also includes little bits of mashed up jalapeƱo chips, I think that everywhere I turn there’s something about immigration. I’ve been writing a play about my immigrant parents.  At work, I am trying to piece together history so that my students know the truth about how and why their families came here. And in grad school, I am reading my Puerto Rican professor’s memoir about becoming “Nuyorican.” 

Maybe it’s true that when you focus on something, be it immigration, or love, or unicycles, you see that thing everywhere.

The elderly lady appears in the doorway of the hipster taco place.

“Do you live in my building? 264?” she asks the hipster girl eating a taco in front of me.

She shakes her head.

“Do you live in my building?” she asks me.

I shake my head.

“There’s a package for someone!” She seems rattled as she sighs and disappears again.

The overpriced cortadito was just strong enough to put some space between me and the dream I had just had where I was back in Los Angeles, having adventure after adventure and checking my phone trying to find an email with an e-ticket to get back to New York. As the dream goes on, I become more and more frantic about the missing plane ticket to New York, until I wake up still looking for that ticket.

There’s a guy retracing the Puerto Rican lady’s steps to the door of the taco shop. He’s holding a small cardboard box.

There is a package for someone, I think. The caffeine is like a cloud that washes over me like a blessing. I realize I’m already in New York. I haven’t left and I don’t know what that means. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Freud on the Train

Part of living in New York is the fact people actually do a lot of their living on the streets and trains of the city. Recently, In less than 12 hours, I was able to witness or hear first hand accounts of people exercising their freedom of expression in very Freudian ways.
The Oral Stage 2:52 p.m.
One lady was finding the pleasure of sucking by introducing her thumb into her mouth surreptiously. Pretending to be wiping her face, her mouth was the primary focus of libidinal energy on the A train.
The Anal Stage 11:04 p.m.
It’s always the A train. On the way back from a play with a friend, I had to stop our conversation to ask, “Does it smell like shit?” My friend replied, “Yeah,” and we continued talking. The rest of the crowded subway car was apparently immune to the smell of failure in someone’s toilet training, which made a public expulsion of feces desirable.
The Phallic Stage  1:24 p.m.
Port Authority bus terminal. A woman. A hydrant. Exploring the erogenous possibilities. Sitting. Rubbing. Getting up. Bringing a dog. Exploring the erogenous possibilities.
My friend who witnessed this winces every time she sees a dog that day. “Dogs are ruined for me,” she reports.
Latency Period 4:47 p.m.
Two tidy rows of people sit on an Uptown 1 train almost all lost in the static world inside their headphones. People come in, come out, hold to the bars, crowd around them, the train rumbles, squeals, but the people seem to have surpassed the need to blink, talk, look. So much more than any one drive lies dormant.
The Genital Stage 11:45 p.m.
Two teenagers among the first to come back from wherever they went. They kiss so hard, the girl’s nose is mashed against the boy’s. They have discovered sex and have nowhere to go.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Who's Juan Villa? How He Wrote His Life Story

When I lived in a little attic apartment in Syracuse, a guy’s name would pop up on the caller id when I used the telephone. “Who’s Juan Villa?” everyone who called   asked. “He was a tenant in the apartment before me,” I answered. But the Juan Villa thing didn’t die down. People took to answering my calls with, “Hola Juan!” Some people pretended to flirt with Juan.  My Nigerian classmate flat out asked me if Juan Villa was my husband that I hid in my apartment and didn't tell anyone about. Unbeknownst to him, Juan Villa had become a bit of a legend.

I met the real Juan Villa before I moved to New York City. It turned out that he’s an actor, and was also moving to New York City after living in Chicago. We became friends, and he took me to his home on the Lower East Side where I met his mother and the rest of his family at their apartment on Allen Street.

I had a feeling that Juan and his family were epic in some way, but I had no idea how epic they were until I went to see his solo show, “Empanada for a Dream.” This show, written and performed by Juan Villa, seeks to answer thesame question inspired by all the people I talked to in Syracuse. Who is he? He's a Colombian kid who grew up on the Lower East Side. But there’s so much more to his story. And isn’t there always more to the story?

I went to the show and sat, aghast, as his mother sat in the front row, reacting to all of Juan as he aired the secrets, confessions, and confrontations of the family on  stage. After the show, I happened to see a woman who had a tattoo of a signature on her foot, like an artist’s signature at the bottom of a canvas.  And I wondered if we all are works of art, paintings, books, plays, in human form. And if this were true, what would make them good?

Juan gave me some insights when we talked after his show. Although these are ostensibly tips for writers, they also double as strategies you’d pay personal guru lots of dinero for.  These are some of the tips that Juan would give to someone who is writing their life story:

· Figure out how you feel about everyone and everything. This can be a revelation, especially if you’re one of those people that need to let go of something or someone in their life.

· Tell your truth. Don’t edit yourself based on what you think or know others will say about you. Also, internalizing other people’s truths leads you away from what you want and who you are.

· Find your thematic cord. In acting, this is the through line of all the roles you’ve played. In other words, these are the themes or subjects that have inspired or drawn you to them throughout your life. Think about what roles you have played in your own life and determine if there are themes or situations that are repeated.

· The more specific you are about your experience, the more universal it is.  Also, the more you you are, the more genuine and relatable others find you.

· How do others see the subject you are writing about? Getting feedback about your subject (even when the subject is you) is necessary, at least as a starting point.
  Have an objective observer or editor help you find what’s necessary and important. This is important in so many areas of life. In order to tell the true story, we need someone to let us know if we’re over focusing or cluttering our vision with extraneous or impertinent details. I often wish I had an editor for my life.

Juan did a lot of soul searching to tell his story.He turned what could be a typical Latino coming of age story into a Greek tragedy. His solo show is populated with many characters that he plays with a searing honesty that hits hilarious and heart breaking notes. If you’re in New York City, go see the show and find out who this guy on the caller id really is.

Empanada For A Dream - soloNOVA Arts Festival

 May30 at 7:00pm until June 6 at 10:15pm
Written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa
Directed by Alex Levy
Wednesday, May 30 at 7:00 pm
Thursday, May 31 at 9:00 pm
Saturday, June 2 at 7:00 pm
Sunday, June 3 at 4:00 pm
Wednesday, June 6 at 9:00 pm
Fresh from a sold out run with Ballybeg at the Barrow Group Theatre, EMPANADA FOR A DREAM is a haunting love song to the Lower East Side. Juan Francisco Villa's return to the neighborhood of his childhood is a dangerous and hilarious tale about growing up by getting out.