Actor Luis Guzmán

Source: http://www.hispanicizeevent.com/

Source: http://www.hispanicizeevent.com/

At the Hispanicize Conference in Miami, where Latinitas co-founders Alicia Rascón and Laura Donnelly won the 2015 Positive Impact Award, they got the chance to interview the well-known actor Luis Guzmán, recipient of the Latinovator Award at Hispanicize 2015. Read below for his conversation with Laura, in which he delves into his inspirational success story and offers young Latinas advice on how to be women of integrity.

We are trying to change Hollywood. How close are we?
We’re right there. Technology has changed so much. There is easier access to the public now. We have the power of Internet and you can record or do a video on your phone or make a podcast. There are so many different outlets to pass a message. Even just doing short movies and putting them on YouTube – that has such an impact. By having this impact we outside Hollywood can do all this stuff to have an impact, and empower young girls…

To become directors themselves, or writers, or graphic designers.
Yeah, anything is possible. Especially now on a laptop. You can build anything from that. You can build fabric, clothes, design, you name it. But also you hit play and it records and you can edit it right there. Something you do in five minutes can have an incredible impact on the whole world.

 Who is a female you admire that is taking Latino voices to new spaces?
I admire people like Rosario Dawson. She does a lot of work for the whole community. Rosie Perez too. They don’t only impact the female community but also act as role models. Rosario does a lot of work with the Lower East Side Girl Club [in New York City] and Voto Latino.

Tell us a little about how you got your first start and what inspired you to go into the field?
I was a social worker on the Lower East Side and one day a few of my kids didn’t show up to the program, so I went out into the street looking for them. I happened to run into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a few years, and he told me he was writing for a TV show and they were coming to NY and were going be looking for people [to cast]. He gave me a phone number, so I called up, went in, and auditioned. I had no clue what I was doing.

Next thing I know, I am costarring on the season premiere of Miami Vice. But I still maintained my job as a social worker for awhile because I didn’t know anything about acting or the entertainment industry. And I was really dedicated and committed to empowering young people and getting them off of welfare, and giving them tools to go out and succeed in society. Basically the tools that I provided were questions. “Who are you? Where are you going? How are you going to get there? Where do you want to be six months from now? A year? Five years?” And I found out nobody ever asked them these questions. They were like: “Oh wow, I never even thought about that because nobody ever asked.” So when you provide people with those kinds of mental tools they refocus themselves.

I used to tell all the young people I worked with: “Think of yourself as a camera lens. Right now you’re really out of focus. My job is to help you help yourself get better into focus.” So that’s what I do and I still go back to where I used to work and I talk to the young people. It’s an important element of my life because though I love what I do as an entertainer and getting to travel the world it’s important to come back. Sometimes the young people there put me on a pedestal. I didn’t necessarily want to be on that pedestal, but they see someone who comes from the same place as them and succeeded. I have the ability to give people faith and to give people hope.

You’d be great in Latinitas! What advice do you want to give to the girls at Latinitas?
Believe in yourself, take pride in who you are, love yourself. Respect yourself as a woman. Don’t give into male domination. Be in control and let a boy know that ‘no’ does not mean ‘yes.’ And as far as bullying goes, because that’s a big thing, bullying is not the way to go. Protect each other from that. Unfortunately there are girls out there who don’t have the love, don’t have the support, so they choose suicide over enduring violence.

Tattoo Taboo in Latino Culture

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Tattoos have long been a controversial subject, and often a social taboo. The reasons for their negative image are many, but mostly they stem from their historical association with criminal activity. They were oftentimes used to brand criminals, and sailors utilized them as well as a means of identification in case they were drowned and washed ashore somewhere. In more recent history, and nowadays, tattoos are intimately associated with gangs who use them to pledge loyalty by permanently imprinting gang symbols on their bodies.

In the US and parts of Latin America, however, this trend is changing as more and more young people are choosing to get tattoos for personal reasons. A poll conducted in 2012 by The Harris Poll showed that 1 in 5 American adults possess at least one tattoo. Approximately 15-20% percent of those tattooing are Hispanic. The majority of those interviewed in the poll were not gang members or criminals but rather chose to tattoo because they wanted to express a facet of their identity through body art.

Nonetheless, tattoos are still regarded negatively within the Latino culture. Parents of tattooed young people often react to their offspring’s decision with anger or even horror. Daphne, 23, a Mexican-American of immigrant parents, recalls the day her parents discovered a large tattoo on her ribcage. While her father was disappointed in her so-called “foolish choice” her mother was especially upset. “She was screaming and cursing and crying,” Daphne says. “She didn’t speak to me for months after that. She said this wasn’t how she raised me and I looked like I belonged in gang.” She and her mother finally reconciled, though her mother still can’t stand to see her tattoo. She believes her mother overreacted, but admits that after speaking to her mother about the issue she has come to understand a little better her reasons. Daphne’s mother is from Mexico, where currently gangs involved in drug cartels terrorize the country. The gangs are often recognizable by their symbolic tattoos, and for many who live in fear of gang violence they often try to spot danger by scanning questionable-looking individuals for their telltale tattoos.

Throughout Central America the attitude towards tattoos is based in similar realities. Candi, 26, grew up in Honduras and says that in her home country tattoos are also deeply connected to violent gangs that the people greatly fear. Having lived in the United States for a decade now she has one small tattoo on her wrist. “The attitude here is so different. Most people don’t have the same fear of gang violence so tattoos have a different meaning. They’re just art.”

So, because of the differences in ways of life in parts of Latin America versus in the United States, older-generation Latinos are often more wary of tattoos than cultures not currently entrenched in gang warfare. As shown by Daphne’s and Candi’s anecdotes tattoos often make them think immediately of dangerous gangs, while for those raised outside such fears tattoos are not so instantly threatening. Latinos raised in the US, while sometime having encountered gang activity, do not endure the national fear of violence by drug cartels, so their view of tattoos is not as extreme. It is easier for them to view tattoos as innocent works of art and self-expression. These differing experiences, however, have caused some disagreement between generations about the nature of tattoos. In the end it is important for those for and against tattoos to understand one another’s point of view. As far as the art of tattooing is concerned, its stigma will likely never disappear as long as gangs and criminals continue to use them for their own purposes.

Media’s Focus on the Female Physice

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Watch out thin and slender body types, the curvy look is in this year. The popular hits from Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ and Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About the Bass’ have made it known that having a big booty is beautiful and that curves are to be celebrated. The media has joined the cause with its input with whose body is rockin’ and what workouts these women do to keep their figure.

But why does it matter?

A woman’s body has become a public forum for opinion. Their shape and size have become an important factor in determining their beauty in society’s standards. Such views can be seen in the new popular dance fad – twerking. This dance focuses on the sensual booty shaking (the bigger the better) and has been prevalent in many performers’ dance routines.

In the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Chelsea Handler came onto the stage to present and made a joke about being surrounded by all these shapely women and being thankful that her entrance followed a Taylor Swift performance.

“They asked me if I wanted to perform at the VMAs and I said there are going to be a lot of big fat a**es at that awards show,” Chelsea said. “So I will present, but you have to put me up after someone who’s white. So thank you, Taylor Swift, for being so white!”

Taylor Swift has also received media attention for her body – rather unfavorable attention because of her lanky stature. With memes popping up all over the Internet, mocking her for her minimal curves, it has become clear that this mindset has seeped into those watching at home.

17-year-old high school senior, Vanessa Andrada, says she notices the female-physique emphasis in the media and feels it is worrisome for her generation that consumes it.

“I think the media focus primarily on how skinny a girl is or even now how curvy a girl is. Even curvy girls must have a ‘coca-cola’ type body to look attractive,” she says. “They focus on this way too much and it makes girls seem as if they have to live up to this standard to be considered beautiful.”

This body-centered attention, unfortunately, is fairly prevalent in Latina celebrities.

A study shows that Latina actresses are unrepresented on screen, but are most likely to be sexualized in their roles, according to a TIME article. Out of all women on screen, 37.5% of Hispanic actresses were most likely to be partially or fully naked on screen in 2013.

The curvaceous bodies of Eva Mendes, Sofía Vergara, Penelope Cruz, and Jennifer Lopez have all been the main attraction to their media coverage. The hype of the “curvy Latina” is accentuated and preserves a stereotype that isn’t really apparent in most Spanish women.

“Not all Latinas are curvy and it makes the less curvy women feel like they are not as beautiful as a curvy Latina,” Andrada says. “In some sense, if you don’t have the ‘curviness’ of a Latina you may consider yourself less beautiful than what you really are.”

Although statistics of eating disorders in minority women are unavailable – because of a historical bias that they only affect white women – one study found that of the leanest 25% of 6th and 7th grade girls, the Hispanic and Asian girls found the most dissatisfaction with their bodies, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

“These factors do really impact the way girls see themselves! They hold themselves to what the media or even stereotypes consider as beautiful,” Andrada says.”That’s why many girls have low self-esteem now-a-days because we focus on trying to be the girl with flawless skin, a coca-cola body type, with no stretch marks and have no extra body fat.”

15-year-old Hannah Leija agrees that women shouldn’t have to face criticism for their body image. She shares that it is unfair that they are held to certain standards in the media and that it affects her peers. However, she refuses to succumb to these pressures with a positive outlook and confidence.

“The way I see myself is good,” she says. “I don’t care what the media has to say or what people think. I’m happy with the way I am.”

Women. Ladies. Girls. Latinas. Or non-Latinas. They all come in different shapes or sizes. Nicki Minaj and Meghan Trainor are right. You should celebrate your curves, but you should, also, celebrate whatever body type you may be.

So if you are a curvy Latina or a slender one, it doesn’t matter. Beauty is found with actions and not appearance.

Actress Mia Xitlali

Mia Xitlali is an actress, known for her roles in Max (2015), Selling Rosario (2014) and Flight (2015). Mia recently played the character Carmen in the movie Max that focuses on a dog that helped US Marines in Afghanistan. The movie follows Max on his adventures as he returns to the U.S. and is adopted by a family after suffering a traumatic experience. Mia talked to Latinitas about her experience on the movie set.

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Latinitas: Where are you from?

Mia Xitlali: I am from Los Angele,s but I have Mexican roots on my mom side, she is from Guadalajara, Jalisco; and my dad is from El Paso, TX

L: What does Xitlali, means?

M: It means star in Nahuatl, which is a native language in Mexico.

L: Do you speak both English and Spanish well?

M: I speak better in English… Necesito practicar (I need to practice Spanish), but I am working on it.

L: When did you first know you wanted to become an actress?

M: I started acting since I was 7 years old. I started with small performances in plays. Because my family members were also involved, I decided that I wanted to follow my parents’ foot steps. I knew that I wanted to become an actress when I did my first play called South Pacific. I realized that the way I felt at that moment I just wanted to keep feeling it. It is the best feeling so far.

Did you have the opportunity to study acting or did it just come naturally?

M: My entire family is made up of performers. They are musicians and dancers. So, I just follow them. I learned it from both of my parent and also my tias, tios and cousins.

L: Which actress or actor would you like to work with in the future?

M: An actress who I would like to work with is Meryl Streep. She has been working constantly. She is always changing her style of acting and she is super good on what she does. I just want to be able to get awesome roles that she has had the opportunity to play in movies.

L: Can you tell us a fun fact about yourself?miaxitali

M: I am actually a dog whisper in real life. I mean I was also in the movie, but those scenes that I did with MAX where natural. I have conversations with dogs and they actually understand me. I play games with them and give them directions and they just follow them.

L: What is the best part of being an actress?

M: The best part is that I enjoy what I do. I love this amazing feeling and the rush.  I like knowing people and getting new experiences. I learn every day and it is just a great thing that I enjoy.

L: What is the scariest part of an audition?

M: It is not knowing what they are looking for.

L: Was was it like auditioning for the MAX movie?

M: On the MAX movie, I had to wait almost a month. I thought that I didn’t get the part. I thought I had to move on to the next casting call. After all that time of waiting they called me and got the part. It was pretty exciting.

L: What did you learn about playing Carmen in MAX movie?

M: She had a very though life and see was kick-off out of her dad’s house for getting a tattoo and at such as young age… I mean she was 14 years-old and to go through all of that she was brave and knew a new family that supported her.

L: Do you think that this movie is going to touch the hearts of those families who have a relative who are in the army?

M: I think yes. I recently saw that military families have the same situations as the ones that are shown on the screen. Some of them were crying or very emotional. MAX is a great movie. I think that it does have the power to touch people’s hearts and not just the ones that have a relative in this situation, but also many kinds of people.

L: Is the movie base on a true story?
M: It is based on a true story, actually it is a book. It did happen some time in the past, and it is about this dog hero.

L: Did you enjoy acting with a dog?

M: I did enjoy acting with him. He is just an awesome animal and beautiful. It was interesting because he was a very good actor, and I had so much fun being with him. His name is Carlos and he would follow me everywhere. It was so funny.

L: How do you feel that more Latinas are gaining roles in the Unites States?

M: I am very excited that I could actually be one of those Latinas that can make a change. I don’t know where I could be right now if I didn’t land this opportunity. I mean I am in the perfect time when I am 100% Latina and we need to take advantage of these kind of opportunities.

L: Did you gain more experience from you past work through now?

M: Yes, I have. I did the first film Selling Rosario, which was a short film and I did good on that one and I got the role on MAX movie right after that one. I had to learn very quickly and change the way I usually am to what the character is.

L: Can you share some advice for young aspiring actresses?

M: I just have to say to follow your dreams and if you know that you have support you can make it. If this is something that you really want to do, follow it and go through it 100% if you want to be successful and take it with courage.

Lessons From My Single Mom

Growing up with a single mother as a child was something that truly influenced the way I went about into the world because my mother was my role model. mom and me2 I believe that goes for a lot of girls, they see their mother as their first role model, a figure of love and the embodiment of our first picture of what a woman should be.  My mother’s pride was something that always stood out to me growing up because she has always been the most tenacious person in my family. She was the middle child that at a young age decided she was going to be the one to get her family out of poverty.

She tells me that when she had to start looking for a new job to support my older brother and sister, the family still did not have a vehicle. Therefore she had to walk in her business clothes by the train tracks near her house to go out on job searches. She ended up getting a job a clothing manufacturer building and ended up being the breadwinner of the family and was responsible for moving my grandparents, her siblings, and her children to a good neighborhood and a nice house. I remember getting ready with her every morning. I would see her put on her sleek slacks, and stilettos. She always looked very classy and fashionable and she really enjoyed her job.

I was never close to my biological father and got to know my now stepfather when I was in eighth grade. My mother never filed for child support for me or my brother and sister. Her pride would not allow her to. I remember her saying, “We don’t need the money, I can provide everything you guys need.” Although the money could have helped, I do not ever remember struggling in my life. We did not have a lot, but we had everything we needed and each other, which was, much more than enough. I feel that I have been very lucky to view a strong and vigilant mother as my first role model. I learned these five things from having a single mom:

1. Alone time with my mother became a sacred thing.
Due to the fact that my mother was working full-time, she was unable to do things like cook half of my meals or be home when I got out of school. This time apart we had between us made me cherish the time I had with my mom when we were able to go shopping, on movie dates, and trying out new restaurants together. My brother and my sister rarely attended these outings because my brother is eleven years older than I am, while my sister is fourteen years older. This age difference meant that my brother and sister were older teens at the time who were not so interested in “hanging out with mom,” which really worked out to my advantage as a young girl. These little outings did and will always remain cherished times.

2. Growing up with an independent mom made me want to be independent.
Watching my mother be the breadwinner of the house gave me this image of an empowered woman as my first role model. She was strong and did not need a man to “take care of her.” This image resonated with me at a very young age and I started to believe in being a “super-woman” just like my mom.

3. She pushed me to get out of my comfort zone.
My mom is a vibrant burst of energy who is very welcoming and very good at talking business. She’s not shy at all and therefore does not think twice about speaking her mind. However, that was not the case for me when I was a young girl. I was originally very shy and timid, but over time a lot of her communication traits passed themselves onto me and I was no longer shy.

4. She gave me my sense of Girl Power.
If it was not for my mother and the life she gave me, I am not sure I would view other women the way I do now. My mom would always tell me that girls need to stick together because it is a hard world out there. Up until the eighth grade, my mom was single and was not at all trying to have a relationship. However, she never seemed lonely, but rather very happy. She would go out dancing sometimes with her girlfriends on rare occasion, but the bulk of her free time was with me.

5. She encouraged me to bond with my extended family.
The lack of time I had with my mom due to her work schedule made me create strong bonds with my aunts and grandmother. They helped raise me, so it was like having four moms! The strong bond of women who were in my house was astonishing. My family consists of mostly women. Living in a matriarchal house made me realize at a young age how powerful communication and comadre-like bonds are amongst women.

Latinas Celebrate Asian Heritage

For these Latinas, being multicultural allows them to draw inspiration upon two cultures and celebrate different traditions. Abigail Abad and Alyssa Downey are both Latina college students with a Filipino background. Both of them have a mother with Mexican-American heritage and a father of Filipino heritage. During Asian-American heritage month, they share how their Asian roots have inspired them.

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What similarities do you see between Asian and Latino culture?

The similarities between Asian and Latino culture are how close families are. When there is a problem, both cultures are always quick to help each other out in any situation. Both cultures have taught me that regardless of what is going on, family always comes first and you have to stand up for your loved ones.

What are some differences?

The most distinct difference between both cultures is definitely how the Asian culture is more reserved. I have noticed that my dad is a lot more private when it comes to his feelings. My mom, on the other hand, is a lot more open and expressive. This has been one of the greatest struggles for me because my dad does not always express his emotions, so it has been a challenge for me to understand him. I’ve had to learn how to find a balance between both of my parents and understand how to listen and communicate with them.

Can you tell us about some of your favorite Asian traditions?

My favorite Filipino tradition is that of opening the east window of the home during the morning hours. This is a common practice because you allow the grace of God to enter the home through the rising morning sun. I find this tradition to be my favorite because it incorporates my faith I have grown up with.

Have you ever been to the Philippines?

I have never been to the Philippines, but it is one of my goals to visit. My father has shown me many pictures of it, and it looks absolutely beautiful. I would love to visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River and the Banaeu Rice Terraces. I am greatly intrigued with the Banaeu Rice Terraces because they are terraces that were carved into mountains by indigenous people. This is beautiful to me because visiting such a place would allow me to experience Filipino culture and history.

Have you met a lot of your extended family members from your dad’s side?

I have not had the privilege to meet a lot of my father’s extended family members. However, I have been able to learn about extended family member’s through my aunts and uncles. I am Filipino and Arabic through my father, so a lot of my extended family is spread out across Asia.

What do you like most about being multicultural?

I absolutely love being able to learn so much about both sides of my family. I have fallen in love with both cultures as I’ve grown older. I grew up closer to my mom’s side of the family, so the Latino culture has always been more prominent in my life. Now that I am older, I have spent a lot more time learning about the traditions of my Filipino and Arabic culture. It has been a beautiful learning experience for me because I have been able to learn about different foods, customs, and languages because of my multicultural background. I also have learned to embrace how I look. I remember growing up and always being asked, “What are you?” and my response would always be “I’m different. I’m mixed.” I’ve embraced the fact that I am different, and it’s a beautiful thing.

 

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What similarities do you see between Asian and Latino culture? What are some differences?

There are honestly more similarities than differences between the two cultures. My Filipino family is so much like my Mexican family. They cook amazing food that’s horrible for your health about 90% of the time. They tend to use their outside voices more than their inside voices. Family gatherings are huge, and you can meet a new family member you didn’t even know you had at nearly every gathering. The average height between women is around 5’0, most Filipinos are Catholic, or have a very firm stance in their faith. Tagalog (the language spoken between Filipinos) has some similar words that can sound like Spanish. Family ties are also very strong, just like they are with my Mexican family. The only differences that I can think of are the obsession with gambling that the majority of my Filipino family has, and that they usually eat white rice with everything, including breakfast.

Can you tell us about some of your favorite Asian traditions?

I love a lot of the food. I like to eat:

  • Pansit, or noodles that have an extreme amount of grease, but they’re amazing.
  • Lumpia, or egg rolls usually filled with chicken/pork/beef, and vegetables.
  • Puto bread (yes, this is REAL, and I know this is a bad word in Spanish, but it is not in Tagalog) white bread that has the consistency of a cupcake and tastes like coconut but isn’t too sweet or too bland.
  • My favorite is a large dumpling of a really nice white bread, filled with beef, chicken, or pork that’s seasoned really nicely.

Have you ever been to the Philippines? Have you met a lot of your extended family members?

No, but my dad has. He has a light complexion and doesn’t look Filipino, so when he went when he was about 14, his family had to hide him between them as they rode around in the streets in a small cart in fear that someone could have taken him. But I have met a lot of my extended family members, as the majority of them live in Las Vegas, El Paso, or up near Virginia and Maryland.

What do you like most about being multicultural?

The fact that I have been exposed to so much in each culture has made me realize that Mexicans really aren’t the only race in the world, since El Paso can make it feel that way sometimes. I am also part Russian, Chinese, and Irish. It’s really great to have family members who live, breathe, and eat, Nascar and Country music, but others who do the same with white rice and gambling, and beans and tortillas and quinceañera. I think it’s been really great to see how each culture is different, but the same in so many ways. It makes one realize that people really aren’t that different after all.

Lizzie Velasquez’s High Road

lizzievelasquez1Nearly ten years ago, Lizzie Velasquez was one of the many who was victim to cyberbullying when she was just 17 years old. Instead of letting that get her down, she took that experience and grew from it. Cyberbullying has been a growing problem for years, and although awareness of the issue has grown, there are still many who experience some form of cyberbullying.Now, at 27, Lizzie is a motivational speaker and an author of three novels, and her first documentary, “A Brave Heart”, just premiered at South by Southwest (SxSW) in March.

While at SxSW, Lizzie sat at a panel with her friend and colleague, Justine Ezarik – known to many as iJustine on Youtube – and together they discussed everything Lizzie had been through, as well as what it was like to film the documentary.

Lizzie was born with a congenital disease which, until recently, was unknown to most doctors. Lizzie is one of two people who have this disease in the world, and one of its biggest issues is it keeps the body from gaining weight. Someone on Youtube had posted of video of her, calling her the ugliest person in the world, and that is what led Lizzie to become a motivational speaker.  

By the end of the SxSW panel, Lizzie made sure to leave a few lasting words with the audience.

“I hope you leave (after watching her documentary) more inspired for yourself and, honestly, a little bit angry,” Lizzie said. “Stand beside me against cyberbullying.”

One of Lizzie’s campaigns is about taking the high road when it comes to cyberbullying. As great as it is that so many people try to stop others from sending hateful words on the internet, they are not doing it the right way. Stopping hate with hate never got anyone anywhere.

Everyone should take the high road when it comes to cyberbullying. On Lizzie’s website for her documentary, there is a video called the “High Road Movement,” and it is a visual presentation of what taking the high road is all about.

According to Lizzie, what people who experience or witness cyberbullying have to do is take that negative energy and turn it into positive energy, just as she did. Ten years ago she saw a hateful video about herself followed by hateful comments wishing the worst on her, and she took that and grew from it.

During the Q&A at her panel, one brave teen went up to the microphone in tears.

“Lizzie, I just want to say that you have changed my life (…) thank you so much,” she said.

And she wasn’t the only one in tears either. All around the room, sounds of sniffling could be heard. Lizzie Velasquez’s optimism and ability to see such great things in the world is inspiring and contagious.

“Lizzie made me think of myself in a different way. She doesn’t let her disease define her, and I’ll never let anyone or anything define me either,” said 17-year-old Brianna Nance.

The American Society for the Positive Care of Children said “Nationwide, 14.8% of students report being cyberbullied, including being bullied through e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites, or texting, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) report, by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)” as of June 2014.

By taking Lizzie’s story and words seriously, more people can begin taking the high road and start making a serious difference when it comes to cyberbullying. 

Temporary Love

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Credit: Dosomething.org

The victims in family abuse cases often involve children, and recent studies suggest children carry the emotional trauma for life.  It is here, in the United States, where the highest number of children reside in foster care. Teens who are sometimes completely forgotten when the system figures that they are of legal age, 18, and boots them out. According to the Children’s Bureau, Texas held 11,523 children in 2005 and reached an increase of 16,903 children in the fiscal year of 2011. The numbers continue to increase every 12 months (fiscal year).

Through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families report of 2013, noted that 21% of the children in foster care were Hispanic and the White population held the largest percentage at 45%.

In 1989, at age one, I became a number in the system. I survived, managing to graduate college and become stronger because of it. Many children become runaways or poverty-stricken adults. My five other sister’s case never saw light. We spent a total of two and a half years away from our biological mother. There is that present realization that there exists a more prosperous possibility from turning my life around after returning home.

This is my story.

In 1990, foster care administration took my sisters and I from our home. People love to tell me that I could not remember that far back because I was 2 at the time, but asking my sister every year if it was a black lady with a white car who gently pulled me by hand,  reinstates that I lived through the experience. My sister’s acknowledgement makes my experience more real.

My eldest sister, Liz, found the courage and capability to tell visitors that our father was sexually abusing all of us for the past 11 years. At the time, I could barely speak. For eight years my biological father abused all of us. I thank my sister for helping place a man in jail, but, more importantly, she eradicated future abuses.

It feels to me that our case received so little media attention; soon after we were taken out of our homes, it proved no better than when we left.  My sisters were placed in pairs, Liz with Christine. Yvette with Ivy and, tragically, I was left alone with one verbally and physically abuse foster-mother, named Christina, and a rat-infested room alongside older white “brothers”.

In our case it seemed as though personnel took us out of harm’s way, but in our case, our conditions were worse than home life. Alternatively, it seemed. Yes, children become those “cases of sexual abuse in foster care” in which abuse was “more than four times higher than the rate in general population”, yet, ironically, the same risk of being with uncaring abusive “caregivers” became peril to our safety.

In foster care, we continued to live among boys and suffered constant sexual harassment and mistreatments from staff. I roomed with a 12-year-old boy, who tried to will my body to sleep on the top bunk while “Chucky,” the movie, played loudly in the dark room.  It seems that personnel ignored family preservation and by chance took a horrific case, and made it unquestionably worse.

My experience was one of many that year.

Yes, parents are unprepared for the challenges of raising kids, but their parental obligations may soon become second nature. Protective services often offer counseling as a means to deal. Services offer the  parents a chance for weekly calls, weekly all the while they do their part of making “check up calls,” in hopes of keeping the family unit safe. Counseling may serve as a therapy to understand a parents’ need to beat a child as an outlet for their anger.

Counseling programs during my time in foster care helped my mother understand that the victims were her very own children. I can recall her eyes moist with anger and frustration over the allegations of abuse. Therapy helped her make the right choice to process that the grotesque events did occur. She made a mission to leave father by placing a restraining order against him. I feel that counseling influenced my mother into acknowledging that those traumatic events really occurred, and she could see that we truly endured so much.

The protective services took the time to know us as people. They closely worked with my mother on a deeper level than a case number. It truly felt that the care system treated us as individuals, closely working with us to ensure a better placement.  With years of counseling, my mental capacity to grasp the abuse serves as a reminder that I am finally where I belonged. The fights among other foster siblings would cease and the constraints of court orders and parental denials would cease. I returned to my own home with my real mother and sisters in 1993.

Compared to national statistics, reunification with parent(s) or Primary Caretaker(s) is at a high of 51%, with each case differing by situation. In fewer cases in the early 2000s, the young grew out of the system, age 18, and were thrown out to fend for themselves. In 2013, social services placed 3,717 children out of the system.

During the first year in my foster care stay, my physically abusive foster mother nearly came close to adopting me. This woman would slap me for not finishing a chile filled, hot bean tortilla in 3 bites. She would deny me water for days, resulting in me going to the hospital for liver damage. I was 2 years old. The “care” became worse, often resulting in lice filled heads, for my sisters and me. Though separated, my sisters let me know that they roomed with twelve other children, aged from 4 to 13, in one room. I grew terrified of large stuffed animals after the foster mother scared me daily with a big bear. I still hold that fear today, as silly as it may seem. It is no surprise that when one child got sick, another grew sicker!

Money to adopt a child elsewhere may help a child here more effectively. Lack of funding, care and hospitality failed us. My mother, sisters and I reunited when I was near death. To put it plainly, America may need to step back and adopt inside the U.S. By slowly focusing on the terrible cases, Americans may realize that there exists other means for family creations, here. Mandatory family preservation and therapy programs may help reduce a child’s erroneous placement in the system.

For more information on children living in foster care and how you can help, visit: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/statistics/childwelfare-foster/?hasBeenRedirected=1

 

Celebrating Carnival

This was it. This was my chance. They would never see it coming. I looked down and slightly shook the yellow and purple gun I was holding— just to make sure it was still loaded.  I stood up very carefully, trying not to give away my position (behind the bushes of the park) by accidentally stepping on—CRUNCH. A leaf. Dang it. Ok, it’s now or never. I pulled the trigger and fired at my oh-so-oblivious friends.

 Their faces were priceless. Soaking wet, one of my friends thrusts a pink water balloon at my direction. Luckily, I dodged it. But…while I was laughing and celebrating my triumph, another friend sneaked up behind me and finally got me wet. Sigh. 

Photo Credit:  Jorge Silva / Reuters / Corbis

Photo Credit:
Jorge Silva / Reuters / Corbis

It’s that time of the year again, so load up your water guns and put on your dancing shoes because the biggest parties around the world are about to kick off. Yes, I’m talking about Carnival and you don’t want to miss this!  Carnaval, or Carnival season, is mostly a Roman Catholic tradition that occurs the two weeks before Lent an involves parades, processions, lavish costumes, concerts, contests and more.

If you are a Latina/o who was born and raised here in the States, then you are probably not very familiar with Carnival. But don’t worry, here’s a quick run down of the festival’s background: The purpose of Carnival is merely to have a wild time and celebrate before the withdrawals of Lent.  The festival tradition was brought to Latin American by the Spanish conquistadors.

In the States, the closest thing we have to Carnival is Mardi Gras, but to be honest, it’s not exactly an accurate representation of Latin American festivities. In Latin American countries, they go all-out to celebrate Carnival by throwing endless parties, wearing colorful costumes and having lively music at every street corner. Needless to say, they take it very seriously: in some places, the Monday and Tuesday of Carnival also are designated as national holidays.

Of course, the traditions can vary throughout Latin American countries, yet all festivities will always embrace two very important things—dancing and music. Each country has its own culture, history, music and traditions built-into the festivities, which make each Carnival festival so exclusive. For instance, as a young girl in Venezuela, Carnival was my favorite season because of the water fight tradition with friends and family. The memories made there celebrating with friends and family will always be some of my most cherished childhood moments.

Without further a do, here is quick guide of some of the best places to celebrate Carnival in Latin America.

1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 
If you have ever seen or heard of the animated movie “Rio”, you have an pretty solid idea of how significant the Carnival season is to Brazilians. Well, let’s just duplicate the intensity and fixation with Samba depicted in the movie to accurate reflect real life Brazilians.  Tourists flock the city to watch dancers wear excessive costumes, while enjoying samba parades and dancing competitions Brazil hosts one of the world’s popular and largest carnivals. Also, during the night, each neighborhood hosts a street samba parties. How neat, right?

2.  Barranquilla, Colombia
There’s a legend behind the diverse disguises of the four-day Barranquilla festival.  Long ago, a local didn’t have enough money to buy an over-the-top costume, so he chose to go to the festival with a simple shirt and tie, and a pair of pants upside down. But that’s not all, he added one final touch to his outfit — a paper bag with holes in it over his head. Thus, ever since then, the marimonda  disguise became a well-loved  tradition, and one of the most popular disguises of the festival. As in most carnivals, groups of dancers compete to be designated as the best of their city and women participate in contests elected by the “Queen of Carnival”.

3.  Oruro, Bolivia
This festival has been celebrated for more than 2,000 years and lasts the 10 days. On  different note, it is known as the highest (literally) major carnival in the world since it sits at an altitude of 3,710 meters!  History and culture are definitely the main focus of the festival and this is visible through the expressive dances: especially La Diablada, the “Dance of the Devils.”

4.  Veracruz, Mexico
Not nearly as experienced as Oruro, Veracruz has its own Carnival celebration known as the most “joyful” in the world. Initially, partygoers would dance on the streets and form caravans in order to show off their outfits and traditional masks. Yet, pretty soon, they started involving costume and dancing competitions, with the caravan being the main focus of the celebration. A unique aspect of the festival is the large bonfire held on the first day of the carnival, where all “bad moods are burned away”.

5. El Callao, Venezuela
This festival can be described as a melting pot of history, rhythm and traditions from places like the West Indies, the French Antilles, and Trinidad. A key feature of this celebration is the Venezuelan calypso music, influenced by the Trinidad immigrants of the 1880s. Two distinctive costume styles are the Madamas and the Devils. The Madamas are dancers who wear elegant and colorful African headscarves and robes. They represent the principal figure of the Carnaval:  La Negra’ Isidora Agñes, the founder of the festival. Moreover, during Carnival, the Devils dress in red-and-black costumes with frightening masks.

As a final note, do not underestimate the power of these festivities. I cannot emphasize enough how meaningful Carnival can be to Latin American communities. It not only  functions as a prominent means of expression, but for years, even decades, Carnival has served as a way to review people’s lifestyle and history.  In other words, it paves the way for further understanding and interpretation of different cultures and traditions that are seemingly convoluted or absurd to an unknowing spectator.

And if you don’t make it to this year’s Carnival, there is always a next time!

It’s Not Just a Dress

Credit: http://www.couturesbylaura.com/

Credit: http://www.couturesbylaura.com/

Written by Arianna Gomez

 

The incoming First Lady of Texas visited Coutures by Laura on a rainy Friday afternoon for one of the final fittings for the gown and dress ensemble she is to wear for the inauguration and ball. Coming off the coattails of a hard-earned victory in the governor’s election this past fall, one might expect a- rightly- proud woman. The kind of woman whose demeanor implies power and importance.
Yet there is no air of superiority. To a passerby, she appears entirely ordinary- simply one of the many influential Texan women that frequent the boutique. She speaks kindly with the seamstresses, and often consults her assistant for advice in a manner that suggests a friend seeking the opinion of another friend; she greets everybody with a handshake or a polite nod and smile. And, amidst the busyness of a fitting, Mrs. Abbott converses with me as I look on as Laura Gonzalez, my grandmother, makes those final adjustments to ensure that just right fit.
The gown. Under the light of the crystal chandelier which hangs in the showroom, it is a deep, rich red, starkly contrasting the rainy and grey weather that can be seen outside the window. Like every aspect of the gown, the color was carefully chosen by Ms. Gonzalez & Mrs. Abbott. “(We chose) the color red to represent the Republican party, but especially because the color red was really capitalized upon in the campaign,” she says, turning in the mirror at Ms. Gonzalez’s request. They are attempting to decide upon the belt of the dress; there are two styles Ms. Gonzalez has crafted. Ultimately, Mrs. Abbott selects the band adorned with a unique flower, made of the same material as the dress, as she feels it truly ties together the classic yet simple style of the dress.
Indeed, the phrase classic yet simple truly sums up the First Lady of Texas’ style. “I like the style because, to me, it doesn’t change with time. I like it simple,” she says. Ms. Gonzalez nods in agreement as she alters the gown ever so slightly. Style is not the only thing that the two women see eye to eye on, though- the handful of shared values between them is one of the many reasons that Cecilia Abbott chose Coutures by Laura to create her attire for the big day. 
Values of family, education, service, perseverance in the face of adversity, and faith were all cited by Mrs. Abbott as common principles between the two Hispanic women, along with their drive and determination. In an era when the Hispanic people are often dubbed the silent minority, they are anything but silent, each working hard to achieve their goals and succeed, to leave a legacy for future generations.
It was their common bond in heritage that served as a large component in the decision of who was to design the attire for Mrs. Abbott’s appearances at the Inauguration and Ball. And it was this common bond that gave Laura Gonzalez the desire to create the inauguration attire, and reach out to Cecilia. 
I wanted to make the clothes she would wear on such an important day because I knew her and because she’s Hispanic. I knew her already from her previous visits to the boutique – so I wanted to help her to be dressed the best way she could be, the way that best complimented her, and the best way I could serve her within my abilities and capacities… I really wanted to be of assistance to the woman that is going to be the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas,” she says. 
Over the course of the weeks Ms. Gonzalez worked on this dress,  and I came to realize that it represented what Mrs. Abbott and Ms. Gonzalez stood for. This dress was created with hard work, with careful stitches, with meticulous attention to detail. 
And this drive came, in part, from her heritage and past. Ms. Gonzalez has been in the business for over thirty years; Coutures by Laura began as a small boutique in McAllen, Texas. Ms. Gonzalez says she was taught the art of designing, creating and sewing as a very young girl. 
“I strongly believe that this passion for sewing, designing and creating is in my genes,” Ms. Gonzalez says. 
Her drive to design is much like Cecilia’s drive to better education within Texas, which has come from her parents- dedicated educators who were the children of immigrants. 
Hispanic people are hard workers; I saw this in the care and time my grandmother, Ms. Gonzalez, put into the dress and gown. Despite the hours and considerable effort that went into the gown, however, not once did she complain, or take off, or wish to be doing something else. She worked hard. She worked quietly, late into the night and early in the morning. She persevered. She did her best- a value instilled in her at a young age, from her own family as she grew up in Mexico.
“My Uncle Rafael always said to be the best at what you do. If you’re going to be a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper there is. So if I’m going to make dresses, I’m going to be the best at making dresses,” she says.
And the dress certainly was the best. As Mrs. Abbott stood in the mirror at the final fitting, it was easy to see that it fit just right, moved smoothly, and complimented Cecilia well, but yet never commanded so much attention that the eyes were not focused on the wearer. The hard work that had gone into the gown was visible. After she had inspected it closely one last time, and guaranteed that it was truly perfect, there it was: that hint of quiet pride that the Hispanic people hold, reflected in Laura Gonzalez’s eyes. 
It did not linger for long. She was already thinking about what was coming next. 

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