Sunday, March 18, 2007

Five Years After 9/11 . . .

Have We Changed?

By Dolores Prida

Since September 11, 2001 everyone talks about how we were “forever changed”. Some changes were immediately, painfully, apparent. There was a hole in our beloved New York’s skyline, and a larger one in our hearts. That first week, other changes were harder to see because of the tears that flowed unchecked for days.
I cried for Ann McGovern, my friend’s mom, who went to work that morning and never came back to see her lovely, just-born grandson Liam grow up. I cried for Edna Cintrón, my neighbor’s wife, who dispensed friendly smiles along with carnations at Sweet William’s flower shop. I cried for Edgardo Hernández, pastry chef at Windows on the World restaurant. I never met Edgardo. I never got to taste one of his lemon tarts. Nevertheless, I cried for him in front of a hand-made poster stuck on a wall in Times Square by hopeful relatives.
Then, I couldn’t see the changes because of the clouds of dust and smoke
hovering over ground zero. But I did see heroes and heroines. I saw fire and police men and women, paramedics, bus drivers, sanitation workers—usually invisible people we take for granted—save lives, dig for bones, keep the city running. They gave me a sense of normalcy despite the feelings of fear and vulnerability we all felt during those nightmarish first few days.
Yet, I still couldn’t see the changes the September 11th tragedy had supposedly brought about, because of the flags. There was a sea of red, white and blue hiding the horizon and distorting perspective. I was overcome with a terrible feeling. I didn’t know how to be an American during those days. For me, just waving the flag and singing “America the Beautiful” were the quick-and-easy, the cash-and-carry way to express patriotism.
It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t real.
I felt waving a flag wouldn’t make me see what I wanted to see. Waving a flag wouldn’t answer any questions: Where does the hate come from? Why did this happen? What are the wrongs we have committed and how do we right them?
Five years later, I’m still trying to see . . . waiting for answers. Five years later all I know is that there’s much we, as Americans, don’t know about other peoples and other cultures. We refuse to speak their languages. We don’t know, or don’t want to know, what makes them tick. Five years later we still think we can remake other people in our image and impose democracy with tanks and bombs. Five years later too many innocent lives have been lost. Five years later I still don’t feel bad for not waving the flag. But now I know I’m not alone.
I am an American. I love this city—my Nueva York. I love this country. And I know that being an American also means asking these and many more questions. I know that being an American also means embracing the world as it is and embracing change to make it better, not to make it as we want it to be.
Five years ago I found comfort and hope in these words. I still do.

Out beyond ideas of
Wrongdoing and rightdoing
There’s a field.
I’ll meet you there.

They were written by Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th Century Persian poet born in Afghanistan. When he died, men of five faiths followed his coffin. He’s the most popular poet in the United States.
Ay, if only men and women of all faiths could find that field and meet and talk there—right now.
That would be a real change, for a change.

Published in the Daily News VIVA section
September 13, 2006

Columbus' Compass

A father’s dangerous journey from Cuba succeeded contra viento y marea

By Dolores Prida

In the summer of 1960, my father left Cuba in a rickety boat with 10 other people. It was supposed to be a short trip—90 miles or so to the Florida Keys—the same direct route that, in the years to come, hundreds of thousands of his countrymen would also take, leaving behind the turmoil of la revolución.
Yet, the journey was far from short or direct. The old compass he took along kept changing its mind as to where true north lied. After being lost at sea for almost a week, they finally came on shore halfway up the Florida peninsula.
For years, my father kept that compass, lovingly wrapped in an old t-shirt, at the bottom of his calzoncillo drawer. Maybe as a private, intimate reminder of the most macho thing he ever did in his life. Or perhaps as a good luck charm that, to compensate for its scientific inaccuracy, miraculously saved him from sailing straight into the Bermuda Triangle or the jaws of a hungry tiburón.
I always wanted that old, rusty brújula, which, because of its unknown origins and serendipitous guidance, I jokingly called “Columbus’ compass.” Yet, knowing what it meant to him, I never dared ask for it.
I wanted it not just because it was a great conversation piece about my father, the hero, or the anecdotal role it played in my becoming an American.
I came to see the compass as a symbol of the determination, grittiness and endurance of all who leave their homeland to seek a new life on foreign shores—solid proof that when you really want to get somewhere no amount of setbacks, miscalculation and misdirection can throw you off course.
My father was no Captain Courageous. His savvy about the ways of the sea was confined to weekend fishing trips among the mangroves surrounding our small town of Caibarién, in Las Villas province.
He was a charming, funny, silver-tongued salesman. As a young man, he was so successful in his first job as a traveling lamp salesman that, according to family lore, he once managed to sell two lamps to a peasant family that had no electricity in their thatched-roof bohío.
Yet, at age 45, he had the courage to navigate through rougher seas and start life anew. At the beginning his silver tongue was no help because he didn’t speak a word of English.
He de-veined shrimp and carted lobster crates in Florida, then moved to New York City where he worked two factory jobs and developed the calluses his elegant hands never knew before. When my mother, my two sisters and I joined him a year later, he had a fully furnished apartment ready to receive us in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
With time, he learned English and was able to go back to being a salesman at Don Manuel Store, his own small “clothing bodega” in Brooklyn Heights. He was a good salesman but a terrible manager. He never made any real money. I don’t think he knew how. But he knew how to enjoy the best of life—especially good food.
He became an American citizen and dutifully voted in every single election. He learned to drive at age 50 and always considered one of his greatest achievements that he never had an accident nor received a traffic ticket of any kind.
When he retired over 20 years ago, after my mother passed away, he want back to Miami to indulge in his passion for fishing. But he soon realized that, for a healthy 70-year-old there’s more to life than fishing, and he regretted retiring so “early.” Then he went for a different kind of fishing and caught a wonderful, devoted new wife who gave him a new lease on life that lasted for two decades.
Don Manuel, my dear lobo de mar, passed away on October 7 in Hialeah, Florida. He was 91 years old. His beloved Columbus’ compass has traveled northward again and now sits on a shelf in my house in East Harlem. It’s there to remind me of his journey. And mine. And where true north lies.

Published in the New York Daily News Viva section
November 15, 2001

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dolores dice columns 2007

Tongue-in-cheek advise for the lovelorn, the forlorn and the just torn. From Latina Magazine.

Dolores dice June/July 2007
Doloresdice May 2007
Dolores dice April 2007
Dolores dice March 2007
Dolores dice February 2007
Dolores dice Dec. 06/Jan. 07

Enanos in Our Midst

In the 1993 Argentinian film De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want to Talk About it), writer-director Maria Luisa Bemberg tells the story of Leonor, an uppity widow in the small town of San Juan de los Altares, who spends every waking hour trying to hide what’s on plain sight: That her daughter Charlotte is a dwarf. Leonor goes as far as, under the cover of night, to steal and destroy a neighbor’s front-yard figurines of elves and gnomes, and burn copies of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
With the townfolks’ acquiescence, and a handsome, full-size stranger who falls in love with the girl, the deception succeeds until the day the circus comes to town, and. . .well, go ahead and rent the video. You’ll enjoy it.
I was reminded of this wonderful film by the ongoing revolú about Herman Badillo’s assertion in his book, One Nation, One Standard, that, in so many words, Latino parents don’t care about education. Of course, that is a lie, as all generalizations are.
What is true is that many Latino parents, for various reasons, do not recognize the crucial role education plays in the future success of their children. What is true is that some public school systems fail to deliver the goods.
What is true is that popular culture does not promote love of learning in young people. What is true is that Latino students have the highest school dropout rate. What is true is that Latina adolescents have the highest teenage pregnancy and attempted suicide rates. What is true is that we don’t raise enough hell about it.
Yet, the Latino community has been up in arms for weeks, attacking the messenger and slashing and burning the decorative elves and Blanca Nieve y los siete enanitos. In our culture we do not look kindly on airing our dirty laundry in public.
Many Latino families do have, indeed, issues they do not want to talk about, no matter how minor or unimportant they may be. That is because, that other Latino thing: qué dirá la gente. What will people say.
Our “culture of discretion” is at odds with the current American “culture of confession,” in which people spill their guts about their problems on national television, or write books about their addictions or diseases or sexual abuse. We don’t want to talk about such things.
It’s a fact of life for ethnic and racial minorities to be on the defensive about our public image—of which we have no control.
We are burdened with collective guilt ascribed to us: one Latino does something bad, therefore all Latinos are bad. It’s exhausting to always having to be correcting people, explaining, pointing out that we’re not all criminals, or “illegals,” or ignorant. ¡Ay, ya!
On the other hand, we cannot deny that there are little people in our midst. That yes, they are different but not inferior, nor necessarily victims, that they may need help sitting on the stool at the bar, but that they have the right to sit there and have a drink like anyone else.
Like in the movie, the circus has come to town and we better have a serious discussion—and a plan of action—about the education of Latino kids before a whole generation leaves town.

Published in the New York Daily News/VIVA section
January 17, 2007

Friday, March 16, 2007

Speaking in Tongues

Xenoglossophobia—fear of foreign languages—is a communicable, but curable, disease.

“Speak American! You’re in America now.” I’ve heard this more than once from total strangers who’ve heard me speak in Spanish to someone else.
The first time it happened, the rudeness and ignorance of such a statement left me speechless. I didn’t know what to say, but by the second time, I had my comeback ready: “Do you mean Navajo? Dakota? Choctaw? Nahualt? Sorry. Wish I could, but I only know two European languages: English and Spanish.” That always leaves them speechless.
In many other countries, speaking more than one language is a matter of fact or necessity, but is always seen as a valuable social and professional asset.
Americans are notorious for their negative or dismissive attitude towards foreign languages. Many think everyone in the whole wide world should speak English, and forget all that other mumbo-jumbo.
This cultural arrogance can be costly. After September 11, I remember reading several newspaper stories about piles of Al-Qaida-related intelligence intercepts waiting to be translated, but the intelligence agencies did not have enough Arabic translators to handle the job.
Six years later, and in the middle of two wars, the shortage of translators continues to be a deadly problem.
Why are monolingual Americans so averse to embracing foreign languages? Some of the reasons, as you can see in the list of Top Ten Clues included here, may be amusing, but in fact fear of foreign languages is a serious matter.

But there is good news. Although xenoglossophobia is an actual disease it can be conquered, according to The Phobia Clinic, which treats 1,300 different kinds of phobias, and whose team of “board-certified experts can help you live free of Fears, Phobias & Anxiety–in just 24 hours."
Go to their website,, look in the phobia list for “xenoglossophobia” and test yourself. Even if you are a bilingual American you may suffer from this ailment. Nobody is immune.
A couple of years ago I was buying my newspaper at a candy store in East Harlem. A Puerto Rican old-timer was ahead of me, waiting to pay for a soft drink. He was growing impatient because the two Pakistani shopkeepers behind the counter were chatting with each other in Urdu.
Finally, he exploded and said in Spanish: “¡Hablen inglés, que están en América!” (Speak English! You are in America.")
And that, I swear is a true story.

To Why So Many Americans Are So Paranoid, Confused, Turned-Off
And Generally Discombobulated About Languages

10. They believe it’s necessary to amend the Constitution to know for sure which is their official language
9. They think English is an American language.
8. Whenever they hear people speaking in another language, they fear we are talking about them.
7. They hate foreign films because they can’t read English subtitles fast enough.
6. They think San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Arizona are just names on a map.
5. They think it’s OK to sell toilet paper and corn flakes to ethnic Americans in their languages of origin, but not OK to have bilingual education or voting ballots in those same languages.
4. They think the American Dream can be dreamt in English only.
3. They believe Pig Latin is a classic language.
2. They say “Pardon My French” after they curse.
And the Number 1 clue to why so many Americans are so paranoid, confused, turned-off and generally discombobulated about languages is:
It is all Greek to them!

Published March 14, 2007

New York Daily News/VIVA section

Pimp My Wallet

A trillion dollars.
That's what Latino purchasing power, currently at $700 billion, will be in about three more years. That's a lot of dinero to spend and businesses, big and small, are bending over backward to sell us stuff - sometimes our very own stuff, chewed on, regurgitated and repackaged to catch our eye.
From dulce de leche ice cream to piña colada toothpaste to sangría eye shadow and tropical fruit laundry detergent, we're bombarded with products that are familiar, semi-familiar or just plain make-believe familiar. read full column, go to:

Published February 14, 2007
New York Daily News/VIVA section