That Time I was Homeless, as were many of my artist friends.

I don’t look much like my mother. She is a fair skinned Puerto Rican with dark hair and dark eyes. She has a thick accent, although she’s lived in the states for 55 years. One trait that has passed down to me from my mother is her ability to downplay any obstacle or adversities she has faced. She has never mentioned struggling in an intercultural marriage in the 60’s, although I have heard her mention that people often wondered if she was our maid or babysitter. My mother grew up in a place of privilege in Puerto Rico. I also grew up in a place of privilege in white middle class America, although I always felt misplaced and misrepresented. Couldn’t people see I was different? I wanted to spend all my time on the island with our family, surrounded by Spanish speakers, hugging one another and constantly celebrating life. I also felt disdain for this middle class lifestyle. I was never attached to material things, but longed for community. It came as a surprise to my parents when I decided to pursue a career in the arts. To give up everything I once had and move to a city where I would be a nobody. They imagined I would go to medical school but that dream would not even come to fruition.

In my 20’s, I had a romantic notion of living a starving artist lifestyle. Around my 23rd birthday I decided to give up all my material possessions and move to San Francisco. I packed a few boxes of clothes and other personal necessities that I wanted to keep, then asked the mother of a close friend who was moving to California if she would store them for an indefinite amount of time. I then set out on the adventure of a lifetime. I travelled for 6 months with only a backpack that contained clothes, a sleeping bag, and a tent. First I hitched a ride with a friend of a friend in his U-Haul. He was moving to LA and needed help driving. I actually drove the U-Haul while towing a car while the guy rode with a friend in another car most of the way from Illinois to California. I took a bus from LA to San Francisco where I stayed at a youth hostel for a few weeks, working in exchange for free rent. My friends and I spent a few forgotten days in the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man Festival during that time. Then, I decided to travel to Europe by myself for 3 and a half months with no plans, just my backpack and a Eurorail Pass. I had a true adventure before returning to my parents house for Christmas.

After 6 months of staying at youth hostels, sleeping on strangers couches, and camping illegally, I finally ended up in San Francisco. For the next 6 months I would struggle to find permanent housing. Finding a job proved to be fairly simple. A friend of a friend worked as a waitress in a Middle Eastern restaurant and they were looking for bussers. They hired me right away. We bussers were the scrawny, ratty kids compared to the glamorous waitresses. I was the only female busser, and have never forgotten the boys I worked with. We would sit in the back of the restaurant and share uneaten portions of customers’ plates. Although I had a place to work and enough money to get by, I was not making enough to easily afford an apartment in San Francisco. Although technically I was homeless, I did have places to stay. There were only a few nights where I can remember not finding a place to sleep until the early hours of the morning.

I used to go to a bar, the Noc Noc, and call friends from a pay phone to see if anyone would meet me for a drink. Then I would ask if I could crash on their couch. On one of those nights no-one answered their phones. I finally walked to a friends apartment to see if maybe his roommates would let me in. No-one was home. I kicked the door in. I knew the lock had been broken recently and thought I might be able to break in. It worked, although I think I re-broke their lock.

I remember another night. I had previously been allowed to stay at a co-op but guests were not allowed to stay for more than a week. The guest bed was a bunk that lay hidden over the hallway. There was a code to get into the co-op and so one night when I couldn’t find a place to stay, I snuck in late and snuck out as soon as I heard voices in the morning. I can’t believe I wasn’t caught.

My most memorable night, though, was spent innocently with Tommy Dunn. Tommy would turn out to be one of the first responders during the 9/11 attacks when he became a fireman years later. He was a busser with me and also homeless. We were going to stay up all night at Navy Pier. I can’t remember why we never made it to the Pier but we ended up hanging out on Haight St. I remember vividly that some business man giving me a dollar. I didn’t see my situation for what it was and was shocked. It must have been around 3 AM when one of the waitresses from the restaurant where we worked walked by. She offered to let us stay on her apartment floor, as our vision of staying up all night disappeared.

In those 6 months I stayed at so many places. The most stable was a 4 bedroom apartment that was housing 11 people. We were evicted quickly. The stories I have about those 11 people could fill the pages of a novel. I also stayed in a flat with 3 older gentleman at one point. I remember a prostitute coming in with one of the men who had a nasty drug habit. I always locked my door and never came out of my room at night.

It is no surprise that when I finally found a flat that I could afford, nothing would drive me away. Not even the drive by shooting that occurred in our driveway, injuring 2 and killing one of our neighbors. Not even watching the crack heads roam up and down the street waiting for their dealers. I used a skateboard to get in and out of my neighborhood quickly and wear a mechanics suit to cover myself from head to toe and be sure not to look attractive or noticeable in any way. I lived by a set of projects and also assisted living. I was lucky to have a place to live, that was all I cared about.

Somehow, during this time I managed to start a dance company.

I never told my parents about my living situation and I never asked them for money. I never imagined it to be worth talking about. It was just my life. But, as I sit on my porch on a rainy day pondering why I left San Francisco, a city I loved with all my heart. Where I felt the most connected as a dancer and an artist. I realize that I have always downplayed that time in my life and how difficult it really was. I also think mine was a common story, though.

Internal Cultural Conflict

IMG_0383Recently a colleague of mine mentioned the “internal cultural conflict” that he experienced as someone of bicultural heritage. I was intrigued by the term and excited to find someone who I could relate to. I have spent a good amount of time recently considering my own cultural identity and how it is reflected in my physicality and my pedagogy. My identity is more wrapped in my bicultural background then in any one culture or community.

First of all, I consider myself a white woman of privilege. I grew up having everything I could possibly need, including a more than equitable education. I was a blonde, blue eyed girl and was referred to at times as Sunshine and Giggles. I was pretty I suppose and I had three wonderful older brothers who despite moments of conflict have continually showed me that there are many wonderful men in the world who consider women equals.

However, my external appearance never correctly reflected who I was. My mother is from Puerto Rico. If you do not know, that is a US territory in the Caribbean. I use to get so frustrated when people would ask when my mom immigrated here or if I was driving to Puerto Rico when I would visit my family there. My mother and I do not look anything alike as far as the tint of our skin or hair. My mom has a thick accent and is incredibly bright. I often wonder what it was like for her coming stateside in the late fifties, marrying a white man and starting a family. I wonder about her experiences today when I see people make a funny face after hearing her ask a question in her thick accent at the grocery store. I don’t think she notices. My mother has never expressed feeling that she was the victim of racial prejudice. Still, I wonder about the stories she once told me of people thinking she was the cleaning help or the babysitter. I wonder why we never spoke Spanish at home.

I am like my mother in so many ways. We down play the things that hurt us because they are not the things that we want to cultivate. We have both had great fortune in our lives. She was also in a place of privilege growing up on the island. She says so and agrees with me when we discuss how opportunities in education are set up to support those who are already in places of privilege, like us. She and I were fortunate to pursue our educations in the ways that we did.

I am Puerto Rican. I feel this so deeply. And yet I am not at all Puerto Rican. I did not grow up there. My Spanish is less then perfect. I am güera. My family who still live on the island embrace me whenever I am able to visit. But I am a visitor. I don’t deal with the traffic, the political frustrations, or daily life there. I did not grow up there.

I am not sure how I fit in stateside, either though. I have been accused of being too flirtatious with men and physically moving/dancing in a provocative manner on many occasions. I come from a Puerto Rican family that is incredibly physically affectionate and comfortable moving their bodies in more fluid ways. I hate when people misread my physical gestures but I refuse to obscure who I am.

I think this question of how I am read physically is reflective in the ways that my own dancing has been perceived. I consider myself a post modern dancer who challenges traditional hierarchies in dance but I feel I am often seen as other and pigeon holed as something not quite contemporary, perhaps leaning toward jazz or hip hop and perhaps not. Perhaps I am too athletic, too thick, or too loose. I love using dance as a platform to challenge what we perceive as fine art and to make universal social and political statements.

As a teacher I am beginning to embrace that I am a feminist with a critical pedagogy more because of my own experiences then the research I have done into Hooks, Wolf, Freire, Boal and other amazing people like them. I never understood all of the isms. I suppose because my own family was bicultural and came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, I was puzzled by racism, sexism and classism when they came up. I am not puzzled now. As a teacher I believe that it is my responsibility to open dialogue with the community I teach about the isms. I strive to challenge traditional teaching methods that support banking systems of learning and instead acknowledge the diverse learning and cultural populations we serve. I hope to promote equity in education through the arts. I have many thoughts on this subject, but I will have to share those in later posts.

Today I am simply reflecting on my own internal cultural conflict. I feel completely lucky to be bicultural. I “embrace the conflict.”

 

Joy out of Darkness

Three years ago today I was in the middle of what I will now admit was likely the most trying and darkest time of my life. My dear friend and bandmate had just passed away. It was and still is hard to express the unspoken connection I felt with my bandmate artistically. Perhaps it is because we loved playing together. I wonder if he realized that the lyrics to the sings which I wrote were all stories of the most difficult moments in my life.

Dave’s passing came in the middle of my first year teaching at the high school. I worked in an incredible challenging environment and was surrounded by unethical behavior that took a toll on me as well. Even without the issues of professionals surrounding me, I was working with a community that I deeply loved but was incredibly challenged due to issues of inequity and poverty. The result was a toxic environment where violence and verbal abuse were an everyday encounter whether personal or witnessed.

To layer even more on top of all of this, I began dating a man for a short while who turned out to have a history of violence and abusive behavior towards others. I broke it off as soon as I sensed that he was emotionally cruel, but was then stalked for a time. So, I dated another man who felt that he was supporting me through my troubled times, but was actually supporting my emotional illness. Oh yeah, and I was peri-menopausal and having all sorts of health and emotional issues because of it.

My point is not to complain. I wonder if those around me really realized how poor my emotional health had become. I had honestly had several difficult years before that, with my divorce, my daughter’s seizure disorder, graduate school. I suppose reading it reveals how overwhelmed I was at that time.

I used to tell my students who were going through incredibly troubling times, “just keep walking. It’s like you are in the middle of a storm and you are trekking through the mud. Everything seems to want to pull you down and tell you to give up and lay there. But, if you just keep walking, even though it may take some time, sooner or later you will step past the storm and into the sunlight. There will be more storms in the future, but you will always know that the sun will come back out sooner or later.” That was my mantra as well.

I was blessed enough to meet many along my path that helped ease the struggle and helped me find my inner truth and peace. I had amazing colleagues, parents and students who supported me. My children were always with me. My family spoke with me often, they were my cheerleaders. And I found a yoga practice that helped me gather my strength and clean out the negative behaviors that I was craving.

All of this is to say, that I have found myself in the sunlight. My work situation is wonderful. My colleagues are kind and talented. We all seem to get along really well and I admire them, especially my dance faculty. I never imagined that I would land a job where I was so supported and had space and time to do the work that I feel I need to do. The students I work with are lovely and talented. I get to choreograph, and focus on my teaching skills while building ties in the public school system. I have time to write about my experiences and to also work on my own dance projects. Most importantly, I have never seen my kids so happy. I feel like a real mom and I am so excited to share this adventure with them.

I have always said, I believe that everything in my life has happened for a reason, as cliche´ as that sounds. I believe that it is now my task to sort through my experiences and see what I can share to better serve the community.

Thank you so much to all of those in my world. You have been my guides.

Thoughts about my job.

We have been living in Murfreesboro for 6 months now. I can’t believe how the time has flown by. It has taken some time getting used to so much free time. I am shocked at how over worked I was when we were living in Austin. I honestly don’t know how I was able to function. I wonder if all public school teachers feel that way. I have had time to reflect and I think that if all public school teachers do feel that way, then something is incredibly wrong with our system.

I love my new job, at the university. I love my students. Most importantly, I feel like a real mom. My kids are happy and we actually enjoy spending time together. I love teaching and my colleagues are amazing and supportive.

Recently several things have come out in the open about the district I worked in for the past 3 years, involving the administration. I have not wanted to make any big statements about those things, but you can watch a little news cast about it below. Those who know me might recognize how difficult my job had become to do as a result of some of these issues.

Police launch investigation into Manor ISD fund mismanagement

I have so many thoughts about all of this, but I do not wish to vilify anyone. I am impressed with the new administration that is willing to bring these things out so publicly.

I am sad for the students who get lost in all of this misconduct. I hope that more people will stand by them and help them fight for an “equitable” education. They deserve to have a voice. They are our future, whether we embrace them as such or not.

I am sending out the kindest most supportive thoughts to those faculty and staff that have stayed at the school and are sincerely working hard to do an exceptional job. It cannot be easy.

 

Thoughts for A Public School Dance Teacher

First of all, I have been meaning to update my blog. A student of mine asked me to today. I was reflecting on my teaching experience working in a Title 1 public school and thought I would share some thoughts.

First of all let me give you a some background information about myself. I spent years teaching in both the private and public sector before working as the director and teacher at a public high school. I had a professional company in San Francisco when I was younger but had since settled down and started a family on my own. When I was much younger I was very interested in critical feminism and had studied some works by Naomi Wolf, Margeret Atwood, Helene Cixous and Bell Hooks. My work clearly reflected my idealistic desires to challenge all of our established gender and social hierarchies. I also come from a bicultural family, I am half Puerto Rican. I have always been quite comfortable around people from other cultures as I was often a bit of a cultural tourist even in my own grandparents home. While I was in college, I was a crisis intervention counselor which would definitely serve me teaching at the high school.

The community I worked in was full of children in crisis. I believe that teachers are not always well equipped in how to handle these crises. It’s hard, cause you go in wanting to do something good and it’s a bit heartbreaking sometimes when a child or young adult shares something of their personal struggles. It is important to respect and not feel sorry for these kids. No one wants pity, but we all want compassion. They have their lives and you have yours, you want to guide them in the right direction, but you don’t necessarily know what that direction is especially if you don’t know who they are. Do you even know who you are culturally and in relation to them? That’s important.

For me, the number one thing to keep in mind is that I am the outsider, and that’s ok. I went into the school wanting to learn about the people I was serving. Everything was an exploration. Everything was a project in cultural identity. My method generally involved me teaching some type of movement but having them add something to the movement that was relevant to them. The beginners were often times so afraid of being judged by their peers that they hardly moved. I had to help them believe that everything they did was amazing so they would open up.

The number one lesson I learned teaching was DON’T JUDGE. Don’t judge the kids, or their parents, or the other teachers who have different pedagogical styles then your own. It’s not my place to judge. And if I do, I will set myself apart. For me it was about becoming a part of the community. Trust was huge. Those kids did not trust anyone and neither did their parents and for good reason. I had a habit of calling three parents every Friday to tell them how much I enjoyed having their kids in my class. I always chose three different students, and the parents loved it. They were used to always getting negative phone calls from the school. I could relate to that.

I had a reputation for being that teacher that anyone could talk to. I would not advise being that teacher unless you have a strong skill set in counseling and strong ties to the social workers and counselors in your school. For me, I always let the kids know up front that I was required by law to report any fear I might have for their safety and I would have to notify someone if they were pregnant. It was important that they knew before they spoke to me that our conversations could not always be confidential. That said, the kids told me everything and that was so hard to hear sometimes. I called Child Protective Services several times a year. Mostly I listen and cared. I worked in an extreme school. Extremely taken advantage of, kids living in extreme poverty and abuse, extreme in so many ways. So, I gave a lot of hugs all the time. I was the person who walked down the hall every chance I could smiling and hugging teachers, staff and kids. I said hi to everyone. So when we were in the dance room, the kids knew it was time for business. This was when we left everything behind and danced. They could cry, fight, fall apart outside the dance room but once we were in it, they let it all go or at least tried to.

I loved using the Language Of Dance  motif notation system to explore movement as a metaphor for lived experiences. We tied action words like flexion and extension to moments in the students’ lives where they extended or became more flexible and the students created abstract dances to tell stories about their experiences. We used personal devices to explore on line work, music, and to share dance selfies and videos.

But it all came down to this, really. I just wanted to get to know them. The kids. What they were interested in. What they wanted to say. What was at the root of their anger or sadness or joy. I wanted to help them share those things through dance.

I don’t think there’s a magical lesson plan. You take all of your skills, and you plan things out, and then you walk in that door and have all that stuff in your pocket but then you listen and you get to know the kids. You see how you can serve them, what gifts you have to share that they can take and manipulate to guide themselves. At the end of the day, though, you go home. You have to remember, you are a cultural tourist in their community.

Recuperation

I have made it to Toronto and am starting to decompress. I think it will take some time for me to process the experiences of this past week. The word gratitude comes to mind.

I left my house 5 weeks ago today to cross the country, then cross the hemisphere. I have 1 week to make my way back!

One thing on my mind is that I felt called to go to Nicaraugua, and I feel there is a deeper reason for it. I really took a leep of faith in going, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my decision. But where do I go from here?

I feel so blessed in my life, and so challenged. I believe that evrything happens for a reason, and selfishly I want to know why. I have faith however. I am on a path and it is going somewhere.

Here are some of the photos I took with my GoPro on our trip. It doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the moment, but they are fun.

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Namaste

Pictures of Nicaragua!!

I am finally well connected to the internet and don’t want to miss my chance to post some photos, in random order.

It has baan amazing here. On our way out of Selva Negra, the rainforest, we visited an elderly community. It was so sweet and the people were quite endearing. Fernando was anxious for the books we brought. He had lost his legs to diabetes and was once a police officer. Everyone had there story, but all they wanted was a hug and to hold hands. I keep thinking of one women who would not speak, clung to the gift we brought, had soft soft hands, and finally smiled as we were about to leave.

We arrived at Aqua Wellness at night and woke up in the morning to its’ stunning beauty. We are in a treehouse above a cove and can hear the ocean waves wherever we go. Each day I climb down the steep steps to the ocean and take a dip before an exquisite breakfast on the beach. I walk up to the yoga platform 3 times a day(sometimes less) for yoga and deep meditation. The platform, of course, overlooks the cove. It is magical here, and me teachers Claudia and Thomas are beautiful spirits. I crave and devour the stories they tell anout themselves and the amazing people they encounter.

I have never been to a spa before, so I have taken advantage of a massage and a chocolate body scrub high up in the trees at the Garza here. Heaven. I have also taken advantgae to practice my Spanish. I have been translator at times, but am sure I am not doing the best job.

Yesterday we took a ferry to Ometepe, an island in the middle of the biggest lake in Central America that was made out of the two volcanos that live there. One of the volcanos is still active, the other hides a lagun in its’ center. It was a busy day, visiting beahes and mineral springs.

The people on this trip are so amazing, I will be sad to leave tomorrow. If I am lucky, I’ll find a way to return next year.

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