Vera Cruz, Mexico
I am on my first writing trip ever since my daughter’s birth two years ago. I am proud to say I have been able to maintain my “schedule” of leaving NYC for the winter every other year even as a mom. I will be in Mexico for three months, but I am spending only three weeks in Vera Cruz. In a few days, my daughter and I will be packing up and taking a seven-hour bus ride to Oaxaca where we will spend the remainder of our sojourn.
Vera Cruz is located on the Atlantic coast of Mexico on the Gulf of Mexico. Given its location, the city has a reputation of being a Caribbean city. Certainly the dominant music here is salsa. The city is long and narrow providing for quite a bit of beach front. Not stunning beaches, I’d been warned before my arrival, but in comparison with March snowstorms, almost any sunny beach is stunning to me.
Traveling with my two-year-old is, of course, different than traveling alone. Everyone asks me if I get bored given the fact that I don’t go out everyday. You haven’t been to the city center much, my host observes. I tell them all it’s different when you have a young child. It takes loads and loads of energy and planning to traipse all over the place just because. It’s one thing to wander around discovering on your own. It’s quite another to do so at the pace of a two-year-old.
So no, I’m not bored. I’m doing what I came to do: writing. I’m also doing quite a bit of reading. Amazing how much reading I can do when I’m not destroyed from my 9-to-5. In the past two weeks I’ve finished The Death of Artemio Cruz, read The Great Gatsby (that I inhaled in three days) and To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). My daughter goes to day care every morning from 8:30 to 1:00 p.m. during which time I write. I’ve completed my new chapter 1 of my novel, constructed a rough draft of chapter 2 and am currently revising chapter 2. I am actually writing! This is an amazing novelty and so worth all the arrangements I had to make to be here.
Besides, my daughter and I get around. We’ve been to the Aquarium which is supposed to be one of the best in the country. I was astounded by the size of the fish from the Amazon. These are some huge prehistoric looking creatures. I kept saying “Oh my god, Oh my god,” every time I saw a new fish. Yes, they were that big. They were longer than and perhaps as heavy as my daughter. There were also sharks frolicking with each other, turtles who swam overhead so that they appeared to be flying, gliding manta rays and a gaggle of other interesting and wonderful sea creatures. It was a real treat.
We went to Sempualla, ancient Toltec Ruins. We climbed some of the pyramids, my daughter ran under the palm trees, and we sat on the ancient stadium chairs. The structures are many years old. It is breathtaking to imagine life during that time period. It seemed as if it were a stadium where large scale ritual or entertainment was to take place. It was staggering to imagine the place full with Toltec people in their robes, sitting, cheering, or doing whatever it is they did on those chairs and pyramids.
We went to La Antigua, a city built among Spanish colonial ruins. I was much more charmed by this little city than I am by Vera Cruz. Vera Cruz, I suppose is better for living and La Antigua is better for disorienting yourself and taking yourself to another space and time. I tried to imagine living in a place like La Antigua, a really small village that quite possibly subsists on tourism. How long would I be enamored of the trees whose graceful arcs called my eye again and again? What basics would I not be able to get that I would find myself upset to have to live without? What kind of an education would my daughter get? How long would it take me to get accustomed to crossing the swinging and shaking hanging bridge that crosses the river that divides the city?
I had heard that Vera Cruz is the most African of Mexican cities. I think perhaps I got that wrong. Vera Cruz is the name of both the city and the state. Although in the city of Vera Cruz I have seen some curly hair, a few afros, and various Mexicans with more African facial features, I’m not getting any deep black vibes from any group of people. I am told there are other regions of the state of Vera Cruz with populations of distinctive Afro-Mexicans.
In the city’s museum, the development of “jarocha” identity and culture was delineated. The material discussed the presence of Africans and how they were absorbed into and contributed to the resulting culture of Vera Cruz. Another significant black presence in Vera Cruz has historically been Cubans who were called “happy” in museum material. Cuban immigrants from decades past have had a huge influence on the music and culture of Vera Cruz. One friend says he remembers a significant number of black Cubans in Vera Cruz when he was a child. All of that has changed. He says Cubans now head to Miami in larger numbers.
Most Mexicans I come across here in Vera Cruz associate blackness with Cuba. They always think I’m Cuban. Even the Cubans who come to the house (one of our hosts is Cuban) think I’m Cuban until I open my mouth… or until I don’t speak when they come in (contrary to the expected gregariousness of a Cuban). My Cuban host says some Mexicans have a hard time believing he’s Cuban because he doesn’t have dark skin.
Everyone here is fascinated with my daughter’s afro. They call it “chinito,” which they say means curly. Passersby often touch her hair in curiosity. In contrast I’ve had my hair touched, perhaps, twice. I think children are way more approachable. My daughter has been pretty good natured about the whole thing except in a few cases, which I guess seemed extremely invasive to her, at which point she jerked her head away from the offender’s hand.
A two-year-old can be a great meal ticket. Because of her we were invited to a Piñata, which is a birthday party featuring piñatas. I say piñatas, plural, because there were THREE piñatas at this party. The party was for a three-year-old girl who was so enamored with my daughter that she would walk up to her and stroke her face. She was tender and loving with her. It was so intense and quite amazing to watch. I had been warned by my other host (a woman from England who has lived in Vera Cruz for over 10 years) that Mexican parties can be boring. People sit around and look at each other. That’s exactly what we did at the beginning of the piñata. There were plastic chairs set up in a big circle at the end of a dead end street. And we sat and waited. Soon the music started cranking. The kids, of course, were having fun from the beginning. Running and playing with each other. The theme was Cinderella. The birthday girl was dressed as Cinderella. All the piñatas I’ve seen here have been of cartoon characters, not the animals I remember any time I saw a picture of a piñata as a child. The first piñata was Dora the Explorer. I was disappointed to see that her skin was pink as if she were white. She’s probably the first international Latin cartoon star and she’s decidedly brown. Why on earth did her piñata have pink skin?
The kids were called up starting with the birthday girl to hit the piñata. There is a song that goes along with the hitting and after the song is up, it’s time for a new kid to take a swing. There were people on the roof holding up the string for the piñata and would raise or lower it depending on the kid’s size… and the kids that were hard hitters would find the piñata moved around a lot more making it more difficult for them to break it. One little boy had a technique, he went for the legs and having got them off, we went to his seat happy with his bounty. Hugging a papier mache leg full of candy. It certainly makes for a violent scene. Kids whacking with all their might at a doll who loses her arms and legs and torso as more kids come up to bat. Wacky too, to see kids sitting around with limbs, as the next piñata emerged from the house.
The next piñata was Cinderella. A good hitter has to also be very aware of what’s falling from the piñata because once the candy starts falling out, it’s a free-for-all—a real mob scene as everybody grabs for the candy that comes flying out of the piñata. The last piñata was a wood structure with crepe paper “walls” and balloons inside. The objective was to bust the balloons and see if you won a prize. If you won a prize there was a piece of paper with a number inside it. The number corresponded to a prize. The prizes were mostly toys.
Afterwards everyone got a plateful of food. For the kids: a hot dog, split with cheese melted inside and a piece of bacon wrapped around it, spaghetti with some kind of pale green-ish poblano cream sauce on it (and bacon bits), and chicken tostada—a chicken salad with onions, corn, and chile on a toasted tortilla. Oh and a little jello. The adults had the same thing, but except for the hot dog they had a chicken stuffed chile served cold (can’t remember the name) and instead of jello, some type of pudding with alcohol in it.
Now, I wanted to eat, I really did, but there was lots of bacon in the food and most worrisome was that everything was made with “crema” or cream. I wasn’t exactly sure what cream was, but I was sure that I didn’t want any. As I watched my friends eat with relish I felt like I wanted to go out on a limb and try something, but I didn’t really feel like I could cross the line. I hadn’t fed my child adequately that day so she was dying to eat anything on the plate. She had her heart set on the spaghetti and since it wasn’t the hot dog I let her eat it (minus the bacon). She ate it all! I tasted it, but it had too much of that hickory meat taste to it. If she got sick, I thought it wouldn’t be nice to let her get sick alone. So I took a plunge and tasted the chicken. And it was great. Super super tasty. The perfect amount of chile and the tostada was nice and crunchy. I didn’t have the guts to eat another one. I thought I’d better stop while I was ahead.
Being with my daughter, I have to be more culinarily careful than usual. In Brazil, I bought food on the beach and ate it. I’ve been strictly warned not to do it here. And if I or my daughter gets sick I have no one to blame but myself. If she gets sick, I’ll feel terrible. If I get sick, I won’t be able to take care of her. So I’ve tried to play it safe, while still taking a little taste of all the flavors available to me.
In the next update I’ll tell you all about all the Mexican food I’ve eaten since coming here. I look forward to continuing to take advantage of my free time to work on my novel… which has been years in the making at this point. This is for me, the most rejuvenating and expansive way to commit myself to my work, escape the deep demands of winter and 9-to-5, and maintain an awareness of the world in which I live.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
Kiini Ibura Salaam’s Acceptance/Rejection O’Meter
I have decided to discontinue the acceptance/rejection meter, or at least put it on hiatus until it becomes relevant again. I have been submitting stories and essays at the pace of a snail over the past year or so. All my literary energy and attention goes into my novel. Therefore, it seems the meter has little function. I will, however, continue to report about acceptances, rejections, and interactions with editors in the event that those comments and notices are valuable to any of you.
To whit, I recently got a rejection from Brevity, an online publication for nonfiction of 700 words or less. They didn’t make any particular comment about my submission, but recommended that I review their guidelines. I surmise that I did not fit their guidelines in some way. I’d know exactly how my submission was outside of their guidelines if I had paid more attention to the guidelines.
For the first time ever, I applied for an NEA grant. The application is pretty simple and straightforward, but I never qualified to apply. You need five short stories published in the past five years. I never qualified, until now. 2002 and 2003 were busy years. Unfortunately, the strongest work I could have submitted was not completed at the time of the application. Announcements are made in January.
Also, for the first time in I don’t know how many years, I did NOT apply for a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. I was not even aware the deadline was slipping by me. That will tell you how aware I’ve been of the literary world.
Also, after putting some editors off for about a year about a chapter I wanted to submit to their anthology, I got a draft completed at the final hour. I am currently awaiting comments from them.