Tag Archives: Las Comadres Para Las Americas

“The Power of Friendship and Latino/a Identity” by Comadre Nora Comstock

picture of Comadre Nora ComstockI have always been a reader—not a writer. Occasionally someone would bring to my attention a book by a Latino writer, and I would purchase and read it. The story filled my soul and made me yearn for more, but the idea of seeking out Latino/a writers to read and interview did not occur to me for years.

The idea for Latina author teleconferences was born when a young Latina in her mid-twenties, who had recently graduated from college, commented on a gift I gave her: a book by an author who also happened to be a comadre. She held the book, read the title and author,  and commented that she had never read a Latina writer. I determined she meant a U.S. Latina author, and though I was stunned, I realized it was only recently that I myself had made a commitment to become acquainted with these authors.

It occurred to me that, given our age difference, there were probably a lot of Latinas/os who were not aware of these writers who were telling our stories. Certainly, in my many conversations with comadres and other friends, we never mentioned Latina/o authors, nor did I see their books prominently displayed in bookstores. I decided to change that.

Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club began as a teleconference series in 2006. In 2008, we added physical book clubs in cities where we were able to identify comadres willing to take on the coordination responsibilities.  The Association of American Publishers became our partners in this endeavor. The book club/teleconference series is now in its seventh year.

But it was another organization, Las Comadres Para Las Americas, that expanded our ability to to learn more about our lives and histories through the eyes of our Latino/a authors. Through this organization, I have had the honor of learning about the many ethnic and racial groups that make up our Latinidad. There are many labels to identify us, and each one of us chooses the one(s) that strike the right cord. It does not really matter to me, though I have recently decided that I like thinking of myself as a U.S. American of Mexican descent.

I wanted a connection to many Latinas. I wanted a community surrounding me filled with family and friends, and a place where anyone could come to feel connected. This desire was something that I carried in my heart from very early in my childhood. I was a solitary child. After being born into a family that would eventually produce ten siblings, upon my release from the hospital, I was placed into the loving arms of my aunt and uncle who raised me. I owe them my success. However, I strongly sense that being an only child until the age 10, when my cousin David was adopted into the family, fed my overwhelming need for others.

My roots were slipping away, and I was dangerously close to losing my identity. I realized that I did not want this to happen, and this was yet another personal reason for creating and building this organization: I wanted to retain my identity and my connections to my ancestors. But since I did not know my history, it was very hard to feel grounded and connected. I thought that I was alone in feeling this way, but soon found out that many U.S. Latinos had the same desire for community and a proximity to our culture as a way to preserve and celebrate who we are and where we came from.  Those who were more recent immigrants also felt isolated and were looking for others like themselves. For many who lived in areas of the country where they were surrounded by Latino culture, their reason for participating in Las Comadres was simply to get to know each other as comadres, to share resources, and build communities.

As I began to connect with other Latinas in my immediate surroundings, I found that they left our comadrazos (what we call our gatherings, a combination of comadres and abrazo) saying that what transpired in these gatherings filled their souls. Our gatherings were filling a need. Though we all mostly spoke English, meeting with others who understood and appreciated idioms, phrases, jokes, songs, etc. in Spanish, gave us an instant connection that doesn’t happen with others in mainstream English-speaking society. For example, we may be strangers, but when we hear something about chanclas, it conjures up similar images and memories for us all.  I believe this is what we share and what keeps us coming back to the next comadrazo. Even if it’s just for an evening, our gatherings connect us to our roots, our people, our language, our jokes, our laughter, our souls.

Count On Me, Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships is a collection of twelve reflections on the importance of Las Comadres in their lives. In it, Fabiola Santiago, Luis Alberto Urrea, Reyna book cover for Count on MeGrande, and Teresa Rodriguez tell their stories of survival in the United States and in Latin America, where success would have been impossible without their friendships. Favorites like Esmeralda Santiago, Lorraine Lopez, Carolina De Robertis, Daisy Martinez, and Ana Nogales explore what it means to have a comadre help you through years of struggle and self-discovery. And authors Sofia Quintero, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Michelle Herrera Mulligan look at the powerful impact the humor and humanity of their Comadres brought to the darkest moments of their lives.

As well, Las Comadres, in collaboration with Medgar Evers College, CUNY: National Black Writers Conference, the Center for Black Literature, the Foreign Language Department, and ALAS–Association for Latin American Studies has organized the Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference, which will be held on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn, New York (http://lascomadres.com/countonme/latino-writers-conference/).

Our mission is to preserve and celebrate culture, to celebrate our connection to each other. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, and many other social networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas fills Latinas’ need to connect with and lean on each other, and unlike online only networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas offers two different ways to connect: online and in person, thus appealing to women in different situations, and offering an opportunity to strengthen friendships and cultural connections through personal interaction. We invite you to join us.

Author Contact:

Nora de Hoyos Comstock, Ph.D.

President & CEO/International Founder

Las Comadres Para Las Americas

www.lascomadres.org

Author Photo:

Michelle Talan

 

 

An Interview with Raquel Cepeda

Birds of Paradise book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Raquel Cepeda—not in person, but over the telephone, in an interview conducted by Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founding member, president and CEO of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, an international group of comadres (“godmothers”) who work to unite us all through literature written by Latinas/os. So the first thing I experienced and recognized about Cepeda is her powerful and passionate voice. It is a voice that has had the courage to speak about Latino-American identity, immigration, hip-hop culture, and mental health issues among Latina-American teenagers.

Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, Cepeda is an award-winning journalist, cultural activist, and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is a memoir about growing up in New York City and Santo Domingo, as well as a detective story that traces her year-long journey to learn about her ancestry. Bird of Paradise,” wrote David J. Leonard, “speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.”  

Raquel_Cepeda_2Cepeda’s writings have been anthologized and her byline featured in People, the Associated PressThe Village Voice, MTV News, and CNN.com. As a free-lance reporter, she has contributed to WNYC, CNN and CNN’s Inside the Middle East. She edited the critically acclaimed anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins and Latino Book Award. As the former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld, Cepeda was responsible for the magazine’s overhaul in September 2001, winning a Folio Award for best re-design and receiving accolades for her global take on urban culture. In 2013, she was named one of El Diario/La Prensa’s Distinguished Women and also sits on the board of City Lore and the Style Wars Restoration Project. She also directed and produced Bling: A Planet Rock, a feature-length documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds and all of its social trappings, and how the infatuation with “blinging” became intertwined in Sierra Leone’s decade long conflict.

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

CEPEDA: Many things inspire me to write. My answer changes depending on the day. However, I can tell you that what compels me to write is this feeling, this sense when I’m writing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on earth. I remember the day I called my maternal grandmother to tell her that I sold Bird of Paradise, and she just started laughing and hollering on the other end. I was like, “Mama, why are you laughing at me?” After a few minutes—literally, she couldn’t stop laughing—she composed herself and replied, “When you were a little girl living with us in Santo Domingo, you used to pull on my hem whenever you were mad and say, ‘One day I’m going to write about this family and set the record straight!’ before storming off.” I don’t remember doing that, but I that’s exactly what I did. So, I guess becoming a writer was a part of my destiny, after all.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

CEPEDA: With Bird of Paradise, my drafting and revision process was a deeply spiritual and holistic one. I had been writing versions of this story for years and deleting, editing, putting it away and revisiting it from time to time. However, when I set out to see it through—to draft the proposal, shop and sell the book—the words just poured out of me like a tsunami. It felt like a gift from the universe. The whole thing, including the sometimes painful revision process, (you know, cutting out stories, characters, and other unnecessary fat), was ultimately personally rewarding.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?picture of Raquel Cepeda

CEPEDA: It depends on the project. I would say with Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, the most important theme is identity, or rather, the exploration of the self. We are always shifting, and so we must be able to do the work of exploring and defining ourselves outside of the ethnic/racial check-boxes we are crammed into here in the U.S.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

CEPEDA: No, there wasn’t. In my book it becomes apparent early on that the problems with our current educational paradigm in New York and the US are still as pervasive today as they were when I was growing up. I can see why many kids, especially Black- and Latino/a- Americans become disengaged or, worse, develop a low self-esteem.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

CEPEDA: Writers should abandon inhibition before sitting down in front of their computers or before putting pen to paper: connect to the gift and let it pour out from within. Worry about revisions later. I also strongly suggest developing a routine that includes at least an hour of sweating. Starting the work day at my boxing gym almost every morning before I sat down to write enabled me to focus and build mental stamina. I would beat any frustration and blockage I may have woken up with that morning on a heavy bag. Whatever form of exercise you choose, working out the mind, body and spirit is the ultimate expression of respect for one’s own craft. Trust me: exercise is the gift that keeps on giving.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

CEPEDA: I’m working on a proposal for my next book, a memoir about gentrification, and I’m in the latter stages of production on my current documentary film, Deconstructing Latina. The paperback of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina will be coming out in February 2014. That’s great news, especially because my hardcover was a casualty in the recently settled dispute between my parent company Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble. I’m hoping that the softcover will have an easier flight in capturing its audience. I’m also working closely with an educational specialist from the Robert F. Kennedy Center on a curriculum that would go hand in hand with Bird of Paradise, a project which I am excited about.

Author Contact:
@raquelcepeda
http://www.djalirancher.com
Photo Credits:
Heather Weston and Djali Brown-Cepeda