The power of storytelling, mentoring and the arts


Cynthia Carmina Gómez, co-writer of the play “Voz Alta: Generaciones,” is a friend and professional colleague at Portland State University.

I love books and I love movies, but sometimes live theater is the best medium for telling a story.

Last Saturday, Lori and I attended a matinee performance of “Voz Alta: Generaciones,” a bare-bones production in a tiny basement theater at Portland State University. We came away from the 90-minute experience enriched and inspired — and wishing everyone we know could have seen it, too.

What did we like about it so much? How about everything.

The story: On the surface, it’s a dramatization of the lives of two Latino artists, Rodolfo (Rudy) Serna and Jesus Torralba, who live and work in Portland.  At another level, it’s a story about how each of those men was mentored by someone here in Portland and, in turn, how they have mentored someone else.

The presentation: Forget the usual theatrical production, where you have actors moving about on a stage, sometimes on more than one set. Instead, imagine five actors seated on bistro-style chairs with a microphone in front of each of them, rising only to deliver their lives. They are wearing everyday clothes, there are no costume changes, and the only props are a scarf and a pair of eyeglasses. Three of the five play more than one character, relying on their voice, diction and body language to convey the differences. Stripped-down? You bet.

The cast: The ensemble is made up of three men, a teenage boy and one striking woman. She is seated in the middle of the row of five and it is she who uses that one piece of fabric and the eyeglasses to transition from one character to another, from an abuela (a grandmother) to two mothers (each one the parent of a different male character) to a newlywed teenage girl to a social services agency employee. Behind the actors are two musicians, one singing in Spanish and playing acoustic guitar, the other playing a pan flute and guitar.

The setting: If the Boiler Room Theater at Lincoln Hall sounds like a minimalist space, you’ve got the right idea. It’s intimate, all right. We were seated in the front row, less than 10 feet from the actors, with maybe three more rows behind us and four more rows ascending to the left of us. Two ceiling-to-floor murals and a third one behind the actors and musicians provided all the visuals.

The narrative: Two characters are at the heart of the story. One is a middle-aged man named Rodolfo, the son of divorced parents in Chicago who left home as a teenager (“I had to be my own dad,” he says.), marries young, divorces young, finds stability in the military and makes his way to Portland, where he is accepted at Portland State, earns a degree, and finds work as an artist and mentor working with at-risk and gang-involved youth.

The other is a teenager named Jesus, a light-skinned Mexican American kid and self-styled graffiti artist who finds trouble on Portland’s streets and seems headed for the gang life. Authorities steer him to the agency where Rodolfo works and he finds a connection there with the older man through their shared interest in painting. Jesus learns to trust, develops self -confidence and also gets hired as a youth mentor.

The reality: The beauty of this play is that it is the true story of four people who are giving back to the community. In real life, Rodolfo and Jesus work with at-risk and gang-involved youth in Multnomah and Washington County through the Community Healing Initiative, a collaborative partnership among several nonprofits and local and state agencies. The teenager who plays Jesus is Jose Ruiz Valentine, who in real life is an aspiring artist who was mentored by Jesus and who recently also became a youth mentor himself. Finally, real-life Rodolfo made it through college with the guidance and support of his own mentor — Cynthia Carmina Gómez, a Portland State administrator with a long record of directing community leadership and Latino mentoring programs.

The back story: Cynthia is not only executive director of PSU’s Cultural Resource Centers, she is also pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. This was her first play — co-written with Joaquin Lopez, the guitarist and singer who performed so beautifully during Saturday’s play — and she invited Lori and me to attend.

I met Cynthia several years ago when I was still writing for The Oregonian and she was working for the Latino Network. (Read my interview with Cynthia here.) We got to know each other as professional colleagues and I wound up writing a letter of recommendation for her graduate program, She was accepted, of course, and just before she began her MFA studies, she wrote a piece for my annual Voices of August guest blog project. (You can read that piece here.)

The big picture: I had three major takeaways.

One, you don’t need to spend big sums of money to deliver a message. The production was stripped down to the essentials, yet the simplicity helped drive home the idea of saving one life at a time through the arts and heartfelt mentoring.

Two, seeing a wonderful collaboration of Latino actors, musicians and writers filled me with Mexican American pride. There are other arts groups in the city, notably Teatro Milagro, that perform Latino-themed work. This one was particularly sweet because the experience was so intimate and the characters so relatable to the culture I grew up in.

Three, it made me appreciate living in a medium-sized city, where I not only can say I know one of the playwrights, but that I am familiar with the agencies involved in the Community Healing Initiative and their work. It was great to see this web of connections come alive in front of me.

If you’ve read this far, you owe to yourself to watch this: Jose, the focus of this video, is the teenage actor who plays his mentor, Jesus.

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Ruminating about ‘Roma’

The director Alfonso Cuarón in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, near where he grew up in Mexico City.

You’d think I’d fall in love with “Roma,” the film that’s earned critical praise and a slew of international prizes in the last year. After all, it’s a drama (my favorite genre) set in Mexico; written, produced and filmed by an acclaimed Mexican director; and featuring a Mixtec woman as lead actress.

Last week, at the Golden Globes Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language and Alfonso Cuarón was named Best Director by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

The honors didn’t surprise me, but my initial reaction to the film gave me pause. Why didn’t I gush over it the way I did “The Shape of Water,” a fantastical fairy tale about an assuming deaf-mute janitor and a sea creature being held in captivity? That, too, was written and directed by another accomplished Mexican, Guillermo del Toro, and I found it refreshingly uplifting.

I think a small part of the answer lies in watching “Roma” on the small screen at home (thank you, Netflix), which lessened the impact of the black-and-white wide-screen cinematography. A larger part, I think, stems from not having adequate context.

It wasn’t until after I’d read a couple of reviews that I even grasped the meaning of the movie’s title, let alone its autobiographical theme. The film is named for Colonia Roma, the well-to-do neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up in a home with domestic help. The movie was filmed there with painstaking care given to recreating the 1970s era of his youth.

In the film, a young woman named Cleo works as a live-in maid and nanny for a family of five (plus a live-in grandmother) who take her for granted as she rises early to wake the kids; cooks, cleans and does mountains of laundry by hand; and helps the harried mother from unraveling while her doctor-husband is away at a conference.

Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, and it’s a marvelous thing to see an indigenous woman in a starring role. But it’s a slow-moving film — purposely slow — and while there are a couple of dramatic life-and-death scenes in a hospital and at an ocean resort, there’s no tidy resolution either.

But after learning more about Cuarón’s back story and taking into account some discussion about the technical aspects of the film by two leading movie critics, I think this is one film that I need to see again.

I’d like to think I’m not overly swayed by reviews, as I recognize that critics and the public often are at odds on what they consider a good film. In this case, these reviews in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and an interview with Cuarón himself, shed a lot more light on the director’s intentions in making “Roma.”

‘Roma’ lives up to lofty expectations with a beautiful, deliberate and ultimately moving portrait of domestic life – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Mexico City as the Director of ‘Roma’ Remembers It (and Hears It) – Kirk Semple, The New York Times

Now the question is, when do I find time for a second viewing?

Photograph: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

London stories: Hyde Park

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On my first weekend in London last summer, I visited Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

I had the best of intentions last summer when I returned from England to share my experiences in a series of posts I was going to call “London stories.”

I produced exactly one. And funny thing, it wasn’t even about London. It was about my day trip to Oxford, an hour outside the city, where I stumbled upon something called “Soapbox Science.”

Well, here goes Round 2. If I don’t give myself a kick in the arse, it’ll never get done. (Besides, this is a good way to start thinking ahead to July, when I’ll return to teach Media Literacy to a new group of students.)

So why not start with the same place where I literally began my visit last summer? That would be Hyde Park, a big and beautiful green space that I explored during my first weekend in the city.

If you’ve ever visited New York City’s Central Park, then you have an idea of Hyde Park. It’s a gathering place for Londoners of all ages and social classes — a living, breathing tapestry of people sharing a public space with room for everyone. With more than 600 acres of greenery, the park has multiple entrances and activities of all kinds.

On my Sunday afternoon visit, I saw skateboarders, bicyclists and joggers on the paved paths; tourists and residents out for a walk; young adults and couples sunning themselves or cooling off in the shade; families picnicking on blankets; and people of all kinds, in hijabs and baseball caps, renting canoes and paddle boats on a man-made lake. All of this, plus a view of central London in the distance, made for a very inviting, cosmopolitan feel.

I accessed the park from the south side, just across the street from the Royal Albert Hall, where Adele and The Beatles and so many other musicians have performed, and passed by the ostentatious Albert Memorial, named for Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), right at the entrance.

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As I wandered through, I passed by a grassy area where performers with a Flying Trapeze School were giving lessons, and later spotted a huge sign listing live music and theater at the park. Paul Simon was scheduled that evening, a night after Bruno Mars and a week after Eric Clapton had performed. Damn!

For lack of time, I decided to forgo a visit to the far northeast corner of the park to see the famed Speakers’ Corner, where soapbox orators can pontificate to their heart’s delight. Instead I made my way to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. It was the liveliest area of the park, with parents joining their children in an ankle-deep circular stream of cooling water.

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From there, I walked along the north perimeter of the park, adjacent to the trendy Notting Hill neighborhood, and headed for the western part of the park, known as Kensington Gardens.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was still in Portland. Shaded trees, quiet paths shared by walkers and bicyclists, and a wonderfully relaxed vibe made me think of Laurelhurst Park in my own city. There are several markers and plaques describing the area’s history and wildlife, including foxes and Great Blue Herons, and I was pleasantly surprised by the park’s scenic lagoons.

Eventually, I made it to Kensington Palace in the southwest corner of the park. The elegant structure was the royal residence for nearly 150 years, from 1689 to 1837, before Buckingham Palace took over that role. Queen Victoria, the longest-serving British monarch during a 64-year reign that ended in 1901, was born here.

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Today it serves as the official residence of the young royals — William and Kate, Harry and Meghan. I balked at the admission price for a tour, especially as the day was winding down, and settled for a photo of the exterior.

I had begun the day by visiting two museums. After a long walk in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, I was more than ready to head home and rest my feet. But as I did, I felt I had treated myself to the best possible introduction to this amazing city.

Rollover resolutions

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More water, more fruits (and veggies) in 2019.

Three days into the new year and I’m thinking about what to put on my list of intentions for 2019.

I’ve got it: Rollover resolutions.

Since I did only moderately well on last year’s three, why not roll ’em over like rollover minutes on my cell phone plan?

For the record, here’s what I pledged to do a year ago:

  • Drink more water.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Lighten up on the iPhone.

When I checked on myself in July, I acknowledged slippage in all three areas.

Read “About those resolutions” here

This year, I’m rolling over the first two and subbing in a third one:

  • Drink more water.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Reclaim my Fridays.

The first two make a lot of sense. Coupled with a vow to resume regular exercise, they will do me good. More water, less coffee. More bananas, fewer cookies. More salads, fewer fries.

The third one makes sense in a different way. I see it as a dedicated one day a week when I do something for my mental or physical health as opposed to letting my four-day work week slop over into a fifth weekday.

60 hikes-Cover

The first thing that comes to mind is doing my urban hikes again, with my tattered copy of “Portland Hill Walks” as a guide. When the weather warms up again, I’d like to go a step further and break in the “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles” I received as a gift last year.

Blast from the past: A catalogue of urban hikes

Other ideas that come to mind: daytime bowling, an afternoon matinee, breakfast or coffee with a friend, lunch with Lori (she works every Friday), a longer-than-usual walk with Charlotte.

As I write this, I know I’m giving myself some leeway to say yes to work-related events. Already, I’m committed to a lunch this Friday with school and work colleagues. Two weeks later, I’m going to speak to a group of student journalists at WSU Vancouver, something I committed to long ago.

This year, I’m going to hold myself more accountable on all three. Wish me luck.