I moved from San Francisco to Napa CA in 2009 to take a new job. I wasn’t looking forward to living in what I thought of as a white-bread community. I soon realized how ignorant I was. I chose a working class neighborhood in which to make my home and eventually became active in the writing community.
Early in 2017, I sat in a roomful of well-meaning, mostly gringo artists at the Napa Valley State of the Arts event. I listened as the panelists discussed the fact that our local diverse communities were not in the room. One brave Latino photographer spoke up. “If you want to include them, you need to go to them. They are not going to come to you.” I wondered how to do that. I spoke to Izrael a few times during the next twelve months, and never really felt like I did much to help.
A year later, still wondering, I ran into him at the 2018 State of the Arts. I sat in on a small panel discussion, again, on diversity challenges, with mostly caucasians in the room. One out of three panelists was a young man I’d met earlier in the year. Intelligent, outspoken and passionate, Xulio had moved here as a kid many years ago with his family from Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s a social justice worker and a poet.
I’m the current president of Napa Valley Writers, and we were going to be hosting a first for our Valentine’s Day meeting just weeks later: Open Mic with Chocolate. I sat in front of the panel with an idea brewing, perhaps a way to bring our diverse communities together on one day of love – an Open Mic with Chocolate – Bilingual edition.
I spoke with Xulio at the panel’s conclusion and we met the next day. We were excited with our new plan. He reached out to his wide-spread ties in the local global south and native performing arts communities. We coordinated a bilingual public service announcement on local radio, distributed Spanish-English flyers, and promoted the event to our publicity contacts.
A few minutes before the Valentine’s Day event was to start, the room was practically empty and I worried. Fifteen minutes later, the place was packed with some of the usual crowd and many more people I hadn’t met, or seen, before.
Twenty-five people, forty percent of the attendees, young and old, read or performed their work in poetry, prose, and song from their hearts in many flavors of love – for the land, for the people, for a lover, for change. My collaborator was emcee, and at the opening, Xulio informed the gathering that we chose not to ask that every piece be translated. We wanted to hear with our hearts the understanding that was there for each of us.
Not being a Spanish or native speaker myself, I could occasionally pick out a few words like madre and amore. I thought of how so many others feel every day in the English language world of this America. My heart caught in my throat. We provided something very special that night. Everyone there was filled with compassion, togetherness, and the desire to move this one event forward into something more.
Speakers and listeners both touched their hearts with open hands with a feeling of gratitude and many of us had tears. Of course I’m still aware of our divisions, but at least once, together, we’ve experienced a bit of a bridge. The room pulsed with energy. One of our writers group members commented that it was the highlight of the year.
The Vintage high school girls’ Spanish and English words in poem and performance brought down the house as they spoke of the prejudices and injustices their families live with on a daily basis – and what they are doing to change it. The elder Mexican poet read from his journal to a pin-drop quiet audience, receiving a thunderous applause at the close. Charlie, native woman and elder, spoke and chanted, reminding us of our memories and our spirit that has been lost and is now being found again. Xulio’s performance dazzled. My Latino friend, who advised me that I had to go to them, spoke to me with misty eyes that matched mine.
Change is coming, I felt it that night and I feel it now.
(Thanks to the Napa Valley Register for running a version of this piece as a commentary in the Sunday 3/4/2018 edition)