Saturday, April 30, 2016

A few weeks ago, I took a solo trip out West. 

I travel alone quite a bit and don't mind the solitude that comes with getting from point A to point B. Planes, however, aren't my favorite mode of transportation so going from my friend's house in Portland to another friend's house in California, I bought, for the first time, a Greyhound bus ticket.

There's too much fluorescent lighting in airports. Too much CNN, too many people pining for an outlet to charge their smartphones. Though to be fair, a Greyhound is not any more romantic of an option. On my fifteen hour bus ride, there were a lot of neck tattoos, men who bent over to get their luggage without sufficient beltage, a woman across from me in grey sweatpants and a matching grey sweatshirt with all of her belongings in a cardboard box. I had an idea of where she came from and when she got off at Mt. Shasta, I wished her luck with where she was going.

Despite the unpleasantness that is America's bus system, I'm reasonably content given a book and a good view. Riding through small Northwestern towns, past creeks and through foothills, I had time to read old editions of Ploughshares and take notes for a short story I've been working on for years, though only seriously for the past three months. I tore out stories in the literary journal that had a rhythm I wish my writing had. I looked out the window a lot and wondered  though there's no use  when my writing would resemble the writing that I kept saving. Writing that accumulates in binders back at home. 

After a week of seeing friends that live across the country in much nicer climates and hiking through what felt to me like summer heat (also rain and hail at one point), I arrived back to Chicago at 5 am on a Sunday morning. Once the post-vacation malaise wore off, I began working on my short story again, finishing the piece and then editing, tweaking, copy-editing, worrying about the underdevelopment of characters, the tone, the mediocrity of it all. But finally, I decided that it's finished. I read it over the other day and thought to myself very briefly, not bad. 

Though what I like most about it is that it's done.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A few years ago, I started documenting the books I finished, mostly because I felt like if I did all the work to read them, I wanted something to show for it - at least for my own eyes. An acknowledgement of how I spent my time. I made note of the ones that I particularly liked, and since I’m not quite sure what this space is for, I thought I’d write down my recommendations from the past year here.

But once I saved images of the book covers and looked at them consecutively, I thought it wasn’t worth a post. These names are well known names, and as a writer, I should be recommending the obscure, the small press wonders, the undiscovered classics. But then I read this piece On Pandering and it literally absorbed me whole. Why didn’t I want to post the books I liked reading? Because they are not obscure? Or because these books are marketed to a certain crowd (females), and there's a lot of pastel on the cover?


This is, perhaps, a female-centric selection but regardless, these books (mostly memoirs) are filled with inventive and beautiful writing that's no less serious or hard-hitting than Philip Roth or Johnathon Franzen or whomever. I thoroughly enjoyed them and hope you do too.

Meaty – Samantha Irby writes about growing up parentless, living with Crohn's disease, and other generally messy topics. The book is refreshingly honest and funny, without any vague, subtle literary humor, which I never really like (Irby writes many of her jokes in all caps).

M Train – I can’t even recall what this book was about. Drinking coffee mostly. And watching crime shows. There’s a chapter on Patti Smith’s love for her late husband that I reread from time to time.

A House of My Own – A memoir of sorts about living a literary life, living in the cross-section of borders, and being a woman (specifically, a woman who never wed). After many years writing fiction, Sandra Cisneros finally puts together a collection of essays. I definitely recommend reading through.

The Lowland – Though her short stories are unbeatable, this Jhumpa Lahiri novel still sticks with me. Her writing is mesmerizing and enjoyable.

The Empathy Exams – I read this book per late David Carr’s advice, and it ended up being one of my favorites of the year. Leslie Jamison pushes the boundaries of what essay writing can do, with incredibly articulate and calculated prose. She explores different ideas of pain and empathy through a wide range of topics such as the reality of Morgellons disease, running ultra marathons, and having an abortion.

The Unspeakable: And Other Topics of Discussion – Another essay collection I enjoyed. Meghan Daum does a nice job of writing personally, but never solely for the sake of nazel-gazing.

Between the World and Me – So this one is kind of a no-brainer, considering the year this book had. It’s a quick read, which led me down a Ta-Nehisi Coates rabbit hole on Youtube after finishing. This book also added James Baldwin’s classic "The Fire Next Time" to my must-read list for next year, which I think makes it worth the read alone.

Caramelo – I love reading long, ornate pieces of fiction every now and then. One of Sandra Cisneros’ masterpieces, this book chronicles the unique history of a Mexican-American family, fast forwarding and rewinding, going across the Mexican border and back.

Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish – So, this is sort of niche book to put on the list but for any intermediate Spanish speakers out there, I recommend this one. Informative, engaging, and well written, it’s the only time I learned how to speak Spanish from reading a book.

She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me – A disturbing memoir from British journalist Emma Brockes. I was in awe of the book the whole way through, mostly due to the subject matter but also due to the way in which the details were unveiled.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

(Cont. from last post)

Composting – This year, I started vermicomposting (composting indoors using red wiggler worms) and have to admit that harvesting the compost can be labor intensive. Like all projects, it’s a process that takes tweaking so perhaps I still need to get the hang of it. Regardless, I’m happy to learn the science (and art) behind composting and incorporate it into my kitchen habits.

For apartment dwellers who are looking to compost but don’t necessarily want a hands-on project, there are plenty of services that will pick up your compost for a fee. Though it costs money, the added plus is that municipal composting facilities allow meat, fish, and dairy in the bin, further reducing the amount of waste you throw away. Personally for my next apartment, I’m going to look into buying a compost bin on Craigslist if I have a small backyard. This method just calls for throwing your compost in, adding some leaves or grass clippings on top, and stirring every once in a while to keep it aerated, which seems easy enough.

Cleaning products – I do most of my cleaning with vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils. You can find various recipes on the internet but here are roughly the recipes I use:

All purpose cleaner: 1/4 cup castile soap with 1 quart of water in a spray bottle. Add a few drops of tea tree oil. This can be used on tabletops, kitchen countertops (granite included), and bathroom surfaces.

Window cleaner: Mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar. Add essential oils if desired. Use an old newspaper to wash the mirror for a smudge-free shine.

Floors: Mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar. Add essential oils if desired.

Bathroom disinfectant:  Again, mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar in a spray bottle. Add essential oils if desired. Spray on bathroom surfaces and let it sit. Wipe down with a sponge or toilet bowl cleaner. Sprinkle baking soda on surfaces that need scouring and scrub with a sponge.

Drain cleaner: Pour a half-cup of baking soda down the drain then add a half a cup of white vinegar. Wait ten to fifteen minutes. While waiting, heat a tea kettle full of water until boiling. Pour the boiling water down to drain to flush the vinegar and baking soda through. I tend to do this every time I clean the bathroom because I find that it does a better job of preventing clogs than unclogging them when the drain is full or blocked.

Thrifting – This year I moved into my new apartment and had to stock up on kitchen and household items so the place wouldn’t feel bare. Heading to the thrift store every other week was incredibly helpful during the process. I have been thrifting for clothes for a while but I find that home goods are much more abundant at your neighborhood Goodwill. Glasses, coffee mugs, jars for bulk storage, ceramic pots for plants, crock pots, cookbooks, and artwork were all fairly easy to come by.

I think in order to get items you actually enjoy, you have to go often, with an astute eye regarding what it is you are really going to use, and browse without any one item in mind. It may seem strange to buy items that you eat and cook with used but I found cleaning tricks on the blog Heart of Light, which puts my mind at ease about purchasing secondhand. Helpful tips: if you purchase clothes or sheets, put them in the dryer immediately. The high heat kills all bedbugs. 10 minutes will do but you can go for 30 if you want to play it safe. If you purchase dishes or cookware, soak them in the sink for 30 minutes in a 10% bleach solution. Afterward, wash normally. This sterilizes the dishes and makes sure they're good and clean before using.

Bags – Due to freebies and giveaways, I’ve collected reusable grocery bags without really trying and make a conscious to take them before going grocery shopping. For day to day to purchases, I avoid plastic bags by putting a Chico bag in my purses. You can purchase sets of four here or here. Or if you don't want to make the purchase,  throw store-given plastic bags in your purses and bags for everyday purchases. It's better to reuse them over and over rather than recycle, especially in Chicago where the plastic bag ban made plastic bags thicker but just as disposable.

Laundry – I wash my laundry with cold water and use whatever green laundry detergent I find at the store that's available in bulk. I recently bought a drying rack and plan on air drying my clothes, like I did when I lived in Honduras and Spain, though we'll see how long this lasts. I know many eco-friendly blogs suggest making your own laundry detergent but I don’t do that, nor do I make my own hand soap or dish soap. I buy them because there are so many brands (Mrs. Meyer's, Method, Honest Company, 365) that do the job. If you worry that these products are just green washing, install the Good Guide app or the EWG's app and check how clean any product is before purchasing.

Changes I still want to implement – Mostly small things like using handkerchiefs instead of Kleenex, buying tea in bulk, purchasing reusable ziploc bags and Bee's Wrap for food storage.

So there are my tips, if you’re into that kind of thing. Of course, there are other ways to advocate for the environment. You can vote in local and national elections, donate money to organizations who are working on systematic changes, volunteer to help change local systems, sign petitions, and organize. There are other habits to consider looking at too; mainly, meat consumption, driving, and flying - all of which i do occasionally.

If you are interested in living low-impact (or lower-impact), I recommend The Carbon-Free Home, which I like many reasons. One, it explains projects for apartment and home dwellers, diving into both small, doable projects and larger ones. Also, it gives sensible advice, explaining how small changes like living in closer proximity to things you need, hanging your clothes up to dry, and insulating your house may have a greater impact than the expensive, flashy ones (i.e. installing solar panels).

Post script: Recently, I watched Michael Pollan's Cooked on Netflix, his docu-series urging people to return to the kitchen for the sake of their health and the health of the environment.  While it was cinematically beautiful and educational, I also found it a bit holier than thou. I don't prescribe to Michael Pollan's make-everything-from-scratch ways. That seems exhausting and honestly, a bit inefficient. I love a pot of homemade beans, simmered with spices thrown in. I also love canned black beans when I need to whip up something quick. Which in a way, sums up my take on it all. I'm not ayurvedic or zero waste or even a vegetarian (though kudos to those who are) but I believe in doing what you can, in the ways that are best suited for you.

Or, as Tim Mazurek of Lottie and Doof so brilliantly says, we are not flawless! See here:

Saturday, March 12, 2016

One has to approach the internet with blinders just to keep sane, working to disregard all of the click-bait, the filler content, the over-simplified claims. This is especially the case when it comes to eco-friendly living, where personally I find a lot of information on the internet to be a tad too holistic and sensationalized for me. 

That being said, I scour the internet a lot in search of helpful tips on how to switch over to environmentally-friendly alternatives, which means I’m left lost and confused amidst the contradicting information (I’m mostly baffled by baking soda – can it really serve as a healthy and medically sound alternative to shampoo and toothpaste? I’ll never know).

Through everything I’ve read, I have obtained some insightful tidbits, helping me to switch over to green alternatives for my household and personal needs. Personally, I made the switch because environmentally friendly alternatives are affordable and multi-purpose, allowing me to simplify, buy less, and save money. The added plus is that the products are hopefully healthier for our waterways, our health, and the health of the workers who manufacture the product.

Skin care – I do most of my moisturizing with a $6 bottle of coconut oil. Coconut oil doesn’t absorb as quickly as your run of the mill lotion so I only use a small amount for my face to avoid walking away feeling greasy. Recently, I’ve been mixing coconut oil with a few drops of tea tree oil in a small jar that I store in my medicine cabinet. It smells luxurious, and I like to think that the added tea tree oil helps with acne and general skincare due to its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, though I don’t really know. I still have some acne (most of which went away after using AcneFree and its wonderfully harsh chemicals) but I think I’m mostly happy with my slightly imperfect complexion for now.

Hair care – This has been the toughest switch for me. I have used commercial shampoos every day for my entire life so going with a natural alternative (whatever that means) left my hair greasy and unbearably itchy. This article on making the switch was helpful this last month, when I decided I would try to transition away from cheap-o drugstore shampoos again. It was nice to hear someone say that natural shampoos will not work for everyone and that's okay. Really.

So far I have tried two different shampoos (one I purchased previously from my co-op but then stored away when it didn't work, and another one I purchased new). I have tried washing my hair with apple cider vinegar. I have tried not washing my hair. In the end, I have used a lot of hair ties and was happy to make the transition in a month where it was acceptable to constantly wear a hat. At this point, I feel like it's been two months, and I haven't had a good hair day in a long time. The remains of the commercial shampoo sitting in my cupboard looks more and more appealing so we'll see how long this natural shampoo thing will last.

I am, however, a fan of apple cider vinegar. I store 1 part apple cider vinegar and 3 parts water in an old Dr. Bronner's bottle with a few drops of essential oils added in. Once a week, I work it into my scalp to get rid of dandruff. I find it incredibly effective - plus, it serves as a nice face toner as well.

For those who are looking to make the switch to a shampoo that is free of sulfate, parabens, and phosphate, I’ve heard great things about Acure and feel like it could be a good place to start. Right now, I'm not looking to buy any more shampoo so I'll just be working through what I've already purchased.

Soap – I’m a fan of Dr. Bronner’s because it’s biodegradable, available in bulk, and is incredibly multi-purpose. See the plethora of uses here.

Makeup/Deodorant – I’m mostly fine with my L’oreal products and Dove original scented deodorant. The thing is, I don’t know if I believe parabens are harmful enough to warrant spending $35 on mascara. Due to my income and also my general frugalness, I need things to be reasonably priced in order to make the switch. But in case you’re looking for alternatives, RMS Beauty has natural products that work well and come in recyclable packaging - though the makeup comes with a price tag. Rejuva and Pacifica seem more moderately priced and rank well on Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic database, if anyone is looking for a cheaper alternative. Also, this recipe for homemade deodorant intrigues me so I might give it a go in the future.

Feminine hygiene – I used applicator free tampons for a while but then switched to the Diva Cup last year. There’s a learning curve but I love it now (advice: Youtube tutorials are your friend!). I also bought a few reusable cloth pads on Etsy that I wear occasionally. They are not the most comfortable – I wouldn’t wear them if I was working or being active – but overnight, I think they work great. Bonus is that I haven’t spent money on tampons or pads in a year.

Water conservation – In addition to switching the products I use, I'm also concerned about water use when it comes to bathroom rituals. Some habit shifts to think about: installing a reminder to take shorter showers, switching to a low-flow showerhead, and adding a plastic bottle to the toilet tank to conserve water. Or just flush only when necessary.

Most of these products take some getting used to so like everything, if you’re motivated to make the switch, do it slowly and try to push through when you find the new habit hard or annoying. When you attempt anything new, know that most likely there comes a point where you will make mistakes and fail. That's okay. Really. Pretty soon, the habit starts to feel commonplace and you’ll forget the old way you were used to. 

In the end, this post is just to say that I think coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and Dr. Bronner’s work wonders, and pretty soon, you’ll find that you can use these things for a multitude of ailments, like getting rid of ants or fruit flies or cleaning your kitchen counters (Home remedies sound a little hokey but in general, I think they do the job. If not, proceed with buying something that will. My feeling is that it never hurts to try using what you have around the house first).

Next week, I’ll write more about tips for environmentally friendly cleaning products and kitchen habits. Also, perhaps some general thoughts on why I made these switches in the first place. Until then, feel free to read more thoughts on this subject here, here and here!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Moving to Chicago in November required fortitude, a gearing up, a daily awareness that things would get better and days would get longer.

Two years ago, I came home to Chicago from Honduras, where I spent more than a year working in constant sunlight, living in a home where my bedroom led out to an outdoor patio, the untended garden green and succulent. After my year-long volunteer stint south of the border was up, I moved back to my parent’s house in the Chicago suburbs and searched for a nine-to-five job. Many months (and rejections) later, I was finally hired, able to sign a lease and move into the city. The move, however, coincided with the beginning of the Chicago winter, the slow crawl that is its longest season.

As December began, the days shortened and the city started to hibernate. I left work when it was dark, kept my hat and scarves on around the house, went on runs through fresh snow ever so lightly, reading into every step in case I hit ice. There was a long wait ahead before the city became alive in late spring, and the question became, how do I pass the time, pretending I’m not waiting?

I hopped on my bike one night in early December and rode to Humboldt Park, the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago. Division Street - populated by organic food markets, crowded restaurants, doggy day cares - turns after Western Avenue. A steel Puerto Rican flag is cemented in the ground arching over Division as you enter Humboldt Park. Past the dividing line of Western Avenue, there are dollar stores, storefront Iglesias, drop-in centers, a salsa dance academy.

I locked my Schwinn to a parking meter on Division while three men looked me up and down. I nodded at them, felt my unfamiliarity with the area, and then walked into the salsa studio. At the front of the room was the teacher, a skinny Puerto Rican in his early sixties who had the look of a ballroom dancer with tan trousers and a tucked in shirt. Along with the other beginners, he taught me the basic steps that night. 1-2-3, 5-6-7. I had learned - though not well - in Honduras, counting uno-dos-tres, cinco-seis-siete.

I had been meaning to take a dance class since I moved back to Chicago but I begrudgingly got on my bike that night, pedaling over to see what salsa dancing was like in Chicago. Do it for the story, I kept telling myself, which is what I always tell myself to push past nerves. The class was quick, painless, a lesson in right and left turns. I found myself relieved when the class was over, but then as I was about to pay, another dancer came in. His arms were tattooed in full sleeves. He wore wire frame glasses. He dropped his things and started warming up in the mirror. A girl came in and started dancing with him. They dipped, spun, and practiced a routine. Their steps were light, rhythmic, moving in syncopation. They wore smiles to suggest their airlessness, as if they were walking on the moon.

“Now was that your first class, senorita?” my dance teacher asked, ready to take my credit card. “How’d you like it?"

“It was great,” I said, looking at the pair. “I’ll buy a ten pass if that’s alright with you.”

“Claro que si senorita.”

I started dancing salsa in a small nightclub in a mountain town of Honduras, unaware of my steps, just holding on and following someone else’s lead. I was in Honduras to learn Spanish, about to head to the capital to volunteer at an orphanage for a year. I quickly learned that the small town only had two spots to go out for a drink: Via Via, a wine bar for tourists, or Sky bar, a small nightclub where the locals go to dance. I preferred the latter, which is where I found that dancing, although I had never known this before, meant dancing salsa and bachata.

After language school, I moved to Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city. I told a co-worker at my new job that I had learned a little salsa when I went to language school, and she said that every weekend she could, she went to a place called Sabor Cubano to dance. Its name – Cuban Flavor – suggested to me a hole-in-the-wall joint, plastic patio tables, a place where all walks of life came together, dripping sweat, exuding a kind of raw lust. I had only been in Tegucigalpa for a few weeks but the city seemed similarly animalistic, a knock to the senses, smelling of burning plastic and diesel, with fruit vendors shouting and cars honking and children asking for money. But when I went to Sabor Cubano, I found myself on a street lined with upscale restaurants and parked cars, unscratched, looking new. The bar had tile floors and a 100 Lempira cover. When I walked in, I saw a level of dancing almost elite.

I never learned the steps that well but I kept going back. A lover of John Cale and David Bowie, I soon started listening to Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz. My body innately picked up its rhythm, the jazz tendencies toward improvisation, the inherent joy in the horns, tragic blues in its lyrics. It was fascinating for me. I had been prepared for the chaos of Honduras but no one had told me about the normalcy that could exist by its side. 

Most Fridays, I would get out of work and bus into the city center on hand-me-down buses with my money situated in three places (my bra, my jean pocket, and my purse) just in case I was robbed. I drove past Hondurans who were searching for spare change or a sense of security that what they’ve worked for is theirs and then I would get ready for the night in a white walled, bare hotel, gearing up for Sabor Cubano. Salsa dancing, done solely for enjoyment, knocked me over with its strength. Amidst the violence of the city, the corruption of the state, the dance felt in every movement, a cry that life would be enjoyed.

“The right to enjoy popular pleasures may not in itself change the system that subjugates,” John Fiske is quoted as saying in Priscilla Renta‘s “Salsa Dance: Latino/a History in Motion”. “But it does preserve areas of life and meaning of experience that are opposed to normal disciplined existence.” To indulge in pleasure meant one could carry on the creativity that the state desperately tried to drain from its people. To dance instead of wallow seemed the most spiteful of acts, akin to declaring yourself an artist for life after someone suggests that you shouldn't quit your day job. John Fiske says it best, highlighting the overlooked value of pleasure during hard times:“Insofar as [popular pleasures] maintain the cultural territory of the people against the imperialism of the power-bloc, they are resistant.”

After trying to figure out my turns and timing on the Sabor Cubano dance floor, I finally went to learn my basic steps at a salsa convention one weekend in Tegucigalpa. I rode a bus into the city center past children, beaten by the sun and shoveling dirt into pot holes for the hope of a tip by passing drivers. I sat in the conference room of Tegucigalpa's four star hotel looking out at the houses stacked one on top of the other, painting the valley a pastel with their light blue and mauve paint. It was a beautiful sight, but only from where I was standing. Inside the conference room, I watched as the Hondurans danced with passion and skill to music and steps wholly their own. There, I saw a joy that could be best described as resilience.

Back in Chicago, in a one room dance studio, I began to speak Spanish again. My salsa teacher started to call me hija. I formed friendships through spins and turns measured by the tumbao. It became a hideaway for me, for many. Demonstrating to the class one night how to position one’s hand as they danced, my teacher held up what looked like a gang sign. He quickly turned. “But don’t do that too close to the window,” he joked. “Not in this neighborhood.”

That winter was longer than I had expected and I felt myself trudging through. Each month – March, April, May – was sprinkled with snowfalls. I’ve lived in Chicago long enough to know this is normal but with my return home, an acute anxiety slowly, sometimes radiantly, emerged. It was an anxiety that I had tried to keep at bay for many years. Strangely, it dissipated in Honduras but in Chicago, anxiousness made its way back to me. I don’t know if it was the influx of bills or lack of vitamin D or just the jarring new routine but most days, I felt like a house of cards, trying to stay away from any wind so I wouldn’t collapse.

I haven’t lived an especially anxious life but anxiety has always permeated it. I went to a therapist once in college to discuss the panic attacks that would come every once in a while but left in tears, unable to talk about my feelings to a stranger. Then triggers hit that early spring, one right after another, adding to the dimness of the already shortened days. I went online one night to find out that a co-worker of mine from Honduras was murdered in Guatemala. I went into the shower, turned on the showerhead and sat down, crying. I didn’t know her personally but she felt like family. The next day, after a full breakfast, I felt my hands shaking on the bus, my breaths were short.

It was also all hands on deck in my family, as we spent our nights on the phone, discussing how to help a family member dealing with addiction. We discussed different potential living situations, who could drive who to AA and court, exchanged mutual feelings of anger and deep sympathy. In the midst of this, I received a call one morning at work from my brother with the news that my mom had a stroke. I rushed home to the hospital, sitting by mother’s side as she learned to lift her fingers one by one and recall my dad’s name.

For the most part, I worked through it all feeling composed but it was as if my body couldn’t mimic the stability I was trying to exude. Everyday I felt faint, like I would fall to the ground at any given moment. Then there were the minor panic attacks; one at the gynecologist, where the nurse asked me to lay down and sip on fruit punch as I gathered myself, and a few more times in the car, when I would pull over, scared that I couldn’t steer straight. I soon stopped drinking caffeine and cut back on social drinking to curb hangovers because both had me spinning, and after six years of vegetarianism, I introduced meat back into my diet hoping it would help me feel stronger, as if standing up wasn’t such a hard task.

I tried everything I could to get better. I tried deep breaths before bed and on my morning commute. I searched for fresh air when I was spinning. I repeated positive thoughts like daily mantras when I was in the car close to an attack. Nothing helped.

Except dancing salsa.

It could have been any hobby I suppose. It helps to calm the physical body whether by banging on drums or kneading bread or weeding white clover from your garden. Regardless the sport or activity, it’s all a way to give your body something to do, to trick the mind into thinking it has a task at hand. It need not worry, it’s getting something done. But I didn’t play drums, never found myself drawn to team sports, couldn’t garden in the frost. I could look at my partner and see him staring at me, my mind elsewhere, and once he led me, I could forget him completely. I could forget about my mother’s recovery, forget the tension that was tricking my body into feeling weak, forget it all except the woman over the speakers backed by trombones singing, “There's no need to cry for life is a carnival.”

It fascinated me most to find out how other people started dancing salsa. At class, I met a graduate student from Spain who started taking classes after following the rise of Romeo Santos (the bachata singer with more YouTube hits than Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry). I met Josh, a southsider who married a Mexican, and even though the marriage didn’t last, he couldn’t shake the love of salsa music she had turned him on to. And then there was Carlos, the tattooed dancer I saw on the first day of class, who came to Chicago twenty years ago from Guerrero, Mexico. He started dancing por el estres. He hadn’t seen his brother in a year; he was locked up in jail in McHenry county for a reason I never knew. Carlos was a painter, a boxer, but he needed a new release so he started dancing.

We all had a story. Most of us were transitioning, dealing with some form of displacement. Some forced, some not. The salsa clubs in Chicago were even more diverse than my dance class. No where else in the city had I ever seen such a broad range of ages, socio-economic status, or racial diversity. I danced with doctors and the undocumented; Moroccans and Indians and every type of Latino; older men who still had it and 16-year-old boys figuring out their steps, also their sexuality.

One night after class, I was about to take a bus home – my car was in the shop – but the instructor looked at me and shook his head. “No way are you taking a bus. I’ll drive you.” He was packing up his stuff, ready to go when he looked at me and asked, “You hungry?” I wasn’t but I said yes. We went to Lazos, a taco joint nearby. My instructor, a 30-year-old Chicago Boricua who dressed head to toe in Zara, told me about his recent trip to Indonesia. He was hired to go and teach salsa conferences. Another dancer, Josh, came along. Josh wasn’t Latino but he dressed and acted as if he had Cubano in his blood.

“I can’t handle any of that Marc Anthony shit,” Josh would say. “Gimme that Tito Puente, you know?”
We were different, not necessarily because of where we came from, but because they were loud and bombastic and I was a much quieter character. I spent many nights like this, sharing tacos with people whose circles I wouldn’t have entered before Honduras. There was a novelty to it. I was born and raised in suburbia. Salsa dancing was an outlier to my personality; a passion that caused my close friends to roll their eyes.

While it was refreshing not fitting the mold, it also distanced me. Getting tapas one night with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Spaniards, I realized that because of the language barrier, I was sitting at dinner quiet while the table went back and forth in Spanish. I’m okay with this discomfort - it’s how I learned Spanish - but at times it was hard in a large group and I longed for commonness.

There were other hesitations with my newfound love as well. Dancing helped calm my nerves, but the dance floors were hot, crowded places and many nights, I searched for a way out. I never minded the sensuality of it all (there was a personal connection in dancing that filled a void I felt stateside) but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a machismo inherent in the dance. Mostly it showed itself in the lyrics of popular songs or in the passing comments of my dancing partners. There were all of these lines that seemed to spring up, so easily crossed, taking me from relief to tension. Every time I danced, I never knew which side I would end up on.

One Tuesday night, I went to the Alhambra Palace, a cheeky middle-eastern inspired nightclub in Chicago’s West Loop. The nightclub’s arched and dome shaped roofs stuck out on Randolph Street among a row of modern restaurants. The dancing started late, and I had work in the morning. I saw a few faces I knew, danced a few good dances but mostly found myself dancing without much ease. I went home, and for the first time, wondered how long I’d keep doing this. I wasn’t fully adopting the community. I didn’t fit its well-groomed, stylized aesthetic.

Beyond that, my anxiety still lingered. I constantly thought of my mother with affected speech spending her days in rehab, a family member of mine trying to find the key to his sobriety, the husband of the late volunteer in Guatemala and his recovery. I thought of my own. It’s a long process. One that sometimes leads you down side streets before you realize that you just have to give in and go seek help.

But no matter, I knew that in the meantime, we will always keep dancing.