When I was a little kid, I was already creating new words.
For example, the cross between shoe in English and zapato in Spanish or “shoe-pato” was how I expressed wanting to go out. People were generally amused, or had no clue what I was saying, a reaction throughout my life that has propelled me to grow into the person that I am today: a cheerful proponent of fearless self expression, a bridge between cultures and an inner explorer.
The fusion of language and culture has been the greatest blessing for finding my purpose in life. I was born into it: I am the daughter of a hippie Mom from San Francisco, California and my father is from Venice, Italy but we lived in Caracas, Venezuela: the place I call home. Having these three languages and three continents in my DNA I have struggled at times with what legendary salsa singer, Hector Lavoe, coined as “cultural schizophrenia.” And yet, since I don’t quite belong anywhere, I have had the opportunity to develop an innate sense of empathy and open-mindedness towards others that has turned me into a passionate storyteller, especially for those whose voices are unheard.
Telling my story repeatedly to all types of people helped my find my voice.
I had to come from different angles, depending on my audience, and find clever ways to be succinct, entertaining and approachable, otherwise I would see people’s eyes glaze over: “Mom from San Francisco… Venice…Caracas…right.” Then there’s the melting pot that is NYC where I’ve lived most of my adult life. A happy choice since I found my tribe of international misfits and half-breeds. And, we polish each other, sharing our uniqueness with the world in creative ways.
Luis Agujeta and I in Seville in 1999
My constant search for identity set the stage for the projects that came into my life.
The first milestone was being granted a Fulbright scholarship to Spain for my project “Flamenco’s Duende and Deep Song.” Duende is the fiery spirit that drives flamenco…its soul. There is an unparalleled level of authenticity needed in flamenco to convey such a richness of emotion---it gives you goose bumps. I wanted to know if the personal stories being told through the lyrics could trigger duende. And much of what gypsies in flamenco sing about is their fragmented place in the world---a theme that resonated deeply with my own search for identity. Duende became the underlying theme of my first documentary, I’m the Tourist, in which I followed gypsy singer, Luis Agujeta, who lived in a modern day caravan, to see if I could catch some sparks of duende along the way. I spent many sleepless nights observing him battle mano a mano with his duende throughout Andalusia. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca, described getting into those states as “awakening the duende in the most remotest mansions of the blood.” This taught me to see wrestling with my own inner duende as an opportunity to discover who I truly was. And it inspired me to tell stories using duende as a reference for a level of authenticity that is available to us all.
I wanted to create spaces where others could unapologetically express being “other.”
The HBO documentary series I produced, Habla, provided a safe place for Latinx people to talk. A body of work spanning over a decade, Habla contributed to a better understanding of the U.S. Latinx experience through dozens of testimonials with celebrities and real people. My job was to find thought-provoking stories that spoke to belonging to two different cultures at the same time. Habla is both serious and playful, much like Latinxs themselves who live and breathe the struggle of being uprooted, but also know how to live the day-to-day with a festive spirit and joyful appreciation. I learned to identify the accents and world views of this diverse population, taking whatever idioms and traditions I liked from each country, and making them my own. This just added new, delectable layers of possibilities to my already multicultural existence.
Legendary journalist Jorge Ramos and I on set of HBO Latino Habla y Vota
I also attracted works furthering the self-realization and empowerment of Latina women.
Given the times, I was thrilled at the opportunity to tap into what inspires and motivates today’s multifaceted Latina. The multiple and on-going programs I directed and produced for Yahoo en español contributed to the shaping of the U.S. Latina identity in the media. I still remember the excitement at knowing that certain things had never been said for a first generation Latina audience before. The language and pop culture sensibility I used to engage them had to ring true with a woman still straddling the thinking from back home while working hard to assimilate into a new country. The networks and brands knew the growing numbers and the vastness of reach. The juggling of different countries and accents was not lost on them and they trusted that I could make those nuances come to life while finding a strong, singular voice that would speak to all Latinas through their shared experience. Perhaps the biggest challenge was that I had to conduct the business of creating branded entertainment ideas with the upmost professionalism in English or “brand speak” to then switch over to copy-level writing in Spanish that would hit home with Latina viewers. I had been preparing for that challenge my whole life, and hours of content later, I was now fluent in another language that would pave the way for my next venture.
Jackie Cruz and Diane Guerrero of Orange is the New Black fame on set for Vivala
Yearning to unleash my own female empowerment gave me a new direction.
Flamenco dancer Olga Pericet and I in Madrid
Spending so much brain power figuring out what made Latina’s tick by scouring the internet on a daily basis, and keeping up with women trends in general, made me realize that there was yet another underserved audience: women like me who are thirty five and older who want to move freely and explore what the world has to offer. I saw a need to tell stories for single women, moms, wanderlusters, spirit junkies, health conscious yoga-pant-wearing women and everyday women who were hungry for content that spoke intimately to their desire for well-being. In my own life, I was so consumed by my daily routine, I felt spiritually disconnected. I started telling my girlfriends that I was going to leave it all behind to become a Flamenca in Spain, that I was on a mission to get my duende back. And that’s when my yogini friend confessed she constantly fantasized of dropping everything to pursue her bliss in India, another to ride horses in Texas at a ranch to roam free as a Cowgirl, and another friend to experience romance through tango in Argentina. Turns out that every country, every culture has its own duende. So the idea for the Going Solo documentary series hit me— I would explore what it means to be all these things by embodying each country’s unique form of cultural expression. Putting myself in these different shoes (and on camera!) would add a new dimension to my understanding of how people in the world genuinely express themselves by feeling their own culture.
Being a cultural explorer has given me the knowledge to tackle anything that needs to be looked at from different angles in order to get to the heart of what really matters.
I feel strongly about identifying the missing links and connecting the dots when it comes to the many types of stories that are rustling beneath the surface just waiting to be brought to light. Some are about innovative products and forward thinking ideas, others are aspirational stories about people who exemplify positive ways by which to live. I believe in chasing passionately after what’s essential and grabbing it. I want to tell stories that display the kinds of cultural insights that influence people so that they can think and feel differently. Displaying cultural competence is key for our global future, and I can’t wait to see how we can evolve into new ways of being that will have a long-lasting impact.