Friday, August 21, 2015

Traveling to Cuba (and feeling less guilty about it)

Many Cuban Americans who grew up in South Florida remember hearing their parents and grandparents rhapsodize about Cuba. How the water was bluer, the sand softer, the mangoes sweeter.

Some of these Cuban Americans have dreamed of visiting the island but they felt conflicted about it. They didn't want to upset their families who may have worked in labor camps to flee the communist government. And they don't want to appear to be supporting the system by spending money there as a tourist.

So for Cuban-Americans or American travelers in general who want to travel to the island nation but not feel bad about it, how do you go about this?

I wrote a guide, a list of travel tips to Cuba for my paper, the Sun Sentinel. There are things one can do that can directly benefit the everyday Cuban workers and entrepreneurs.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Remembering El Oriental de Cuba

A new reader sent me an email yesterday and it triggered some fond memories for me.

 "Just wanted to share that I came across your eBook (Beantown Cubans) as I was eating a media noche and batido de guayaba. lol hahahhaa. Thought it was weird. What a coincidence that you mentioned the same thing, a media noche and batido de mamey, I'm Cuban and Mexican from Boston but now I live in TAMPA. with all the other cubans. just wanted to share, peace. - Angel"

He was referring to El Oriental de Cuba restaurant, the real-life setting in my third book Beantown Cubans where the two main characters Tommy and Carlos meet up each Friday to talk about work, their families and of course, guys! And immediately, a wave of my own memories of eating at this Boston eatery rushed over me.  

In Boston, El Oriental is a Cuban institution where Cubans and non-Cubans can find a scrumptious media noche, a creamy pink mamey shake and potent cups of cafecito. But it's also a gathering place in Boston's Latin Quarter also known as Jamaica Plain (JP for locals.)  

Besides food, visitors can grab copies of local Spanish-language newspapers such as El Mundo and El Planeta. Flyers for upcoming Latin concerts and festivals fill the window sills by the take out counter. Spanish peppers the air and mixes with the sounds of sizzling steaks from the stove. Framed photos of classic American Chevys and Fords and everyday scenes of Cuban life bedeck the walls. The place is an unofficial community center where New England media can gauge the pulse of the Latino community.

416 Centre St., Boston
When I moved to Boston, the restaurant reminded me of Miami. It was a piece of Cuban culture injected into this little corner of Centre Street in the Hub. It felt like Miami, like home.  And whenever I could, I would bring a new Cuban friend, non-Cuban friend and some dates (but not at the same time) to introduce them to this little local favorite. A lunch or dinner there served as a form of initiation into Boston Cuban culture. It was a great spot to interview local Latino leaders for story ideas.

I also brought my family here. I remember when my parents visited me for the first (and only) time in Boston, they realized I didn't have any Cuban coffee in my Dorchester kitchen. So off we went to El Oriental for cafecito and brunch. (It was only three miles away.) I think my parents also felt at home there too.  And so when it came to write Beantown Cubans, I knew exactly where I would have the two main characters meet up each week to gab. El Oriental.

When it came time for Open Road Integrated Media to record a video for the book a few summers ago, El Oriental's owner Nobel Garcia was gracious enough to serve the small crew the best of what his restaurant had to offer (Cuban sandwiches, bistec de pollo, chicken sandwich, sweet plantains, black beans and rice -- basically a sampler of the menu). He also plopped a blue Oriental de Cuba baseball cap on me during the shoot as I sipped on the mamey shakes. (I was so full you could have rolled me outside to the Hi-Lo market, now Whole Foods.) 

The photo above is a screen grab from the shoot. (That's me with owner Nobel Garcia.) The video is here.    You'll see the tall glass of mamey shake in front of me. Thank you Nobel and the staff of El Oriental for all the good meals and times in Boston.

(This was the crew from Open Road Media with me in middle after we pigged out at El Oriental. We then went to the Blue Hills to work it off.  From left, Danny Monico, Jeffrey Sharp, moi and Luke Parker.)


Monday, August 17, 2015

Sharks on Twitter

Mary Lee the Shark loves the Miami Marlin, Jimmy Buffett and hanging out in South Florida. Katharine the great white likes to be snarky (or is that shnarky?) with her followers.  They're some of the great whites and other sharks that Tweet.  I wrote a fun fin story on how some humans (the land sharks) Tweet as these real sharks that were tagged with transmitters by Ocearch, a nonprofit shark group.

(The photo to the left is from Katharine the great white shark's Twitter profile  @Katharine_Shark

Friday, August 14, 2015

Matters of the Sea by Richard Blanco

As Richard Blanco read his lovely new poem Matters of the Sea  Friday morning for the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana, I raptly listened on NPR while driving my little Fiat on I-95 on my way to work. As he spoke, I instantly visualized and recognized his descriptions.

Among them: "our grandmothers counting years while dusting photos of their wedding days", "our fathers worn by the weight of clouds clocking in at factories,'' "our lips anointed by the same spray of salt-laden wind,'' "we’ve all cupped seashells to our ears listen again to the echo," "to gaze into the lucid blues of our shared horizon to breathe together to heal together."

His delivery was Zen-like, comforting and soothing like the sea that stood still behind him along El Malecon.

This is a long way of saying that I'm very proud of my literary Cuban Miami brother. In honor of the ceremony, I am reposting this entry below from when I interviewed Richard for his memoirish book The Prince of Los Cocuyos which was published last fall.

"A Cuban 'Wonder Years' or like a 'Running with Mangoes,'' a la Augusten Burroughs. That's how Richard Blanco describes his new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos that he just published.

It's the latest from the gay, Cuban-American, Miami-raised writer who presented his "One Today'' poem for President Obama's inauguration in Jan. 2013.

The new book chronicles his coming of age (and coming out) while living in Miami's Westchester neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s. (Cocuyos means fireflies in Spanish, in case you were wondering.)

I interviewed Richard for my paper the Sun Sentinel. Here's my story on his book, why he chose to write in more long form than his traditional poetry such as Looking for the Gulf Motel collection and how he hopes his stories may help gay youth know that they're not alone in their struggles. The book is warm and sweet like a Cuban cafecito.

Richard Blanco (and that's me smiling over his shoulder) at his book reading in Coral Gables for The Prince of Los Cocuyos

Monday, August 3, 2015

A slice of South Florida's boating culture

With the recent disappearance of two Jupiter boys who went fishing on their own in a 19-foot boat, a lot of people have been surprised that kids in South Florida navigate boats alone, unsupervised.  I wrote a story explaining this aspect of South Florida boating culture where kids who are raised on the water are trusted by their parents to motor boats solo.

(Photo from

Monday, July 27, 2015

'South Beach' comes to South Beach

Add the new Hulu series "South Beach'' to the long-list of shows rooted in South Florida home. This one is about two rival music labels and stars Miami native Ana Villafane as Carmen Suarez, a rising bilingual pop singer a la Shakira-meets-Rhianna.  Although it's called 'South Beach', the series features a lot of Miami backdrops such as Calle Ocho, midtown and the penthouse suite at the W Fort Lauderdale.

I wrote an article about the new series and interviewed some cast members.  A fun Miami pop factoid:  Ana Villafane will play Gloria Estefan in the upcoming Broadway musical "On Your Feet'' which tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their music dynasty.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mucho espanol on English-language TV shows

Tune into Power on Starz, Graceland on USA, Devious Maids on Lifetime, Bloodline on Netflix and Jane the Virgin on the CW and chances are, you'll  hear some Spanish. Some cable, broadcast and online shows are adding Spanish to their scenes to make the settings more realistic as well as the characters' back stories. Others do it to tap into the actors' bilingual skills. But overall, the added Spanish is a nod to the growing Hispanic TV audience. La verdad!

I wrote an article exploring on how more and more shows sprinkle espanol into their episodes. See if you notice this on the above shows or when you watch reruns of Law and Order: SVU and Modern Family this summer.

(Photo to the right is a screen grab from Starz series Power which regularly features the actors using Spanish in New York. The scene shown here was from an episode that was shot in Miami for season 2)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Latina versus canine

Every now and then, when I read a book I like (or when I have time), I write a review. Here's what I thought about the new memoir Stepdog  by Mireya Navarro.

In the Sterngold/Navarro household, who is top dog? Two married successful journalists? Or a quirky spotted dog named Eddie?

That’s the theme in the memoir “Stepdog” where New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro recounts her adventures (more like misadventures ) with her husband’s dog Eddie, a passive-aggressive pooch with the grey markings of an Australian cattle dog.

As Mireya tries to blend in with her dreamboat’s family as a stepmom (or madastra) to two children, she finds a nemesis in Eddie who does his best to push her out and keep Jim Sterngold for himself.  Mireya tells her story in a light, breezy way. The writing flows and keeps the reader on a loose leash so you stick around for the ride.

The story starts off quickly in introducing us to Eddie who pees outside their bedroom door. But then the book begins to drag like an English bulldog on a sidewalk during a hot summer day as she explains how she met Jim, moved to LA and began to adapt (or fight) with the dog.

But despite the title, I don’t think the book is so much about the dog. It’s more about stepping into a new family situation and finding your place. In Mireya’s case,  it’s about balancing the roles of wife and stepmom and how she fit into those designations after being single and independent  for so long.

From reading her experiences with the dog, Eddie didn’t sound that bad. (Food is always the best way to a dog’s heart which she learns toward the end.)  Or perhaps the author left out the really really bad stuff. But could the dog have been picking up on Mireya’s uneasiness in the new household and projected that back to her? I always believed that the energy you put out comes back to you.

Although I enjoyed reading the book and I appreciated learning about the author’s Puerto Rican background and her rise at the NYT newsroom, I cringed (almost growled...Grrrr.) while reading some moments of meanness toward Eddie.

In one scene, she refers to him as “Edweirdo.”  When the couple consider moving back to New York from Los Angeles and thinks the dog won’t be able to adapt to the city, she says “I saw my chance to get rid of Eddie. I needed to just plant the idea.”

Once they finally move to New York and split their time between Montclair, New Jersey where Eddie stayed, she recounts how “I felt like a mistress” every time Jim left her New York City early on the weekends to walk and feed Eddie back in Jersey.  I applaud the author for being so honest but scenes like this made me want to root for Jim and Eddie more. (Sorry chica.)

Toward the end of the book after two health scares (one with Jim, the other with the dog),  Mireya finally caves in and accepts Eddie because “Eddie was an extension of the husband. So were the children. I surrendered,” she writes.  “But I couldn’t help loving him for loving Eddie…there he was, smitten with this strange creature.”

The book was my end-of-the-day bedtime literary snack and Mireya’s new attitude toward Eddie was welcomed and sweet as a doggie treat. So were the pictures of Eddie at the beginning of each chapter and the ones with Eddie and Mireya together.  How could she not love that spotted face?

Disclosure, I was a little more partial toward Eddie in most of the book because I love dogs even though I don't have one. (I'm a sort of a stepdad or godfather (dogfather?) to this little Fox terrier pictured below who likes to lick me a lot, toss a tennis ball my way while I watch the news/Netflix and sleep on my head.)