Baldwin & Identity: Learning to Love Myself

James Baldwin, surprisingly, has just recently entered my life. Baldwin was many things – an essayist, playwright, debater, scholar, artist, and activist. In 1987, his passing went unannounced in my life. His almost 40 years of writings and opinions were something unfamiliar to me. I’m sure in some first- or second-year college American literature course I came across one of his essays (at the date of his death, I was just about to start my second semester of my freshman year), but I did not take note, nor was educated on how much this celebrated African American man influenced our knowledge on the experiences of people of color in the United States.

In 1987, I was just starting my own journey in understanding my identity as a young Mexican American (at that time, I didn’t embrace “Chicano” yet) man. Naive and immature, I mainly saw my initial college years as ones to enjoy all the debauchery that college is known for – parties, clubbing, drinking, and meeting new friends. These initial years also brought overt experiences of racism and discrimination. While these experiences have always been a part of my life, what made these acts different was my idea that it would all end once I entered a university. I held an idyllic image of what college was supposed to be like – a setting where you studied under large trees with other students laughing and learning together. Instead, I found an environment that did not quite understand how to deal with the diversity of the people who entered its space each year. My university was also located in what was then considered a semi-rural area, where bastions of white supremacy and communities with a rich history of racism surrounded the campus.

This setting provided the background in understanding in my understanding what it means to be Chicano. In the hallways where knowledge was passed to students, myself and my friends who looked like me also received messages of “go back to Mexico”, “hey beaner”, “English only spoken here”, and “spic”. Friendly parties that went into the late evenings were broken up by the police once the house party started playing Tejano music (my friends and I always had a theory that rap and pop music blaring loud were fine to the neighbors, but when Spanish music was played, time to call the cops). Student organizations on campus were notable for their lack of diversity, especially in student leadership. Programming for cultural activities was often questioned more often in the guise of “will the attendance be worthwhile” or “there will be limited interest on that topic.” After three years of constant, sometimes daily, reminders of being different on a predominantly white campus, I made it a priority to learn more about myself, as someone who was quickly learning what it means to be Chicano in the United States.

The previous paragraphs set up my eventual plan to learn about my ethnic identity and what possible directions it might have taken if James Baldwin was introduced to me at that time. As part of my taking opportunity of life living under a pandemic, I reserved my Friday afternoons to engage in reflection to understand how we as a society ended up at this moment and what I can learn from it. Using film, music, and writing as my references, I hope to come out of this worldwide health crisis with a clearer lens and a hopeful outlook. My colleague and scholar-brother, Dr. Paul Eaton, has always encouraged me to look into Baldwin’s writings. While I ventured into viewing of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro”, was initially to understand my friend’s love of Baldwin’s work, I left my viewing of this film really connecting to how Baldwin’s essays connected to my own ethnic identity development. In addition, I loved how the film used archival footage of Hollywood movies to highlight key ideas found in Baldwin’s essays. I left my viewing with a full page of notes and I plan to further my education of James Baldwin.

One of the most powerful sections of the documentary involved describing Baldwin’s own educational journey, starting with his elementary schooling. If I recall, this section of the film fell under the title “Heroes.” In my elementary experience, I was one of few Mexican American children at my school. Reflecting back, I believe I was one of maybe two or three Mexican American boys. My childhood is filled with very vivid accounts of how I was different in the school. Through my young eyes, I did not see these experiences as anything but unfamiliarity with my culture. As adult, I see these many experiences as reflections of how U.S. society has always treated minoritized communities, especially in schools. One of the most powerful quotes I made note of in my viewing was Baldwin thoughts on the educational experience of many young students of color during pre-Civil Rights: “segregation starts once you go through the schoolhouse door.” When I heard this, I immediately visualized my own self going through various school doors where this occurred. Once I entered spaces of learning where I wasn’t visible, the segregation immediately occurred. As an elementary learner, I looked different than my classmates. As a junior high student, I was denied my love of reading due to my slurred speech. As a high school student, I was subjugated to the silly social group divisions – the “preps”, the jocks, the stoners, and the band nerds – most of these based on family income status. As a college student, it was all of these combined. Each educational setting I have entered has been one where I am reminded that I have to do extra just to succeed.

What if James Baldwin was part of my college development in 1987? Using the documentary as a frame of reference, I believe he would have provided validation on how I felt as a person of color in U.S. society at that time. My constant feeling of feeling like a “stranger” whenever I went to school – a place I deeply loved – matched Baldwin’s thoughts writing as a Black man living in a deeply divided United States. His keen observations of how we see each other (especially through Hollywood films) and ability to write about his experiences through powerful analogies (for example, describing Sunday services as “the most segregated hour in America”) would have been powerful guideposts to direct me in further understand my own understanding of who I was as a college student.

Jump forward to 2020, where I am now about to embark on yet another educational journey. This past week, I found out that I was approved for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure (pending Board of Regents approval, which should be given). I wrote in a social media post that this has been a journey over 40 years in the making. A journey that started at Midway Park Elementary in Euless,Texas. Like Baldwin,I wrote that my heroes were my elementary school teachers. My love of teaching was influenced by observing and receiving the care of those teachers who noticed and took in a shy quiet kid who loved reading and learning. I still remember the care and empathy shown by Mrs. Purvis, Mrs. Wallace, Mrs. Busey, Mrs. Copeland, and my favorite, my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Nixon, who at one time did help me figure out several incidents of racism by my classmates, who were just beginning to understand what it means to have power to oppress others. My new role as a tenured professor is something I do not take lightly. I’m entering yet another space where others who look like me – a Latino male – are few. In 2018, there were only 3-4% Latino men as full-time college faculty (NCES, 2018).

James Baldwin entering my life could not have come at a better time. This new phase needs me to further understand what it means to be a Latino male who now can use his tenure to advocate and support the Latinx community. I am finding out that James Baldwin was a prolific scholar, often providing talks and presentations at colleges and universities worldwide. He was a writer who could use his skill to not only pull the curtain to show the ugly side of U.S. race relations, but also use the power of the pen to uplift communities to believe in themselves and to love through activism. Baldwin was a confident individual, something that I know I need further improvement. In the documentary, there is clip where he engages in passionate dialogue with a white Ivy League scholar. What impressed me in this clip was Baldwin’s ability to engage his passion to not win or downplay his colleague, but to raise even more questions on why we need to understand the state of our nation. His confidence left an impression on me. I thought if I could do the same with my own faculty colleagues.

After viewing this powerful documentary using James Baldwin’s words, I came to the conclusion that I need to read more of his works not only to learn about his ideas, but to learn to love myself even more. I am entering a stage of my life where I feel the most confident I have ever felt. I have achieved an accomplishment that few have reached. It was one of the most difficult and surreal journeys in my life, but I did it. What comes next? That is the question I am looking forward to exploring. I know that it will still be challenging, but in the process, I have further developed my ethnic identity, my scholar identity, and my understanding on how to further use this role to support my Latinx community.

James Baldwin, how can you help me? What words have you written that I can learn from today? What thoughts can you pass down to another scholar of color? Have you ever spoken to other young men of color who were reaching the highest levels of education? And if you did, what advice did you share with them? How can I improve my confidence, much like you shown when asked to explain the most difficult of society’s problems? How can I use this knowledge in the classroom and in the role of tenured faculty?

Is there a Latinx writer-scholar equivalent to you?

I look forward to my continued education on the works of James Baldwin. I feel that it will help me in my new identities recently earned and continue to help me understand myself in these interesting and continually evolving times. It’s time to go home and pay my dues.


Life Out of Balance

In the late evening/early morning hours of March 3, 2020, a large tornado hit the greater Nashville, TN area just 1.5 miles from the central downtown area. At that time, my wife and I were attending a national conference for higher education student affairs administrators. As I woke up that night, I thought it was strange to see bright strobe-light like flashes of light that were blue and green, but with no thunder. The tornado sirens went off and then the hotel intercoms awoke hotel guests to evacuate their rooms immediately to proceed to the stairwells and move down to the lowest floors. Stunned and dressed for bed, hundreds of hotel guests moved to the stairwell, myself and my wife included. Once we reached the lowest levels, we waited for the all clear with hundreds of other guests, many who were attending the same conference. For 15 or so minutes, we waited patiently, checked social media, and stayed relatively calm and upbeat, not knowing the destruction occurring literally just blocks away.

Flash forward to today. The image of hundreds of individuals huddled in a tight, confined space, brings me mixed reactions. At that time, everyone kept the mood light and supportive, wondering what was happening to our Nashville guests and community. Today, I cannot think about being in that same situation without wondering more about my personal safety and health. Faced with the same situation today, would I considered the well-being of the community outside the hotel or would I be wondering who could be possibly carrying a virus that could transmit over to me? These are rough times. At this writing, 13,000 cases of U.S. coronavirus have been reported and milions of individuals in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere are being asked to stay at home this weekend. Our lives have been shifted to a new normal – one that asks us to be “socially distant”, avoid services and activities like going to the gym or getting a haircut, and altering our spiritual lives by removing interactions among parishes, congregations, temples and mosques. On social media, individuals are posting pictures celebrating the purchasing of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or hand soap. Next week, millions of K-12 and college students will return to virtual classrooms, where instruction and assignments will be delivered online. Traditions that define young adults – proms, graduations, weddings, sporting events, hanging out at the bars, etc. – are now “cancelled” or “closed until further notice”. These examples provide evidence of troubling times. Or do they? Can this moment in our global history be seen only through dire lens? Is life out of balance?

The Nashville tornado struck during the national convention of ACPA College Student Educators International. For that conference, I presented a session titled “The Calling We Seek: (Re)framing Student Affairs Through Monastic Ideas.” I used this session to initiate community discussion on applying St. Benedict’s The Rule (516 A.D.) and monastic culture as a unique frameworks to help us (re)frame our work in higher education student affairs to create work and professional identities and lives that are full and balanced.  At this juncture of my career in higher education, I am trying to understand, both in a philosophical sense and in a spiritual sense, how we have turned into a profession that views professionals as “laborers and production tools contributing only time and energy with little consideration for their being” (Squire & Niccolazzo, 2019, p. 4). At one time, we were a profession that viewed individuals as deserving “full and balanced development” as stated in one of our profession’s foundational historic document, the Student Personnel Point of View (American Council of Education, 1949, p. 19), which has been a central tenet of the profession. Squire & Niccolazzo (2019) believes that we have moved “away from a developmental framework”, where professionals who enter the field to advocate for students, transform organizational structures, and fight for social justice, are instead valued for being cogs in the assembly line of higher education. As someone who has been in the field for now 30 years, I am an eternal optimist. I refuse to believe that higher education can only exist in the troubling form described by Squire and Niccolazzo. As I reached the midpoint of my life, I have returned to part of my identity that has been diminished once I received my Ph.D. – my spiritual self.

As a doctoral student working on his degree at Indiana University in Higher Education, I felt a strong connection at that time to my spiritual identity. As a Latino male navigating the unfamiliar territory of doctoral studies at a location 900 miles away from my home, I found solace and comfort in asking a higher being to watch over me and to provide guidance to help me obtain my educational goals. This spiritual behavior included heavy involvement in the Catholic parish near campus. This involvement culminated in being selected to be a retreat leader for Kairos, an intensive three-day spiritual retreat for college students held at the Archabbey of St. Meinrad about 2-3 hours away from the Indiana University campus. As a retreat leader, I was provided the rare opportunity to learn about life and culture in a cloistered monastery. Being guided by one of the brothers at the monastery, I learned about the daily life, tasks and duties, and spiritual development of the brothers who were “called” to live the life of of Benedictine monk.

I was fascinated by the life of these men who referred to each other as “brothers”, who lived communally in an environment that welcomed deep reflection and support, and valued work – intellectual and physical – reflecting their calling for hospitality and education. Long story short, after my retreat experience, I had deep reflection personally on whether I was receiving some sort of “calling” as a doctoral student. In my whole life, I have always been deeply reflective, extremely emotional, strongly loyal, and simple. Was the life I saw at the monastery something I could possibly live? I consider this as a possible life choice. Obviously, I didn’t take that route, but I chose a profession that I feel is still a calling – that of a college educator. Since then I have always respected and honored the life of monks and the culture associated with cloistered communities. It is something I have always kept in the head which I am now exploring in my role as a college faculty member. I have always waited to feel my “calling” to pick this back up and now I feel that I am reaching a crossroad in my career where understanding the value of spiritual wellness and community is important, not just for me, but for the higher education community – a lens to understand where we have been and where we are possibly going. Unfortunately, where we are going is challenging my idea of having a calling and I hear that in the voices of colleagues in the field. Our professional life is out of balance.

During the convention, there was looming dread about the future impact of the coronavirus. Conference attendees were encouraged to wash hands thoroughly, to not shake hands or hug (which is a HUGE request to ask professionals in our field), and to keep pay attention to any sudden shifts of health. Concern and worries about the days after convention were discussed throughout the convention. Those worries came into complete realization the week of March 9th. In the span of a week, institutions of higher education were deciding to limit student contact on campus, to figure out how to control the spread of the virus, and how to handle the daily functioning of a college. The following week, campuses for the most part are now completely online. The recent events are unprecedented in these modern times. Again, my reflections of where we are at in higher education, where we have been, and where it is going in terms of professional and work culture are weighing heavy in my mind. How did we get here? This is not just a higher education issue, this has become a worldwide concern on how we have been living and how our lives have possibly been impacted by our over reliance of technology, our ability to avoid strengthening community, and the ease of controlling and oppressing individuals for our own selfish gains.

Life is out of balancecurrently. This is where my eternal optimism shows up. It is truly my hope that along with the pain and hurt we will observe in the weeks and months ahead, we will also see the marked changes humans will achieve after social isolation that helps them value the worth of community and validation. We are noticing this in understanding the impact of the service industry. We are recognizing the importance of those who help make our day a bit more important – the nurse, the first responder, the waitperson, the grocery cashier, the flight attendant, the housekeeper, and the list goes on. My hope is once we are able to do more our daily tasks, we honor more the work that these individuals provide. My ultimate goal is that this carries over to the wonderful and valuable work our student affairs professionals provide on our campuses. The entry-level resident director, the mid-level director, and senior-level administrator who hasn’t lost their calling as they climbed the ranks. We need to respect their work and treat it with the value we failed, in most cases, to notice before this crisis.

In this semester of remote work at home and supporting students and colleagues online, I have made it a point to use Friday as a day of reflection on where we are at as a society. This will be done through a selection of readings focused on spirituality in education and teaching, reflection and journaling of current events, listening of music of genres unfamiliar to me, and viewing of film that address the broad question, “how did we get here?”

I started this spiritual journey by viewing the documentary feature, “Koyaanisqutsi”, a 1982 film consisting of images depicting how mass-produced technology has infiltrated and overtaken nature and human life. Shown through a series of slow-motion and time-lapsed footage in urban areas set to the minimalist music of composer Phillip Glass, this film provides a remarkable account of “life out of balance”. Individuals are placed in settings where anonymity is valued. Technology (at least the earliest versions of what we have now) has overtaken nature, where we as humans prefer to be in spaces devoid of appreciation of beauty and peacefulness. Slowness is considered invaluable where speed and quick response is desired and the ultimate goal. While made in the early 1980s, this film is so prophetic. The images today, many which are iconic in cinema, ring true today. Some images in the film are haunting even in today’s standards – the lonely individual who raises her car’s power window only to be replaced by the reflection of a huge anonymous skyscraper, the mass-production of food (see below clip of Oscar Meyer wieners at 4:00 minute mark) coming off the conveyor belt juxtaposed with humans going up an escalator, both looking similar, then the iconic time-lapse footage of cars on a freeway , representing our avoidance of observing the nature surrounding us. This film provides me one answer on how we got here. We have lived our life out of balance. We have to change. Images like those found in the below clip need to change. We need to reflect on why life looks like it does below. We need to press the brake. We need to slow down. We need to rebalance.

As I continue to reflect on events occurring today, I will make use of this time to understand our crisis through the practice of writing. I hope to use the references mentioned above to create more posts providing my thoughts. Using the visual and media arts is valuable during this time of reflection. I aim to include it as much as possible. My goal is to turn these reflective posts into something I can piece together to create a larger thought paper. What I’ll do with it remains to be seen, but I do hope it can produce something that might be of interest to a newsletter, publication, or book. If not, I’m just glad that I am taking time to write and I appreciate that you found interest to get this far. I welcome any thoughts or comments. Feel free to email me at to respond. Let’s try together to view this historic event spiritually and with an eye on how we can transform life – both professionally and personally – when all is said and done.

In the end, we will hug and appreciate the value of human connection and balance.


For additional reading and viewing:

American Council on Education. Committee on Student Personnel work, & Williamson, E. G. (1949). The student personnel point of view.

Coppola, F. F., Reggio, G., Fricke, R., Glass, P., Riesman, M., Hoenig, M., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Co., … MGM Home Entertainment Inc. (2002). Koyaanisqatsi. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.

Meisel, A. C. & Mastro, M. L. (1975). The rule of St. Benedict: Translated with introduction and notes. Doubleday Publishers.

Squir, D. D. & Nicolazzo, Z. (2019). Love my naps, but stay woke: The case against self-care. About Campus 24(2).

Taylor, B.C. (1989). Spirituality for everyday living: An adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Valente, J. (2016). How to live: What the Rule of St. Benedict teaches us about happiness, meaning, and community. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

My Picks for Ric Flicks of 2019: Social Class, The Boss, and The Best of Plans

If you don’t know yet, I consider myself a cinephile. I love movies. I love escaping into a good story and letting the plot and characters guide me into their world. While it is easy to let viewers into familiar stories with plot lines that do not surprise, I prefer movies that lead into unexpected areas where I am caught off-guard, thrown off-balance, and left with sense of confusion and amazement once I leave the theatre. My preferred movies are not for the average movie goer. They require preparation by not knowing (in most cases) the plot, characters, and settings. The less I know, the better my experience. I love to go into a theatre with a sense of excitement and uncertainty with what the next two hours may hold.

These characteristics combine to create what my wife Angie calls, a “Ric Flick”. Ric Flicks are movies that usually are placed into the category of art-house movies, which is a shame. These movies are some of the best and demand a wider audience appreciation. They demand viewers to think, to not follow the expected story conclusions, and most importantly, to reflect on what was just presented on the screen. Nothing is more satisfying for me than discussing and sharing thoughts on a shared movie experience. Last year, I had the pleasure of viewing the movie “Roma” with my colleague and scholar-brother Paul Eaton. After viewing this beautiful film, I recall both of us immediately sharing deep reflections on the images, the story, and the gorgeous cinematography presented to us. It was a movie that did not leave us immediately. The story opened more doors of contemplation and analysis well after the final credits. I prefer like these – movies that challenge, movies that provide deep introspection, movies that do more than offer explosions and action. These are “Ric Flicks”.

Ric Flicks of 2019

The movies of 2019 did not disappoint. In fact, there are several movies that I’m sure will be on this list once I see them. In no particular order, the movies that I have NOT seen that would likely round out the two movies described on this post include:

  1. The Lighthouse
  2. Little Women
  3. Jojo Rabbit

I hope to see these movies before the end of the year and I’m sure they will be on my “best of” list for 2019. Viewing their trailers provide some taste of what each story brings to the viewer, which hint at their unique perspectives of the film’s characters.

While I did see a variety of movies, this post will describe two movies that I thought were fantastic movie watching experiences. They definitely fall into two spectrums of movie watching, but both share an uncanny sense of humor among the harshest of environments. While having characteristics of humor, each film dives into heady issues of racism, social class, stereotypes, and inequity in society. I think this is why these films are at the top of my list. Each film deals with these issues in unexpected ways. Whether it is through music or social satire, these movies provided viewers new perspectives on common issues facing all of us today.

These two movies I highly recommend!

Blinded by the Light

One of the unexpected surprises of 2019 was “Blinded by the Light”, an uplifting story of an English-born Pakistan teenager who discovers the music and wisdom of Bruce Springsteen.

Javed is an aspiring writer in high school who lives in the economically impoverished working class town of Luton, where unemployment, racism, and white nationalism coexist with dreams of a better life just beyond the city limits. Javed imagines life outside of his hometown. Luton is about 40 miles away from London. Javed is a dreamer and London represents an escape from strife he observes daily in Luton. The films begins with a young Javed sitting on top of a grassy hill with his friend Matt. Both look at the traffic on the freeway below leading drivers toward London. Each promise to one day make it out of Luton to chase their dreams in the big city. Fast forward to 1987 where Javed and Matt are now in high school still chasing their dreams. Matt dreams to be the next New Wave synth superstar (which by the way, the movie’s soundtrack includes some of my favorite English New Wave acts!) and Javed aspires to write. As high school students, their friendship has developed into one where both still believe they can make it out of Luton. At the same time, Javed becomes more keen at the discrimination and racism placed on his family living in working-class England. His family lives in a modest flat where his dad is unemployed and his mother keeps the family afloat as a launderer for the community. Javed’s father can be described as strong willed family man with strong pride for his family and culture, but stubborn to not see the discrimination apparent in his current living situation. Javed tries to keep his own dreams alive, yet he also realizes that his family and community is suffering due to the conservative Thatcher era policies.

Javed is at a crossroads on trying to understand where his life will take him and whether Luton is the place where he belongs for his aspirations to grow. His life path is further tested after he has a encounter with a skinhead who tells him “Pakis” do not belong in Luton. He is frustrated on his current life until one fateful lunch period, his Sikh classmate, Roops, tells him that “The Boss” understands their world. Javed questions Roops and his belief that the songs of Bruce Springsteen can help him navigate all of his life situations. Roops, determined to convince Javed, proceeds to loan Javed his cassettes (this is the 80s) of “Born in the USA” and “Born to Run”. Later that evening, Javed listens to the tapes on his Walkman and thus, begins his journey of self-discovery and cultural pride with the assistance of Bruce Springsteen.

What I loved about this movie was how the director, Gurinda Chadha, visualizes how Javed sees and interprets the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. His first listen of “Dancing in the Dark” is portrayed as a montage of seeing the lyrics of despair and desire circling Javed’s headphones and eventually spiraling into a literal whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that spin his writings out of his bedroom window. The director’s creativeness in portraying Javed’s enthusiasm in discovering that Roops was right and that Springsteen’s lyrics reflected his plight and challenges was brilliant to watch. Throughout the movie, the songs of Bruce Springsteen show up at pivotal moments of Javed’s personal development. Song lyrics are flashed on the side of buildings throughout Luton, lyrics follow Javed as he walks the streets, and lyrics appear larger than life in tunnels and walls following Javed. The director’s Indian movie culture of Bollywood appears also within the movie. One of these Bollywood touches can be found in the scene where Javed and Roops try to have their school radio station play Bruce Springsteen. The head DJ, who sees their music as not as hip as the current synth pop of that time, refuses to allow them to play Springsteen. What follows is a homage to both teen movies of the 80s and Bollywood joyfulness where dance and song break out spontaneously using “Born to Run” as the soundtrack:

To describe in detail what occurs throughout the movie would take away the joy and pain that the characters experience in the story. “Blinded by the Light” gave me pure joy on the power of music and a reminder that the injustices faced by immigrant communities in the 1980s still lives today worldwide. Music, however, knows no boundaries and the cross-cultural interactions between Javed and the music of Bruce Springsteen are the surprises that made this one of my favorite films of 2019. The movie also surprised me with life in working-class England during the late 1980s. The hardships that not only Javed’s family encounters, but also his childhood friend Matt and others in the film stand out in letting viewers understand why something like music allows them to continue to dream and to become resilient. Javed comes to own his Pakistani identity and working-class background. He realizes that Bruce Springsteen empowers him to fight back against those who not only share his musical passion, but also those who look to oppress him.

Upon viewing the film, I looked up the book upon which the movie is based on. The writer, Sarfraz Manzoor and his memoir Greetings from Bury Park is on my 2020 book read list. I found the movie to connect to my own experience as a Mexican American growing up in a similar working-class town and neighborhood – Euless, Texas. My preference to the 80s synth pop of the Pet Shop Boys, the Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode (to name a few) was largely due how the music spoke to those who were introverted and on the fringes of the preppie and materialistic youth culture of that time. I definitely did not match the “goth New Wave” image, but the music and lyrics of these groups spoke to me. I owned my Mexican identity, but I also owned my lonely, shy, somewhat reclusive self and my upbringing in an area of the suburbs that did not have the levels of income surrounding it. “Blinded by the Light” reminded me of my youth and personal development in the 80s. I highly recommend it to be reminded of the power of music and The Boss.


Where to begin with my #1 pick for 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”? It’s an extremely dark comedy, it’s a biting commentary on social class and how we treat those at lower and upper levels of income, it’s a tragedy at the highest levels, and it’s confounding, providing one of the strangest “WTF” moments on film. I loved it and it is definitely a film that requires thinking and deep reflection after viewing:

The less I write about this movie, the better it is to not spoil any of the many surprises found in this brilliant film. The trailer gives the slightest of peeks on the many twists and turns found in this movie.

I found this movie to have three acts: the plan, the plan played out, and what happens when a plan vanishes? The idea of having a “well thought-out plan” is a theme found in the movie. Obviously, when you view the movie trailer, you can sense that the story involves how one family infiltrates another to find financial opportunities. Oh, that is just the tip of the iceberg! While that is a primary focus, the movie actually is a biting satire on how social class dictates the human psyche. Who are the victims in the movie? Those taking advantage of those more fortunate or those who take advantage of the labor and work of those in the lower rungs so that upper-class individuals can enjoy the comforts provided to them. When viewing the movie, you start to believe that the film portrays this theme vividly….then the rug gets pulled completely under you in the third act.

What the third act has will have you re-evaluating the entire storyline. However, the theme of social class still is apparent. The movie is titled “Parasite” and what you know about parasites from biology or other science courses is probably helpful in providing a symbolic interpretation of the movie. In some reviews and essays on the film, I read that parasites live off their hosts and there is a constant competition on who will get the most from the host when other parasites are found. Thus, the real question of this movie is who exactly is the “host”? One minor spoiler is that the house where the wealthy Park family lives is, in my opinion, a major character in the film. I will leave it at that and do know that the house, while splendid in its modern architecture, is a house filled with laughter, secrets, horror, and tragedy. In some way, houses across all social classes have these elements. How we deal with them as humans provides a real look at our humanity. Happiness can be found in a sub-basement apartment and terror can be found in a multimillion dollar mansion. “Parasite” reminds the viewer that just when a well thought out plan appears to be working, sometimes having no plan might be the best route to take. When you watch “Parasite”, I recommend going in with no plan and see how you come out after viewing.

In my Facebook post immediately after viewing the film, I have it a rare “two thumbs up and two toes up”, which means this was a definite “Ric Flick”. One that I will enjoy viewing again.

It was a good movie year and I know some good flicks will be coming in 2020. Some popular and “Ric Flicks” already on my radar include:

  1. 1917
  2. Color Out of Space
  3. Wonder Woman: 1984
  4. In the Heights

I’m looking forward to watching stories that take me to unexpected and surprising places.


Social Class, Confidence & Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”

During the November midterm elections, much was made regarding a “migrant caravan”.  Numerous local, state, and national politicians (including our president) made much ado about the how these men, women, and children from Central America would bring a variety of societal ills to our country.  Conservative commentators raised fear and worry by claiming these individuals only mean to break the law and cause harm to innocent Americans.  A full month after the elections, the chaos and anarchy dreamed up by nationalist figures has yet to occur along our border. The president’s call for military presence was largely aimed to boost egos and win political races at the expense of service men and women. Today, the United States being seen as a beacon of hope and prosperity continues to be eroded. Tucker Carlson even eluded in his most recent rant that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer”.  Central in all these debates is knowledge that Latina/o/x communities are the recipients of stereotypes, discrimination, hatred, fear, and blame.

Yet, for all these discussions on Latina/o/x immigrants, much of American society takes advantage of these individuals in our economic and social environments. In the comfortable surroundings of my middle-class neighborhood, I see how my neighbors depend on a mostly Latina/o labor force to care for lawns, housekeeping, and handiwork. Some would believe that Latina/o/x immigrants come into our country expecting a free ride or taking away benefits from others.  I do not see this when I look out my window to see these individuals working morning, noon, and night. Work is respected and earned.  The narrative that Latina/o/x immigrants bring harm, drugs, and gangs is, to use a favorite phrase since 2016, “fake news”.

Knowing how I feel about immigrant rights and trying to understand the root of how immigrants are perceived and treated are a few reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was on my must-see list of holiday movies.  Cleo, the central focus of the movie, is one of the most emotionally realized characters put on film.  From what I read, Cuaron intentionally sought an actress with indigenous features to portray Cleo, who is modeled after the director’s beloved caretaker and nanny, Libo, who is mentioned at the very end of the film. Yalitza Aparicio, who was a pre-school teacher prior to acting in her first film, captures all the emotions beautifully her character Cleo faces.  The one fascinating aspect of Ms. Aparicio’s role is how she develops Cleo into a confident, proud, and respected figure during the course of one year, 1971.

Cleo is the epitome of many things that make us believe in true form of humanity, in my opinion.  Without giving away too much of the movie’s story, in the course of one year, she faces challenges and situations which would make normal individuals question their faith, trust in others, pride, society, and even nature itself.  Yet, Cleo remarkably overcomes each of these challenges with one thing she realizes come the end of that tumultuous year in Mexico – her confidence.

[A few minor spoilers ahead!] One of the things I love about Alfonso Cuaron’s movies is his use of subtle symbolism and visuals.  “Roma” is filled with these cues, which makes me want to watch the film one, two, three more times.  One interesting visual that caught my attention is the frequent appearance of an airplane in flight.  I took this visual as Cuaron’s way of letting us know Cleo’s mindset at that moment.  Is the plane landing?  Is the plane leaving?  In some scenes, especially the beautiful opening when a precise shot of the plane is reflected off a puddle of water, the plane foretells a significant event in Cleo’s life.  After viewing, I interpreted the plane as Cleo’s life path that maybe she’s considering.  Maybe she wants to leave the life of a live-in servant to a middle-class family to escape to another place.  Maybe she could see a peaceful (yet dusty and blurry) future with someone who doesn’t really love her back.  In the end, I loved how Cuaron uses this subtle visual to add to Cleo’s story. 

Cuaron again uses a baby to help his characters and the viewers understand the delicacy of humankind.  Again, new life in the world as viewed by Cuaron is tested in ways that is gut-wretching, yet hopeful.  As in this powerful scene from his dystopian vision of the future in Great Britain, “Children of Men”:

New life in the world is tested on day one.  In “Roma”, Cleo emerges from this challenge with a mixture of doubt and sadness on how fate questions her connection to humanity.  Yalitza Aparacio deserves an Oscar nomination just for the facial expressions she was able to produce in this portion of the movie.  Some actresses grandstand their pivotal scenes with shouts and emotional overkill.  Here, Yalitza (Cleo) connects with the viewer with what she doesn’t say and what she finds difficult to express.  It is a powerhouse of a performance. 

One of the most remarkable scenes in “Roma” is the re-enactment of the Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre.  Viewed from the window of a furniture store, the chaos and terror is capture in one unexpected moment of violence.  Again, Cuaron digs into his memory of this sad part of Mexican history which likely impacted his life.  Researching this event in the movie, I found the following explaining the chaos visualized in the film and the connection Cleo personally has to this horrific event:

What “Roma” captures with Cleo is her development into someone who always had tremendous confidence and strength, even among all the personal and natural disasters that came her way.  Which is the reason I loved this movie.  Without giving to much away, the director beautifully symbolizes her rise in respect and honor among the family members she cares for in Mexico City (plane visual included). After viewing, I equated this confidence with reasons why fear and distrust is placed among today’s immigrant population.  Those who see immigrants as making the United States “dirtier” are far from the truth.  For those we label as immigrants – or shall we say humans – they truly are beautiful, and they realize that.  People like Cleo and her best friend are part of one strong community others do not fully understand (or choose not to).  They support each other and when all hell breaks loose, they are resolute in their recovery.  Respect and honor is not something that is given, it is earned through tireless effort and diligence.   Individuals in Cleo’s world are treated with innocence, understanding, and most importantly love.  When not reciprocated, the idea that deep down people are still good keeps life going. All of these qualities and more make those individuals who lack this in their daily lives jealous. For them, gone is compassion, instead replaced by hatred. A life of privilege is a life that is unfulfilled. Unlike Cleo, you do not face challenges that test you.  Avoiding these on your own choosing makes you vulnerable to the stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that creates an easy, yet desolate, path of living life.  In the end, Cleo continues living life on her own terms, with the knowledge that she will only get stronger at each passing year.

“Roma” for me will be a movie that I can say impacted me for years to come. Film is art that I cherish and while some movies I view are lovingly called “Ric Flicks”, they embody what I want cinema to create – emotional reaction, character connection, and visual immersion. “Roma” had all of these and more.  Yes, you can say I give this film 5 stars (out of four)!   It does not have scenes that end in 1-minute, it is purposely slow paced, and interestingly does not have a musical soundtrack, just natural noise from the surroundings.  If you want a movie that will make you believe in the true beauty of understanding who you are in this chaotic world, I urge you to see “Roma”.


“He is.”

Paul Thomas Anderson & The Thrill of the Unexpected

While waiting in line to buy my ticket to see “Phantom Thread”, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, I could not avoid eavesdropping on the conversation of two well-dressed women who were waiting to buy tickets for the same movie.  One was very eager to see the movie.  The other interestingly was more focused on talking about the Catholic Mass they just came from.   The one excited about the film was worried that they would be late for the show since we had about 10 minutes to get tickets before showtime.  When someone asked what movie they were going to see, the excited woman said “Phantom Thread, the movie about dresses and a dressmaker!”

I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the movie mentioned above.  I purposely did not read too much about the movie Phantom Thread since I wanted to go in to be surprised and ready for the unexpected. Fans of the director PT Anderson know that his films easily divide audiences.  The main reason for these divisions is that his films tend to go into unexpected and sometimes outrageous directions. 

While his last movies have been historic drama pieces, they all have gone into storylines and plots that throw viewers off balance, scratching their heads to say “WTF!?”  The thrill of his movies is not necessarily the complex stories and meticulous set pieces, its the surprises that he throws at viewers to challenge them on re-thinking what cinema is and isn’t.

Before you read further, I will add a spoiler note in that I will describe some of my favorite “WTF!” moments of PT Anderson’s movies.  If you want to stay surprised and enjoy the unexpected, then I advise you stop reading this blog right now!  If you already have seen the director’s repertoire, then you will not be surprised.  If you are curious, then by all means read on!

My fascination with this director started when I viewed the movie “Boogie Nights.”  The audacity to make a 2.5 hour film about the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s obviously would challenge anyone who entered the theater.  For me, the refreshing surprise was that the film wasn’t about the industry, but rather it was a film about lonely individuals looking for family and how family can be define for those whose real families fail to love, support, or care for others.  In viewing the film, the unexpected moment comes in a shocking and graphic suicide of character Little Bill, played by William H. Macy.

Little Bill was the cameraman of porn director Jack Horner. Little Bill was the tortured soul in the “family” created by Jack Horner.  While being oblivious to the acts he filmed, he couldn’t shake off the same acts that was used by his wife to belittle him.  PT Anderson challenged the viewer to react to how Little Bill faced his “family” problem.  The director brilliantly followed Little Bill through the house as he reacted to the demons impacting him. While the house party was welcoming the new decade of the 1980s, Little Bill, after performing an act of violence that is implied, goes into a living room while others are partying and laughing at him.  Here, he smiles directly at the camera and pulls out a gun and shoots himself where immediately, “80s” flashes on the screen.  Due to the graphic nature of the scene, I will not share it in this space, but do a YouTube search on “Boogie Nights Little Bill”, the scene will likely show up.  It’s a stunner.

One of my favorite movies to this day is “Punch-Drunk Love”,  a strange and sweet love story about a man with anger issues and a plan to fly anywhere in the world courtesy of a pudding promotion.  If you never seen this movie, you are likely saying “what?”  This movie is full of PT Anderson’s tricks, leading viewers on a strange trip through one man’s quest to find love.  One can dissect the opening scene alone for ages to find out its meaning. In this film, the unexpected moment for me was when love is reached for the character Barry.  Once it is, the director stages one of the most beautifully filmed first kiss scenes in cinema.

One of favorite movies of all time is “Magnolia”.  Much has been written about the movie’s infamous “it’s raining frogs” scene.  This alone would create the biggest “WTF!” moment.  However for me, PT Anderson’s best unexpected twist is actually constructing a film where plots and characters are all connected by Aimee Mann songs.

I had the terrific opportunity to attend an Aimee Mann concert recently and I was beyond thrilled that she sang three songs from the Magnolia soundtrack.  The movie was widely discussed on how audiences felt about two pivotal scenes.  First, the raining frogs and second, the characters who sing Ms. Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  When I first viewed the movie (I saw it 3 times at the theater), audiences walked out mostly on the Aimee Mann scene.  Again, PT Anderson threw an expected twist on the movie experience, once again challenging what we expect when we see a drama.  For me, it’s one of the most beautiful depictions of lonely people who are, in fact, not alone.

So, it was no surprise that today’s viewing of “Phantom Thread” did not disappoint…at least for me.  I will not give away any scenes other than the movie, like all PT Anderson movies, takes viewers on an interesting ride which if audiences pay attention, will provide a turn that will likely make a few go “WTF!”

Back to my friends who were excited to see the movie.  When I was leaving the theater I walked past them.  While they were still planted in their seats, I did overhear the one most excited telling her friend, “What was that?”  I just laughed when I heard that comment.  In my head, I said “A PT Anderson picture.”   We were all taken for a ride.  Yes, it was about dresses.  Yes, it was about a dress maker.  And yes, it was about……well, you just have to go see it yourself.


Harvey, you can leave now.

Picture taken 12:30am Saturday during first day of heavy rain. Captured during a flash of lightning. Clear Lake received 20+ inches that evening.

As I write this, yet another band of heavy rain is hitting the Clear Lake City area of Houston.  Harvey has been a storm of historic portions.  It will likely go down in the history books as one of the costliest and most damaging storms ever recorded.  Knowing that I lived through it along with millions of other Houstonians is both sobering and fascinating.  Sobering in knowing that just 3-4 miles north of where I live, families are still being rescued via boats from houses with feet, not inches, of water inside of them.  Fascinating in that the boats are largely owned by everyday citizens who came to help their neighbors.

In my previous post, I wrote about the “human goodness” that shows when disasters strike.  I made the argument why does it only have to show up during catastrophic events like Harvey?  I do hope that the goodness continues.  Houstonians and Texans step up to help their fellow Texans.  I would say this is very true.  Today, there was an nice short story about a huge earth mover truck being used to load people from one flooded neighborhood.  The news showed the truck just as it was about to unload.  Once it did, you saw families who were diverse.  Those helping unload the truck were officers from another area than the one the rescue was occurring.  When the reporter asked if the driver would  be interested in being interviewed, one of the responders said that he  didn’t speak English.  This image to me was a microcosm of Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

We will have days, weeks, months, and dare I say, years to recover.  Houston has a lot to fix, but we will bounce back.  As awful as the past few days have been, Houstonians have shared experience that no one has experienced.  On top of this, the experience was mostly shared on social media.  If you were in the middle of the storm like I was during the first night, text messages and things like Facebook was your connection to know what was happening and for others to make sure all was okay (or not).  For those outside of Houston, you share our pain.  You cried when you saw senior citizens and young children emerge from the floodwaters.  You even got the “feels” when you saw examples of humans helping humans (my favorite was the person who shared her large porch to individuals being unloaded from rescue boats, which soon became a mini-community center that included cookies and coffee!).  Houston, I hope, will be remembered for what a large urban city can be – a diverse, helpful, caring community of neighbors.

Our new sense of shared community will be tested once this is over.  Hurricane Ike in 2008 gave a preview of this idea.  Years after, I believe that some positive impact was made on Houston. Living here after, I feel that I know my neighbors better and as Harvey showed, we stepped up to the plate quickly when someone said, “please help”.  Positive change was seen and I personally think those that remembered and lived through Ike knew that it was time to take care of this great place we call Houston.

If you read to the end of this post, I would like you to consider donating to the fundraising effort by Houston Texan player J.J. Watt.  I’m a big fan of J.J. , not just for his awesome gift to take down a quarterback, but for his genuine love for the city of Houston.  If you are not from the area, you likely do not know all the extra community service he does off-season.  He’s a good guy with a big heart.  You can read about his fundraiser by going to 

Goodness needs to keep going.  Again, as I type this more rain is falling.  We don’t need more rain.  As one of my college friends stated earlier today, “I used to like the sound of falling rain.”

I agree.  Falling rain will forever make millions of Houstonians sad, scared, and wondering what will be next.

Only answer I can think of is onward.

Now more than ever.