“This is America”

“This is America”

“This is America,” acclaimed sushi chef Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa said with emphasis a second time. “This country gave me a life. A wife, a family, a restaurant. I want to give something back.”

I’ll reveal as to what was that gift back to the country he now considers his home because it was one of the many surprises of an unforgettable night in Atlanta, GA. Like the glorious meal of Japanese sushi delights my camera team and I enjoyed with relish and smiles, this chance dinner at a sushi restaurant tucked away in a strip mall off Buford Highway had all ingredients of a dish you never forget.

It was the manner in which Chef Hayakawa said “This is America” that made me listen with such respect. In an era where our elected leaders are determined to dictate as to whom they feel should be deemed an “American,” this accidental meeting nearly brought me to tears. It was that emotional.

Chef Hayakawa’s journey began at the age of 14, when he shared a sushi meal with his father. Like the potent wasabi that burned his nostrils and other senses, he knew sushi would be his life, a culinary art that would be his passion. At 15, he left school to study with a sushi master and for nine years, he studied and refined his craft with commitment and drive. At 24, he left his native Sapporo, Japan for the United States, much to the chagrin of his sushi master, who chose not speak to former student in response to his departure.

In 1991, Chef Hayakawa landed in the southeastern part of the country, beginning a new journey in Atlanta. He paid his dues, earning the sponsorship that would lead him to a green card, that time-honored golden ticket to the American Dream. In 2008, Chef Hayakawa opened his own establishment, Sushi House Hayakawa. In 2017, as the restaurant hones in on its 10th anniversary, the affable Hayakawa, is now considered to oversee one of the 12 most authentic sushi restaurants in the United States. And tonight, several cultures clashed in a communion of conversation, laughter and happy tears brought on by his trademarked wasabi bombs. (For the record, we ate three orders. He gave us one with an extra layer of that potent green goodness as a gift.)

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I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room tonight to document this evening in some fashion. And while I know this reads like, “Dear Diary, guess what happened to me tonight?” I don’t really care. Today was a good fuckin’ day to be alive, despite the current events on Capitol Hill as we enter a new political era that was only on view on “House of Cards” or “Veep.” I can’t help but burn with anger over a coterie of privileged “leaders” determined to turn their backs on the many men and women from overseas who have contributed mightily to the American Way. How can we disavow what is the true face of the American, a nation built on the backs and with the blood of so many immigrants?

But I digress…

How did we find Hayakawa? It was chance. We had wrapped a great day of interviews on the set of a film in its last days of principal photography. It was nearing dinner time and I declared sushi was in order. My audio tech conferred our digital oracle, The Google, and Sushi House Hayakawa was deemed the closest place. Little did we know we’d be heading for Tokyo, Japan in the process.

Instead of the usual Sapporo-fueled meal of spicy tuna rolls and tempura, we were treated to an experience that has a devout cult of loyalists, from Japan and elsewhere. An intimate dining spot of few tables and modest bar, Sushi House Hayakawa is an expert study of tastes, flavors and a near religious adherence to the art of sushi. Cell phones are not allowed. Reservations are requested. This is meant to be a personal experience to savor and enjoy without distractions or noise.

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Photo: Men’s Journal

Chef Hayakawa’s crisp white uniform was punctuated with a red terry cloth slash of read from the towel wrapped around his head. His hands had the delicacy of touch reserved for piano masters or surgeons, so skillful was his preparation of each piece of sushi. Our incredibly knowledgeable waiter, young, precise and absolutely American, treated us with respect and care. Yet, it those damn wasabi bombs he recommended that made us reach out to Hayakawa with a boisterous “Thank you.” His response? In addition to telling us the now-trademarked menu item was borne out or a prank, he gave us one more round with even MORE wasabi. Once dinner was over, I asked our waiter to see if Chef Hayakawa would pose for a picture with us. And this culinary master, who promised not to break my camera phone, posed and laughed and opted to stay with us for nearly an hour after closing time.

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I love telling stories for a living, but the narrative Hayakawa shared with us had us wrapt in attention. That wonderful crooked smile. His self-deprecating wit. His not knowing that he was serving Harrison Ford one memorable night. Or the bittersweet encounter with a smiling Paul Walker one week before his untimely death in a car accident. He was a trove of anecdotes, all delivered in a heavily accented, but warm voice that had us in his thrall.

Our meeting Chef Hayakawa reaffirms the incredible fortune one is gifted when they take to the road for work. We see and hear so much as we move from location to location, meeting a gallery of folks that represent all that can be wonderful in this world. Chef Hayakawa’s loyalists go back to his restaurant because he endeavors to give them an experience unlike any other. The demands of populist sushi cuisine were excised nearly two years ago from his menu. Gone are the California Rolls and other Americanized offerings found elsewhere. (And no, the spicy tuna roll is NOT a Japanese tradition.) Tucked into this mini mall, surrounded by Korean-owned establishments in the traditional American south, we found a true Japanese experience. It was a rare chance to be part of a narrative that was spun organically and without expectations.

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As we prepared to leave, Chef Hayakawa asked us to offer our support of his new, full-time sushi chef, a southern American named Terry. We noted that we were surprised to see Terry behind the bar. He told us he’s worked with several different Asian apprentices from all over, but Terry was truly unique. He “got it” and after a year and a half, he’d promoted him to full time not too long ago. But it was his saying, “I don’t see race” that caught our attention, too. Because “This is America” and he wanted to give something back. It would be Terry who would now benefit from his teachings, taking his art further into the world in a new way.

What a privilege meeting Chef Hayakawa tonight. I’ll never forget how he ran out to us in the parking lot with cold bottles of water. He was worried since beer was consumed, we would be subjected to the strict DUI laws of the area.

Now, about the sushi master in Japan who refused to talk to Chef Hayakawa for over 20 years? The former student, who makes a point to go back to Sapporo every two years, would call on his master each time to no avail. But five years ago, on one particular trip, master and student were reunited. He showed at the appointed hour and for 45 minutes, no one spoke. They sat in total silence…until the moment the master pulled out a bottle of sake and poured two glasses. “Drink,” he said in a gruff tone. Drink they did. And then he said to his former student, “Good job.” He’d been made aware of Hayakawa’s success in the U.S. The student cried, nose running, tears flowing. He was overjoyed. As for his master, he merely added, “Drink” in the same gruff tone. And drink they did.

I think of my father and mother, Mexican immigrants who also designed and curated their own version of the Dream. far from home and without the resources of family or government assistance. I think of the many immigrants who continue to work their guts out to ensure a better life for those in their care. I think of our often painful history in treating those we have labeled “The Other.” How can we reward these legacies with walls, internment camps and ideological terrorism? All we need to say to those who have made such a difference in so many lives is simply, “Good job, my fellow American.”

None of us know what’s in store as we venture into dark and uncertain territory. But tonight, four disparate lives were brought together in the name of friendship. New loyalists were born and we hope to bring back friends and family to Chef Hayakawa’s restaurant without hesitation. As to those ignorant many who need to be reminded of the beauty of such occurrences, I say:

This is America.”

 

“Wear Sunscreen (or Graduation Day)”

“Wear Sunscreen (or Graduation Day)”

Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much
Or berate yourself either
Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s

— From columnist Mary Schmich‘s essay for the Chicago Tribune, June 1997

Finally, a reason to write an essay about being proud and happy. I’m hitting the “Pause” button on my ravings to concentrate on an experience shared by many of us: the day we graduate from high school.

It goes without saying that we are never really ever out of school. Classrooms are either ground zero for inspiration and imagination or a repelling force that hurtles bodies into other stratospheres of life. I will never judge those who deem the classroom as their Waterloo, either. Valuable lessons can only be learned if we’re open to them, whether out of a book or experience. But the act of graduating, of moving forward, is such an empowering reality.

I’ve never been good about letting go of things or moving forward. Hell, I didn’t even graduate from college. But that’s another story. It’s just too easy to choose the safe confines of avoiding confrontation or making decisions that can alleviate all that ails or stagnates us. But, sooner or later, you get your PhD in courage and strength. You walk, head held high, smiling at all that you’ve accomplished. You’ve shed that extra weight, that 10-ton magilla of emotion and/or fear, and you move forward.

It was a glorious day to see the photos and videos of my godson graduating from high school in June. He was the first grandchild of my aunt and uncle to graduate from high school. I know my cherished aunt, his forever Nana, was smiling that glorious smile the moment he made his way down the aisle to receive his diploma. Lord knows the family has endured some trying times, but my godson has grown into one of the most sincere, intelligent, genuine and decent human beings on this planet. We need more like him and that’s a testament to his parents’ upbringing, my divine cousin and her husband. I admire their tenacity, more, I admire their ability to remain a unified front against that could tear them asunder. They were not destined to life an acrimonious life of arrogance, keeping up appearances and regret like Las Hermanas y Hermano Coraje, That in itself is a lesson for all of us to uphold and appreciate.

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It is going to be exciting to see what happens to my godson next. And rest assured, we will all be there to cheer him on to his next achievements. That goes for all of the grandkids, because that’s what family does. Whether by blood or choice, you stay together through the challenges, emerging stronger and more united. Even if it seems like the pain and emotion will never subside, you will survive intact, and most of all, loved.

I recalled the famed Mary Schmich piece for the Chicago Tribune as I was writing this essay. Immortalized by producer Baz Luhrmann as a surprise pop hit, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” it is the perfect commencement speech. It is a delicious slice of life advice that any columnist worth their Pulitzer Prize would like to represent their abilities. So, in a rare bid of optimism, I am concluding this essay with a special address to the Class of 2017…and anyone else who is taking a step forward into becoming the person they were meant to be.

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Wear Sunscreen

By Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind side you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium.

Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

 

 

“Shame”

“Shame”

“A very simple statement
A very simple crime
A lot of grief reflecting in how we spend our time
I want to change things
I want to make a change
I’m tired of spending time agonizing yesterdays”

— From “Shame” — Written by Martha Davis, Performed by The Motels

What’s your secret shame? You know, the thing you do when no one is looking?

What is that one vice or action you judge yourself for the most when you look in the mirror?

That loss of control we feel when we indulge in our secret shame is on par with an electric burst of adrenaline. It’s when you let a sly smile cross your face, that sweet release of euphoria when you reach that peak moment. It is a high, one that seduces you to keep going back again and again for another hit.  And it is always followed by your telling yourself, “This is the last time” or “Starting June 1st, I’ll get back on track!”

But you don’t. Because all you want to do is indulge in that behavior you’ve let overwhelm your sanity and self-control. Because it feels that bloody good.

Initially, this essay was going to be titled “Failure,” but I thought better of it. Shame can be overcome. Failure is a trap that can keep you locked up in a zone comprised of a darker shame. It is when you just give up and when it comes to addiction, you can’t just give up. It is a dangerous path, one that can have longterm effects and consequences.

I know I can’t reverse the decisions I’ve made during these last weeks. I can’t blame Fatlanta anymore. I’ve been home for nearly two weeks, embarking on a new project that is taking me to Vancouver. I cannot un-eat the food I’ve been attacking with unsteady hands of late. It’s been consumed and absorbed. I can only feel and see the effects daily and that sense of shame is now one that has me staring at the mirror with anger and disgust.

In six weeks, I am turning 50. While the excitement builds to this milestone, I have a few outstanding narrative threads that have yet to be resolved. The biggest one? Being a total bully to myself when it comes to this issue of food and wellness. Yet, instead of allowing the excitement of this milestone to lead me to a stronger place, I am a woeful mess right now. I can feel the anxiety throwing me off balance. Anger is present where hope should be right now. It is roiling the sanity I have worked so hard to reconstruct, letting frustration and outbursts of emotion spill out and over without warning at times.

I’ve been battling over what is keeping me in this dark space, but the source is both personal and social. The first layer? I didn’t think I’d be living the life of a gay spinster, locked away from potential suitors like Catherine Sloper in The Heiress or Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. I am probably skirting closer to becoming Miss Havisham in Great Expectations now. I held a torch for Tucker so long, I developed muscles in my arm I didn’t know existed. Yet, after seven years, my self-made prison isn’t so much the pain of leaving him behind when I did. Not anymore.

The damage I inflicted on myself over Tucker pales in comparison to what I’ve let take its place. The new layer is playing caretaker, scratch that, enabler to someone who has yet to understand that being an eternal dreamer doesn’t create a dream life. It is the most selfish way to live, keeping people in a state of stasis until YOU figure YOUR shit out. It is cruel and unforgivable. Anger is holding up my house of late. Anger and self-defeat to be exact. And it is punishing everyone around me, keeping most us from reaching new destinies in the name of “family.”

I hate feeling lonely and rejected, but the pitiful attempts of my meeting men are merely my picking at an old scab. It fills me with a different shade of shame because I am still in my prime, dammit. I should not have to fear my sexual self, much less repress it. Yet, because I can’t control the anger I feel, I have opted to rebuild the prison in which I’ve locked myself away. I’m getting heavier, covering myself up again. I am returning to the protective embrace of comfort foods because I want to feel the warmth of something loving and familiar, even though I am well aware of the only outcome of this reunion. I am angry that I don’t have a relationship to assure me that “It’s going to be okay.” Dammit, I don’t want to be fixed! I just want to be reassured by someone’s care and open heart. And that tender kiss, elusive and beautiful, has never felt so out of reach to me.

Layer three? It is bad enough we are living in a world without grace or accountability, where shamelessness has replaced decency and compassion. All we do is rip each other apart with lies, innuendo and avarice. We speak in tones of violence because we have to be heard above the din, leaving a body count as proof of being heard. We have leaders who spout the most reprehensible things for attention and justify their destruction of all civility.

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We denounce political correctness as being the enemy of a tottering state. The demand of restoring decency and peace is not being “PC.” We are surrounded by varying degrees of terrorists, all of whom think they are just and fighting a holy war built on a religious dogma that can only end in death. That’s the biggest, ugliest shame of all, forcing your will on billions of people who just want to live without fear!

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As I near the end of this post, I feel a different kind of shame. How can I wallow in my own self-pity when so much is off balance in this world? I can only say, I am no less flawed or confused as any other human at the moment. Yet, I can scream into this void, a blank page onto which I can spout all that ails me on the inside right now. Clarity does take form as I let this my thoughts unravel and let my insanity release its stranglehold.

Perhaps we all need to understand what shame means again.

Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves that accountability takes more strength than merely Tweeting obscenities and lies or shoving world leaders out of our way for a photo opportunity.

Perhaps we need to stop letting our fear keep us from turning away from the woes of our world because it is too hard and what does it matter anyway?

Perhaps I need to put down the fork and take a long look at the person struggling to become better and stronger again.

Perhaps it is time to stop being a coward and start loving the one person who has designs on making a difference, not use depression as an excuse to keep my addictions alive. What good am I to the rest of the world if I can’t withstand that which is within my power to fix and heal?

I know I can’t get better alone. None of us can. Neither can this planet. Shame is not always a bad thing. Shame can also keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Not because failure or flaws are “bad,” because we must let what is “good” about ourselves cast a light to help other lost souls find their way back to the group, too.

Naive? Perhaps.

People have become quite adept in finding new ways to peddle their brands of hate, which will only succeed in making the world a lot sicker and dangerous. But to combat this sinister world order, we have to believe in the good within ourselves again. Therein lies the need for empowerment and education! To stay in this state of isolation would be more than a shame, I recognize that. No more agonizing yesterdays. It’s exhausting and self-defeating. Perhaps it is high time I learn to love locally, then act in the name of goodness…globally.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

— Dylan Thomas

 

“Beautiful”

“Beautiful”

“Beauty’s where you find it
Not just where you bump and grind it
Soul is in the musical
That’s where I feel so beautiful
Magical, life’s a ball
So get up on the dance floor…”

— From “Vogue” by Madonna/Shep Pettibone

I started this entry with a basic question:

Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?

It was my intent to deconstruct that specific moment when you knew you could express yourself without fear of being called out for being “different.” It’s that version of yourself that is obfuscated by societal norms or misguided attempts from our parents to “protect” us from a judgmental world. This post was not supposed to be about outward beauty, although that is a prison of different making. As for the rest of us who haven’t scored big at the genetic lottery, we tend to water down the impact of the word “beauty” to its most superficial definition. What do we do with the concept of having a bold personality, of being able to express a powerful sense of verve when we’re young? Why do many of us spend much our adult lives, countless dollars and more trying to coax that child back into existence in the end? Does that qualify as being beautiful, too?

As I discussed this post with my boss and best sparring partner, I found myself unable to defend my position on what I felt meant being beautiful. He kept leading me outside of the boxed context of what I insisted was the point of this piece.  He led the debate beyond what is “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.” Before I could even begin to write about “beauty,” he insisted, I had to dig deeper into the complexity of this word.

Greek philosopher Plato maintained that beauty is a universal construct. We may not always recognize beauty through our senses. Each individual’s reaction can be triggered through a different means: sight, sound, smell, etc. Perhaps when we acknowledge something as being “beautiful,” it is because it is a potent reminder as to how our souls possess a wonderful sense of mystery.

The late English art critic John Berger opined that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” When we do begin to learn how to speak and we start amassing a vocabulary, we also start learning how to use these words to build declarative statements and opinions. These bloom into judgments, influenced and curated by those around us. From that point, how we “see” things in inextricably affected in the end by what we learn and by what we think we “know.”

Bridging Plato to Berger takes a bit more than the foundation I am laying here. Yet, I can see a link to a key moment in my childhood. Addressing the issues of the consequences of being bullied and the body dysmorphia/food addictions that continue to haunt me, which remain a key focus of this diary. So, my initial to my question was:

“I haven’t felt or deemed myself as being beautiful in a long time.”

I reference that hat glorious Spanish summer of 2014. I felt in control of my self and my soul. I felt powerful and limitless, just like I did up until the 4th grade when I became aware of what I saw as being “me” was “different” from the rest of the pack. More, once I understood the hurtful words and opinions hurled at me through elementary school junior high from those who rebuked me mercilessly, I opted to hide much of what made me “me.” And I hurled those same words back to others weaker than me with decided force and intent. My concept of beauty, the image of myself, has never been the same since.

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I think about the moment I thought I understood what beauty could mean. Given my middle class life, of course it was built around media. As I discovered much later, I wasn’t alone in my nascent gay self, pouring over Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview and New York magazines, drawn to the light of these glossy pages like a pilgrim making the journey to Lourdes. It is no coincidence that I hid here as much as I did in the literary and musical testaments to cafe society that I regularly snuck into the house from the library. Dad worked in textiles, which first opened a window into fashion, then all things New York City, for me. It didn’t take much to to begin whispering the names of photographers, editors, models and designers with solemnity of a prayer during Sunday mass: Avedon. Penn. Elgort. Newton. Scavullo. Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Dior. Lacroix. Lagerfeld. Halston. Versace. Ellis. Dovima. Turlington. Evangelista. Campbell. Tilberis. Vreeland. Wintour. They were all what I deemed as being “beautiful.”

I felt so superior in thinking that no one knew who they were in Pico Rivera. In reality, this world shielded me from those who tormented me in the hallways of South Ranchito and Meller Jr. High. I knew one day, I’d be able to move amongst them, the ultimate smalltown boy revenge. What it really meant was that I had capitulated to bourgeois materialism in the guise of being cultivated.

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Looking back at this now, was this fascination (obsession), really the best definition of “beauty?” Wasn’t this realm of artifice derived from fashion and fashionistas merely examples of what is simply “pretty?” Did it fall under the tenets of beauty attributed to Plato? What did it reveal about me at a young age, chubby, acne’d and peculiar in terms of my own personal code of aesthetics? Was I merely wading into this pool of superficiality, engaging in a clichéd game of middle class rebellion because I hated NOT being one of these people? Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps. Misguided or not, memorizing the pages of Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” or Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives” left me breathless and eager to get the hell out of the SGV as soon as I could. Needless to say, I sold myself short.

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It is no irony that I became a publicist, that messenger of all things glittering and glamorous. I battled with never being as cool as the message, even at the peak of years at 20th Century Fox. I lived and died at the altar of the Hollywood experience. I needed not have bothered. What we should find is truly beautiful is not always the thing we see outwardly. Yet, we continue to bandy about with words that act more as hyperbole than being catalysts of profundity.

I continue to grapple with long cycles of depression, excess eating and overindulgence, which includes the manner I continue to spend my money on material things. It would be easy to fault a steady diet of glitz and glitter as the source of my demons. I won’t, because I still admire the craft of couture, which is a true art to me. I knew what I was doing then and now. As to when I’ll take firm control of those urges, I won’t ever stop trying to compartmentalize them until they torment me no more. Yet, after the debacle of “Fatlanta,” I am still faced with that blasted question: “Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?”

Now that this conversation has started, I realize I have much to learn and understand about what is “beautiful.” It is more than my long held ideal of becoming a gentleman in the style of my cinematic hero Cary Grant. As for the current state of fashion and fashion magazines, the joy is less apparent in this renewed era of status mongering and greed. Nor can my definition be something on par of Madonna’s exquisite paean to other icons of film glamour, “Vogue.” But a singular truth can be found within these beats, “beauty is where you find it.”

As I begin to redefine my own standards of beauty, I realize something is happening at long last. I am finding myself again in these discussions that stir my collective senses.  I am learning again thanks to an evolving family of friends who choose and want to think beyond what is accepted or acceptable. This time feels so much like Spain. The arrested development that I’ve allowed to set in has no place in this quest for wellness. Perhaps what makes us beautiful is believing in the desire to grow and to be challenged by a world, even one in flux.

Given our current political state of ugly at the moment, we have to train our eyes to see beyond what lies what ahead or even what we think we’ve learned about people, even ourselves. Perhaps beauty is the possibility afforded by being better and stronger and willing to accept our flaws, to finding the willingness to build them into strengths.

Only when we allow for acceptance and tolerance can we best repel the rhetoric from people who dare keep us asunder in a state of homogenized hatred.

Only when we begin to understand the true nature of beauty will we be able to say, “Life’s a ball!” and just fucking dance already.

We are forever accountable for our journeys and decisions. Perhaps that’s what I’ve come to finally learn:

Be your true self. Be beautiful.

Cary Grant photo by Richard Avedon

Dovima & Ray Bolger photo by Richard Avedon

Kristen McMenamy & Nadja Auermann photo by Richard Avedon

Gia Carangi in YSL photo by Helmut Newton

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Fatlanta”

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Fatlanta”

 

While I’ve been bicoastal for work, I’ve joked to friends that eating in the ATL is a challenge, that “even the air is fried.” Or, I’d say with the solemnity of confession, “It is impossible to eat healthy in this city.” The truth is I lost all and total control. I acted like a kid who was left off at summer camp with the idea that anything goes now that mom and pops ain’t watching me.

I’ve been watching myself see the scale move up about to the tune of 11.5 pounds of MF’in bloat in a month of unnecessary stress and/or emotional eating. That’s the end result of letting this last month of working in Atlanta get to me. Here’s the rub: I wasn’t even stressed or emotional! In other words, I fell off the food addiction wagon so hard, I literally broke my spirit.

Welcome to Fatlanta.

I spent most of the first day back from the latest trip to Atlanta in a sulk. Sure its mostly sodium intake, but that’s no comfort, dear. Today, I ate two apples, some raw pepitas, hummus and a turkey/egg white scramble, had a latte and just sulked. I can’t even be mad at anyone since no one person or situation put all that food in mouth at gun point. I knew exactly what I was doing, which makes me even feel worse. Wait. Checking my glucose reading the Saturday after my return from this  latest trip clocked in at 200! That does feel worse. It’s triggered The Eeyore Effect again, where I feel heavy, slow, sweaty and incredibly morose.

Fuck me. It’s enough to not feel depressed right now or beat myself to a Waffle House and BBQ sauce-infused pulp right now. I think about those episodes of “Designing Women” when Delta Burke’s weight gain was starting to become an issue for the show. Series creator Linda Bloodworth Thomason would write some of the best episodes of 1980s television around Suzanne Sugarbaker’s weight. A former beauty queen, like Burke herself, the character’s struggle with her weight hit a raw nerve for many of us dealing with the same challenges.

In the end, Burke would be fired from the show in a nasty public split that is the stuff of industry legend. The show never recovered from the loss of such a vivid character. All of the women were remarkable on that show, but Suzanne was the reason many watched with such fervor. (I won’t lie. All four of the original cast are my spirit characters.) Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion, too. (To quote another Southern pop culture queen.) I spent part of the day watching some of the best of Suzanne Sugarbaker’s moments, just as a reminder that this set back is not permanent. Nor does it diminish the achievement of getting closer to understanding why I eat the way I do. The cycle can be broken, which is what I am determined to focus upon after this day of wallowing in self-pity. One day. No more, dammit.

Being in Georgia these many weeks has reinforced the horror and sadness I feel when it comes to the tyranny of food we continue to endure in this country. We sure love our excess as much as we love NOT being told what to do, especially when it comes to our health. With the recent return of Trumpcare and the rollbacks of key legislations to help keep our children healthy, I realize that many of us are being set up to fail. We won’t be told by anyone what we can or can’t do to our bodies! Keep us poor, stupid, fat and consuming everything in sight. That’s what is means to be an American!

Bullshit.

When will we realize that we are being set up to fail, to stay sick and die? We are just being led to the slaughter, fattened by ignorance, greed and pride. We are at the mercy of the privileged few who stand to earn more by just watching us eat ourselves to death. This is where education is so vital! We keep cutting curriculum that can so benefit us from a young age! That “Dollars & Sense” class or home economics courses, why are these considered a luxury today?

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It made me sad seeing how race and income dictated what food was available in every sector of Atlanta I visited. You could find a Waffle House, Bojangle’s or Chik-fil-a on every corner, but a Whole Foods or Sprouts was still relegated to the affluent Buckhead-type areas of the city. Publix and Kroger’s offered some healthier choices, but these options were usually relegated to the back of the store, away from the towering displays of chips and soft drinks that were substantially cheaper. The produce I purchased at several Wal-Mart stores was subpar and not as plentiful or as fresh compared to the Super Target Market offerings outside of the city.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, it’s Georgia!” But, you can’t avoid the same problems in Los Angeles. When I was studying at ELAC with Professor Norma Vega, she incorporated a section on the politics of food in her advanced Spanish class. If the seeds were sown then, perhaps the importance of believing “We are what we eat” still needs to be nurtured in order to flower. At least in my own way of living.

I was weak in resisting the excess of movie set treats during these weeks on location. Even with the tough love of several key friends this week, I still reached for the fried pickles, sweet tea, Magnachos, waffle, grits and corn bread with extra maple butter. Why? I wish I knew. I told myself I can get back on track when I get home, that I’ll just return to my program later. I can lose it, no problem. Going backwards to move forward again is getting old. I knew better and the classic addict behavior displayed only made me realize I have a long way to go to be truly healthy again. That being cavalier is on par with being complicit or silent when people are doing all they can to tear you down in the name of progress or #MAGA.

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Driving through South Pasadena today, I thought about stupid I felt for bemoaning I have too much to eat when countless others are struggling to find their next meal. It is a gross abuse of body, mind and soul. I am beyond fortunate to know that I have the means and knowledge to be healthy and sated. That is no excuse to act like I have all the resources and chances in the world to avoid the inevitable, which is an untimely death. I will take this to heart when I return to Atlanta again later this week. No more side trips to Fatlanta, either. Passage denied.

Part of the struggle of healthy eating is knowing when you’ve had enough. To push yourself away from the table and say, “I will not intake anymore of that which can hurt me.” As we lurch forward through this era of chaos, anger and confusion, focus is essential. In order to be able to object and resist, you need strength and conviction. If you can’t control what you eat, then maybe it is time to get out of the kitchen. More, maybe it is time to take stock of what makes you strong and able and offer that part of yourself with those who are willing to listen and learn along with you.

We are what we eat, just as much as we are who we choose to lead.

Either way, demand better.

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Cha Cha”

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Cha Cha”

 

“Come go with me, make you feel alive

This night will last everlasting through the time

Come go with me, have no fears

Bring back the memories

I can take away the misery

Take my hand, we’ll fly away

To our world that we can find today…”

– From “Come Go with Me” (Lewis A. Martineé), performed by Exposé

I’m going to set the origins of this little journal entry to the past on the sodium bomb from the Slurpin’ Ramen Bar consumed in April in Koreatown. (Excellent place, fyi). Yeah, I did feel a little “up” afterwards. Also, I was correct in predicting that my date for the evening was going to cancel on me –again — so it is better to shift focus onto something a bit more joyful and avoid the desire to man bash. I was truly bloated, bothered and bewildered, the perfect state of mind for journaling!

It’s taken me awhile to shape this into something worth reading and I’m still not sure if I’ve cracked the code. I have to give credit where credit it due. Earlier this spring,  my sister NanyG, sister-friend Helen and I were in the midst of another hi-larious confab, this time at the Pico Rivera Shakey’s Pizza, a cherished location located within our shared cradle of youth. It was a carry-over from ANOTHER HelJor outing (as we refer to ourselves), this time with our childhood compatriot, Anne. And yes, if you’re a member of those days at South Ranchito Elementary/Meller Jr. High/ERHS, we probably DID talk about you.

What I love most about our get togethers is the chance to look back with a clearer vision as to what it was to come of age in the 1980s. Some of the focus is starting to slip into a tepid glow as we have move on through our teen years into our sure to be golden era of 50+. (Well, I can’t speak for myself. I remember way too much, but surprised to know how much I never saw what was often going on right in front of me. I see the roots of my self-absorption are very much showing.)

Being a teenager. Oh, that’s a weighty subject. (Zing!) The pudding days of Meller, when I was stout, pimpled and experiencing a woeful state of style were replaced by something a lot cheerier, leaner and taller by the time sophomore year began at El Rancho. Sitting here with my lap top, it makes me smile to understand how the realities of life’s experiences hadn’t yet taught us how to deconstruct or process our motivations. Everything was so AMAZING until your find out years later that it wasn’t. The struggles we deal with as adults are variations of those classic adolescent tropes. We were the last of the Breakfast Club generation, spicier incarnations of the Princess, the Athlete the Criminal, the Brain and the Basket Case. In some cases, we were probably all five.

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Some of us were wonderfully clueless. Others were – and, surprise, remain — mean girls and boys. We had our groups, our nicknames, our juries, our judgments, our hierarchies, our first loves, our first pains. And as divided we ultimately became as life lead us to our chosen paths, for a small group of us, we remained steadfastly united during the 12 years we followed each other to the edge of 18.

The time isn’t ripe yet to pen that “Whatever Happened to the Class of 1985,” but it is starting to germinate. Something happened to me during that transition years of childhood. I first embraced my peculiar sense of being a boy, only to quickly shun it thanks to bullying and the inner shame felt as a teen. I hate that it happened at all, compromising my true self in the vain attempt to be liked and popular.

But that’s a story for another time.

Right now, I want to remember what it meant to be young in Pico Rivera, where youths were a microcosm of the bigger trends happening inside of LA and out. Everyone had their fiefdoms of rule within the school and outside the city limits:

  • The mods were growing in numbers as Madness and The Specials dominated the powerful KROQ playlists, stealing club time at Marilyn’s in Pasadena.
  • The punks were a smaller contingent, but followed X and Black Flag to Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica.
  • Poseur preps, the ones that had turned up collars along with their classist noses had the most money, bigger houses to match their attitudes and Atari consoles.
  • The heshers, most of whom were in band, were a fiercely loyal bunch that sported their KMET and KLOS stickers as badges of courage and pride.
  • Urban surfers held fast to their Jeff Spicoli uniform of Vans, OP and Lightning Bolt shorts.
  • Morrissey. Enough said.

As for the rest of us?

It was a sea of teen dreams and mall made looks. Girls had their fast fashion trends of jelly shoes, bolero hats, plastic purses and other styles culled from department stores or Judy’s, Contempo Casuals and Miller’s Outpost. God, those damn belts that rivaled the WWF championship bling! Some tried to rock the Mod look with tights that had the feet cut off under long tartan skirts and flats, but it rang false. Maybe it was because feathered hair can’t ever replace an asymmetrical bob?

The cookie cutter style of the boys was laid upon a foundation of Levis jeans, tee shirts and jean jackets — then and now. Jocks will never die out if letterman’s jackets are still able to be earned. My memory can’t seem to fill in the blanks here, an era where the Metrosexual, Lumbersexual and Hipster styles would eventually blur the lines of masculinity.

However, one group reigns supreme in my mind when I look back at that time now. I can’t help but smile at these style rebels of my teen years:

CHA CHA GIRLS!

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I’ll never forget these hothouse flowers that found access with fake ID’s to such playgrounds as the Florentine Gardens, the Red Onion, Black Angus, Pepper’s & Wings, as well as private parties and any other place they could hold court to the tune of Exposé, Debbie Deb and Stacey Q. They rolled around in packs, each with their own special markings of bangs, spider lashes, streaks and nail tips. They oozed a female sexuality that was true power, which sometimes moved faster than they could understand or control.

(Fun Fact: Exposé lead singer Jeanette Jurado is a former El Rancho Don! Class of 1983. Represent!)

This is one group John Hughes would never include in his white bread parables of teen life. These girls weren’t always pretty, but they loved pink, the brighter the better. They played fast and loose with the rules of the time, carving out their own niche as the 1950s ideal of adolescence began its hasty decline.

How I loved these ladies, feathered, streaked and war painted, wearing heels that were higher than their standards, all squeezed into Technicolor fabrics that stretched with the blind optimism of looking good! I always viewed the Cha Cha aesthetic as a rebellion against the leading tropes of the era. These Latinas were way ahead of the Kardashian brand of flesh as fantasy and in your face womanhood. They were always named Letty, Lorraine or Denise, Nena, Pebbles or Candy. Sometimes you had a Monica, Yvette or an Andrea. Given the immigrant culture that was the foundation of aspirational Pico Rivera life, you might have a Socorro or Maria Delilah in the bunch, but she was always the one you made call her much cooler older brother or sister when shit got real. (“Shut up, Socorro!” could be heard whenever she offered the single voice of sanity.)

The soc’s (the popular girls) looked down on the Cha Cha’s as being trashy, but like all things unbridled, jealousy motivated their feelings. Hallway chatter about some of these ladies was nothing short of salacious gossip, especially if their boyfriends were jocks. This could explain why many of the Cha Cha’s of my era opted to date outside of the El Rancho walls.

Every Friday of my first year at El Rancho, or “The Ranch,” was littered with invites to the weekend’s parties. Mass printed flyers, emblazoned with Nagel girls, were events sponsored by mobile DJ’s that called themselves “The Men of Elegance” and groupies of females known as  “The Girls in Freak Position” or worse, names that you know would piss off your parents as they demanded you to “Tira esa cochinada ahorita!” (I wish I kept one of these flyers. If you have one, let a brother know!)

They were the denizens of the house parties and clubs that rocked the San Gabriel Valley, Hollywood and beyond. They were free-style aficionados who ventured to the Mansion, a claque that was strictly “Members Only,” weekend warriors fortified by Shpritz Forté. For some reason, the men were Dippity Do’d and Drakkar’d into shiny and musky sameness. Despite their macho posturing and bantering, they were rather generic in attitude and looks. Most couldn’t grow a mustache to cover their top lip, but it was awesome to see that their girlfriends could!

It was with great delight that I found a short film I created with my one of my best childhood friends, Ed Castellanos. We invaded El Rancho a few years after we graduated, crafted a DIY masterpiece with a VHS camera. Family, friends, students all contributed to this opus, cheekily titled “Fatal Aquanet.” It was meant to be a trailer for a new movie, with audience reactions and testimonials. At 16 minutes in length, we probably could have used some judicious editing.

Our intent was to create something that was fun. The best part were the on-the-street chats with the Cha Cha’s we talked to on Whittier Blvd. one memorable night. This was a harbinger of the life I would eventually lead, of documenting interviews and questions, of capturing the stories of lives in motion with truth and verve.

Our destinies can be revealed at a young age if we just lose the fear. I wish Ed and I went on to document other things together. Who knows?  “Fatal Aquanet” will live forever on YouTube and on this blog for a reason. (Ed, perhaps a reunion is in store for us? I have an idea!)

Since those chats with Nancy, Helen and Anne, I’ve been toying with another idea, of fashioning a series of posts around a fictional group of girls, Cha Cha’s all, representing a chapter in my angry, hungry, fat, gay Mexican life. Perhaps I’ll use this device to frame a larger story, of what happened to the class of 1985 through the prism of one group of friends as their gay single friend approaches 50 and faces the prospect of marriage…to someone younger.

Nothing upsets the herd like a seismic shift in the group dynamic, with the rest of the couples questioning their own choices and relationships. Sometimes when we look back, the consequences have an unexpected on the future. Good or bad, it is always for the best. And it would have great style with a soundtrack to beat any mixtape or playlist you could devise.

I don’t know how that particular story will play itself out, but I only ask that you come go with me and find out.

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Eugenio & Salma”

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Eugenio & Salma”

 

 

“Every man carries a bit of the personality of the Latin lover inside. If you have the energy, if you have the inner self-confidence, you can be a Latin lover. It’s not a stereotype. It’s a way of living!”

— Eugenio Derbez on his role as Maximo in “How to Be a Latin Lover”

¡Viva Mexico!

It was a sensational opening weekend for HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER at the box office. The bilingual comedy lead by Mexican comedy titan Eugenio Derbez, Salma Hayek, Rob Lowe, Kristen Bell and a multi-cultural/multi-generational ensemble cast debuted in second place with $12 million from just 1,118 theaters. With Latinos comprising an overwhelming 89% of the audience and a “A” CinemaScore grade, this “Latin Lover” has plenty of seduction power and swagger to fuel its momentum.  

My colleagues at Monkey Deux, Inc. and I had the distinct privilege of working on the campaign for HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER, crafting the broadcast and online publicity materials that began during production last Spring 2016 in Los Angeles. It is by far the most entertaining film that Pantelion Films, the Latino division of Lionsgate (with Televisa) has produced and perhaps the most enjoyable project we’ve collaborated on to date.

 As an American-born Latino in Hollywood, the opportunities to work on films that reflected my Mexican heritage were far and few in between. Since my association with Pantelion began in 2013, the door that opened into this world of Latino entertainment has been one of the best things to ever happen in the near 25 years of my career. Meeting and working with some of the most formidable Latino artists working today continues to add an exciting layer to my role as a producer/interviewer. More, the chance to express myself in two languages has allowed for opportunities I never thought possible.

I had to share a little of the memorable experience in speaking with Derbez and Hayek about the making of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER, interviews which were used to create the featurette that is running online and the production notes given to the press covering the film. I’d like to see how any wall would dare to keep out the unbridled creativity and cultural pride shared by Derbez and Hayek. If anything, their recent appearances on several leading morning and late night shows translated into something for everyone to enjoy at the movies.

 As we venture through a divisive time, where isolating those who are deemed not like “us” is acceptable, we need to continue to support diversity, especially in the arts. We all have stories to tell, stories that reflect our true face as a nation. You may not make films like HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER your priority. However, sooner or later, all of our experiences and perspectives will grace the silver screen without being listed as a “special episode,” a “woman’s picture” or crafted for a “niche audience.” That’s how we can stop the walls and project a saner future for us all.

An excerpt from my production story on the making of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER with Derbez and Hayek below:

Following up the global success of Instructions Not Included in 2013 was no easy task for Mexican comedy superstar Eugenio Derbez, who wrote, directed and starred in what remains the highest grossing Spanish film in US movie history. Capturing that sort of lightning in a bottle twice can be elusive. Still, the timing of Instructions Not Included proved fortuitous, playing a role in further illustrating the importance of diversity in Hollywood-produced entertainment. Derbez opted to flex other creative muscles while patiently searching for the right project to tackle as a filmmaker, securing roles in such features as the recent hit Miracles From Heaven and the upcoming action drama Geostorm. Being able to choose the project that best fit his established comedy brand was a serious task, so when Derbez and his 3Pas Productions partner Benjamin Odell heard the pitch about an aging gigolo, they knew they hit pay dirt.

“I was looking for a script for me that could fit my accent, my audience, my age, my everything,” Derbez recalled with a smile. “What I loved about HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER was the fact that we could play with this image of someone who is beautiful and handsome like Julio Iglesias or Enrique Iglesias or Ricky Martin. Maximo is really aging, probably in the worst years of his life, and I think that’s the funny thing about this character.”

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Despite sharing a friendship that spans more than 30 years, Derbez and Oscar®-nominated actor/filmmaker and paisana Salma Hayek had often regretted that they’ve never had the chance to work together. That lifelong promise made good proved a formidable “get” for the film that all the filmmakers hoped would happen. As Sara, Maximo’s headstrong, burgeoning architect sister, Hayek said establishing that familial bond was hardly a stretch given her history with Derbez. (Fun fact: they share the same birthday of September 2.)

“I’ve been friends with Eugenio for a long time,” Hayek explained. “When I started my production company, one of the first ideas that I had was to do a show for Eugenio. But America was not ready yet, this was before Ugly Betty, to understand the power of the Latino market. We are very similar in many ways. I cannot think of a better fit for the characters than to be brother and sister. For me it’s a great opportunity to act in Spanish and to play a Mexican woman and to have fun, reliving a little bit our childhood. I got to relive my childhood in Mexico with a brother that in real life feels like a brother to me.”

For Derbez, other practical realites existed in wanting Hayek to join the cast, extending beyond the chance to work together. The duo even took to the recording studio later in the film’s post-production to capture their upbeat salsa version of the classic ballad “El Triste” for the soundtrack.

“It was an amazing good time because she’s lovable. She’s crazy. And she’s very creative. She’s always bringing new stuff. When we were acting in Spanish, we felt really good. It was like we weren’t even acting. We were like just playing around, like brother and sister. It’s not easy to find something like that sort of chemistry. It’s just so good to have two real Mexicans playing Mexicans because I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood films with supposed Mexicans that aren’t Mexicans. Another producer would have hired an actress from another place and probably some audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But for us you can absolutely tell when somebody has an accent from Colombia or Argentina or Spain. It was really important for us to have two real Mexicans portraying two Mexicans.”

Hayek further extolled the benefits of having a film populated by an ensemble of contrasts, which further enhances the humor found from the clashes of cultures and generations that are the film’s core.

“What’s great about the movie is that I think there’s going to be a lot of different audiences for this film,” Hayek said, “I liked the idea that in some ways Maximo also enjoys his job. It’s important to him to make these women feel special. It gives him joy. The minute they get older, they are abandoned or overlooked by society. I think that it’s a lovely quality of the character that is original in the film. Everybody gets to laugh about themselves in the way we laugh about the concept of the Latin lover. It has a lot of heart and that is extremely important. It’s a little naughty but it’s done in a clever way so that it can go over the kids’ heads, but there are still things they l get to enjoy.”

Shot on location throughout Los Angeles, Marino is proud that the film reflects more than just the iconic, glittering parts of the city audiences have come to enjoy on screen time and time again. Despite the often-raucous events that occur throughout the film, he wanted to make sure the face of the city was also a key player that was grounded in reality. The multi-cultural and bilingual sights and sounds of the city are also complimented by a soundtrack that includes a new recording from Grammy®-nominated star Carla Morrison.

“It was a blessing to shoot in L.A.,” Derbez added. “In this case, we could afford the luxury of shooting here. And it’s so good to see L.A. like it is.”

Timing again looks to be on the side of Derbez with the release of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER. In this era of exaggerated luxury and status symbolism, Maximo would feel right at home in the Instagram-documented age of certain reality TV “stars.” Derbez has worked hard to curate a comedy brand that’s ranks him as one of the top artists working in Mexico and Latin America today. While he’s made some inroads in the United States, HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER did provide him with his first ever leading role in English. The actor-filmmaker admitted that the process was “tricky” at times, even prompting him to wonder if his type of comedy would translate into a different language.

“I come from the Hispanic world and we are broad,” Derbez exclaimed. “We’re big! In this movie, I go to places that I’ve never been, but in a very contained way. It’s really been a learning curve. I feel so good about it.”

Upon seeing the finished film, Derbez is more confident than ever that the strengths of the material and its message will play to the widest audience possible. It is one more phase of an overall plan to continue bringing a unique slate of projects that will not only redefine his own brand of comedy, but do away with the labels associated with being a specific type of entertainment.

“It came from an original idea and it became funnier and funnier every single day,” Derbez concluded. “I’m so proud of it because it’s really different. We’re breaking all the stereotypes. Every time I work, whether it’s on my TV shows or my films, I love putting something for everyone. I like to work for the entire family. This feels really fresh and different. It also has such a nice and important message. Money’s not the only thing that’s important in life. Maximo had everything. Cars, yachts, helicopters, planes. He lived in huge mansions, but he does realize that life is about something else. Life is about family, about love, about taking care of each other. That’s one of the best things the movie has to offer.”

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER is now playing citywide.