At the Narrow Waist of the World

It’s not like you write a book and find a publisher and then go to the beach. (laugh track)  No. There’s so much more to do.

I release the book into your hands.

I release the book into your hands.

My memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, is two months from pub date. August 6 is the magic day. It’s been a long road, this business of book creation. Mine is a slender volume, six years in the making. Diving into old memories. Finding the words. Discovering that a mix of English and Spanish made the most music. I didn’t write the story with a plan in mind other than discovery: What transpired when I was a girl, an anxious mother, a suppression of self, the tenderness of a loving, extended family that nevertheless could not save you entirely. You make your own way.  

I have in my hands something in the shape of a book. It’s a thrill and a burden. How will I introduce my book—on my feet—not hidden behind pencil and paper?

I am grateful for lovely reviews from Ilan Stavans, Ruth Behar, Jane Gerber, and other wonderful writers and academics. You can find them here.

Some Ways You can Help:

* Preorder the book. My publisher, She Writes Press, is finalizing the number for the print run, and it really does help to have early orders.

*  Explore the rest of my website. I am proud of it. 

* Tell friends about the book. Ask your local bookstore or library to order it. 

* Let me know if you know someone in a position to review the book or interview me, author conversations, book clubs. It’s all about connections. 

* If you live near Westchester, it will be wonderful to see your face at the reading and launch in September. I will announce it.

Thank you dear friends and readers.

“Latino is a different checkmark”

When I asked Nico what is difficult here, his smiling face changed. There was a deepening in his complexion—strong feeling rising to the surface.

Nico: Unfortunately, I’ve learned that my accent and my physical aspect invite people to react differently. When I go to the nearby Dunkin Donuts, I ask for bacon mac and cheese and coffee, and the lady looks at me like I’m nothing and throws the stuff at me.

When I have to ask for help from someone who is white and seems to have power over me, I feel like the white person is on top looking down and you are looking up. You are getting marked as “Latino.” This happens much less in the music community because music is more important than color or ethnicity. Even so…

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"If I could wake up in one hundred years..."

Photo by Yoann Boyer, Unsplash

In 2016 in February I met Manuel, one of the first Hispanics that I would interview on my newly imagined Soy/Somos conversations. The political environment in the US and the world felt hugely different then. The shocking Brexit vote fell on the world later that year in June; the American presidential election, in November. “Build the wall” became our leader’s mantra.

A Spaniard who had moved to the US with his wife and babies in l972, Manuel was quietly dressed on that morning when we spoke, silver rimmed glasses, laced up shoes. In the l980s he had formed an executive search firm in New York to find and recruit Hispanics for the workplace when American companies began to see the significance of the Hispanic market but didn't know where to look for hires. I remembered Manuel’s beautiful closing words only a few days ago—on the morning of the New Zealand horror.

“If I could wake up in one hundred years, my greatest curiosity would be to see if human society has evolved into one race. I would hope to find no barriers or prejudice. In Europe I see English lawyers practicing in Spain—and Spanish lawyers in England. Isolated places like Moldava and Mongolia are becoming accessible with travel and communication via the internet. Marriages across race and culture are all around us.”

Manuel’s dream seems more than ever unattainable.

As the world gets smaller and becomes more global, we are becoming fearful of people who don’t look or pray like us. New Zealand is a vast country with only five million people. Even so, it was home to the latest horror. “Keep the migrants out and people who are different.” Hate has gone viral. 

What can I--one person--do? I can speak out. I am still engaged in conversation with Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx in my adopted country—your neighbors and mine—to demonstrate the depth and humanity in all of us. So much needs to be done. There are good people working against hate, people who’ve matched their words with action. I’ve learned first hand about a group of women and men who work day and night to reunite families separated at the US border and a coalition of faith communities who try to meet the overwhelming needs of people facing detention and deportation. There are other issues of desperate importance. Like protecting our Earth, violence against women, the fever spread of automatic weapons. We can choose the issues that resonate the most with us—and take action.

After the shootings while people were praying in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand,  the nation’s Prime Minister,  Jacinda Ardern, held a news conference to speak about the tragedy that involved many migrants. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home,” she said, “and it is their home. They are us.”

They are us.

Immigrant Families Together

New Sanctuary Coalition

If you’d like to receive future Soy/Somos conversations, please contact me on my website or write to me at Here is how Soy/Somos got started: We Are Many.

Nicolás Castañeda - The Education of a Musician

This story is part of my Soy/Somos series (I am/We are), conversations with Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx in the United States. If you’d like to receive future Soy/Somos, please contact me on my website or write to me at Here is how Soy/Somos got started: We Are Many.

I recently met a virtuoso harp player who composes what he calls Contemporary Colombian music—a fusion of folkloric melodies from the eastern plains region of Colombia, contemporary classical music, and jazz. I heard him play at a small venue in New York alongside a drummer and a clarinetist. This was music both heavenly and anchored firmly in rhythms I recognized. How do I describe it? Water rushing past stones in a river. Percussive rhythms. An invitation to tap a zapatéo with your feet.

Nico Castañeda is rooted in the music of his native Colombia with a classical music education in Bogotá and Jazz Composition at the fabled Berklee College of music in Boston.

Nico Castañeda is rooted in the music of his native Colombia with a classical music education in Bogotá and Jazz Composition at the fabled Berklee College of music in Boston.

Today we are sitting at a marble “Tulip Table” at the New York City apartment of a mutual friend who is also a musician and prolific writer. The small vestibule is crammed with harps. I also see a cello, a violin, guitar, full-sized keyboard, three recorders. Nico has brought his own, el arpa llanera, also known as the Colombian Harp. It’s a beautiful instrument, a bit smaller than the classical harp, with 32 chords. 

Though his English is good, Nico and I slip naturally into Spanish, to the intimacy of our native language. 

El Niño Orquesta

 Nico, when did you begin playing music?

I was a four years old. I remember the teacher at school—an older woman who moved between us with an accordion while we played on our flautas dulcesplastic recorders. [Literally, this means sweets flutes.] We played songs from Colombia’s coasts on the Atlantic and Pacific. We were in a school for children of employees of ETB, Empresa de teléfonos de Bogotá, the city’s phone company. My mother worked there as operadora de reclamos, like customer service here. The company was famous because it offered so many free benefits to its employees and their children. Healthcare. Travel to school and work. Lunch. Uniforms. Also a vacation club. They wanted students to have art experiences.

When I was seven I moved from the recorder to folkloric percussion. Small drums, maracas, el chucho. That’s the hollow, sugarcane stick with seeds inside. This was the beginning of my adventure with Colombian percussion. At twelve I began with the clarinet, and was lucky to study with Nacor Barón who became director of the Orquesta Lucho Bermúdez, famous in all of Latin America for Colombian folkloric rhythms, boleros, cumbias, porros, and merecumbé. The orchestra would invite me and a few other children to play the clarinet during their band rehearsals. I was like “el niño consentido,” the teacher’s pet. They were very kind to me. 

When did you know that music would be the love of your life?

 A smile spreads across Nico’s face as he begins to remember. Si. Fué así. Three of us children studying the clarinet were invited to play with the famous band at the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán theatre, one of the most important performing spaces in all of Colombia. I was thirteen. The orchestra director said, “We will all begin together, but there will be a moment when the orchestra disappears behind you. And you boys will be playing solo.”

Having a roomful of people—a thousand people—right in front of me and seeing their happiness as they listened to us three. I knew then that this was for me. Curioso, no?

And the harp?

When I was fourteen, a distant cousin from the eastern plains of Colombia appeared at my house with another cousin who played the harp. “Ese es ‘el niño orquesta,’” they cried out, “the boy orchestra! Let’s make you a bet. If you play the harp for a year, I will give you the harp. If not, you’ll return it to me.” They left the harp at my house. I didn’t have a teacher, so I practiced empírico by ear. Mi papá era amante de música llanera, and so I knew the songs by heart. Música llanera usually involves harp soloing, a cuatro (a four string guitar), fast maracas, also voice and tapatéo.

A teacher at my school told me about a new academy for children and adults called Academia Llano y Joropo. He took me to see it after school. There were two huge rooms and about forty harps. The teacher iba dando ronda, he’d walk around the room from person to person. People of all ages playing at the same time.  “Pues aquí te espero. I’ll be waiting here for you,” he said.

I’d go to my school from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m, and from 5 to 6 p.m. to the new academy for harp. I had the unconditional support of my mami, mi super-mamá!  In my school at ETB they didn’t give us homework. All the learning was experiential. To understand the concept of Newton’s law, we’d throw an apple around. English was hard for me. We studied physics, electronics, telecommunications. I would take tests, rehearse my music, and travel.

After about a year of studying the harp, I began to participate in music festivals. I would win an award most times. For example, at the Festival Castilla la Nueva I won “mejor artista” in my category as well as “mejor conjunto,” best artist and musical group. I had two brothers, an older and a younger one. The younger one was mi maraquero. He would join me at serenatas, birthday parties, and weddings. He was also studying at the academy. I was earning some money from the time I was fifteen.  

The Bet

So life in Bogotá was lush with music. Why then did you come to the United States?

It all happened because of a bet. The really wonderful Berklee College of Music in Boston would send their musicians to other countries to audition students. Typically they went to Argentina and Ecuador, and in 2012 was the first time they came to Colombia. 

By now I’d been studying music for seven years at the Academy of Arts at the Universidad Distrital in Bogotá and needed thirteen more months to complete my requirements. A singer at the University piqued my interest. “Let’s both audition,” she said. “If we get to the United States, we’ll eat a bag of Cheetos at the entrance to Berklee.”

I did very well at the audition—es la verdad. I won a scholarship for half of my tuition for the entire career, with opportunities to add scholarships toward the full tuition. It’s usually a four-year program. I completed it in two and a half to three years. Near the end of my schooling I was able to win a BMI Foundation scholarship. I am very grateful to Oscar Stagnaro, an amazing Peruvian musician. 

What other subjects did you study at Berklee?

I did Contemporary History, Sociology, the Civil War in the US. How for example, the music of the Delta and New Orleans provided a transformative expression of the times. I studied the Celtic harp and the music of Ireland. The Celtic harp also has its origins in folkloric tradition.  As with the llanera, there are variables, but it is accompanied by a singer and almost always by dance. The harp and the dancers are in conversation. A soloist harp is really something new.      

My friend was not selected at audition, but she is still an outstanding musician. I ate the bag of Cheetos alone in front of the school.

“Soy un bicho raro.”

Nico, for the uninitiated, can you explain the folkloric music of Colombia?

It’s music of oral tradition. There are no European annotations, what is called “theory.” Folkloric music is improvisational and relies on its melodies. Because Colombia has a diverse geography, and cities even are separated by mountains and rivers, the folkloric expression is very variable. The music and the lyrics change, but the content always involves flora and fauna and love, and always exists within the socio-political context of the day.

You sound like a professor.

There has always been an attempt to write this music in a more academic way, to play it in church choirs and such. This is one of the things that excites me, creating music annotations not in a European way but in a way coherent with the tradition. Academic attempts in the past have not been able to capture folk music completely.

Soy un bicho raro—an odd kind of bird. I first learned everything empirically. When there was no harp teacher at the Universidad Distrital, I decided to change my emphasis to classical composition. There I negotiated with professors to let me apply the concepts of classical music to Colombian music, so I began studying theory early. At Berklee I studied improvisation in an academic context. I tried to use my knowledge of classical music, jazz composition, and the rich exposure to other students at Berklee to create Colombian musical phrasing in my EP called Renacer, meaning Reborn. I want to conserve Colombian traditions and mix them with swing and jazz from the United States. 

So, creating mezcolanzas de cosas fundamentals is one of your aspirations. The other is to return to Colombia with new projects. What are these?


One of them is creating a book for the llanera harp with annotations that can be used for various folkloric instruments, in order to unify that form of expression. Another project is to continue what I started with my Renacer EP that mixes tradition and improvisation. Many musicians in Colombia are now interested in jazz and contemporary music, so I have thirty to forty compositions based on traditions from different regions of Colombia. I want to record them so musicians have them as a reference.

I am open to so much, especially music from Latin America. The music for harp in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, is different. Also in Paraguay and Peru. I would like to travel there and learn.

 I’d love to get your thoughts about living in this country. What can you do here in the US that you can’t do there?

I discovered that here in the United States hay un campo de acción mas amplio. There’s a bigger playing field than I could have right now in Colombia. Here we are exposed to music from the entire world. If this existed in our countries in Latin America, we would have a deeper culture, perhaps less war, more education. This is what I love here.

The arpa llanera has opened doors for me because it’s such a unique instrument. In the most difficult moments she has been mi compañera de lucha.

At the same time, the music industry is so difficult. Performing near Boston, New York, and Los Angeles is hard. You have to understand the industry, to be your own representative, the one who negotiates and records, the composer of course, writing, even. Publicity and communications. Booking the venues. You can get exhausted by all this. The artist may be excellent at his music but not good at handling proposals and contracts.

In many cases you play only for tips. I often drive a total of eight hours to a venue. You practice before arriving, carry your instruments to the site. That all might include four hours before you arrive. In other venues the musicians get a percentage of the cover charge. To make a CD the cost is five to six thousand dollars—to sell one thousand copies. A record label wants to make money. Percentages are low. My complaint is that you arrive with a lifetime of effort and then discover that you have to give away your art for free. Musicians don’t dare complain. 

Let’s do something to make people more aware, to appreciate the importance of art. In Colombia there is some money destined for artists to play at festivals and contests where they offer, say, $5000 as a prize. But Colombia is moving away from this effort. It’s become more of a business than culture. Art is seen as a commodity. The magic that transports you to another world dies. The importance of art to communicate what is happening in the world deserves support.

Here is Nico’s website, where you can hear more of his music.

Diego - Navigating Identity

Diego is a storyboard artist and illustrator from Puerto Rico who lives in New York. He discussed his work and the devastating issues still troubling Puerto Rico in Part 1. If you missed Diego, Storyboard Artist from Puerto Rico, click on the title in orange. Our conversation continues here, identity and multiculturalism squarely on the table.

Let me backtrack. I think my ethnicity and nationality are not things I carried on my sleeve when I arrived. But people’s reactions to me brought it to the conversation. This was more common when my accent was more noticeable. You know, looking the way I do—liminal—I am in between spaces. I’m very light skinned and have benefited from that privilege. I’m not seen as threatening, but there’s enough ethnicity in my bone structure that it invites curiosity. I get a lot of “Brazilian, right?” 

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We are more alike

Hola gente,

Tomorrow you'll be receiving from the Soy/Somos series the first half of Diego's story. Diego is a storyboard illustrator and also Puerto Rican, and while he lives in New York, his parents and family live on the island, still suffering the devastation of hurricane Maria and our government's utter failure to help.

Yesterday, "Maria Was Also a 'Real Catastrophe,'" the NYTimes' reported that "on Wednesday, the president smugly declared that 'we did a fantastic job.'" The death toll resulting from the hurricane is now estimated at 2,975, the Times reported, and "it is essential for Americans on the mainland to appreciate that their fellow Americans in the Caribbean have suffered a life-altering catastrophe greater than Hurricanes Katrina or Harvey and require the same outpouring of help and sympathy as New Orleans or Houston. This is a time to open hearts and wallets."


This weekend, while playing in NYC, Donald and I came across a gallery on Ninth Avenue featuring the #StrangersProject, displaying some 200 single-page,  handwritten stories written by people from all walks of life. The 8x11 pieces of paper where hanging on clotheslines around the room. We stopped to read; we spoke with the creator, who has collected more than 40,000 stories. "What is it like being you?"  It's a phenomenon! See STRANGERSPROJECT.COM. People's stories, all ages and backgrounds, were stunningly similar. They felt lonely, loved someone, lost someone, longed for someone or something, were afraid, felt they didn't count. Ordinary, essential things that all of us feel. We are so much more alike than different. This is what I mean to convey in my conversations with Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx, in the Soy/Somos series. 

Make the time for Diego's story tomorrow. He's an artist and very interesting human.

Summer Books


It's summertime and many of you are easing up on obligations, unwinding at the beach, and reading those books you never have time for. I wonder what you are reading...  

Me. I'm staying close to home but trying to take advantage of the wonders of NYC: mostly jazz for me but also the easy pace of the city in the dog days of summer. As a break from writing, I take myself outside to the garden to weed. The weeds are loving the rain. 

Last Sunday I heard a wonderful jazz vocalist and Grammy winner, Catherine Russell. This was at  Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in the Time Warner Building, small tables café style, giant glass window looking out onto the blaze of lights on 59th Street. I must get to Minton's club in Harlem before the summer ends. 

Here are some books that have captivated me:

By Sally Koslow, Another Side of Paradise. F. Scott Fitzgerald's love affair with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Hollywood 1930s. The story is told in Sheilah Graham's voice, beautifully re-imagined by the author. I learned some curious and essential things about  Fitzgerald and the challenges to the famous who must live up to greatness. Sheilah is fascinating in her own right and has her own secrets. 

Very different. Non-fiction. The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, is a soulful book about the lives of migrants who try to cross and recross the Mexico-US border. The author is a second generation immigrant American who takes a job with the Border Patrol in New Mexico and later in West Texas. This is an intimate, exquisite book. It has opened up my own thinking. I am still discovering how.

I just finished the novel, Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, and it is still settling in my head. There are two--what appear to be very different stories--in the book: a love relationship between a famous, older writer and a young woman, and the story of an Iraqi-American family, the isolation of one of it's members in a holding cell in Heathrow Airport. One reviewer said, rightly, that Halliday takes us "down rabbit holes to unknown places." I remain fascinated...

A little bit about Diego. I interviewed Diego some months ago. He's a storyboard illustrator, fleshes out stories created by advertising, movie, and television writers. He is LGBT and POC (gay and person of color). He talked to me about issues of identity, where he feels he fits and doesn't fit. Diego is un Puertorriqueño, lives in NYC, explained to me reasons--as he sees them--for the economic collapse and distress in Puerto Rico where his family still lives. I'll be publishing Diego's story in two parts. You'll see  Soy/Somos:Diego in September, when we will all have a little more energy to ponder.

Enjoy the dog days of summer. 

Full Circle

The sound of that kitchen knife up and down on the vegetables was the subject of my very first try at writing. It was almost ten years ago that I participated in my first creative writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence’s Writing Institute. The wonderful teacher, Sarah Goodyear, lived in Brooklyn. She biked to the subway, picked up the Metro North train at Grand Central to bring her to Bronxville and biked to the Sarah Lawrence campus, rain or snow.

Nation of immigrants

If they were like me, the eight students were jittery with energy and fear at our first session held in a tiny library with a fireplace, tables in a circle. Sarah reminded us that as writers we must pay close attention to the human world. First assignment: “Go be a fly on the wall somewhere busy and write down a conversation. Exact words and phrases. Check the surroundings carefully. Find a story in what you hear.

Three coffee houses later with nothing good to show, I walked into my local diner. I sat by the counter with pencil and notebook on my lap. I listened closely and scribbled fast. The cooks chattered constantly and that was good. They spoke Spanish. I spoke Spanish. That was good. Cutting, cutting. Tip of knife down, tip down.  

The following week we read our dialogues out loud with a bit of setting and story. Jackie, another student, walked over to me and said, I love those knives! I think I was shaking at the time. I’d liked what Jackie read also. She is now one of my besties. More seriously, she is one of the seven inspiring writers with whom I collaborate regularly.

Over the years, I poked at “The Diner.” Rewrites, edits, adding a new ending, taking it away. I returned to the diner many times to listen and scribble and eat. I decided to submit the essay to a few literary magazines who publish writing I like. Sweet wrote back, “We love it.”  After ten years, “Diner” is published.

Click here to read "The Diner."