July 20, 2009

Speaking Culture w/ Activist, Author, Filmmaker Elisha Miranda

The Writer

Photo by Anjali Bhargava Photography

Elisha Miranda is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker, whose work has garnered critical acclaim for her ability to integrate issues of popular culture, race, feminism, politics, and visual aesthetics into unique hybrid narrative forms. Also being both a cultural activist and entrepreneur, Elisha is committed to elevating the quality of entertainment both through her personal initiatives and business ventures. With her business partner Sofia Quintero, she founded Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company. SOE is developing several projects for television, film and stage including the upcoming internet series SANGRIA STREET and the off-Broadway multimedia production of Pandora’s which premiered at Theater Row in New York City.

Under her pen name E-Fierce, she wrote her debut young adult novel series, THE SISTA HOOD: ON THE MIC. Elisha is also a contributing author to the anthologies JUICY MANGOS, OTHER RICAN and THE FIRE THIS TIME. Her first “chick-lit” novel, LOVELINES is forthcoming as well as her “memoir,” RAISING CANE. Elisha co-founded Chica Luna Productions, a non-profit in New York that seeks to identify, develop, and support other women of color seeking to make socially conscious entertainment. Elisha is also an Artist in Residence at the National Book Foundation’s BOOK UP NYC project and her memoir, RAISING CANE was recently selected for the Voice of Our Nation (VONA) Writer Residency.

You can learn more about Elisha through her cyber spots: on MySpace, on Twitter, and at her official blog.

The Book

4 Girls, One Mic and Lots of Drama

When Mariposa (aka MC Patria) meets Ezekiel Matthews (aka MC EZ1) they quickly become best friends; together they have the best summer tossing lyrics and rhymes. After the summer ends, Mariposa realizes the only thing she really cares about -- besides becoming the best emcee around -- is getting Ezekiel to love her. Unfortunately, this realization comes at the same time Ezekiel gets a girlfriend -- Jennifer Hoffman (aka J-Ho 5), an emcee with a huge buzz.

When her school announces a talent show, Mariposa understands that this could be her last chance to impress Ezekiel. She decides to form a hip-hop crew -- enter the world of the Sista Hood -- MC Patria, Soul Siren, Pinay-1 and DJ Esa, all divas in their own way. While coming together isn't easy, they're forced to collaborate and their lives are changed forever.

Click the cover above to order your copy of The Sista Hood: On the Mic today!

On Culture & Writing

How important is it for you to integrate your cultural experiences into your writing?
Before heeding the muse and pursuing a career as a filmmaker and writer, I had been an educator, community organizer and emergent urban planner, working with people of various ages, classes, race and ethnicities, sexual identities and national origins and learning about a range of issues from criminal justice to public health. I have worked for the struggling nonprofit organization, and I have served the public as a teacher in public education. I have volunteered for the activist collective, and have taught classes at the university. My professional life has brought me to China and Japan, Wooster College in Ohio and the juvenile facility in San Francisco, California. I have abandoned the tourist bus to hike the back roads of Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico precisely because I’m a Latina who is not Cuban, Colombian nor Mexican.

All these different experiences have brought me a more expansive viewpoint of Latinadad in the United States. I’m a Puerto Rican who grew up in public housing between a working-class Mexican/Chicano community called the Mission and the African American dominant Hunter’s Point. I went on to earn multiple degrees at elite universities, and experienced a creative “recovery” in my late twenties in which I pursued my dream of becoming a professional storyteller.

My mother raised in public housing – herself a native of San Francisco whose father was a merchant marine from Puerto Rico and whose mother settled there from Puerto Rico via Hawaii’s sugar cane fields – raised me and my siblings by herself. I toughed out the failing public elementary and junior high school down the block where all the other kids looked liked me. But when high school arrived, I endured a daily bus ride from my neighborhood to a magnet high school where I was both a racial and economic minority.

I’m an openly bisexual woman who speaks out against racial injustice when others hide behind their fair skin. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and am now a practicing Buddhist who identifies as “spiritual but not religious.” I am a modern Latina, and this is why my body of work resonates not only across the differences within the Latino community but also speaks to audiences beyond it.

It is these experiences that give me the stories I wish to tell, and because I have crossed borders of so many kinds, people of all backgrounds see themselves braided in my yarn. Today many people want to write books and make films about the Latino experience. I have lived that experience and there are many stories to tell. This is not merely something I do as a writer and director. It is how I live and these experiences are very integrated into my art.

In viewing media - TV, movies, books, radio, etc., how do you see your culture being conveyed?
There have been a slew of Urban Latino and “Chicano” films that Hollywood has produced over the years. Films like Mi Familia, La Bamba, Zoot Suit, Empire, Washington Heights, Bodega Dreams, Real Women Have Curves all portray Latinos as having a monolithic experience – principally struggling with cultural identity crisis. And often times if it’s not a Latino film we’re often still seen as welfare mothers, maids, gang bangers, gardeners, etc. We still are not seen as the scientist that ends global warming or the film director that wins that Oscar. The media still doesn’t understand Latino culture, rather many of our characters are based on stereotypes.

On a positive note I see that changing as many more Latinos are beginning to make films like La Misma Luna which is a film about the universality of love and the relationship between a mother and child. Or books like Burn by Black Artemis aka Sofia Quintero which are noir hip-hop fiction that deals with a Latina protagonist that is a bail bond agent. Or Divas Don’t Yield by Sofia Quintero which deals with four Latinas who actually went to college and are dealing with their bicultural lives once they’ve graduated and who they’re beyond family expectations, gender norms and racism. In other words, both of those books deal being Latina is not the question, it’s pursuing your dreams despite societal limitations. It’s about creating friendships across differences. Creating a world that perhaps will take another fifty years to reach.

What do you look to convey about your culture through your writing?
I set out to tell a different experience – my experience- where my characters embrace their ethnic identity, therefore allowing for other issues to surface like sexuality, desire, and sex.

I spent my 20’s organizing around issues of HIV/AIDS, same sexed domestic violence, multicultural education, police brutality, and immigration reform. I had my own obsession with popular culture as a graffiti artist in my teens and closeted writer who always penned plays for political rallies. I witnessed the effect that popular culture had on moving people to change and how sorely represented the characters that lived with the borders I lived were in film and literature. How come our real stories were absent at the Cineplex or the local bookstore? Taking a Third World film and a Women of Color in Literature class in college allowed me to weave together my love of writing with my passion for the visual. It handed me a tool that taught me that popular culture could be used for creating change in our communities.

I directed a youth project in my 20’s that used a holistic model combining popular education, the arts, self-healing and community organizing a to train youth to make change in their communities around various issues. One day I asked the youth, “What are your dreams?” One of the young men responded, “Dreams are for white people.” Two things came up for me that day— first, I was angry that these youth couldn’t dream because of racism, poverty, etc. and did not see many options for change. Of course, this was the purpose of our project to ignite revolution and see the possibility of change. It also brought up for me that though I loved my life as a popular educator, I was hiding from my own dreams. I wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker, but in many ways not seeing myself reflected as a queer women of color from a working class family I didn’t really believe that dream was possible. How could I be teaching these youth about hope when in my own way I was had no faith in my own ability to accomplish my dreams.

It’s no accident, my first published book was a young adult series about four young women of color that created a multiracial hip-hop crew as a means of connection and survival in an all white school. But if you dig deeper in The Sista Hood: On the Mic series that I penned, the reader will find that I have layered it with issues of race, sexuality, colonialism, young women in hip-hop, feminism, self-love and change without being didactic. I wrote the book I needed to read as an emergent young women moving toward adulthood with all the questions and complexities of youth. After all, I needed my Latina Judy Blume that used her books as a canvas to paint my existence into the written word or to be produced on the movie screen. My YA series is a tribute to urban girls of color; we need our Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, too.

Do you think writers are (or can be) spokespersons for their culture?
We’re all so diverse my ideal hope would be that people would see each writer as one perspective among the mélange of experiences that exist in our world.

For writers of color that is often hard as we’re not the majority of writers or filmmakers. We’re often seen as other or exotic or less than. Our experiences by the status quo are not seen as universal. Unless, you’re a white male making Stand by Me, somehow that’s suppose to be seen as universal. I don’t have issues with the film Stand by Me— I love the film and can find a common link of coming-of-age even though I’m not a thirteen year old white boy. However, it frustrates me that often films or books by writers of color cannot be given the same universality.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2003, 22.5 percent (9.1 million) Hispanics lived in poverty, compared to 8.2 percent of whites, 11.8 percent of Asians and 24.4 percent of blacks. In 2002, Hispanics represented 3 percent of the characters on the major broadcast networks, compared to 81 percent of whites, 15 percent of blacks, and 1 percent of Asians, according to a 2003 study by the University of California, Los Angeles. I know that my experience is one of many in Latino culture. I never profess to be the spokesperson for everyone. Yet, I do take responsibility for our representation and feel a responsibility as a Latina writer given there is such much material that has yet to be explored. And so much progress and justice that still needs to happen for Latinos in this country. I’m proud of my Latinidad and I feel a strong social responsibility to make whatever spaces I inhabit better for those who come after me.

I also think it’s important to have the courage to explore not only the positive things about my culture, but to create a space for dialogue around those things that we must change (i.e. racism among ourselves, homophobia, differences in national origin that separate us, language, etc.). Every culture has its positives and negatives; it's always more difficult to bring up the negative when so much of the positive has yet to be explored.

If you are a writer who writes outside your culture, talk to us about that experience. What have your learned about yourself during the process?
In my Sista hood: On the Mic series, I wrote about four girls two Latinas, one African American and one Filipina. I started with the Puerto Rican character as that was the closest to home. Each book is written in the first person of one of the four the girls in the crew. My next book is written from Liza’s perspective, she’s the Filipino character. I’m very aware that I’m not Filipino and I handle that in two ways— first, I’m lucky to have a very diverse community of friends and family to serve as readers to make sure that I write Liza with integrity and respect. I’m accountable to them, as I think anyone not born into a culture should defer to those that have lived it. Secondly, growing up in a diverse community is a gift in that I don’t live in a homogeneous bubble and this has exposed me to many things that broaden and influence me culturally. Especially, growing up in San Francisco or New York, we are all exposed to different languages, cultures, foods and people that influence our view of ourselves and the world. This broadens my lens as a storyteller as my world was not just black and white growing up— it was the entire rainbow. And I feel most comfortable when my world reflects a lens that is multicolored and vibrant.

Any closing comments you'd like to make regarding culture and writing?
Yes, I’m looking forward to the day and I know it will come when race is not just talked about in the context of black and white. When creating Latino characters can be just as commercially viable and universal as Whiteness. When I’m not just a Latina author or filmmaker, but I’m an artist that is respected for my craft of storytelling. Eventually, as more books and films are written about our experiences people will realize that Latinos are more than just a cultural celebration like Cinco de Mayo or that we make tasty food like arroz con pollo— but we too have struggles that need to be addressed and stories that need to be told. The diversity we encompass as Latinos has yet to truly be reflected in the media. On the other hand, there is a cultural hybridity that occurs in the United States that you don’t see anywhere else in the world and this has an incredible untapped potential to universally change how we think about difference and thus, contribute toward democratizing media.


From Elisha Miranda's (E-Fierce) novel, The Sista Hood: On the Mic


I wanted more than anything in the world to be an emcee. Oh, and to be with Ezekiel Matthews. So, as I rode the San Francisco Muni bus from my wealthy public school neighborhood of St. Francis Wood to my working-class barrio- the Mission- I dreamed. I thought of better times that have passed and of dreams to come.

A time when I'll have my own stage, a record deal and my honey on my arm. For now, I'll settle for making it threw the next four years of high school.

I opened my sketchbook that Papi gave for my twelfth birthday. It's worn like a comfy pair of shoes. It has been loved and plastered over with album covers from my favorite hip-hop artists like Tupac, Missy Elliot, Goapele, Flakiss and Mystic.

I haven't seen Papi in three months. Writing is my way of shouting him out, drenching myself in his light. I just wrote on the bus. Tuned out the noise.

Didn't care about the teenage boys that smelled of sweat or the girls that wore clothes so tight their pants would probably rip if they sat down too quickly.

I created my own cipher, and wrote as if each word I penned would somehow bring Papi back into my life.

I make the most of what I got
Hoping I can blow the spot and make a knot.
But keep my soul intact
If I make it, mami, I'll be back.

"Yo, why you always gotta be so tough? Ezekiel said, stretching his neck over my seat to peep my lyrics. "They sound like a dude wrote them. I thought you Latinas were suppose to be soft and sexy and bring me tortillas for lunch?"

"I'm not Mexican. Besides Puerto Ricans don't eat tortillas," I said as I slammed my notebook closed. I wanted to reply with a cool-ass come back. Instead, I just sat there like a mute. All I could do to avoid his sexy charcoal colored eyes was to look out the MUNI bus window and chew on my cuticles. Shit, I'm never at a lost for words unless I'm sitting next to MC EZ, as he's known to all his fans in Frisco. I felt both excited to see him and resentful that he had to show up, at that moment when I wanted just to be alone.

"I heard this dope rapper once say, 'When society tries to silence us our most powerful weapon is the mic EZ said. Which also means how you say it is as important as what you say. That's why you need a serious attitude adjustment, Mari, and stop trying to sound so hard!"

"Hip-hop class is over, and I don't need you to play teacher no more."

"I wasn't dissin' your words, I was tryin' to help a li'l sistah out."

Here I've been dying to see Ezekiel for months, and the first thing he did was criticize me. Forget that he called me li'l sistah, we spent the best eight weeks of my life together this summer. At camp, when I would bust out lyrics about women being strong and smart, he was the only guy who didn't avoid me afterward. All the other guys would be sweating the girls who were more flirtatious and less in- your- face with their rhymes. It's always hard with guys 'cause my steelo could never be some J-Lo or Lil' Kim type, who hooches out and downplays their smarts for the bling bling.

"Oh, so now you're not talkin' to me?" he said. But I could tell he wasn't mad 'cause he said it as if he were trying to make amends. Maybe, he's already tired of his new hottie, J-Ho. Actually her name is Jessica Hoffman. Since she dug her claws into him, brotha man all but disappeared. I might be love struck, but I still need to make him earn a sistah's love.

"You haven't spoken to me in five months and suddenly expect everything to be cool?" I said.

"That's not fair Mariposa, you know I got a lot going on with Jessica, family, church, friends, hip-hop and now school."

He had to go there first with Jessica. I just don't get what he sees in her. Jessica can't even carry on a conversation with herself, let alone relate to what Ezekiel must go through as a Black man in America. She just wants to be black. Especially, after telling me this summer that "he had never been able to relate to a girl like me." J-Ho gets mad props at school for her rapping skills, but it can't hurt that she's willing to show lots of skin and flaunt her ass in those skin tight pants. The dudes love that shit. He probably stays with her 'cause she gives it up easy.

"Well, you could've at least given a sistah a call," I said.

Ezekiel nodded, shifting in his seat. For the first time, he moved away from me. "I will." He sat there without taking his eyes away from mine.

As the sun from the bus window pressed down hot and hard on his café sin leche skin, all I could think about was how fine Ezekiel was as he extended his arm behind me along the backside of the seat with such confidence. Here we were traveling through the sunset neighborhood of San Francisco -with a man talking to himself in one corner, a White lady clutching her purse close in the other and a bunch of kids talking smack - and Ezekiel just sat there like he belonged. I wanted so badly to be inside his heart, to feel protected by his warmth. I suddenly had this urge to lean over and kiss his nice full lips.

"Oh shit, here comes Fat-boy," said Ezekiel, turning away from me as he noticed his homeboy enter the bus. They pounded fists.

"What up, EZ?" said Fat-Boy with the XXX shirt.

"Nothin' B, just chillin' with my li'l sister, " said Ezekiel.

I shot the boy a hardcore stare. Ezekiel caught my mug, but didn't say anything. Fat-boy began to feel the heat and bounced.

"Um, I'll check you later Dawg," he said. He moved to the back of the bus towards his friends where they started joking.

"That's one bitch I never want to get with playa- she's fine, but not worth the drama," said Fat-boy.

They all laughed.

Oh, no he didn't. EZ tried to push me down as I stood up to tell the loser a thing about himself. "You pimply faced, Blimpie eatin', Big Pun pendejo- you're just upset 'cause the only bitch you've ever touched is your mama."

Fat-boy started to say something else, until EZ just looked at him. That was enough to make him race back to his seat and stay quiet, even with his friends.

"See what I mean, Mari, you be scaring them boys away."

"It's the best repellant I know for keeping the ass-holes away," I said.

Ezekiel sighed in frustration, "Girl, if you wanna be an emcee you gotta chill a bit more with people. It helps build your fan base."

"Whatcha tryin'to say? I gotta be sugar and spice and everything, so you dudes aren't threatened?"

"Mariposa, I'm just sayin' that you can't roll up on guys all tough like you want to build your street cred. Use your cuteness a little more, it'll take you farther."

"It works for Jessica, but it ain't me. I'm not good at all that fake social stuff. I hate it when dudes be calling me a bitch."

"Oh, but it's okay for you to call someone's mama a bitch?"

"Well, it sounded good and he left me alone, right?"

Ezekiel saw right through me, knowing I would never admit to him that I was wrong. I made it easy for him and he just threw my own words right back at me.

Him not sticking up for J-Ho surprised me. I also respected him for not rubbing in my face the fact that Fat-boy only left me alone 'cause I was with him.

Don't get me wrong, I could've held It down with my potty mouth. It's my physical well being that would have been jeopardized. Call me lucky, but my battles always stayed verbal.

"But this ain't you though. Listen Mari, this summer you seemed so free. You were able to just let your rhymes flow."

I kept frowning, and he just looked at me till I smiled. It was all good. Then a crew of hotties from around the way entered the bus with their hiked up skirts and mile-high boots. They worked the bus aisle, loving that all eyes were on them. All the boys started kickin' game and asking for their digits.

Ezekiel couldn't stop staring at this one chick that reminded me of J-Ho except she was Black and sported Alicia Keys extensions.

"Check her out," he said.

Life is just too easy for EZ sometimes. People were always telling him what beautiful eyes he had or salivating over his tall and lean body. Even strangers.

Mostly girls. His eyes were light brown, almost green. He always said he thought they looked strange against his dark skin. Ezekiel then looked at his reflection in the window. Checking himself out as if wondering whether or not he was good-looking. Yeah, he knew girls were checking him out all the time-but the pickings were slim at Stanford High, so maybe he just felt desperate and that's why he got with Jessica. Whatever happened to Ezekiel spitting lyrics like, "Black is beautiful. Where's my beautiful black girlfriend. You're a black man. You're a warrior"?

I wish he was my papi chulo and not hers. I've tried real hard to be just friends. I should be happy. It's my second semester as a Freshman at Stanford - the most prestigious public high school in San Francisco. But no, I go to school with a bunch of geeky Chinese kids and crazy White kids that do lots of drugs and only talk to me when they want help with their Spanish homework. Shit, my mom cleans some of their houses and my dad works on their cars. And sometimes in class, I'm reminded by my classmates that the only reason I'm at this school is that they had a shortage of Black and Latino applicants, so they took the smartest of us from the worst schools. After all, it couldn't be that we were really smart. Then, when I try to connect with some of the few Latin and Black kids in the courtyard, I gotta see Ezekiel macking on that skank, J-Ho who isn't even a sistah. Maybe if I was a hoochie, a dope-ass emcee, or a senior I could've had a chance with him. I should have just gone to my local school, stayed where it was familiar.

"Do you see me as Black or Latina?" I said.

Ezekiel chuckled to himself. "You're always full of surprises, aren't you?"

"Just answer the question!"

"Well, you aren't one of those White-looking Latinas but you're not black either. Still, I don't think your folks would be too excited about you bringing a brotha home," he said.

I guess I shouldn't ask questions when I really didn't want to know the answer. He had to mention my parents, something I didn't want to think about right now. Being true to my unpredictably predictable nature, I rolled my eyes and was ready to box. "You mean, your folks wouldn't be too happy about you bringing home some Puerto Rican whose parents have thick Spanish accents?"

"Mariposa, don't be putting words in my mouth. If I had issues with Latinos, you and I wouldn't be friends, would we?"

"Be real, Ezekiel. At camp you were always making fun of light-skinned brothas or joking about how Latinos could pass."

"Some Latinos can pass, but not you Mari," he said, really meaning it. He stopped me dead in my tracks. Reminding me why I wanted him in my life.

"It's probably hard for you being a darker Latino."

He can be a smart-ass most of the time, but for some reason he just gets me. Sometimes he reads me better than I can read myself. And as much as I wouldn't want to admit it to his face, he's right about my folks. If I brought home a brother, my pops would be cool, but my mother would definitely have issues.

"Yeah," I said. "Latinos be hatin' on black folk and black folk be hatin' on Latinos. My Spanish ain't good enough for Latinos and black folks be hatin' on my good hair and café con leche skin. The only place I be feelin' in my zone is when I'm spittin', but there its the men who be hatin' on me."

He unzipped his backpack and started rummaging through it. After a moment he came up with a Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser. He searched through it more and came up with a package of cherry and orange Pez.

"Which one do you like?"

"I'll take the orange."

EZ began to eat messily place the orange Pez into the Mickey Mouse dispenser.

"Now, open your hand," said EZ and he generously gave me two to eat. He took a couple for himself and then returned it back to his backpack.

"Thanks EZ". I pulled away putting the pez in my mouth. The candy was tasted sweet and warm.

"My father gave me that Mickey Mouse Pez for my thirteenth birthday and said he would take my sister Sadie and me to Disneyland. That was about four years ago and we still haven't gone. But I carry it with me everywhere". He smiled and looked at me. "Never know when he's gonna get some time off from work and say, 'Hey Ezekiel, let's take that trip."

"You think he ever will?"

Ezekiel shook his head. "Sadie and I are too old now. And everything's changed since he gave it to me. I guess I'll just hold on to it."


Yeah," he said. "Hoping."

I savored my Pez sucking it slowly, thinking about how nice it was to have a real conversation with Ezekiel again. I wish I could be as open as him, especially about my parents. But nothing came out, instead, I just sat there eating my Pez.

"Listen when are you gonna hook up with my sister?" Ezekiel said. "She hasn't been too happy lately. She could use some new friends."

"I have friends. Me, myself and I," I said. "No for real, I do have my friend Liza. She's just been caught up in her boy friend, Rio.

All of a sudden I regretted not letting him in I knew there was Liza, but even she's been avoiding me lately. EZ was probably the one person I could trust, and I just kept sayin' the wrong thing. I wish I could tell him about my parents getting a divorce. I know peeps get divorced all the time, but it wasn't supposed to happen to my folks. They loved each other. Then, my dad just bounced with some hoochie who had more cheddar. Now, I come home everyday to my mom locking herself in her room and crying. I'm never goin' out like that for no dude. Never. I guess I should just keep quiet and not make it worse.

"Listen Mariposa, stop pouting. It's not attractive. School can't be that bad."

"I'm not pouting. Don't do that Ezekiel."

"Do what?"

"Don't make it seem like I'm being a baby. You just don't understand, okay."

"Okay," he said. "Look, I know it must be hard for you that I'm dating Jessica. It's just you're more like a li'l sister to me. You don't have to diss me. "

"You're such a jerk," I said.

"When'd you get to be such a jerk?" he asked.

Ezekiel was silent. I stared down at my cuticle, which was bleeding now.

"Twenty-fourth and Mission," announced the bus driver over the intercom.

I left without looking back.

If I had stayed with him one second longer, I would've burst into tears. All I wanted was for him to love me back. To see in me what he saw in Jessica. I wanted so badly to live in her skin. She can't even rhyme. Yeah, she won the talent show last year, but that's before I came to this school. How can EZ go for her? I wanted him to love me.

I couldn't keep the tears from streaming down my face. I wished I could run home to my dad so he could make it all better with a look, a word or even a hug.

But even he's gone. I guess all men, just leave one day and never come back. The bus pulled away and I stole a glance of the back of EZ's head and sighed. I saw my own reflection in the back window and began to question who I was and why I was in this world.

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