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On A Personal Note
by Tomas J. Benitez
October the 5th is my one-year anniversary. It’s not like the first 64 years don’t count, it’s just that age 65, or year one, is the overtime, sudden not-death extra playoff time I get as a result of having open heart surgery. Nowadays, by-pass surgery has become routinely successful, and my case was no different from others, besides the doctor telling me I had no choice, “do it or die soon.” When you hear that you hear a train running through your brain. When you hear that you feel it down to your gnarled toes. I am utterly grateful for the catch. Several doctors moved me up the food chain, first recognizing my breathing was impaired, then detecting the history of heart attacks I had had over the past several years, and finally, leading me to the operating theatre.
I was shocked to learn I had indeed experienced a series of heart attacks over the past 18 months, about a half dozen they could tell for sure. I thought it was gas. I don’t remember any time I ever told myself “Hey, you’re having a heart attack menso!” Nope, it was all quite very pedestrian by comparison to breaking my toe, dislocating my hip and a few other maladies that had occurred in the same time frame. I knew my breathing was impaired, I smoked all my life and I had come to a point where I couldn’t sleep without being propped up in a semi-sitting position. But still, I bet I’m not the only one who has ignored the dents and kept on going at a reckless speed. It’s probably why people drop dead, ignoring the dents until they crash. I was lucky, blessed, and nagged into checking in. I mean, I was riding my beach cruiser all over town, still doing my thing in my life, writing about East LA, the Gully, the Dodgers, and my contempt for Donald Trump. I just couldn’t be THAT sick. Yeah well, I was, and I succumbed to the voice in my head that said, “You are NOT Godzilla.”
All along the pathway I began to sensed that things were awry. But you stumble forward until you land on your back and then you really and truly leave it up to the professionals and God to do the heavy lifting. I mean, all I really had to do was lay there, watch them shave my big chest and enjoy the medications as I drifted away. I thought to myself, “Man this can’t be it, I’m not done.” When I woke, I realized I was still alive. My first thought was, “Okay, now what?”
Now, food is more delicious, East L.A. is more beautiful and comforting, music hits my soul deeper, hugs and kisses are more tender, all the simple good things in life are much more profound. I spend a lot of time in memory but I spend more time in taking on new challenges in daily life. I spend a lot of time observing life and all that surrounds me, but I spend more time taking part. I am liberated and relatively unfiltered. (That may have to do more with turning 65 but I wouldn’t be here if not for the new heart thing.) Oh I still have to pace myself, the real reality is that I have indeed had to slow down a little bit. Most of my decadent behavior has been put well aside, at last. Although, once a travieso always a travieso, and there are times I have to resist my impulses. I’ve even had a follow up pacemaker installed to makes sure I do not invade Tokyo again. I do like to breath fire every once in a while. But it is all about pacing.
I am grateful for the new clarity in my mind, but there are times I still get confused as to how to answer my damn phone on my computer. Life is simpler, more precious, but I still have to pay bills to keep the lights on. Life changes but it also stays the same. That is the cosmic secret by the way. Life changes, but it goes on. Life is better than death.
Are All Your People Okay?
Tomas J. Benitez
September 28, 2017
It’s a tired old saw; human beings are at their best when things are at their worst. But we have been reminded of such with tremendous profundity the past few weeks. Most vividly we have seen Mexico respond to a cry for need, first, crossing the border and coming to the aid of Houston, even though the U.S. President has repeatedly insulted its people, and now, showing its best character in all of the rescue efforts to recover from the devastation of the earthquakes. Americans (from North America) have also demonstrated resilience and courage, stepping up to help their neighbors in Texas, Florida and Louisiana, as well as in the Caribbean.
The generosity and outpouring of help from citizens have dwarfed the state efforts, not in terms of total dollars, but in relationship to giving what they can and rallying support as they may. FEMA and other emergency organizations are to be applauded for their endeavors, but they are also a response that is duty bound and expected to be a public service by design. Seeing individuals come forward and doing what they can do to help others even at their own sacrifice, that is where the most heartening examples are to be found.
I can still see the lines of people standing upon the rubble moving out dross, bucket by bucket, so that they did not disturb the fragility of the collapsed buildings with machinery. So many people came forward after the initial quake that the local authorities had to ask that people stay away, they had too many people on hand. And the vendors, feeding free tacos and drinks to volunteers, refusing to take payment, simply giving what they could give. These scenes of loving support are in dire contradiction to the images of parents standing about waiting for word on whether their child survived, but little moments of light should be noted amid the dark clouds and tragedy. I can also recall seeing the squads of volunteer boatman in their improvised rescue ships floating down the rivers nee roads, stopping to rescue folks stranded in the floods in Texas.
In the days following the hurricanes in the U.S. and then the earthquake in Mexico, I noted in my interaction with my world and on Facebook, scores of people checking in with each other; “Have you heard from your family, friends? Is every one accounted for? Are your people okay?” Of note, so many of the people in my social circle have connections going back to the old country, so many of us have families here and there. Latinos, more specifically Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in this country, were more easily disposed to check in with each other, making presumptions but also understanding the likelihood that we had somebody to worry about, somebody that was impacted by the string of natural disasters over the past few weeks. But all of us have found a bond in reaching out to all the folks that have been displaced, hurt, or rendered damaged by mother nature. In the final analysis, including our friends, we’re one family.
In a climate of political didactic that is so adversarial and entrenched in divisive rhetoric, led by national leaders who are undeserving of our respect, ordinary folks have come forward with a statement of loving dignity that rises above the pettiness. Not since 911 have I seen our community in such unity, at least on the level of opening our hearts and pocketbooks. Indeed, with some of the other issues, such as the attack upon DACA, I’m proud to see my community also responding with the same passion and fortitude, vowing to fight against bigotry and protect our sovereignty.
Not the same, but not unrelated, two other incidents in recent months have evoked from me a feeling of pride in my community and my cultura. The young man who was attacked for selling elotes was given a custom made new cart by community volunteers. The vendor who had his money taken away by a hard ass cop for selling hot dogs was given thousands of dollars from a fundraiser organized by community volunteers. Indeed, it is another old saw, but yes, somos familia.
Casa Fina Restaurant & Cantina
“A celebration of Mexican flavors, women and color!”
by Tomas j. Benitez
September 14, 2017
Boyle Heights is currently at the eye of a storm over the gentrification of East Los Angeles. No matter what side you fall on the issue, the changes in the neighborhood have been fast and coming, and have offered numerous challenges to the people who been living in the area for years. So it came as a great relief to many of the residents when Josefina Lopez announced she has acquired the former La Serenata de Garabaldi on First Street, (a closing that surprised and disappointed scores of locals and visitors), and was planning to open her own establishment, Casa Fina Restaurant and Cantina. Not unlike what she has done with Casa 0101, an oasis of Latino Theatre, Josefina has endeavored to create a space that is a welcoming portal to the local community and she has the same ambitious agenda for Casa Fina as she has demonstrated with her other dreams. The former restaurant was known for its high end menu, quite pricey and excellent haute cuisine. But with great purpose, the new owners, including Emmanuel Deleage and Richard Alonzo, wanted open a place that is affordable, accessible, and artistic.
You can tell the restaurant has fallen into the hands of new creative spirits; the façade has been painted over in a bold and unapologetic purple, and the interiors, painted in a bright Mexican pallet, are covered with art from Juan Solis, Pola Lopez, Lalo Lopez Alcaraz, Gronk and a cadre of many other Chicano/Latino artists. The ambition carries over to a voluminous menu, which features tasty antojitos like savory mushroom tacos to the specialties of the house, molcajetes, sizzling stone temples with a delicious selection of meat, chicken or fish, large strips of nopales (cactus) and big chunks of Mexican cheese, soaking in a shallow bowl of a spicy sauce. One order feeds two, so even as the priciest item on the menu, the molcajetes are still a deal. Taco Tuesdays is made for families on a budget, with a selection of generous tacos both soft and hard shell, all so very good and bargain priced. For the middle ground, try the shrimp enchiladas, but whatever you select, make sure to leave room for fresh brewed coffee and a slice of wonderful, tasty flan. Other desserts include fried platanos, tres leches cake and deep fried ice cream. Or you can ask to see the dessert tray if you don’t mind being envied and stared at; so tempting. One note, the fresh table salsa and chips are great, but if you want the ‘hot salsa’, ask the server. The service is efficient, and courteous, and will help you navigate through the daily specials.
The Cantina section of the restaurant specializes in a selection of inventive wine margaritas, has their own wine list upon request, and features buckets of bottled beer (both domestic and imported), just like you find in all the cool cantinas south of the border. On the opposite side of the large wooden bar, tucked away in a discreet corner, is the ‘Frida Sufrida Sofa’, a colorful cozy loveseat or “fainting couch”, perfectly designed for women who have just suffered too damn much, or maybe, had too much wine at one of the periodic wine tastings. Casa Fina will also be hosting “Pinta Y Toma”, (paint and drink), a combo wine tasting and painting lesson, courtesy of featured artist Juan Solis, Tuesday October 30th, 6:30-9:30pm, but you must RSVP as the evening will be sure to sell out.
In the future Casa Fina will be hosting Open Mike nights, the Boyle Heights Comedy Corner, Bohemian LGBTQ Nights, salsa dance nights, and rotating art exhibits. Can a new restaurant become a cultural nexus, community gathering place, art gallery, and still provide a quality dining experience? I have learned over the years, that if Josefina Lopez --- an award winning author, French chef, actor, producer, lecturer, mother, dreamer and force of nature in the cultural lifestyle of Boyle Heights, wants to do something --- it will happen. Bien provecho!
Casa Fina Happy Hour menu is from 3pm to 7pm Sunday through Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays 10pm to 2am. Valet parking is in the back through the alley, $4, (plus give the guy a dollar). Major credit cards accepted. Price range is from $ - $$. Casa Fina is located at 1842 East First Street, Los Angeles 90033. For reservations, call (323) 604-9592 or visit www.casafinarestaurant.com.