Navani Knows My Old NY


Hector “Nicer” Nazario brought images of the South Bronx out of the streets and into a gallery in his latest exhibit aptly titled, “My Old NY.” The show which opened Sept 1st,  is a trip down memory lane to anyone who spent time in the borough during the 70s and 80s. For me, a Puerto Rican born there, seeing the familiar images of the piragua man, old men playing dominoes and corner bodegas felt immediately like home. Each piece represented a sliver of my childhood and a scene so distant from the gentrified NY we now live in.

“My Old NY” is a must see not only for anyone who is a fan of the legendary graf writer Nicer (Tats Cru) but for those nostalgic for a lost era of New York City as well.


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The exhibit is live now at Avant Garde Gallery.

Navani Knows Dia De Los Muertos, BK

While many people are gearing up for Halloween – an excuse to play a role, dress up, party and eat insane amounts of candy (oh wait maybe that is just me, Reeses’s anyone?) some of us are focusing on what happens after Halloween – on el Dia De Los Muertos. This traditional Latino holiday gives us a chance to pay respects and homage to the friends and family who have passed. One great way to celebrate this year in the tri-state area would be to check the the amazing installation project and event being headed by two dope artists: Adrian “Viajero” Roman and Ben Rojas aka “Borish.” The second annual Dia De Los Muertos Brooklyn event not only boasts amazing art work including an 8-feet by 8-feet altar AND a performance by Ase, but also the chance for you to participate in the ceremony that celebrates the presence of our ancestors in our lives.

Check out the deets below and some sneak peek photos after the jump.

Date: November 2, 2012
Time: 7pm – 11pm
Where: 411 46th street (btwn 4th and 5th ave)
Sunset Park Brooklyn, NY 11220

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Navani Knows Books: Interview with Aurora Anaya-Cerda, founder of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Growing up I spent a lot of my free time in the library, where my love for books was born. I was always searching for stories about people like me – Latinos. Sadly, those stories were few and far between which left me feeling like an outsider much of my life. I was elated to find Down These Mean Streets on my high school reading list. Then, it was Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir “When I was Puerto Rican” and that was all I had to go on until I took advanced Latino literature courses in college. Seems like I was not the only one puzzled and disheartened by this dilemma. On the West Coast Chicana artist and educator Aurora Anaya-Cerda had the same question: why are Latino authors so hard to find? Her answer became a mission to make Latino authors accessible to our youth, which she has done with the opening of La Casa Azul Bookstore this past May. When I first vistited the bookstore all I remember thinking was, “Wow, I wish this were around when I was growing up!” I had to find out more. So, I caught up with Aurora to learn what it took to open El Barrio’s first Brick and Mortar bookstore for Latinos – a journey 6 years in the making:

What made you move to the East Coast?

I visited New York about a year before I moved, just on a touristy kind of thing – a friend of mine was speaking at a conference and invited me to come along. So, we stayed in East Harlem on 119th Street and I fell in love with El Barrio on that very first visit. When I went back home I told my mom how much fun I had in New York and how comfortable I felt in East Harlem and within a year I made plans to move here. There was no specific reason; it was just time for a change.

Why did you fall in love with El Barrio?

It felt very comfortable, I felt at home here. When we were staying on 119th every morning we would get up and eat on 116th street, but I could also buy tortillas and products I recognized. And the food is amazing, and there is so much art. There is so much life within the art world; I knew this was a place I would move to. I need that type of energy around me — I had that in LA, where I worked as an artist and educator my whole life.

 How did the idea for the bookstore, La Casa Azul, come about?

It came about in different phases, at different times in my life. I majored in Chicano Studies from UCLA and it was during that time that I started to recognize there are a lot of Latino writers out there that I had never been exposed to and I questioned why. Why was it that I had to go to a specific private school to learn about these authors? Why did I have to dig through the archives of libraries to find them? Why did I have to wait until college to learn about Chicano studies and Latino studies? So, that was kind of part one – questioning who has access to these stories and why is it that only certain people do. Secondly, I worked at independent bookstore in my senior year of college that focused on Latino literature. I was like wow, this is amazing – we have so many shelves of stories that people I know relate to, or I can relate to a lot of these characters and experiences. So, that was another hint, like oh the running of a bookstore, I had a sneak peek of that. Then, I moved here and worked at an afterschool program. One day on my way to work I picked up a local paper and read about an organization here in East Harlem that helps people open businesses. I was really intrigued so I thought what I would do if I could and the idea came back to me – a bookstore. That was six years ago. I called and enrolled in the class. That was the very first step.

Did your business plan from that course end up being your final business plan?

In every class we worked on a different element of a business plan so by the end you have a plan you can present to a bank for funding. That was the very first draft of my business plan it was like 15 pages. I look at mine now and it is 40 pages. But it has been a six year journey since then, so you add things and you change things. You modify things based on the market and people’s interests and my own interests and my own growth. That was the very first class I took of many, I later took classes at Baruch for accounting. Something I learned from that first class was that it is one thing to love books and another to run a business. People think I sit here and read books all day but I hardly ever get to read [laughs]. At this point you are running a business; there are so many aspects to this that I had to learn. I took jobs and internships at stores at this point I’ve worked at six stores before opening this one. I really just did as much research as I could. I invested in a website, I started sending out newsletters and meeting with authors. So, it’s been five years of growth and research to get to our launch.

Why open a Brick and Mortar bookstore in these times?

I sat and interviewed bookstore owners whenever I would get the opportunity to travel for work and I asked what works and doesn’t work. I look at the models that work, not the ones that don’t work. There are plenty of models of stores that work throughout the country and here in New York. There are amazing bookstores in New York. So yes, there are stores closing, just recently Hue-Man announced the closing of their store, which is unfortunate because they were and still are one of the models that I look to as far as what their inventory carries. But, I also look at stores downtown that are aesthetically beautiful, have so much to offer the community, and that’s what I look to.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging part throughout the entire process was definitely not having enough capital to open earlier. If you had asked me in 2008 if I was ready I would have said yes. But looking back, I am grateful for everything I went through. I made mistakes along the way but I’ve learned lessons too of things that work and don’t work. So, now I can look back and say, yeah in 2008 I was not ready. But the challenge has always been access to capital. This whole time I worked full time and at night I planned the bookstore.  I would either go to class after work or go home and research. Fridays when my friends were out I was home doing work. It was a sacrifice but it was well worth it.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the process?

There are too many! It could be an email encouraging me right when I need to hear it or hearing from authors saying they are grateful for the platform La Casa Azul has given them. Or when a customer comes in because they just heard of a new author they didn’t know about – these are all the reasons why Casa Azul exists. Of course, the most rewarding is the fact that it is a brick and mortar in El Barrio and we offer so much in terms of our programs.

Why was it so important to you to open La Casa Azul in El Barrio?

I studied the history of El Barrio and it’s always been a special place to me and for me. Being of an immigrant family myself, I feel like this is the type of store the community needs. I could have easily opened and probably would have been a lot easier to open in another community, a more affluent community but I chose not to. I think this is a place that needs a bookstore like this. We are rich with the visual arts, the theater arts – obviously El Museo del Barrio is here.  The literary arts was missing and now we are here.

What authors do you carry and how do you go about finding them?

We have a very wide range of authors; most of them are Latino or write about Latino culture/ Latino history and the Latino experience in this country. We have the most recognized authors of course – Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Junot Díaz – the ones that people would list as the top sellers and in terms of being most known. But we also have a very wide range of authors that are not as recognized but also really good writers from the Southwest and the West Coast who are published by major publishing houses. And we have a variety of authors who are self-published, who took a different route. Either they didn’t want to be published by a major, or went that route and they weren’t accepted – they went ahead and published on their own. We have a lot of books by self-published authors both from the Tri-State area and all over the country that hear about our store and send them here. We are that platform too; we have a whole section for local authors. We keep self-published and those from majors side by side and we give the reader the opportunity to see both.

We are actually going to start something called “Barrio Reads” and that’s our version of the best seller’s list. At the end of every month we are going to publish what books sold the most here at the store. What’s really great about this is it gives people something to talk about. You will see the recognized names on the list but you will also see authors maybe you’ve never heard of that are also selling really well.

What is the significance of the name La Casa Azul?

It’s named after Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City. She is someone as an artist and person I thought she was amazing.  This is my tribute to her and because I am of Mexican descent this is a tribute to my culture in terms of décor – the really bright colors remind me of grandma’s house. That’s why this place looks like a house.

What are your goals with this space for the future?

There are so many objectives, one for sure is to promote and highlight the work by Latino writers in this country, not just New York. Also to put these books in children’s hands that wouldn’t normally know about these stories because our dropout rates are still high and our college rates are still low, I want these books in the hands of kids. Another goal is to be a hub for writers. We offer the space for readings and we also have writing workshops. Lastly, to be a Mecca for anyone interest in learning the latest Latino work in this country.

Today: La Casa Azul is opening from 6:00pm – 8:00pm so you can pick up your copy of This is How You Lose Her, the latest novel by Junot Díaz . Book purchase (in store or phone order) includes a ticket to Junot Díaz’s book reading at La Casa Azul Bookstore on Tuesday, October 30th!

For more info visit the La Casa Azul website and follow on Twitter.

Photo via Laura Booth, 2012

Navani Knows: TOOFLY Film @ 5pointz

There are certain people I like to keep tabs on because they always embody positivity in what they do, or simply because their work inspires me in some form or fashion. Latina Graf Artist TOOFLY is one of those people. Here, in this recently released short film by Jay Maldonado she is seen working on one of her latest projects: a piece at legendary graf epicenter, 5pointz. Check out what she has to say about her artisitc process, choosing materials and colors and her vision for the piece below:



Navani Knows the 2011 Latin Grammys Recap!

Latinos from far and wide came together last night in Las Vegas to participate in the 12th Annual Latin Grammy Awards. Besides music icons the green carpet was adorned with Latino actors and entertainers from across the globe donning their glam looks and best Spanish accents. I was even super impressed to see Latinos from America like Adrienne Bailon, Demi Lovato and Zoe Saldana speaking in their native tongue – which was a first for me in all my years as a journalist in this market. what I really want to cover are my highlights – which come down to two names: Shakira and Calle 13.

The night started off with a bang as controversial duo Calle 13 opened the ceremony performing their hit ‘Latinoamerica’, alongside the great Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. The song celebrates the values of Latinos across the Western Hemisphere, who can’t be bought or sold. The powerful performance led to the first standing ovation of the night and it turned out to be a harbinger of things to come as Calle 13 dominated the evening, winning 9 awards, including a clean sweep of the 3 most important ones, Album of the Year, and for ‘Latinoamerica’, Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

9 is huge! It should’ve just been called the Calle 13 awards because they were on stage the whole show. Which was fine with me. If you follow my blog I don’t need to express my sentiments for the group and what they stand for. You can see it even in the shirt Rene wore which read  “Por la educacion publica (for public education)” emblazoned in big letters. Can you see why I heart him?

Another person I was happy to see honored last night was Colombiana Shakira, who was named person of the year. Shakira gave a live performance of “Devoción” from her 2010 album Sale El Sol. I actually like this sound better than her usual pop tart stuff. Later she performed “Antes De La Seis” . Shakira was also awarded Female Pop Vocal Album, for the Spanish-language ‘Sale El Sol’. The person of the year award was presented by fellow Colombiana Sofia Vergara, who fun fact: was also Shaki’s neighbor in Baranquilla. The  heartfelt acceptance speech that followed turned out to be the most emotional part of the evening where she said:

“This is without a doubt one of the most important moments of my life, and perhaps the nicest recognition that I have ever received. I’m honored to share it with you. Last night I had a beautiful night to remember, sharing with my friends and colleagues who I respect and admire. My dad even sang. It was a night I will never forget, seeing artists and colleagues singing my songs is an honor I don’t deserve. I dedicate this award to my colleagues, who with music cure all ills and give meaning to everything,”

I love to see awesome people that stand for something and use their power and art for empowerment/ social awareness get recognized. That is what this year’s awards did for once. Gold Star to them! For the full list of winners and more highlights (yes, I’m sure you heard about the Romeo and Usher performance, Marc Anthony and Pitbull etc.) check out the Latin Grammy official website.

Navani Knows Curly Girls! My Latina Magazine Video Shoot

I didn’t always embrace my curly hair. I know, it sounds awful saying it out loud, but it’s true. I went through my moments fighting it and not knowing what to do with it and therefore wishing my hair was different. (Please see my previous post about curly hair dedicated to my cousin)

But finally, I learned to accept and love my hair just the way it is (gotta love adulthood). And now it has become my best accessory. But who knew I’d actually see the day when I’d be rewarded for my curly hair! My friend Sugey sent me a link to a contest Latina Magazine was throwing for a “Curly Girl Makeover” sponsored by Mizani hair products. I read it over and figured I was def qualified. I never win anything EVER so I didn’t put too much thought into it, but I figured what the heck.

Funny thing is I was a winner! Three girls in total with three different types of curly hair were picked to get a Mizani Makeover to be filmed and made into a promotional video for Mizani True Textures products. I am always game for free hair products so I was in. Plus, I was told breakfast and lunch would be provided, score.

I never realized how much work goes into making something that is only 4 minutes long. The day started at 7 am and didn’t wrap until 5 pm. During that time we had before make up done (I never knew there was such a thing) and before shots taken. Then there were lines to learn and say – sometimes taking 7 or 8 takes for each girl. Then there was the lighting to consider – the sun kept coming in and out and making the videographers lives hell. Each time the lighting changed, adjustments inside had to be made and items rearranged. Then there was the actual process of washing and styling my hair which included twisting all my hair into tiny double twists and then sitting under the dryer for an hour. Finally, the “after” takes and more reading of lines. It was fun to get dolled up and great meeting and chatting with the other curly girls – Mariela and Karla. All in all it was a really great day! And as I stated in the video below – it was so nice to be in an environment that not only understood curly hair but welcomed it.

Check out my hair modeling debut on

Navani Knows “Conquistadora”

I remember the thrill I had of finding Esmeralda Santiago’s debut book, When I Was Puerto Rican when it was published in 1994. It was eons ago, I was in High School and it was  a time before the existence of Latina Magazine or J. Lo gracing the Most Beautiful People list. That was the first time I came across any literature by a Puerto Rican woman in the mainstream arena. It was reading this book that helped cement the idea to one day tell my own story. Needless to say, I have followed Esmerala’s work ever since. Cut to 17 years later and Esmeralda is still at it, this time releasing a Historical novel titled Conquistadora.

To help promote the book El Museo Del Barrio had an event where Mireya Navarro, New York Times journalist moderated a conversation with Esmeralda Santiago about her new work. Being a long time fan I jumped at the chance to see her speak again. Though I was skeptical about her writing anything other than memoir, I left there with a different perspective and newfound inspiration.

Besides dishing on the storyline of the book itself, the author went on to tell how the idea for this story came from wanting to tell the stories of her family ancestors but because she came from a poor family that didn’t read or write, there was no documentation. Conquistadora is her way of piecing together a history for her family that just doesn’t otherwise exist using historical research. I was so touched by that, and what Puerto Rican doesn’t have those same yearnings – to find out more about where they come from. In her research, Esmeralda found out lots of interesting facts about Colonial PR – in how race relations were. How people with dark skin were treated, but never spoken about. For example, there was a 6 month time period where “blacks” were not allowed to walk on the same side of the street as anyone else (just one example). So much taboo still exists on the island about the presence of Africans in our culture. I think we all stand to learn a lot about the humble beginnings of la Isla del Encanta by reading this.

What I also found fascinating about this book was the time it took to put together. Esmeralda admitted doing research for this from before Google exaisted. Say What? I didn’t know there was such a time. I can’t even remember it lol. But that means a long time. And on top of that, her resilence – she suffered a stroke in the middle of writing Conquistadora that left her unable to read or write. She had to relearn how to do both! Many feared this book would not be finished ever, but she worked through that and here it is.  Sheesh, and I have a hard time sitting for an hour to write… now I have no excuse.

It was a wonderful, inspiring  event especially to a writer like myself. Thanks to all that were involved in putting it together – for free at that. Conquistadora is on stands everywhere now. For more info on Esmeralda Santiago check out her official website.

Check out a video of Esmeralda Santiago on PBS below…


Navani Knows the Rubble Kings

It seems the gang culture of NYC and Hip-Hop culture are closely interwined, at least that’s what director Shan Nicholson (Downtown Calling) discovered one day while partaking in his usual pastime – record digging. He Kept seeing a high priced record on the walls of stores from the group Ghetto Brothers and was intrigued. He vowed to get ot the bottom of why this group had such an expensive record and who they even were.  His research would lead him to the making of the documentary Rubble Kings, which premiered last night at he New York International Latino Film Festival.

Rubble Kings chronicles the NYC gang culture from it’s inception in the 1950’s to it’s transition in the 70’s into hip-hop culture. It’s interesting to see the connection between the two. It is by far, the most in-depth look at this era in NYC history. What was interesting was how the climate of the nation played a huge part in the creation of gangs. First there were Civil Rights, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther king and people in the inner cities were mobilizing with a hint of hope. Then after all our heroes were killed, the feeling of hope died with them, leaving a group of underserved, angry people.

This anger erupted into swarms of gangs, crews on every few blocks all over the city. The most notorious being in the Bronx, also known as the birthplace of Hip-Hop. Rubble Kings, a term used to describe how gangs made the members feel like they had some type of power, kings of something even if it was their own demolished neighborhood, details the rise and falls of these gangs. After much bloodshed, gangs would start to realize that the only people their rebellious, careless actions were hurting were themselves.

Enter Ghetto Brothers, a group that began as a traditional street gang but evolved into a community focused movement. They formed a band and held jam sessions, encouraging youth to stop the violence and take ownership of their communities. But when one of it’s members was slain in an attempt to make peace between two rivaling gangs, that’s when everything changes. A peace treaty was formed with all groups and slowly the division softened. In the midst of this Hip-Hop would see it’s beginings in the park jams featuring Djs like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. These jams were instrumental in bringing together people from all the gangs and using that competitive attitude now for battling on the dancefloor and not in the streets.

Rubble Kings combines personal commentary of gang members and stellar archived footage for an insightful and intimate look at gang culture never told before. This film struck a chord with me for many reasons. For one, I am a huge fan of Hip-Hop. And two, because it shed light on a part of my personal  history that is never discussed- the role gangs played in my family. My uncles and my father were involved in gangs, Savage Nomads to be exact which are discussed in the film. I remember hearing how my grandmother sewed their patches on their jackets for them, not only accpeting it but encouraging it. Back then, it was the only way to survive and she worried about her boys.  If you wanted to survive, you aligned yourself with a gang, period. But I never knew more than that. This film helped fill in the gaps of  how and why this was the way of life for many Puerto Ricans in New York during that time. For that, I am grateful. 

I think this is a must see film for anyone who is not only a fan of Hip-Hop, but who wants to learn about an overlooked, influential era in NYC history –  and how it sparked a transition that would change the world.

For more info on future screenings follow Rubble Kings on Twitter.

Navani Knows: Bacalaitos & Fireworks

When I went to the launch of Jamel Shabazz’s latest opus Back in the Day, Remix I remember feeling two things: complete appreciation for Jamel’s AND wishing there was something out that documented Nuyoricans the same way. Alas, my wish has come true with the release of Bacalaitos & Fireworks, by Arlene Gottfried.

Powerhouse Arena celebrated the launch of Bacalaitos last night  with a slideshow and panel discussion featuring photographer Arlene Gottfried and panelists Paul Moakley, Puma Perl, and Gail Quagliata. Bacalaitos & Fireworks introduces readers to a New York City long gone. This is the New York of broken televisions littered throughout the streets, burned-out abandoned buildings, neighborhood fiestas with pigs roasting on spits, and outcasts living in poverty. Gottfried offers first-hand testimony to the pain of alienation, neglect, drug addiction, and ultimately crime, prison, and death. Amidst these images of desolation, however, there is also evidence of the lively and intimate community able to overcome these obstacles. 

It was a great event that included salsa music playing and wine. Arlene took us through a slideshow of images that documented the lives of a people normally ignored and at a time before gentrification. She spoke of community and everything that affected it from slumlords to gentrification to straight up Puerto Rican pride. After which she opened the floor up for questions. Although Arlene was a spectator to the community she photographed, she eludes love and respect,  saying she is Puerto Rican “en el corazon”.

Pics that stood out to me included one of LES burning – slumlords putting their own property on fire to make a profit and force out dwellers. This was something I thought only went on in the Bronx and that people tried to blame Puerto Ricans for. Having her document that in LES let me know this wasn’t the case. also, I loved the picture of people at the parade, one where a Caucasian couple is walking down 5th avenue next to parade goers looking alarmed and bewildered, lol. Those are very honest portaits.

I think my aunt summed it up best when she said that this book could easily be our family photo album. that’s what I appreciated about it – for the first time I could pick up something in the media and say that. For that I am grateful for Arlene’s work. My only dissapointment of the night would have to be the lack of Latinos there to support it.

For more info and to order a copy check out the Powerhouse Website.

Navani Knows How to Be Sorta-Rican

Being Puerto Rican is no easy feat, especially if you are one born and raised here on the mainland. It means living a double life… one as an American and one as a real-deal Puerto Rican. You drink coke and malta. You watch MTV AND Univision. You love eminem and Calle 13 equally. You live in both worlds but not quite EXACTLY living in either 100%. This comes in all different forms too. I’ve learned that no two Puerto Rican experiences are the same. It’s what makes us unique and proud as well as easy targets for jokes, as was my experience.

In my day, when you grew up around blanquitos and didn’t speak Spanish fluently, you were labeled as a “fake Puerto Rican”.Being a “real” Puerto Rican was an ideal you constantly strove for: acceptance by those on the island. Or in my case, those from the Bronx. I thought for my whole life, that I was alone in this weird duality of culture. But alas, I see I’m not.

These days there is a whole generation of nuyo-ricans that are dealing with this exact theme in their creative works. Nowadays, they call themselves “Sorta-Rican” – being somewhere in between New York and Puerto Rico. This was also the theme of an art show that just opened at Taller Boricua in East Harlem.

The exhibit showcases the work of four “sorta-rican” artists and their interpretation of the term. Some used photography, some performance and others paint and mixed media to express their expereince with identity. By definition (via press release) a sorta-rican in this case is:

The term Sorta-Rican, a hyphenated mix of the slang term “sorta” and Puerto Rican, describes the experience of a person of Puerto Rican descent usually born and raised in the United States with Nuyorican and/or Boricua parents. As second (or first, depending on one’s interpretation) and third generation members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, they commonly reside somewhere between at least two cultures, absorbing each one though not fully assimilating either.  Occupying this obscure acculturated space, Sorta-Ricans exist as both members and outsiders, included and excluded—all the while reinterpreting and redefining the culture.

This I like. Especially because I am used to it meaning:

Modulation of the word puerto rican, Sorta rican is a puerto rican with little understanding of the culture or language. Sometimes claims to know aout it, and sometimes they don’t. – Urban Dictionary

That was the negative connotation I grew up with. So, what I love about this exhibit first and foremost is how they took this insult, claimed it and turned it into something positive. It is a very empowering statement when you do that. And to have it describe a whole show where people can openly share and engage their experience without judgement and shame was huge for me. To me, it signifies a changing in time and perspective. We are claiming our own idenitity and not letting anyone else define it for us. Oh, happy day!

The exhibit opened Friday, April 8th with a nifty reception including awesome food, wine AND capias. All the artists involved were in attendence which were: Daniel Bejar, Charles Beronio, Leenda Bonilla and Melissa A. Calderon. Don’t fret if you missed it, it will be on display until May 21st. For more info visit the Taller Boricua Gallery website: