Navani Knows: Tears for Vanessa

I am crying for someone I don’t know and I am not sure why.  Her name was Vanessa Libertad Garcia.

That’s probably not true, I do know why.  There are many reasons. Partly because I am a sap who can easily and deeply feel the energy and pain of others. A trait I often times wish I could shut off because it makes me appear weak and over “emotional” most of the time (just ask my ex-boyfriends).

But the other part, the deeper underlying ugly-truth part, knows it is because there is something achingly familiar I see in reading the story of the suicide of writer/filmmaker Vanessa Libertad Garcia. I didn’t know her, but after reading her public online suicide note, I easily could have.

She could easily have been part of my family – my cousin, my uncle, my brother, or me. Dealing with the struggle of depression, anxiety and suicide is not a subject foreign to my family. It’s a rising concern for Latinos in general. But sadly it’s not a concern that is spoken about. Whether it is because having these feelings of inner turmoil are shameful and embarrassing to admit, or maybe because the machismo attitude of our culture labels needing mental health help a total taboo, I can’t really call it. But what I know is that not addressing these issues is leading to the rise of Latino suicide, especially in young people.

I remember hearing Felipe Luciano speak at an event recently about his past involvement with the Young Lords. He mentioned how he was affected by seeing so many of our people living in a fog of self-hate and destitute. He remarked that it is easy to hate yourself when you are a displaced people living in a country and a society that constantly says you are garbage and don’t belong. If that’s all you know and think, of course this must wreak havoc on the socio and psychological realm of a people. And I wonder how much of that is ingrained for generations to come. It’s 2013 and I still struggle with issues of identity and self worth, of feeling like not belonging. This is not a brand new phenomenon. So combine identity issues with poverty and language barriers and you have recipe for self-inflicted disaster. I get it.

I am sad because there are people in my life struggling with this disease as I write this and I don’t know how to help them. I feel powerless. I am crying for someone I don’t know because I fear this will happen to someone I do know. I don’t want her death to be in vain. Because hopefully, her public note means we cannot ignore this anymore and sweep it under the rug.

I don’t know what to do but here is what I can say: To all those in pain right now reading this, you are not alone. I promise you. I promise someone near you can empathize. I promise that you matter to someone very much. You are loved. You are worthy of love no matter what you did and didn’t do. No matter what you haven’t accomplished. No matter how much debt you are in. What title you have or don’t have. No matter what mistakes you’ve made. No matter how confused you are. No matter how much you think you have failed, you haven’t! You can’t fail at life. I promise there is always another chance to make a new choice and start again. You are here and that is enough. You have always been enough. I love you.

And If you ever get to the point of siting at your computer, typing a public letter to announce your planned demise, I implore you to pick up the phone and call someone instead.



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: Halftime Celebrates Nasty Nas

Since I was 16-years-old, memorizing the lyrics of Illmatic off of my tape player, I’ve had a special affection for Nas. He seems like one of those people that if we ever met we’d click, have deep thought-provoking conversations about life and be instant friends. At least in my head we are. But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that feels a certain respect/admiration for him and his artistry, as many anxiously anticipated the release of his new album titled, Life is Good

Whether you love him or hate him, it’s pretty clear people care about what Nas has to say. He causes controversy and creates a dialogue with every album. No matter how you feel about his catalog, you pay attention because he makes you think about something. People actually continue to purchase his CDs which says something in itself. It makes him an interesting persona. Part of the joy of being a writer for me is learning the stories behind the persona. I am always excited to hear behind-the-scenes tales, like when I talked to DJ Eclipse about his experience with the making of the classic album Illmatic. When you hear those stories it makes you feel one step closer to knowing who that person really is.

To follow in that vein, The Halftime Show decided to celebrate the release of Nas’ 10th studio album in our own special way. In this special edition show the gang gathered up some of the most influential and classic artists to have worked with Nas and took a trip down memory lane of his career, which now spans 20 years. If you missed it, watch below as Large Pro, Faith Newman, and DJ Premier dish about the signing of Nas, producing tracks for Illmatic, and his early shows – all set to a special mix by DJ Eclipse.

Video streaming by Ustream

Life is Good is in stores now

Navani Knows How to Celebrate National Women’s History Month

It’s March, which means two things: the worst of winter is hopefully behind us AND ladies get a month dedicated totally to us. What better way to celebrate National Women’s History Month than with the achievements of ladies in Hip-Hop culture and arts? Check out some upcoming events where you can support TOOFLY and other great females in the otherwise male-dominated arena of graffiti. Shouts to her for passing the info. Know of any other cool events during National Women’s History Month? Drop them below in the comments…

Toofly showcasing artwork at Mighty Tanaka Gallery/Fountain Art Fair at the Armory Show
PUBLIC HOURS: Thursday, March 8 – Saturday, March 10 Noon to 8 pm // Sunday, March 11 Noon to 7 pm

LOCATION: Piers 92 & 94 are located on Manhattan’s west side on the Hudson River (Twelfth Avenue) at 55th Street in the Passenger Ship Terminal complex. The piers are easily accessible by public transportation, taxi, and private vehicle. The nearest subway stop is four cross-town blocks east at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue on the E,C trains.

LES GIRLS CLUB Group Exhibit & Benefit @BROOKLYN BROTHERS GALLERY // March 8th New York City
Opening Thursday March 8, 2012 // March 8th-April 30th // Gallery Public Hours: 10am – 6pm. Toofly showcasing artwork with David Lachapelle, Swoon, Nicolina, and others

@The Brooklyn Brothers Gallery
18 E. 17th street, 7th floor

SXSW 2012 TECH BY SUPERWOMEN // Austin Texas March 9th-18th
Saturday, March 10 at 9:30 a.m //Austin Convention Center (room 9 ABC).

Saturday, March 3rd! @Hostos Community College, 450 Grand Concourse Bronx NY. 2-5PM FREE!

XCIA BOOK RELEASE March 29th! // New York City
Toofly live painting  – Details coming soon

Images via TOOFLY

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 The Halftime Report: Apollo Brown, Immortal Technique and Mas

It was another rainy day in NYC. It seems like it is always raining on Wednesdays! Luckily, that doesn’t stop Hip-Hop one bit as this week’s Halftime Show drew in quite the ensemble. Eclipse was back celebrating the birth of his newborn son. Although he didn’t spin, he graciously served as the director for guest DJs Avee and 3D. DJ Skizz made his first appearance back in the station since his sabbatical AND a surprise visit from Lynn made it a Halftime Show family reunion.

Also in the house all the way from Detroit was producer extraordinaire Apollo Brown on the heels of his CMJ Showcase at Drom. He dished on his humble beginnings as a producer (bedroom beat maker) and his exciting upcoming projects. He also got a chance to confront Immortal Technique when the homie came in for requesting beats and not following up, oops. Immortal showed love by premiering his newest single “Toast to the Dead” produced by J. Dilla live on the show. Of course, a very intelligent conversation about politics ensued shortly thereafter. Up next, Senor Kaos from ATL who also was in town for CMJ festivities sat for an interview and kicked a freestyle alongside comrade Punch Line. Look for his new album The Kaos Effect, dropping on 11/11/111. We thought a cypher between Skizz, Lynn and DJ Avee would go down but alas, there wasn’t enough time.

Shout out to Petey Cologne for getting the Ustream up and running right and to Sucio Smash for serving as the sound technician via the chat room. Oh yeah, and shout out to Eclipse’ UPS guy Kenny for listening in too.

If you missed the fun watch it live here via ustream:

Navani Knows Rooftop Legends 2011

For all you Graf heads out there or people that just like to support the culture, this weekend in NYC there is an event you probably don’t want to miss. Check out the deets below for the 4th Annual Rooftop Legends Event going down Saturday. Shout out to TOOFLY for sending the info my way. For anyone that isn’t familiar with the work of this inspiring Latina artist, check out my recent interview with her on Brooklyn Bodega.

The Rooftop Legends event began in 2007 and is the brainchild of the schools Dean, and graffiti artist, Jesse Pais. Realizing the need to preserve graffiti art and provide a space to paint, the event continues to bring together some of the most prolific artists from the cultures formative years and today.

Saturday, October 8th, 2011// 2-7PM
New Design High School (Rooftop) 350 Grand Street. // F train to Delancey
music provided by HOT 97 DJ Enuff.
Fundraiser for NDHS $5-25 entry. No one will be turned away.
More Info: Rooftop Legends

Photo via Jesse Pais.

Navani Knows the Halftime Report: PF Cuttin and Joe Fatal

This past week’s Halftime Show was epic as usual but not without it’s minor snags. What I’ve learned so far from being a honorary member of the show is that anything can go wrong and you have got to learn how to make it work. As they say, the show must go on. This week Petey Cologne forgot his laptop which is what we use to broadcast live on ustream thus causing him a brief panic attack and us wondering how we could stream. What’s important is that major troubleshooting went on including PF Cuttin giving tips and DJ Skizz helping via the chat room and a solution was found. The show did go on, Eclipse killed it as usual and so did guest DJ PF Cuttin. Joe Fatal (from legendary song “Live at the BBQ”) came thru to chat and spit his verse. All was well. You can view the stream below, however the sound quality is not that great. Thankfully, Petey reposted the show with better sound here for download.

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.