Exclusive Interview for Celebrando Latinas Magazine

In honor of the International Women’s History Month we are very proud to highlight one of the strongest role models for Hispanic Women in the country, and perhaps the world. Her life’s work has been dedicated to exposing the social challenges of Latinas everywhere. She has become a symbol of courage and determination to question the cultural traditions that harm women. Nevertheless, her literary work unveils a vulnerable Josefina, one that feels everything. In this exclusive interview she opens up to us, uncensored as always, in order to validate what many of us feel but are afraid to speak.

CLM: How have you found, if you have found it, the balance between being strong and allowing yourself to feel life’s blows?

JL: I have discovered that being vulnerable is being strong. The fact that I am sensitive and can express my feelings is what has given me the courage to express my truth authentically and given others the courage to do the same by example. It’s a myth that if you cry or are vulnerable you are weak, this is what the patriarchy fools us into believing so we can stay afraid and ashamed.

CLM: You have identified yourself as a Chicana woman, which is a very specific identity that refers to those of hispanic origin but raised in the United States. An additional challenge for you was that, you and your family, lived in this country undocumented for some time, adding to your life another level of stress. How has your identity evolved through time, before and after “belonging” officially to this country?

JL: I identify myself as Chicana, Latina, Mexicana and Mexican-American and Latinx.  I am all those identities. My parents first brought me to the U.S.in 1975 when I was five years old. I did not know I was undocumented until I was in the sixth grade and was worried all the time that I could be seperated from my parents. When I first got to the U.S. I would call myself Mexican only. Then I got my residency card and I had the opportunity to represent the U.S. at an international theater festival and realized when I met the representative from Mexico, that I may see myself as a Mexican, but a Mexican wouldn’t necessarily see me as one. When I lived in NYC I called myself a Hispanic because I thought it was progress since they call Latinos “Spanish”, which I think is worse since we are not from Spain.  (There’s nothing wrong with being from Spain, this is just not accurate.) Then when I returned to live in California and attended UCSD I began to call myself Chicana when I recognized that we are Native Americans, (I know I am), and that Hispanic only recognized the Spanish side of my identity. I awoke to the truth about what it means to be a mestizo and a “conquered person” and the beliefs we are taught that devalue who we are as indigenous people. I especially was revolted by the knowledge that our great grandmother – generations past, was raped by a Spaniard and now we are honoring him instead of her struggle and courage. So identity is fluid and it requires you to understand the context in which you live.

CLM: Your career has been built upon many challenges, more than what would be normal for a professional woman, given that you have worked in the entertainment industry, and industry that is particularly cruel to women by nature, let alone a Chicana. How can you describe what has made you push forward time and time again?

JL: There have been so many times when I wanted to quit, but my dear Manager Marilyn Atlas will not let me quit. Yes, this is the most sexist and racist industry which justifies discrimination as strictly a business decision. I am a storyteller and I decided to do theater so that I could continue telling stories and doing it my way. That’s why I have not become an addict after so much rejection. I decided to build community and teach people what I know and love and this is what keeps me going. I also know that a lie cannot live forever and knowing that one day the story of who women really are will come out… the stories of who Latinos and Mexican-Americans are will come out… I will be one of those writers telling the necessary stories. I plan to live a long life, so I know I will outlive the racist executives who said “No” to my stories…

CLM: The lives of Latinas tends to be developed around family; first we are daughters, then wives, then mothers, then grandmothers and so on. This tendency has changed in the United States and women are more liberal, more independent, more assertive- To what degree do you believe this has been an advancement and to what degree do you believe this phenomenon drives us away from our roots and our traditions?

JL: I like this question…    I am not your typical Latina because since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer, actor and artist. Having a family and children was never my priority. I also have ADD, which makes me not a typical woman or person. I love being Latina and the value of family, but I value being a feminist more. Ultimately feminism is about all women having a choice and knowing they are the authors of their own destiny.  Each woman has a right to decide what that means for her. I respect all women who feel fully self-expressed having a family and children and their family lives being at the center of their existence. For me, family, children are only a small fraction of who I am. I am so many things and very complex. I would feel trapped and suffocated if I was only allowed to be a wife and a mother and had a 9 to 5 job. That’s just not me. I am a Latina, but I am also a feminist and an artist and I am making it work for me.

CLM: I think one of the aspects that stand out in regards to your work is your ability to speak about topics that are commonly taboo, especially for hispanic women; for example sex before and after marriage, feeling desire, emotional, physical and sexual abuse by people in power, and the discrimination not just of race but of class, among many other topics. Why do you feel it is important or necessary to include these topics in your work, knowing they are a sure cause of criticism and could be considered a great risk to your career?

JL: A writer has to be a mirror to society. I know life could be better for everyone if there was less shame.  However, shame is what is used to control women and minorities and everyone who is being exploited. So I have to write about taboo topics because that’s where shame lives and that’s where I can help liberate people. Storytelling is the way we liberate people from shame. We take all the things that we are not allowed to talk about and by talking about them we realize we are not alone and we are not broken or bad. We are simply experiencing what it means to be human. I especially write about sex and death because this is what makes us the most human. I’ve never cared to risk my career because my life is about telling the truth and I know that doing that may win me awards or it could get me killed, so I don’t care about the consequences because otherwise I’m part of the problem and not the solution.

CLM: In a book dedication you made to me personally you invite me to raise our boys as a gift to women; that the “revolution” starts in the way we educate our sons since childhood. Can you share some examples of the negative values we have culturally embedded in men as mothers, and how we can transform them into positive values that support said “revolution”?

JL: What I observed my mother doing to my brothers when I was growing up was seeing her treat them as superior to their sisters. She would feed the men in the family first, then would always favor them and talk to them as though they could do no wrong, but us girls were treated as though we were “putas” until we proved we weren’t. Of course, my mother was just following what she was told as a little girl and enforcing my father’s beliefs about women.  I have raised my sons with a good example that women are powerful because their mother is powerful and outspoken and won’t put up with them disrespecting women or anyone who is considered by society of “less” status than them.

CLM: Casa Fina, your restaurant in Boyle Heights, was created as a complement to your two theatres: Casa 0101 and Little Casa. Tell us why is it important for you to bring this to East L.A. and not to a place like Hollywood or Las Vegas.

JL: My commitment has always been to Boyle Heights. People who know me, know that I don’t care about status or about being famous, I just care about nurturing a community who has been neglected. I love Boyle Heights and I wanted to take over this restaurant and make it accessible to the community. This was the one restaurant where people not from the community came to eat and it was not affordable to a lot of the people in the community. I also thought that it would be a great way to keep the conversation going  after people saw shows at my theater.

CLM: Some celebrities have gone on to open their own restaurants as a form of investment and a way to self-promote. However, you are a chef and your restaurant does not seek to promote your own personal artistic career, but rather  it is a complement to your theatres. How can you describe the fusion of your theatres and food that resulted in your restaurant? In other words, How did you manage to merge the two worlds?

JL: It was easy to merge them… After rehearsals actors always wanted a restaurant to go eat at, but nothing was open. After our shows we all want to celebrate and there was nothing close by, so we thought it would be great to have a home for all of our actors to go get a good meal at an affordable price… Yeah, most celebrities don’t know much about cooking, they just sell their name or bring their name to the restaurant. I actually studied cuisine and know a lot about cooking… However, I am not the chef because realistically I would have no time to do anything else. 

CLM: Food is a cornerstone in Latina culture and this, of course, stands out in several of your literary pieces, in fact, in your restaurant you emphasize the authenticity of mexican food. Nevertheless, you initially didn’t want to fall into the traditional role of cooking for men and it was in France that you received your culinary education. Your novel “Hungry Woman in Paris” is based on this experience. What caused this internal transformation? How is it that you found your roots in such a far away place?

JL: We decided to serve Mexican food because the former restaurant was a Mexican restaurant and we wanted to honor it as well as fight off gentrification by continuing to serve Mexican food. I still do not cook for men. I have a male chef cooking at my restaurant.

CLM: In some areas concerning women we have made great progress, and in others perhaps we have not. In a way the work never ends. What message can you share with our Latina readers, based on your trajectory, your experiences, and the conditions we live in today?

JL: My message to everyone is: YOU ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE. Only you can set limits on yourself… Everyone’s destiny is to be brilliant and genius is not something reserved for men or just a few people. Everyone has genius within them. Be bold and loud, people may criticize you, but they all wish they had the courage to be themselves.