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Leaving LA

9 Jul

The process of moving and telling others that I am leaving LA has been a mixed bag of highs and lows.

I am a native Angeleno and I love my city with all its misunderstood and under appreciated idiosyncrasies. I grew up in Boyle Heights near El Tepeyac and Evergreen cemetary. I moved around but always in LA: downtown, Chinatown and a brief stint in the valley.

I’ve experienced so much within one county which includes the large swath of land that is home to 15 million.

I’ve lived the LA of East LA where you naturally fall into the lyrical song of Spanish, the early conversion to cool of Downtown LA, the ridiculous parties and outings that only LA can outlandishly provide, and the quieter and sweeter moments of growing a parent community as a mother.

Every memory of this city remains etched in my mind; from my early years of living on Union by McArthur Park: drive by’s, elderly neighbors who always had hot apple pie, my grandfather handing us a quarter for a bag of pepinos and even the kind LAPD beat officers who handed out baseball cards to us.

Now it’s a golden sunset setting on my rear view mirror.

I drive past the grapevine, by the acrid smell of cows, the rolling hills covered in blankets of wheat and the fruit stands of Gilroy – to land here. Silicon Valley.

I’ve been here less than a week and already I feel the dull ache of a lost one long loved. I sense the need to see the awesome landscape below the hills of City Terrace. I miss the daily reminder of my connection to a city, a place, my memories… I fell the pull.

Los Angeles.

The bad, dark and shallow times we shared remain on my mind. The empty promises linger on the avenue of broken dreams. Not Hollywood. The place where broken dreams go to bury the pain is always darker than the pretense of the avenue of the stars. In the streets of daily living lie the real stories of LA. On Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Whittier Boulevard, Hoover, 41st, 18th, in every single corner that the downtrodden go to blend into the indistinguishable mess of sadness.

Los Angeles. Like a good-looking love that I can’t get rid of, no matter how bad you know they are for you. You cling to me. Days of fear and anger intermingle with days of triumph and evenings spent toasting on rooftops thinking we’ve done it all. I love you.

But for now, we need to take a break. I need space, I need time, I need a place to lay my head and make a mark before I come back to you. To you I toast, dear city of mine.

Ciudad mia, adoracion de mi corazon, dame tiempo y paciencia y con los aires de la suerte llegare a tu lado de nuevo.

Until then dear LA, find someone else to claw your heartless charms into. I need a break.

A Belated Mother’s Day Post

14 May

A Belated Mother’s Day Post

The rise and fall of my emotion is punctuated with bouts of extreme joy and maddening sadness on this day.

Your excitement, hardly contained, explodes into a dazzling smile that reaches your eyes – like shining angels that guide my way.

“Cookies! We made you cookies and a cake! It’s a surprise but it’s a cake.”

It’s a reminder of everything good in my life. Seeing the two of you grow up is piercingly beautiful, hauntingly sweet. I see your smiling faces start to grow sharp with the angles of pre-pubescent youth and I gasp.

Where has the time gone?

I held you to my chest and your body would rise with each breath.

Rise and Fall

Now I hold you close as you cuddle up to me but I can’t breathe with the weight of your growing bodies on my chest.

Where has the time gone?

Am I doing right by you? The happiness of holding you close makes me break down inside and weep openly within the confines of my conscious as it weighs heavily on me that I only give you myself. Will you be fine?

Rise and Fall

We get home and you take my hand, running up the stairs to show me your beautifully hand crafted decorations on the sugar cookies you have baked with your tia. Colors of happiness – light hues of green, pink and baby blue.

“A cake, we made you a cake!”

A strong palette of dark chocolate with accents of light pink mini hearts: a reflection of your own spirits. And I know that you are not just fine, you are wonderfully enveloped in my blanket of love.

Rise and Fall

Day by day. Smile by smile.

Rise we will.

Seeing the Gray in Others – and Doing Something About it

26 Mar

When you go for a walk, while you shop at the grocery store, on a bench outside of work, on the sidewalk, in a class room, you see it…

The slouch of the posture
the roundness of the shoulders
eyes that seem to spill with sadness
behind a large swallow

Downcast eyes
searching for an answer
a tentative sigh
as if afraid to take the most natural step of life

Shakiness of a sentence
a heaviness of the body
sagging
towards earth

Life spent in a muted gray. Sadness, in its most cruel form: depression. What can you do? If you knew, would you actually do it?

A smile. A meeting of the eyes with kindness in your look, even if the moment is fleeting.

A connection.
A reminder that they are seen.
A feeling of validation that they hold a place in this world.
An assertion of existence.
Hope.

In our children, nieces/nephews, in kids of our friends, we learn how cruel words or actions by another can make a deep impact on their vulnerable and developing psyche and we have seen as a society a concerted effort to prevent bullying and the mistreatment of children at that impressionable age.

But what happens when those children who are under-cared, under-loved, under-appreciated, abused even, grow into adults? No longer seen as cute, vulnerable, or helpless – they are commonly tossed aside, dismissed – as if with age (and no help) they are magically cured of the fog that weighs them down.

A small gesture that might make you slightly uncomfortable, a smile to a stranger (I’m not asking you to walk around staring at strangers with wide toothy grins either), can make a difference, however small, on the recipient of your kindness.

My fellow Angelenos, whether native or transplants, I know what you’re thinking as you roll your eyes – eye contact AND a smile? But then I won’t be able to conserve my hip disinterested Hollywood cool look! Alas, no one is as cool as James Dean, and I bet that even he looked a little awkward walking around LA and would have benefited from a kind smile too.

If it’s someone who you know through work, ask them to join you for a cup of coffee or actually stop as you pass by their desk and say a warm hello. Nothing big. Feel the warmth and the kindness as you do it and they will feel it too.

Small acts of kindness, that’s not asking for much. On my first day to class at the local community college, I was frantically looking for where I had to pay the parking fee when a fellow student told me that the first week was free to allow for a smooth transition for students. That’s two acts of kindness there: that student didn’t have to tell me anything and could have walked off as I scurried around, and the school for giving a person a break! I asked the student where the B building was and they graciously showed me the way.

On my second week of class as I was pulling up to the meter to pay for the daily pass of parking, another fellow student gave me their daily pass as they were leaving and wished me an early Christmas (it was February) as they smilingly drove away.

On the fourth week of class, I saw someone else asking students for change (for the parking) looking increasingly frustrated as no one did. I didn’t either but when I walked back to my car to retrieve my belongings I noticed I did have the exact change and nothing more. My last $2 in cash. I walked over and gave them to him, and as he tried to hand a $5 I waved it off and said, “offer $2 to someone else who might need it as repayment”. He was very thankful and touched and I felt REALLY good, really ALIVE as I walked away.

Small acts of kindness, of human interaction, no matter how old we are or from what walk of life we are, make a difference. They pay in higher dividends than the bogus schemes of Wall Street bankers. ;)

Share your moment of kindness – given or received!

The SuperFlyingMonkeys at the San Francisco Golden Gate Slides

22 Mar

LA Morning Commute with the SuperFlyingMonkeys

19 Mar

Bronzed Beauties

5 Mar

Running
little legs
Giggles that chase
fear away

Stopping only
for a look
a nod
and they’re off
running
again

Warm light
bouncing off
sun streaked hair
Bright red
shiny cheeks
Riding high on laughter

Smiles
growing wide
Eyes full of wonder
twinkling on the water’s surface
Breaking it
as they jump in

Endless giggles
Bouncing off

Jumping higher
Reaching heights
of carefree happiness

Sunning
Bronzed limbs
in the glow
of California desert nights

Uniforms, Poverty, and Inspiration

29 Jan

In the 8th grade, I was about 13 or 14, I was elected student body president. My teacher, Ms. Kane, was very passionate and talented at instilling patriotic ideals and an appreciation for the little we possessed as well as reminded us of the world that lay at our doorstep.

Her mother was a Holocaust survivor; a slowly fading tattoo of her serial number that was her only identity during the war, still marked her for what she had lived through. When they came to America, they were dirt poor, completely displaced from their home, their bearings still rattled by one of the most grotesque series of events in human history.

Someone was being immature in class and teasing another student about what they were wearing. Ms. Kane became another person. Always on task, she became impassioned and emotional as she described how she only had one black skirt and a white long sleeved collar shirt that she wore to school every day. This was her uniform. But problem was she was the only one wearing it at school. It was her only outfit. As she described how she would be so very careful not to soil her outfit for the next day and how she would fanatically wash it every third day, I fought to check my tears. A few students looked to me to see whether they should laugh and teaser her too and I scowled at them, trying my best to look hard (as hard as I could now look as a student body council prez) and communicate it was best to just stay mum.

Ms. Kane’s story hit a chord with me then, it made this Jewish woman much more relatable to me, a Mexican-American teenager whose only exposure to white people were through a handful of teachers. It also reminded me how important it was that we had uniforms.

You remember how you used to detest wearing school uniforms? Those awful, often scratchy, completely unflattering plaid or horrid solid jumpers and skirts (that I am sure manufacturers dye just to embarrass legions of youth every year), you remember right? Or as my fellow Latinos and/or George Lopez fans would say, “You member right? You member!”

I remember them too. The deep evergreen jumper that I owned when I was in elementary school where some genius decided to send home flyers advising parents that they would be implementing a uniform policy and the colors parents should purchase for their children. All the while in small print it mentioned that this would be a voluntary measure and no one would be forced to purchase or wear these uniforms.

The first day of school I arrived in my jumper, one of two that I owned, and found myself the only one in said jumper in my class. It was quickly pointed out to me by other students in the school yard that I was the only kid that they could see that was wearing the uniform. Well apparently they had not caught sight of my sister.

Every day I walked to school knowing I would be ridiculed, that I would be bullied by the older kids, taunted for being poor and only having the one outfit. I became highly skilled at using words to make those bullies feel stupid but I still walked away feeling wounded, feeling small, feeling inadequate.

I am a PTA member at my daughters’ school, I became the Fundraiser Chair this year, and one of my highest priorities was enacting a school uniform policy. There were complains about the lack of self-expression, about forcing parents to purchase these uniforms, as well as supporting arguments that it would be good for the sixth grade students to have their wardrobe choices checked with the new guidelines. The usual supporting arguments of it lowering the gang and/or explicit music affiliation were mentioned and it became a back and forth stalemate.

I got up and said, “I’m a single parent. I would have no problem making the initial investment of purchasing uniforms for my children since the benefits of not worrying about them being up to the latest fashions, reducing the time of getting ready in the morning, and quite frankly it is much more affordable than buying them several different outfits throughout the year.” Another parent piped up and brilliantly mentioned that we could fundraise for those unable to purchase the uniforms and we could hold an exchange of uniforms amongst parents as children outgrew their uniforms. We pushed and went through the motions and months later my kids are happily wearing uniforms.

It’s not just about leveling the field in the shallow self-expression through clothing amongst children, it’s about leveling the field of the haves and have not’s and instilling a sense of inclusion at a young age for our next generations.

I went to Washington D.C. with Ms. Kane that year and we wore our uniforms all week. We groaned, hollered, and dragged our feet but when we got there we frequently received compliments from elderly white women (again pardon my then limited interaction outside my East LA school neighborhood) about how polished and classy we looked compared to the scantily dressed youth of nowadays. We spend many lunches having a conversation with strangers about where we were from, where they were from, it was almost as if we forgot if we were white or not, we were just human.

So remember, even as awful as these uniforms may seem, they make everyone seem human and approachable, at least a little bit more so, at least as approachable as LA people can be…

-Susana Benavidez
Native Angeleno (so don’t rag on me for talking smack about LA ;) )

Link

Please Support: Los Angeles Theatre Academy Presents: Pastorela “Camino a San Conrado”

21 Dec
Pastorela: Opening Night 7PM

Pastorela: Opening Night 7PM

This past week, I was honored to become a Board Member of this incredible non profit that promotes theatre, music, dance, and the happiness that results in these adorable children. Please support this important and dear to my heart endeavor! The girls will be borreguitos (sheep).

Opening Night TONIGHT at 7PM $15 Adults $7.50 kids 5 and Under FREE. Experience the cultural holiday tradition of a Pastorela in a beautiful setting surrounded by trees and the gorgeous LA sky. Listen to the angelic voices of DoReMi and just try to contain your fits of laughter induced by our comedic take on “El Camino a San Conrado” followed by Pinatas! Who doesn’t like pinatas?? :) Los-Angeles Theatre-Academy is the first theatre for kids, by kids, in Los Angeles. We are a non profit and gratefully accept donations via our paypal account. Please check out our website http://latheatreacademy.com/ It’s tax deductible.

Thank you, Gracias! De Todo Corazon!

Susana Benavidez, Board member, Los Angeles Theatre Academy

Santa Comes to Mexico?! First time meeting my family in Chihuahua, MX

28 Nov

I was six years old, flying to Mexico – that country that my father always whistfully spoke about – to meet my father’s family for the first time.

Memories of that trip come in bursts: arriving at the airport, the chaos of a Mexican airport drowning out the sound of my father’s voice, staying close to them, fearing getting lost in the crowd. 

In the plane, my dad sat between my older sister and I as my mom sat with my baby sister in another row.  I remember her being nervous while my father acted calm but I could feel that he too was nervous, wondering how he could protect his family 30,000 feet in the air.

When we landed in Chihuahua, we walked outside, lugging our luggage, only to find that the last bus to Villa Coronado had already left.  We waited in the dark street with the smell of fried dough emanating form the street vendors.  My father was able to coach a taxi driver into making the five hour trip through the backroads of the desert.

We had brought a lot of luggage, at least two of which contained clothing, home goods, and other gifts for our relatives, so much that they didn’t fit in the trunk where the taxi driver kept his spare tire.  “La dejamos!”  My father shook his head, rejected leaving it behind in case we got a flat and would end up stuck in the cold night out in the middle of nowhere. 

So he offered to carry it with one arm hanging out the car window.  The driver looked at him incredeously, “Apoco la puede cargar?”.  “Used no se preocupe, yo la cargo.” 

So we all piled in.  My mother and sisters quickly fell asleep and though I could feel my eyelids growing heavier and heavier, I wouldn’t allow myself to doze off.  I had to stay awake and help mi papi in case anything happened.  I was convinced that if I stayed awake, nothing would happen.  The night was cold, with the wind blowing up a steady wall of dust into the car as my father gripped on to that spare tire. 

It was dark as the black of my eyes, the headlights illuminated only about a foot and a half of the road ahead.  The crunching of the plants below the tires were accompanied by unidentifiable birds, the hiss of a snake, the howling of coyotes.  A chorus under the blanket of the most gorgeous sky I had ever laid eyes on. I got lost in the stars, the longer I looked, the more I saw, deeper and deeper into an encompassing beauty that hipnotized me.  I grew up in LA, the most stars I had seen in my life were three at once, with a high likelihood that one was probably a small airplane. 

The sound of the conversation between the driver and my dad was a source of comfort.  The elongated vowels, the ssh of the “s”, the drawl of each ending word in a sentence; this form of Spanish was new to my ear and I liked it.

We finally arrived at the wee hours of the morning to this sleepy town charmingly frozen 50 years in the past. 

Unrecognizeable in our dusty state, our hosts – our family in Chihuahua – slammed the door on my father’s face in greeting to his thunderous knocking. 

 Granted, when a hushed voice inquired as to who stood at the door at this ungodly hour, “Quien Es?!”, he cheekily responded with a booming interrogation, “Aqui vive Jose Benavides?!”  He asked for himself, he the son who had not stepped foot on that door in at least 20 years and who had left in the cover of darkness for reasons better left  unexplained in print.

 He knocked again, this time with a gentler touch on the door, a languid caress of leathery hand to wood not touched since he was 19.  The door opened again slowly and he smiled into the dim crack of light and asked his sister, “No me reconoces Ricarda?”  I heard the snap of her inhale and yelp of emotion before she stepped back and swung the door open to reveal an ample stocky frame of a woman smiling up at him with tears in her eyes.  She let out a loud shriek of joy and grabbed him and then smacked him for scaring her. 

 I looked around and I saw two girls around my age, brown-skinned like me, dark hair, almond-shaped eyes still heavy with sleep but shining with curiosity.  I saw adults all around me hugging and shoving, crying and laughing, kissing me, hugging me.  I went along with it all, so much so that my sister asked if I knew who they were.  “No, I have never seen them before.”  She stared at me with feigned annoyance until she too became part of this rotating human touching machine. 

 I crouched down and crept away, searching for air and a respite from all of the affection from strangers.  And I saw him.  Mi abuelito.  He was a giant, with graying hair below his cowboy hat, a face so full with wrinkles that they seemed to form the Chihuahua sierras across his broad forehead and hatchet sharp cheekbones.  I stood dumbfounded before him, my greatest love affair about to begin with a man who will always hold a reigning place in my heart.  He looked down at me and as I gulped I could feel the saliva slowly trickling down my throat and the shivers covering every inch of my arms.

 “Tu eres Susy?”  His low but booming voice asked me.  I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, so I stood there silent and immobile. 

 I felt the gentle but firm shoving of my father’s hand on my back and it broke my stupid-like trance.  I walked to him shyly.  He held out his large hand and when I took it, it felt as if it has been molded to hold my own.  His rough farmer hands gripped mine and I stood there silently next to him knowing that I belonged to him.

 Before long the commotion died down to a whisper and became a chorus of grunted and hummed affirmations.  I looked around at my cousins, four in all, and noticed my youngest cousin eyeing my hand that was held by my Abuelito with suspicious jealousy.  I stepped possessively closer to him.

 My tia Ricarda corralled all the kids into two bedrooms and I slept with that young cousin in one bed as my sister slept with my other cousin on another bed a couple of feet away. We didn’t talk.  A soon as I felt the embroidered pillow cover scratch my cheek, the exhaustion of the day’s travel hit my body and knocked me out until the next morning.

 When I opened my eyes again it was still dark, but I heard hushed voices and followed them into the kitchen. 

 My father sat with my Abuelito, my tia Ricarda, and her husband, all chattering in a quiet sing song way over tin mugs of coffee and homemade flour tortillas as fat as pancakes. 

 They looked up at me and my tia quickly got up to pull out a chair for me, spread a thin layer of fried beans on my tortilla and gave me a tin cup full of leche, creamy on top with nata, freshly milked from the mooing cow outside.  

 My days were spent in this way, observing, nodding, smiling, and staying close to my Abuelito.  Soon the house came alive with the song of morning as kids rise from bed: banging and clanging and howling, as they get dressed for the day’s chores.  I picked up a broom and started sweeping and fell into the rhythm of this new and old country.  

 Soon my primas were our best friends, we, their shadow from El Norte, magnets for friendly waves and questions about Los Angeles.  We followed them to the tortilleria to pick up the fresh corn tortillas milled for the town, to the Carniceria for the day’s fresh cuts of meat, to the Papeleria, for the day’s supply of paper goods for the small store my tia kept at the front of the house. 

 Everywhere I was welcome with, “Eres hija de Pepe?”  Like a proud little hen I pumped up my chest and broadly smiled as I answered, “Si!”

~~~~

 As Christmas approached, the wind pierced your body as if with an ice pick, sharp pain that drilled down into your bones.  But every night I ignored the cold and continued to sit by the frosted window and waited in anticipation.  Would Santa Clos come here to Mexico?  Did he know I was here?

 On Christmas Eve, after Mass, we gathered around the living room as the adults toasted and warmed the room with their mirth.  I don’t remember what we ate, I might have been too nervous for the following morning or I might have just been avoiding my tia’s awful cooking. The house was packed, with our other sets of primas and primos joining us for this night, crowding the house with love. 

 As the day grew late and night took over, the adults began to shuttle us to bed.  I clearly remember being tucked in and feeling perfectly warm and happy with my newfound extended family.  I fell asleep with the sweetness of affectionate hands caressing my hair and a smile lingering on my lips. 

 Before dawn I was awake and slightly uncomfortable, something cold and hard was pushing up against my face.  I got up and looked down to find a baby’s lifeless face staring at me.  The plastic limbs were lightly colored to match my skin; the doll’s body was full of water which made it feel like a real baby’s delicate body in my arms.  I looked around and my mouth hung open as I realized that we all had toys by our pillows and slowly, like a leaky faucet, the thought trickled down from my brain to my mouth and I yelped out, “Santa Clos! Santa Clos vino!!!!” 

 All of my cousins quickly leaped up from their sleep as if I had pressed an on button and the sound of packaging tearing and cooing of motherly girls cradling their bebes filled the two rooms.  We ran from primo to prima, comparing what we had received from the dear Santa Clos who apparently also traveled to Mexico after all.  I looked out the window and smiled thinking, what a clever fellow to make me doubt him and then embrace him even more after he found me in this town with oil lamps, unpaved roads, and one phone for the entire community, what a wonderful clever and loving fellow indeed.

Stop Feeling Guilty

19 Nov

I tend to do it myself.  I feel guilty, constantly. 

I had a great conversation with an unexpected source recently; I will admit (shamefully) that up until a year ago I did not realize that this woman had any depth to her.  I wrote her off as a beautiful woman with no substance nor intelligence.  After listening to her countless cries of attention through dieting tips, conquest stories, and her endless grooming I found myself speaking about an author series that I was attending.  And the unexpected happened.  She knew exactly who I was speaking of and she asked if she could be my +1.  This was over a year ago and I still feel stupid, rude, and naive for judging her exactly as I have been unfairly judged. 

Recently we had a follow up conversation about growing up in Boyle Heights, in East LA, in Westlake…  Growing up as an attractive female with 0 self-esteem and what that brought down on us but in a more insightful slant –  the root of what our reactions were stemmed to.  As she described what she went through: feelings of rejection, judgement, constant criticism from adults as a child (bullies); I began to understand more of what I felt, of what I did, of who I was, as I heard her tell her stories.

She is an incredibly striking woman with piercing green eyes and a hell of a personality and yet she had soft heart, a vulnerability that her surroundings did not respect, much less notice.  She is extremely intelligent, observant, and insightful – yet she receives no credit or acknowledgement for her innate gifts, qualities that she has retained despite her challenges.  She lives life thinking she is wrong, misunderstood, defective…

As I heard of what she witnessed as a child, of what she went through growing up, of what was unsaid but I could so palpably feel it that I could practically hold it with my fingertips…I understood her pain.  A pain that is so deeply rooted that it takes a hell of a strong person to face it in order to start healing; facing it means accepting that you were unloved, overcoming it means knowing that you are not un-loveable.  I saw this in her.  I heard it in the crack of her voice as she tried to remain composed and to the naked eye she was –  fine. She was perfectly fine.  But I was there; I knew better.

As she unfolded her worries before me I found the common theme of Guilt.  Guilt pervades all those who have succeeded in improving their lot in life while still being surrounded by negative influences. 

But it made me Angry.  Angry that life could be so cruel to her (and countless of you lovely women and men) and still invade her being with a sense that she did not deserve to find inner peace whilst her family was still in such a state of disarray.

It really upset me because I constantly feel that way.  Guilty.  Guilty when a guy wants to pay for dinner.  Guilty when my career is taking off.  Guilty when my children are doing well in school.  Guilty when I am spending money on myself.  Guilty when I am spending money on extracurricular activities for my kids instead of funneling it elsewhere.  Guilty when I want to for once, get taken care of.  When for once I would like to relax and feel vulnerable, and feel like a woman who wants to be shielded from worldly problems.  I want to know what it feels like to be sheltered.  I want to feel like what it feels to be taken care of without having to feel like I have to be the strong independent woman I have always been. 

I love who I am.  But just because I am strong does not mean that I am not soft as well.  I am strong and independent because there is no other way nor any other choice for me.  If not me then whom?  Who would step up to be the head of the household in my life?  No one.

So I remind myself not to feel guilty.  I deserve happiness.  I realize I will never have a childhood again where I can hope to feel cared for in that manner but I do some day want to feel the sense of comfort of knowing that I can rely on someone – completely.  And I will not feel guilty because I would care for that person right back.

So stop feeling guilty. 

Stop over thinking your future.  Life is life and it will continue to happen whether you allow it to or not, whether you plan for it or not.  Be the strong person that you are but give yourself merits for what you have overcome and what you have worked out for yourself.  You are incredible, special, and beautiful.  Anyone would be lucky to have you.  Why?  Because you have chosen to embrace life regardless of what it dealt you early on and you DESERVE to expect happiness.  It’s a good reminder for us all.

Stop feeling guilty.

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