“Lemon”, the story of an ex-con who wins a Tony Award

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen is an accomplished spoken word artist, but he’s also a champion at hurdling obstacles. He went from growing up in a Brooklyn gang and being a thrice convicted felon, to a Tony-Award winner for “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.”

On March 3, he’s having his story be told in a documentary, “Lemon,” at the Miami International Film Festival.Laura Brownson saw Andersen perform for the first time a little more than three years ago. She was so moved by how he conveyed his painful past through his poetry, that she and her partner, Beth Levison, decided to follow him around with cameras to document his personal and professional life for the next three years.

“He won a Tony Award and then at the heels of that had a hard fall living with 13 people in the projects, and he said to me, ‘I’m going to write my life story and get out of here. I’m going to get out of here for good,’” says Brownson, the filmmaker of “Lemon.”

And he did.

The half-Puerto Rican, half-Norwegian Andersen, says he now lives in artist neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and three kids. He enjoys spending his days getting up early to do research on his newest play, reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and writing in his neighborhood cafe.

Andersen, whose birth name is really Andrew, got his nickname “Lemon,” because he was the whitest kid in his Sunset Park neighborhood. He grew up with drug-addicted parents who died by the time he reached 15 from AIDS. The only way he knew how to support himself was by stealing and selling drugs.

“I’ve come a long way. Today I feel, I am a working artist,” he says.

It all started when he got out of jail for the last time at 19. He says his life sucked as it was hard to get a job with a criminal record, and one day at barber shop someone handed him a flier about a poetry reading.

“I didn’t even have a poem,” says Andersen. “I wrote it right on the spot, and I got on stage. They asked me if I would be part of the theater troupe, and I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job. And I never stopped.”

Hungry to become better, Andersen started taking continuing education classes at New York University funded through AmeriCorps.

“I wanted to learn all styles,” he says. “I ended up in ‘Def Poetry Jam’.”

Andersen was featured as a regular on HBO’s “Def Poetry” presented by Russell Simmons and then was an original cast member and writer of Russell Simmons’ Tony Award winning “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway”.

“I was imprisoned four years before I was on Broadway,” says Andersen. “I was pinching myself every morning.”

He says he would tell people that he would go to Broadway before it happened.

“I had a dream I’d perform my poetry on big stage, he says. “I know the smell still. I relive it in my play ‘County of Kings’.”

Andersen tells his own story through his solo spoken word play “County of Kings,” which is produced by Spike Lee. He has been performing it in many New York theaters since 2010.

“It’s like outer space, because I’m really out of my space,” Andersen says, and adds that his own family has never seen him perform, even on Broadway.

“It wasn’t easy for people to take it when I was on the cover of TheNew York Times,” he says about the people from his childhood neighborhood. “It’s like putting a mirror on them. But hey, sometimes you gotta be ‘F… that’. Piri Thomas from ‘Down These Mean Streets’ taught me that.”

He hasn’t even seen “Lemon,” the documentary about him.

“I don’t think I will ever see it,” says Andersen. “This film is not my film, it’s about me. I’m a different kind of story teller, but I’m really rooting for them.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

10 tips to follow before you do your taxes

(Photo/Getty Images)

(Photo/Getty Images)

Marianela del Pino-Rivera says Latinos have the tendency to get their taxes paid by “fulano de tal” who was recommended by their cousin’s friend’s brother. She says this is a no-no.

Del Pino-Rivera has more than 25 years of experience as a certified public accountant – advising clients on all aspects of accounting, taxation and financial management. She is on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Association of CPAs and received the Association’s Public Service Award in 2005 for her extensive work running a tutoring center in Old Bowie, MD. She says her passion is financial literacy for all, especially Latinos and youth, and she travels to local high schools, colleges, and women’s organizations to hold seminars on financial literacy and taxes.

Here are del Pino-Rivera’s top 10 tax tips so you can get your best return, the right way:

1.  Go to a reputable tax preparer. – Seek a CPA or an enrolled agent to assure proper training and continuing education. A CPA needs to pass a rigorous exam, obtain at least four-year college degree, and take 80 hours of continuing education every two years. An enrolled agent has passed an exam given by the IRS and must take 72 hours of continuing education every three years. Ask trusted friends and colleagues for recommendations or go to your state’s CPA society web page.

2.  Take advantage of employer retirement plan matches. – Many employers offer retirement plans and will contribute up to a certain percentage of your salary. Usually, you will get this match only if you have contributed a comparable amount. If you don’t contribute to the plan, you are leaving money on the table (sometimes up to 6 percent of your salary).

3.  In this difficult job market, take advantage of educational opportunities. – If your employer wants to send you for training, take advantage of the opportunity. Also, investigate whether your employer offers educational benefits (tax free payment of tuition). Even if your employer doesn’t pay, you may be eligible for the “lifetime learning tax credit” which can be up to 20 percent of the course fee (up to $2,000 per tax return). There are the requirements.

4.  Take advantage of Section 125 plans at work. – These allow you to set aside funds pre-tax to pay for child care expenses (up to $5,000) and un-reimbursed medical expenses. Budget carefully, since these plans are mostly “use it or lose it.”

5.  Health insurance deductions – If you are self-employed and paying for health insurance, you may deduct amounts paid for health insurance (including long-term care insurance) for yourself, spouse, dependents and children under age 27 (even if that child is not your dependent). The plan must be established under the business, and the business must generate net income to cover the expense. The health insurance also includes Medicare payments deducted from social security for a retired person who has their own business. For those in between jobs, who are doing freelance work (and are self-employed), being able to deduct their health insurance is a great tax break.

6.  Moving Expenses – You may be able to deduct expenses of moving, including your household goods and travel to a new home, if the move is a result of a new job location. There is a distance and time test to be met.

7.  Health Savings Account (HSA) to reduce the cost of health insurance – If medical premiums are very high, look into a high deductible medical plan combined with an HSA account. Health insurance is so expensive right now. Sometimes if you can deal with a higher deductible you can get a lower insurance. Set up the HSA account (like an IRA account) and combine it with high deductible medical plan, you can save a lot of money that way. Perfect for unemployed, freelancers and small business owners.

8.  For those that volunteer – If you itemize deductions and volunteer at a non-profit, keep track of your out of pocket expenses since these can be deducted as charitable donations. For example, if you volunteer at your church and buy food for the food pantry, or drive to deliver meals to the home bound, you can deduct the cost of the food purchase and 14 cents per mile for delivering the meals (you must keep the receipts and record of the miles driven). No deduction is allowed for the value of your time, the rewards for that are not reflected on your tax return.

9.  For caretakers of an elderly parent – If you provide more than half of your parent’s support, you may be able to claim the parent as a dependent, and you may qualify as head of household, if  you’re unmarried and meet the other tests. These breaks can help offset the financial burden of providing the care.

To claim a parent as a dependent, you must provide more than half of your parent’s support and your parent must have income of less than $3,700, (do not include the Social Security payments the parent receives). Also, your parent does not have to live with you. If you pay for home health care or adult day care costs, you can claim a dependent care tax credit. Also, you can include medical expenses paid for your parent along with their own medical expenses on Schedule A.

10. Contribute to an IRA – If you had a low earnings year and can afford it, look into the effect of making a contribution to an IRA for 2011 (you have until April 15, 2012 to fund it).

The tax credit is calculated based on a percentage of your retirement contributions. The maximum credit is $1,000 for unmarried filers and $2,000 for married filers. The percentage is determined by your adjusted gross income and your filing status and will be 10 percent, 20 percent or 50 percent. Not a bad rate of return! Have your tax preparer run the numbers before you make any contributions. I usually recommend a ROTH IRA to my clients in this situation.

Del Pino-Rivera recommends this link for financial literacy topics if you have more questions.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Red Hot Chili Peppers ex-drummer, Cliff Martinez, opens up

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez, one of the veteran drummers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and an award-winning film composer, started off 2012 with a bang. He was a judge in last month’s Sundance Film Festival, and in April he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his formative three year stint with the Chili Peppers from 1983-86.

“I’m just worried about what I am going to wear,” says Martinez about as casually, but as humbly, as if he were a friendly, unimposing neighbor asking for advice. “My role is quite small in the span of 27 years. I’m honored that they made the decision to include me.”

Although Martinez calls himself an introvert, it’s not hard to knock down any walls he may have up. He rather welcomes you warmly into his world of hidden surprises – such as did you know that his first composing job was for Pee Wee’s Playhouse? And, can you believe he does not know how to compose music on staff paper?

“I never had training,” says Martinez. “I really learned as I went. I’m almost completely self-taught. In my film career, I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my background. But mostly I’m a musical Neanderthal.”

His grandfather immigrated from a small village in Spain to the U.S., but Martinez was raised in an English-speaking household in Ohio. After more than three decades of living in Los Angeles, Martinez, 58, now considers the City of Angels his home.

He says his favorite part of drumming for the Chili Peppers’ first two albums were making the records.

“I went through the lifestyle of smoke-filled vans and traveling,” says Martinez. “I didn’t enjoy that much, but I did enjoy the recording process and making music.”

He says he also learned during that time, while collaborating with George Clinton, that unintended accidents in music can result in unexpected gems.

“When we were overdubbing guitar parts, there was a mistake and George said play that back,” says Martinez. “It was definitely a mistake, and George says, ‘No that’s the funk, let’s cut it up and fly it around elsewhere in the track.”

Martinez says that although he enjoyed his time with the band, he felt he never fully fit in.

“For me it was a tough thing to fit into socially,” says Martinez. “We could never come to an agreement on our look…basic issues of band image.”

As he grew out of the band, Martinez says he became fascinated with music technology in the 1980’s.

“Music technology got me started,” says Martinez. “Pop music always felt very narrow to me. Film felt much broader. My taste in music was always left of center.”

He says his favorite album is “Trought Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart, which he had the honor of working with as well. Now, instead of traveling the country in smokey vans, Martinez happily spends a lot of his time waiting on his couch for inspiration.

“I usually lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling for a few weeks just thinking what general approach I would take,” says Martinez about what he does when a director approaches him to compose a score for a film. “I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, sometimes it comes in front of a keyboard, but sometimes washing the dishes or driving a car.”

He says the process for creating a score ranges from about one to three months, and the director is usually hands on as well. He is currently working on “Only God Forgives,” set in Thailand, with director Nicolas Winding Refn.

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

“I think the favorite spot I’ve ever composed in was in a hotel room in Thailand,” says Martinez. “I placed Singha beer cans to prop up my 15-inch laptop and miniature keyboard.”

He says nowadays you don’t really need a big studio to compose film scores.

“You don’t need a lot of equipment anymore,” says Martinez. “I met Nicholas Refn for dinner, and he said ‘I hate L.A. I’m going to Copenhagen,’ and so we spoke via Skype. In 2009-10, I did two French films, and I didn’t even meet the director. We just communicated telepathically.”

Martinez says the work he’s most proud of is the score for “Solaris” (2002), because it was the first time he used a 90-piece orchestra, and it is the only one he can still listen to and it still feels new and fresh.

“I’d like to think of myself as versatile, but I might fall on my face if I tried to do Broadway or a cereal commercial,” he says.

For now, he’s concentrating on speaking at SXSW (South by Southwest) in March – 10 days of conferences and festivals where filmmakers and musicians unite to discuss the most influential cultural happenings of the year. He says it seems most people want to know about the soundtrack he did for “Drive” (2011).

“Public speaking is one of my phobias, but I’ll make sure I dress for the occasion,” says Martinez.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

The Hispanic Museum of Nevada finds its home

Lynnette Sawyer at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new  Hispanic Museum of Nevada.

Lynnette Sawyer at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Hispanic Museum of Nevada.

You might call Lynnette Sawyer a pioneer. Proud to call herself Nuyorican, she moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1978. Sawyer brought along the most precious belongings given to her by her family – a güiro, a piece of mundillo, a cemi, a Fania All-Stars album, and a Puerto Rican flag. Little did she know these few mementos of her heritage, which she held so close to her heart, would lead her to become the founding director of the only cultural museum in Las Vegas.

Culture was always a part of Sawyer’s life. She says she lived through the Black Panther and Chicano movements, and was exposed to the elements of NYC’s El Barrio and Museum Mile growing up.

Sawyer left her historically-artistic haven and comfort zone to follow her military husband to the city of lights and casinos in the desert Southwest. Las Vegas was a city of only 37,000Latinos in 1980.

She vividly remembers when DJ Rae Arroyo played salsa music for the first time on a Vegas radio station around 1993.

“Tears came to my eyes, when I heard ‘Vamanos pal’ Monte’ play. When you hear something like that after so long it’s like, “Am I hearing things?’,” Sawyer reminisces.

Sawyer taught middle school at St. Christopher’s Catholic school for more than 25 years and is now retired. In 1990, she says her life changed for good – all because of a broken glass display case in the school’s hallway.

“I asked the principal if I could fix it and put some things about Hispanic culture there,” says Sawyer. “From there on we kept growing.”

Sawyer and her husband started a family in Las Vegas, and she wanted her sons to be exposed to culture. But since there wasn’t much of a museum scene, she started adding items to the glass cabinet, from pieces she brought from NY, to pictures and posters about Cesar Chavez and Selena. She says others also started to chip in with special objects of their own.

A few years later, Sawyer opened the first Hispanic Museum of Nevada in the lobby of The Nevada Association of Latin Americans.

For the past 20 years, Sawyer says the Hispanic Museum led a nomadic existence, moving to different community centers and lobbies depending on the group’s budget. In November, it moved into its sixth home in the Boulevard Mall, after an anonymous donor agreed to cover the expenses for a year. Those expenses range from $30-50,000. The official grand opening was Jan. 27.

“The reason it was given to us was the person knew the work we have done in the community through the years, and that we would be an asset wherever we went,” says Sawyer. “And now with the focus on tourism from President Obama, there isn’t another cultural museum in Nevada.”

At the Boulevard Mall, the museum is now at a central location. It’s the only cultural institution in a city which only has six other museums. Among them, the Atomic Testing Museum and The Mob Museum, according to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

“We have a whole demographic of people that may or may not go to a museum, and then they walk by and come in,” says Sawyer. “At our grand opening we had artists present their talent, their work was for sale, and we had different countries showcased.”

She says the favorite part of her job, which she calls a “lifelong passion,” is interacting with the many different cultural groups – ranging from Colombian, Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican, and seeing how they light up when they see their traditional dances and art showcased.

She says the Museum has received about 1,000 visitors since January from places as varied as Alaska, MexicoPuerto Rico, and Montana.

“We know that although we are termed Hispanics in the U.S., we have our own differences within our own subculture, but because we are called Hispanics in the Census, we should then unite to become more of a force in our country,” says Sawyer. “We are able to that and we are doing that. I feel that is where the strength is – in unity.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.

Nashville’s first Latino councilman talks business

Fabian Bedne knocking on doors before being elected Nashville’s first Latino councilman. (Photo/Andrew Wilson)

Fabian Bedne knocking on doors before being elected Nashville’s first Latino councilman. (Photo/Andrew Wilson)

Fabian Bedne never thought he’d be Nashville’s first Latino councilman. In fact, he says rather bashfully that it makes him feel self-conscious when people bring it to his attention, because he just wanted to serve his community. For Bedne, each day is about providing a service and listening.

“I had ideas on how to make the community better,” says Bedne on what made him run for office.

Bedne says his father raised him to help out whenever he could, so it comes as easily as breathing for him. He first came to the U.S. from Buenos Aires, Argentina, as part of an architect exchange program that aimed to bring social change to low-income communities.

“I worked in Columbus, Ohio in low-income neighborhood to fix crack houses,” says Bedne. “I was in charge of training ex-convicts in construction. We didn’t mind their background; we just wanted to give people a chance.”

He remembers having a blast, because he was doing what he loved — architecture, while also stabilizing the neighborhood. He was only planning on staying in the U.S. for the one-year program, but love kept him here. He met his wife while working in Ohio, and ended up moving to Nashville in 1996 to move closer to his wife’s family.

“In the beginning I was a little bit lost,” says Bedne. “And then I had this fire in my house, and the people were so nice. They brought me new clothes to wear to work. I realized it was a very welcoming place.”

As usual, his mind started wondering about ways he could give back. Back then the Nashville Latino community was small, today today is about 10 percent according to the 2010 Census.

“I was always interested in the political process,” says Bedne. “It’s important that Latinos get involved politically because they can create a sense of ownership. You can then start making decisions about the future.”

Bedne first ran for councilman of Nashville four years ago, and he thought he’d only get 100 votes, but he ended up getting 33 percent of the vote. It was then that he realized that Nashville was ready for someone like him, and it only pushed him to knock on my doors for nine months until he did get elected this year.

“It takes time and work to get people to trust you,” says Bedne. “Sometimes I would sit on someone’s porch and talk about the history of the place. People are interested in that. They want to connect.”

Bedne says he also ran for councilman because he loved the community.

“My district is not majority Latino,” he says. “I just happened to be Latino, and I was very excited that I got elected and that people didn’t care what my accent was. They liked the idea that I could serve them and make the district better.”

He says that the residents of Nashville are aware of the importance of people outside coming in.

“It became a city that grew dramatically,” says Bedne of how the city has changed since he first arrived. “We have many minorities that make Nashville home. I would say that probably 50 percent of Nashville wasn’t born there.”

He takes pride in the Hispanic entrepreneurial presence in Nashville, although it is a small 3 percent from the city’s latest count in 2007. He says Nolensville Road used to be in decay years ago, and now it resembles a little Mexico, lined with grocery stores, and restaurants.

His current mission he says is to make it even easier for residents to open their own business, as it is an extremely important part of their economy.

“For years, through personal initiatives, he’s been able to be a resource and helpful neighbor in the community, says Yuri Cunza, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “He is a great example of what a good neighbor means. For those that are new or second-generation Hispanics, that is great to have – a friend in our own Hispanic community.”

Bedne says what most satisfies him is getting solutions to people’s problems by going from meeting to meeting and being a part of his city’s synergy.

“My wife says that I’m enjoying it too much, because I still have a business,” he says regarding his architecture company, Organicus, LLC, which he also runs. “Each family is different, and I like to listen to what they really need. That makes my day.”

Last week was Bedne’s first meeting as the only Latino at the Metro Council’s Black Caucus. The group of 10 recently changed its name to Minority Council to include him, and he says he’s hoping this will encourage more people to participate. He also is the first councilman in his district to send out a monthly newsletter via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook to further promote unity.

“My dad, he passed away recently,” Bedne says. He believed in making things happen when other people didn’t believe. That showed me that you shouldn’t take no for an answer. You just need to do it. I hope that I get to earn that reputation as well.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Don Miguel Ruiz answers questions about love


Don Miguel Ruiz used to be a surgeon in his native Mexico, until he realized what he was really called to do was heal the human mind and spirit. The ancient Toltec wisdom of his ancestors contained all of the tools needed, so he trained with his mother to become a Shaman. He moved to the United States to share his wisdom, which he has been doing through books and seminars for almost two decades. Ruiz is author of multiple international bestsellers, including “The Four Agreements and “The Mastery of Love.” Today, Valentine’s Day, NBC Latino asks the guru about love.

NBC Latino: What is love?

Ruiz: There are many different definitions to love, because every person has a different definition. I believe it is an equilibrium between gratitude and generosity. When you receive, you feel a lot of gratitude and that converts into generosity. Life gives us everything that we need. When we have gratitude, we start to share it. Each person that receives from you starts to grow. True love is completely unconditional. When we start to put conditions, it is no longer love.

NBC Latino: Two people in a relationship can’t be equally in love with each other. One always seems to love the other more. Is it better to love, or to be loved more? Why?

Ruiz: This is something you cannot force. It is what it is. It’s just like being hungry and being thirsty.

NBC Latino: What are your thoughts on marriage?

Ruiz: You have to find someone that believes the same as you if you want to be monogamous and live that way. What is important is to make an agreement with yourself. Determine what you want in your life. Then let that person come and make that agreement with you. It’s not about right or wrong. Take responsibility for your decision.

The idea of matrimony is changing. Fifty years ago everyone had to be married. Divorce is becoming more and more popular. People are more aware that the promises are not really forever. To live with someone you don’t want to live with is really a nightmare. I think it is much better now. Before women had to stay married even if they were being abused. Things are changing for the better in many ways. What keeps couples together is respect. You need to trust, and trust yourself, too.

NBC Latino: Can infatuation ever be the path to true love?

Ruiz: Infatuation is something beautiful, but be aware if you are infatuated. Enjoy it, because it feels good. If you have that awareness, it never becomes a need. If you don’t have that awareness, you don’t have complete control, and you become the needy one. And the other person becomes like your drug provider. In “The Mastery of Love,” I talk about infatuation becoming like a drug addiction. One is the addict and the other is a provider. The addicted one is going to blame the other. We distort what love is, because we make love conditional.

NBC Latino: Can someone love you who judges you, criticizes you, won’t forgive you, and wants nothing to do with you?

Ruiz: It is most probable that that person feels hurt. In life, no one is your owner. You live in your own world. Others live in their own world. Trying to control another’s life is selfish. If someone treats you like this, they don’t want you to be you. They want you to be like they want you to be. People act selfishly, because they feel important personally, but they can’t even control themselves.

NBC Latino: What does it mean when someone appears to love you and then after a while they tell you that they don’t love you as they should. “It’s me, not you?”

Ruiz: The truth is that we are always living in the present. The past and the future don’t exist. The only thing that we can be sure of is the present. Everything is changing. Love is not static. It is also changing every moment. Imagine if nothing changed? Even our body changes. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be loved or won’t be loved. If there is a couple that loves each other, and one leaves, the one that stays feels a greater need, and might feel that they don’t deserve love. You can be in love with someone, and then the love is killed. Sometimes it’s the fear of being alone makes you accept things that make us blind, and you don’t see what’s really happening.

NBC Latino: Have love/relationships fundamentally changed because of increased life expectancy, technology, etc.? Can a couple fall out of love after time?

Ruiz: Love transforms. Any dream will get to the end. Anything that is created will end. What is immortal is life. In your life, you can have a lot of dreams. After a certain time, the dream is over and it dissolves. The only one that will always be with you is your physical body, until you eventually leave your physical body. Everything else will go. Everyone else will leave – your parents, your boyfriend, everybody.

NBC Latino: Are you supposed to have and wait for your soul mate in life, or settle to reproduce before it’s too late? 

Ruiz: There is no soul mate. It’s just a belief. Anyone can be your soul mate. If you like the way a person talks, behaves, dreams, and the attraction is there, stay with that person as long as you can. But always live in the present time. Always enjoy it the best you can. You don’t know if you will be alive tomorrow. You only have today. If you learn how to live like it’s your last day, you will always enjoy your dreams intensely.

You don’t need to look for love. Just be whomever you are, but be wise enough to accept the person who believes what you believe, so you can enjoy life together. You can be happy with whoever, if that person respects your beliefs and who you are. You can be with anyone, but only you know who you like and who you don’t like.

NBC Latino: When do you know that it is time to leave a relationship?

Ruiz: You need to be responsible for your choices. If you don’t like a person, don’t say yes. If you want to change a person, that means you have picked the wrong person. You need to love the person the way they are, because no person can be changed, and no person can change you. If it’s not working, get out. Say “I have to go.” Have the courage. That person might get mad, but it’s nothing personal.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Man crochets to pay for grad school

Jose Luis Zelaya (Photo/Jason Syptak)

Jose Luis Zelaya (Photo/Jason Syptak)

Jose Luis Zelaya is a well-spoken, educated 24-year-old male with indomitable determination and rapid fingers. He is also anxiously awaiting confirmation from the Guinness World Record’s title as the fastest crocheter at 37-44 stitches per minute.

Zelaya says he’s been using his crocheting skills to earn a living since he was 13. As a kid in his native Honduras, he was forced to find odd jobs to help support his family.

“I saw a lady crocheting in the street, and it was cold, and I wanted to make myself a sweater,” says Zelaya. “I asked her if she could teach me, and she said no, because I was a guy and not a girl.”

Being the determined soul that he is, he didn’t let “no” stop him. He just taught himself by watching closely as other women crocheted on the street. Little by little he learned and mastered the art, and this December, he started his own business on Etsy where he sells his homemade beanies for about $15 each.

Now an undocumented grad student, Zelaya still has to support himself by crocheting since he is not allowed to legally work in the U.S. The faster he crochets, the faster he can put himself and his 20-year-old sister through school.

Zelaya is a graduate student at Texas A&M University in College Station, where he is pursuing a master in English as a Second Language curriculum instruction. He struggles to make his monthly payments every month since his beanie income is as unstable as the weather.

Since he started his online business, he’s made 2,300 beanies, but this week he’s only made $60.

“Last weekend I went around knocking on people’s doors,” says Zelaya. “That’s the only way I can support myself.”

He says his faith in God also pulls him through.

“If I take care of other people, I know that He will take care of me,” says Zelaya. “I know I will be ok. I know something is going to happen last minute to help me.”

And Zelaya gives back as fast as he moves his fingers. Not only is he the president of the Council for Minority Student Affairs at his school, he is a leader in his campus ministry, and he spends the rest of his free time tutoring in College Station middle schools.

“He is organizer of people and can motivate and communicate from the heart,” says the University’s director for Latino campus ministries, Devin Tressler.  “He told me, ‘Mark my words, I might be gone from here, but two years from now there will be a tutoring program in every middle school run by college students.’”

Tressler says he believes a lot of it stems from Zelaya’s experience.

“He has a huge heart, and he wants to help young people,” says Tressler. “That’s what I respect about him most. He helps people to see the significance of helping others.”

Zelaya’s most serious problem might be how is going to make next month’s rent, but he’s not worried.

“After I graduate, I would love to work to fix the immigration system,” says Zelaya. “If the Dream Act passes, I will benefit. If it doesn’t pass, I will go on to get my PhD so that I can inspire a lot more people to pursue higher education. I don’t know how I will, but I know that if I’m dedicated and persistent, and I don’t quit, I will make it.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Alberto Iglesias, Academy Award nominee for Best Original Score in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Alberto Iglesias

Alberto Iglesias

You might have missed his name in the film credits, but soft-spoken, Alberto Iglesias, is no stranger to Oscar nominations. He has been nominated for Best Original Score in the film currently in theaters, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and previously for “The Constant Gardener” (2005) and “The Kite Runner” (2006).

The Spanish award-winning musician is widely known in Spain for his award-winning work in several Spanish films, mostly from Pedro Almodóvar such as, “Broken Embraces,” “Talk to Her,” and “Volver,” among many others.

With his quiet demeanor, he says in Spanish that all he needs to create his powerfully suspenseful melodies is a window.

“A quiet room with a window would be ideal,” says Iglesias as if that would be his favorite gift in the world. “A room has to have a window. I love to look at a view. I’m seeing Los Angeles now. The hills from here give me the impression that it is very tranquil.”

He says that the genre he chooses depends on the film.

“The film asks for the genre,” says Iglesias. “Sometimes it starts with one and ends with another. I don’t have a favorite genre. I like sounds and colors that remind me of jazz.”

His nominated score for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” sounds like a jazzy thriller. He says his personal favorite score is the one in the first scene of “Psycho,” which he says made him vibrate.

He had always had dreams of being a musician and writing music, but the process happened slowly and unfolded as if it were his destiny. He first learned to play the guitar and then the piano, which is what he now uses for most of composing.

He studied classical music composition in his hometown, San Sebastian, and later Paris, as well as electronic music in Barcelona. However, he didn’t start his career writing for films until someone asked for his help.

“I didn’t look for it,” says Iglesias. “My first films were for my brother who is a movie director.”

He slowly began getting more work in film, and finally with Spanish director and filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, whom he says is a demanding artist who made him develop as a musician immensely.

“That was an intense experience,” says Iglesias. “He is a director who is in his own universe. The director influences my work a lot, because it is the work of a team.”

As in his work for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he says the process involves a close connection to the director.

“The director explains the movie to me,” says Iglesias. “Then he asks for the music with an idea, but not an exact one. After discussing the ideas with the director, I begin to write.”

He says the director of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Tomas Alfredson, chose to work with him. It then took Iglesias two months to write the score, which he did hastily in order to make it to the Venice International Film Festival this past September. He says it is a very complex story that inspired him a lot.

“The director is extraordinary,” says Iglesias. “He is very special, and the music is very important for the movie. It moved me. I began to write immediately.”

For Iglesias it’s a greatly satisfying to see the final product finished.

“I liked it a lot,” he says. “It called attention to the director’s style. I liked his personal style a lot.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.

The Sundance Film Festival through the eyes of a juror

Filmmaker Alex Rivera (Courtesy Alex Rivera)

Filmmaker Alex Rivera (Courtesy Alex Rivera)

Now that the Sundance Festival is over, Alex Rivera gives us an inside peek to what it’s like to judge one of the most respected international film festivals. Digital media artist and filmmaker, Rivera, went from being a Sundance winner for his film “Sleep Dealer in 2008 to a juror last week.

“Being invited to be a judge is a complete honor and a privilege,” says Rivera who understands first-hand the complexity of what goes into filmmaking. “It takes about one hour and a half to watch a film, but it takes an average of six years to make. So as a filmmaker I feel very sensitive to that. It’s hard to judge, because you know how much goes into it.”

This is the second time Rivera, 38, has been chosen to serve on the Alfred P. Sloan Jury. The first time was in 2009, the year after his sci-fi thriller “Sleep Dealer,” a tale about immigration in a militarized futuristic world where borders are closed and technology takes over, won the prize of the same name. It also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and was picked up by Maya Entertainment for U.S. distribution that same year.

The Sloan Award is presented to an outstanding feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. This year, “Robot & Frank,” directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher Ford, and “Valley of Saints,” directed and written by Musa Syeed, tied for the win. The two films will split the $20,000 cash award by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Rivera says the two winning films couldn’t be more different stories, but they were both innovative in the way they were told.

“When I go to Sundance, I want to see people taking risks and breaking new ground,” says Rivera. That’s why there should be festivals. People can try new things and take big risks, while making sure it’s well made. I saw a lot of that this year.”

He compares being on the Sundance jury to being on a jury in a courtroom, except instead of 12 jurors, there are five.

“You travel together to screening to screening over a few days,” recalls Rivera. “You get to know each other, and then comes the moment of truth when you come to a decision.”

Sundance critically chooses individuals from a variety of backgrounds to make sure to get different points of view.

“The jury I was on was half scientists and half filmmakers,” says Rivera. “There was a guy from Berkeley who builds robots, and a woman from Rutgers who studied the brain.”

Rivera mentioned that two of his favorite Latino films that he had the opportunity to see during the festival were “Mosquita y Mari,” and “Filly Brown.”

“Gina is shining like a light right now,” he says. “’Filly Brown’ is sensational and bold and filled with contrast and drama. ‘Mosquita y Mari’ is more subtle and feels more like the kind of quiet life that most of us live, but both are really striking because they showcase Latina talent at their core.”

This is an example of how he says two films can be polar opposites but equally poignant.

“When you find that contrast, it gives me hope that we’re going to see a wide variety of Latino stories in the future,” says Rivera. “But we are still far from where we should be. We are the largest minority in the U.S., so we should have a film in the movie theater every week…We should radically be telling our stories. There is a long way to go.”

Currently, Rivera is working on a TV series and a follow-up feature film to “Sleep Dealer.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Mexican-American woman vintner tells family secrets to success

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Vineyards in Napa, Calif. have continuously flourished since Amelia Ceja took charge of the family wine production company in 1999 as the first Mexican-American woman vintner.She says the way they’ve been able to penetrate a really difficult market is the Latino way – with warmth, great food, great wine, and most recently, with social media.

The family-owned business has grown to produce about 10,000 cases of wine a year, and to owning more property in Napa and Sonoma. But it’s not all just about the wine. Ceja also opened a wine tasting salon, lounge and art gallery in downtown Napa. Visitors can enjoy wine and cheese while listening to Latin funk, salsa and appreciating the local art.

Ceja says she works around the clock to introduce people to her wines, and she is currently reaching out as far as China for distribution.

“We appeal to every demographic group because of the way we bring people in,” she says. “We have gone from vineyard workers to an award-winning business. If we’re not on hugging terms, we didn’t do our job.”

Ceja runs her business like a home; everyone is family. She wants her customers to feel at home and appreciate wine and food. If you’re not in Napa, you can share in the experience through videos on her blog, where she pairs Mexican food with wine.

“What I missed the most was the food,” says Ceja about her earliest memories of coming to the U.S. “The food here in the ‘60’s was atrocious. I took my thermos, because I wanted to eat warm food at school. I got my love of food from my grandmother.”

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Her son Ariel now owns the restaurant Bistro Sabor, which serves many of the families recipes paired with Ceja wine. Her other son, Navek, studied digital arts and shoots most of their videos, more than 136 currently on YouTube with more than 180,000 views.

“My daughter, Dalia also loves to cook,” says Ceja. “We’re launching another site called Salud Napa which means cheers and health. I’m very interested in the diabetes and obesity epidemic in the Hispanic community. It’s very important to me that everything I prepare is healthy and nutritious.”

Ceja, who has been honored as “Business Woman of the Year” by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and “The most outstanding female leader, innovator and visionary in the wine field in the North Bay” by North Bay Business Journal, says what she is most proud of is having three highly-successful children. She says they have been crucial asset to the company.

“It wasn’t because we urged them, but they all went away to college, and they all came back, and now indirectly they are working with us,” says Ceja. “It really enriches our brand because it is very important to take Ceja to the next level. They are contributing really great content and ideas in which to grow.”

Her daughter, Dalia, the director of sales and marketing of the family business, wants to pursue an executive MBA in the near future. Dalia followed in her mother’s footsteps and now maintains her own blog, while also continuing to write on the company’s blog several times a week.

Ceja is always moving. This month, she will travel to Michigan to be a keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. On February 22, she will be featured in the independent documentary Dreamland as one of 12 Californians who have made pioneering imprints on the state. The documentary will air on PBS.

Ceja says it’s been a lot easier for her kids than when she arrived in California from Jalisco,Mexico in the 1960’s. At 12 years old, she helped her migrant farm worker father pick grapes.However, her children don’t take anything for granted.

“They also follow our tradition of giving back,” says Ceja of her three children. “And that really comes from my parents.”

“I hope if they have children, they will transfer that. We have to leave this earth better than how we found it. Both our people and our planet. We’re building a legacy.”

And just in time for the Super Bowl, try this award-winning recipe for carne con chile that she prepares here for us.

As Ceja says, “Salud!”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.