September 10th, 2014

The Human Element: “The Distance Between Us”

While reading The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, at first I could not get over the impression that fiction books have made on me. As I read a novel, I choose characters I like, characters I don’t like, and the one I’m rooting for. What I forgot while reading is that I was reading a reflection of a person’s life, not a fictional story. I quickly chose characters I liked; I always cheered for my favorite character Mago with her sage wisdom, Carlos and Reyna, and finally Abuelita Chinta soared to the forefront of my praises after providing the love these three children desperately sought. I could not understand Abuelita Evila and her cold attitude toward her grandchildren. Reyna’s cousin seemed like a brat. I don’t know the exact moment that it dawned on me what I was doing, reading about real people while thinking of them like they were fictional.

I stopped judging people, not characters, like Abuelita Evila and Reyna’s mother, each going through things that I could not possibly understand, things I can never understand. I began to try to read with more understanding. Sure, Abuelita Evila continued to seem like a hard grandmother, but I tried to gain insight into what she was going through; both of Reyna’s parents seemed to continue to make mistakes while raising them, but who am I to say I would not act similarly if I were as stressed as they? While it is easy to condemn people, it is harder, and much more enlightening, to try to understand the choices people make.
And I think that is part of the reason Grande wrote the book, to encourage understanding amongst her fellow Americans. Gaining insight into the stark contrast between Mexico’s poverty and life the United States is beneficial for all readers, no matter their take on the contentious discussions about immigration sweeping the country. It’s a story that needed to be shared.

When Reyna first heard she would cross the border into the United States, she explained that her younger sister, Betty, would be able to fly with her step-mother. Reyna Grande wrote, “For a brief moment, I felt the familiar jealousy I had first had of my American sister. Being born in the U.S. was a privilege I wished I had had. That way, I wouldn’t need to sneak across the border like a thief.” It was the word privilege – a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people – that made me stop reading and reflect on some of the things I have taken for granted. For me, reading Reyna yearn for acceptance at such a young age into the country where I was born struck me more profoundly than it would have if someone merely spoke to me of their desire to come to America.

To me, Grande’s story is poignant because Reyna is not the only child who desperately wanted to come to the United States to be reunited with their parents. Where Reyna succeeded in crossing and becoming a citizen, thousands before and after have failed. Having her tell her story opened my eyes to the life many children live in Mexico. Whatever someone’s stance on immigration policy is, reading The Distance Between Us will only deepen their understanding of a life very different from the one American’s often lead.

The Distance Between Us is much more than a cry for understanding. It is a story of a young girl wanting family, shelter and food, and the opportunity to grow. All of us can relate to wanting better things for ourselves and our loved ones, and immigrating to the United States was Reyna’s and her family’s solution to their problems.


Mark Talbert



This blog is a guest post by Mark Talbert, Walter Sondheim Non-Profit Leadership Scholar and past Development and Communications intern at The Maryland Humanities Council.


August 26th, 2014

A Tale of Two Countries

This blog post was contributed by Bill Peak, Talbot County Free Library.

Once, years ago, Melissa and I went on a long train ride down through Chihuahua toward Mexico City. It was our first great adventure together. I remember passing through villages unchanged by time—adobe houses, dirt roads, stone granaries, no cars. Old men wearing straw sombreros with tall, pointy crowns sat in the shade and watched us go by. People travelled by burro or on foot. Instead of trees, there were tall cactuses with branches that ended in strange club-like appendages. Whenever the train stopped in a village, children and adults would climb aboard to sell baked goods and soft drinks.

All of this struck us as quaint and picturesque. We were young and in love, and the world seemed to stand up and sing for us. Then, near sundown, we came upon a somewhat larger town, a place maybe the size of Trappe. As our train, shuffling great bouts of steam, huffed into the station, we noticed several old freight cars sitting on an abandoned siding at the far end of the yard. You can imagine our surprise when people began to pour from these cars and run toward us, each bearing a basket or bucket of goods to sell. Then we noticed the lines of laundry strung out between the cars like strands of faded prayer flags.

These people lived here. Each of them called a rusting freight car without running water or electricity home. The smell of the place was appalling. The look was worse. Yet each of the women and children that clambered onto our train that evening smiled at us without a hint of shame or embarrassment. They looked hopeful. They looked determined. They persevered.

Reyna, her brother Carolos, and Mago

Reyna Grande, her brother Carlos, and her sister Mago (courtesy of “The Distance Between Us”)

I was reminded of that long-ago train ride by this year’s One Maryland One Book: The Distance Between Us. One Maryland One Book is the program of the Maryland Humanities Council in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. The Distance Between Us is Reyna Grande’s memoir of growing up in both Mexico and the U.S.; it is a book divided, as our countries are, between two monstrously different existences: the one dirt-poor and wretched, the other—so close, yet so far away—seemingly perfect, ideal. The children growing up in Reyna Grande’s native Iguala believe that on el otro lado (the other side) money literally grows on trees.

But The Distance Between Us is more than just a tale of two countries and the divide that exists between them; it is also an exploration of the ties that bind us one to another—human to human, parent to child, husband to wife. It is a strong and powerful story simply told. And Reyna Grande is a great heroine. Her determination to succeed against impossible odds will remind you of other immigrant stories, may, indeed, remind you of your own family’s. Her grit is quintessentially American’ it is what has made our country great.

On Monday, Sept. 8, in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, Sept. 11, in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of Reyna Grande’s memoir. She is a lady you will not soon forget. She will make you proud. But she will also make you nervous. How do we reconcile the contradictions inherent in her existence and our own? What do we do with all the Reyna Grandes still out there, still standing on the wrong side of that imaginary line?

Bill Peak writes a monthly article for the Star-Democrat about working at the Talbot County Free Library.  Bill Peak’s essay was originally published on August 3, 2014.

August 8th, 2014

The Incarnation of our Maryland Flag

Flags represent your heritage and unity; they connect you to organizations, cities, states, and the country. The Maryland State Flag can be seen on our state welcome signs, and on the pitch of stadiums. It hangs from a house’s flag pole and inside a child’s classroom. People even wear the flag design on their shirts, hats, sandals, and shorts. Pride is a word Marylanders associate with our iconic flag, and we have one man, and a few historical events, to thank.

The Maryland State Flag

Being born in England, the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, sought to create a new life for people in America. He sailed for America with his family and settled a colony on Newfoundland named Avalon, which name derives from the legendary island and the place where Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, was forged. Being quite unlike the mythical Avalon, Newfoundland’s Avalon proved too much for Lord Baltimore because of the inhospitable environment, so the chilly Lord Baltimore sailed south and landed in Virginia. Also unwelcoming, Virginians gave Lord Baltimore a cold greeting when he arrived, due to his Catholic beliefs. He then returned to England to petition for a charter to settle land north of Virginia. Eventually the king awarded Calvert the region, but Calvert died before he heard the news. Calvert’s son Cecil became the second Lord Baltimore, and then settled Maryland, named in honor of the king’s wife, to provide English Catholics a sanctuary in America, in honor of his father’s will. Maryland is known as “the free state” for the freedom of religion it gave to its settlers.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, by Florence MacKubin in 1910

Only the yellow-and-black Calvert family colors are mentioned in descriptions of the Maryland unofficial flag from colonial times. But when Maryland broke free from colonial rule and became a state, the inhabitants shed all ties with English rulers, including Lord Baltimore’s alternating quadrant crest. Multiple flags then identified Maryland, the Maryland state crest on a blue background being the most prominent. Still, Calvert’s crest lived on in the identity of Maryland because during the middle of the 19th century, legislation called for its resurrection. However, the flag was still yet to take shape into what we now know as the Maryland flag.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Maryland’s population divided between Union and Confederate support. Those in support of the Union continued to identify with the black and yellow Calvert crest, and those in support of the Confederacy again rejected the Calvert crest. Instead, Confederate supporters took a different English family crest for their symbol, the red and white bottony cross symbolizing the Christian Holy Trinity. Historians belief that the symbol comes from either Calvert’s maternal family, the Crosslands, or the crest resembles the coat-of-arms of Anne Mynnes, wife of George Calvert. Either way, the symbol is closely associated with George Calvert.

Bottony Cross

All around the state opposing Marylanders camped with their flags flying high above their fortifications. The opposing sides rallied behind their flags, serving as a meeting point where people with the same ideologies could gather and fight for their beliefs. Fighting toe-to-toe, soldiers wore their side’s crest wrapped around their arm. The conflict grew so heated and impassioned that the federal government banned the Confederate bottony cross in Baltimore, a sympathizer with the southern forces. The flag symbols were important for both the Confederacy and the Union, and when the war finally ended, Confederate supporters were sore to relinquish their flag. Weren’t they, even after all the bloodshed, still Maryland citizens with a right to identity?

The creation date for the modern Maryland flag remains uncertain. Sometime around 1880 flags including both the Maryland Union and Confederate symbols emerged. This flag, serving as an artifact of a new collective identity, helped reconcile the differences between the Union and Confederate supporters. The new flag was used for events like the dedication ceremony for the Maryland monument of Gettysburg Battlefield, and the Fifth Regiment, Maryland largest component of military after 1870, adopted the new flag as its symbol. Finally, military forces began to allow Confederate sympathizers and icons into their ranks, helping heal the deep rift between Marylanders.

In 1904, The General Assembly adopted the new, first official state flag, representing the two sides of Civil War, aptly appropriate for a state which was equally divided during the war of “brother against brother.”

Learn more about Maryland history at the Maryland Historical Society! And if this history of the Maryland State Flag piqued your interest, check out the Flags of Maryland broadcast on WYPR.

August 5th, 2014

One Maryland One Book Author Tours Maryland

We are a nation of immigrants, and our country’s strengths lie in the multiplicity of cultures that contribute to the fabric of society today.  To most, the American Dream means freedom, equality, and prosperity. Whatever the idea means to you, it cannot be denied that the concept of the American Dream is intrinsically tied to our identity as Americans.

Reyna Grande, the 2014 One Maryland One Book author, will visit Maryland this fall to discuss her memoir, The Distance Between Us with the thousands of Maryland readers who participate in the state’s largest reading and discussion program.

Grande will speak, answer questions, and sign copies of The Distance Between Us at tours stops in Washington, Montgomery, Carroll, Charles, and Wicomico counties and Baltimore City at the Baltimore Book Festival:

EVENT:         Baltimore Book Festival – Baltimore, Maryland
               Sunday, September 28                       Time:                1:00 p.m.
This event will be held in the Book Festival’s Literary Salon.  Inner Harbor, Baltimore.

EVENT:         Washington County
:                Monday, September 29                     Time:                10 a.m.
Boonsboro High School, 10 Campus Avenue, Boonsboro, MD
(301) 766-8022
This program is being coordinated locally by the Washington County Free Library in partnership with the Washington County Public Schools, Friends of the Library, and the Western Maryland Regional Library.

EVENT:          Carroll County
:                Monday, September 29                     Time:                7:30 p.m.
Carroll Arts Center, 91 West Main Street, Westminster, MD
(410) 386-4500
This program is being coordinated locally by the Carroll County Public Library in partnership with Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, Carroll Community College, McDaniel College, and United Hands of Carroll County.

EVENT:        Wicomico County
:                Tuesday, September 30                     Time:                7:30 p.m.
Location:      WorWic Community College, 32000 Campus Drive, Salisbury, MD
Guerrieri Hall (GH 101)
Telephone:   (410) 749-3612 x 155
This program is being coordinated locally by the Wicomico Public Library in partnership with WorWic Community College, Worcester County Library, and Somerset County Library.

EVENT:           Montgomery County
:                  Wednesday, October 1                      Time:               11 a.m.
Location:        Montgomery College – Germantown Campus
20200 Observation Drive, Germantown, MD  20876  Globe Hall, High Technology and Science Center
Telephone:    (240) 567-1834
This program is being coordinated locally by Montgomery College Libraries and Montgomery County School Library Media Programs.

EVENT:        Charles County
:               Wednesday, October 1                       Time:               7:30 p.m.
Waldorf West Branch Library, 10405 O’Donnell Place, Waldorf, MD
(301) 645-1395
This program is being coordinated locally by the Southern Maryland Regional Library in partnership with Calvert Library, Charles County Public Library, St. Mary’s County Library, and College of Southern Maryland Diversity Institute.

 About Reyna Grande and The Distance Between Us

TheDistance Between Us

The Distance Between Us

In The Distance Between UsReyna Grande vividly brings to life her tumultuous early years in this “compelling….unvarnished, resonant” (Book Page) story of a childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries.  As her parents make the dangerous trek across the Mexican border to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) in pursuit of the American dream, Reyna and her siblings are forced into the already overburdened household of their stern grandmother. When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to “El Otro Lado” to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father.   Learn more about the book….

Reyna Grande (photo by Imran Chaudhry)

Reyna Grande (photo by Imran Chaudhry)

Reyna Grande is an award-winning novelist and memoirist. She has received an American Book Award, El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the Latino Book Award. In 2012, she was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards. Her works have been published internationally in countries such as Norway and South Korea. Her novels, Across a Hundred Mountains, (Atria, 2006) and Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press, 2009) were published to critical acclaim and have been read widely in schools across the country.  Learn more about the author…

The Maryland Humanities Council invites you to find a One Maryland One Book program, event, or discussion in your community this fall! Books, bookmarks, Reader’s and Teacher’s guides have been distributed to libraries, and schools, across the state.

Selected libraries will have copies of The Distance Between Us in Spanish. If you want to become a partner and offer programming in Spanish or receive other materials, please e-mail

July 9th, 2014

Happy Crabs Have Old Bay Seasoning: A Brief History

You’re at your local supermarket and you walk down the spice aisle. Tubes of spices – basil, oregano, thyme – line a section of the wall, but a yellow, red, and blue can catches your eye. It’s what you came for: Old Bay, perfect for applying to crabs, shrimp, corn on the cob, french fries, green tomatoes, beer, nearly everything (except maybe dessert, but if you have a recipe share in the comments!). The can goes into your shopping cart and into your pantry beside unexciting jarred spices collecting dust. Its crab season, and we all know that oregano on crabs isn’t good. You need Old Bay. You’ve already used two cans this summer, just like past Marylanders have been using the spice for 75 years.

Old Bay can

Maryland’s history is rooted in culture. The state has been host to major turning points in American history—important battles of The War of 1812, The Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement where students waged one of the first successful lunch counter sit-ins.  But our cultural heritage is also mixed (pardon the pun) with our love of food, the bounty of the bay, and of course—Old Bay Seasoning.

While Old Bay’s history is not nearly as revolutionary as the monumental events mentioned above, the history of the spice plays a part in Maryland’s heritage, and Old Bay has a story worthy of sharing.

Gustav Brunn came to Baltimore in 1938, barely escaping Nazi Germany with his wife and trusty spice grinder (something he couldn’t go without). When he arrived, he fell back on his work as a spice merchant to support himself and his wife, and he landed a job at McCormick Spices that lasted less than a week.  He was fired because of his poor English skills, and also, according to an interview with Brunn by The Baltimore Sun in 1980, because he was Jewish.

But as we all know (because we continue to use his blend), he quickly established himself into the community despite McCormick’s blow.  He created his own business, Baltimore Spice Company. The business focused on spice blends for meats, but Brunn quickly realized that customers had a large appetite for crabs. In 1939, one year after he arrived in Baltimore, he created a spice primarily for seafood, catering to Baltimore’s taste buds. He had his customers, primarily meat vendors, try the blend and offer it to their customers. While not an immediate success, the spice blend gradually gained ground in the community.

Old Bay Line poster

He named the blend “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning” or “India Girl” according to some sources. Whatever the name was it didn’t last long. He changed the name of the spice to Old Bay, in honor of the Old Bay Line that ferried people from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia. Because the Old Bay Line was such a staple in Baltimorean lives, the name of the spice quickly caught on. Sales rose, but even so, the spice never amounted to many sales in the early years of the company.

Baltimore Spice Co. was family operated and owned until 1985 when Brunn sold the company to Smith Corona Machines, shortly before his death. Five years after Brunn died, McCormick Spices bought the blend in 1990 for reportedly over $10 million dollars. It’s ironic. The man who came to Baltimore with so little created a business which sold for millions to the same company that said he could no longer work for them.  McCormick still has ownership, and fortunately, the spice blend and image hasn’t changed from Brunn’s original vision.

Do you have any stories to share about Old Bay Seasoning? A recipe that you would be willing to share with our readers? What do you think of the new Old Bay flavored foods that are popping up everywhere?  What’s the craziest thing you’ve seasoned with Old Bay? Post it in the comment section!

June 25th, 2014

Chautauqua Scholar Q&A: Kelley Rouse as Georgia O’Keeffe

So what about those Georgia O’Keeffe flower paintings? This week’s Q&A with Kelley Rouse, performer of Georgia O’Keeffe for this year’s Chautauqua series, answers questions that viewers of O’Keeffe’s art are left wondering. We spoke about beginning research, O’Keeffe’s life and the reason she painted, and Ms. Rouse’s favorite performing memories.  Ms. Rouse provides a brief, broad history of Georgia O’Keeffe, but I won’t give away what was said. You’ll have to find that in the interview. And be sure to check the schedule to see when and where Ms. Rouse will be performing!

(MHC) What drew you to Georgia O’Keeffe?

Kelley Rouse as Georgia O’Keeffe

(KR) Discovering Georgia O’Keeffe was rather serendipitous through a chance encounter. A woman who had seen my one-woman show on Jeannette Rankin suggested I look into a play she had seen in Baltimore about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She couldn’t remember the name of the play so I did an internet search. I never discovered the play she was referring to, but I did discover Martha Fuery’s play “O’Keeffe: Sunset of an Artist.” I contacted Ms. Furey and she sent me her script to review. I was immediately drawn to it. I knew a little of Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. Mostly that she painted huge flowers and skulls, but became fascinated with how this woman managed to craft an artist’s life against the odds of gender and time in history. O’Keefe’s passion and determination continues to inspire me.

(MHC) Georgia O’Keeffe led a loner life for the most part. How did her lack of public appearances affect your research?

(KR) For being a loner, there is plenty of written word, and, of course, her art, that lends itself to discovering much about her. Georgia O’Keeffe’s quotes and anecdotal accounts from family and friends easily demonstrate the artist’s acerbic wit and her dry Midwestern sense of humor. Anita Politzer, her friend from art school in New York, also published a book with very revealing letters from O’Keeffe that speak so fully of her thoughts on art, life and love. From the point of an actress, however, one is always interested in the character’s physical bearing, mannerisms and presence. How did she walk, smile, talk, or laugh? I resisted watching other actresses portray O’Keeffe, because I wanted my own interpretation. I finally located a VHS tape of a film made late in the artist’s life in New Mexico, by Perry Adato at my local library. (this was pre-YouTube days!) That was so illuminating. And, of course, Alfred Stieglitz took very private pictures of O’Keeffe, that became enough of a “public appearance” for the artist, I imagine, to last a life time.

(MHC) What were Georgia O’Keeffe’s beginnings?

(KR) O’Keeffe’s beginnings were humble, born on a dairy farm in the Midwest in 1887. Certain things stand out, though, that I believe were critical to her development. It was a rural prairie environment and she spent a lot of time out-of-doors. Most biographies note O’Keeffe could entertain herself for hours in nature, in fact preferring her time alone. They may have been to escape the crowd of six siblings. It seems that her mother, aunts and grandmother ruled the roost in the household and that her mother made sure Georgia and her sisters had art lessons as children. I think the strong women in her family, her focus on nature and exposure to art laid the foundation for the development of her art, originality and independence.

(MHC) Georgia O’Keeffe quit painting for a period of time but came back to her art a few years later. What was her reasoning for quitting and why did she come back?

(KR) After years of being a student of art, O’Keeffe says she grew tired of doing art for other people’s approval. She felt she was only imitating what had already been done. She wasn’t painting for herself. So she stopped painting. O’Keeffe later said she wanted to paint in terms of her own thinking and feeling. Her break-through abstractions came when she put convention aside and trusted her own feelings. O’Keeffe also stopped painting for 13 months, later in life after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1933. Stunning landscapes in New Mexico provoked new creative energy for O’Keeffe and helped inspire her to begin painting again.

(MHC) Place is an important part of her art, primarily New Mexico. What do you think she did differently when painting landscapes?


Ram’s Head with Hollyhock, 1935 by Georgia O’Keeffe

(KR) Wherever O’Keeffe was, she painted landscapes. It seemed to connect her to whatever place she happened to be. But when she got to New Mexico, she was mesmerized by the country. I think what is different about her painting landscapes was her ability to capture the scope, depth and breadth of the beauty– the vastness of the sky, the essence of the desert or mountains through her vibrant colors– the magic of the land through her ability to paint the light. One can imagine what a sensation these landscapes caused when first shown back east to people who had never experienced the rugged and wild west.

(MHC) People often associate O’Keeffe’s flower paintings with female anatomy drawings, but she adamantly rejected the association. Why is that?

Corn No.2, 1924 by Georgia O’Keeffe

(KR) O’Keeffe was always adamant about critics putting “their” feelings on her art. Her paintings reflected her spiritual connection to flowers, or anything, for that matter, that she painted. O’Keeffe said she was influenced by the art theorist, and considered “father of abstract art,” Wassilly Kandinsky’s writings Concerning the Spiritual in Art which emphasized spiritual metaphors. Her art was her communication of her feelings and getting to the essence of her subject matter. It was a reflection of her psyche. Technically, she also was influenced by the photography of Paul Strand. She observed the power of cropping an image, which allowed her to break a subject down to its essence. In her flowers she also replicated the precision of the image that is captured by camera. The sexual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work were fostered by the publics’ early introduction of the artist through the intimate photographs of O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz and also the popularity of Freudian psychology at the time. It was common for critics to comment that a woman-artist gave “birth” to their creations. O’Keeffe did not want to be known as a good “woman” artist, rather a good artist.

(MHC) What is the most interesting facet of O’Keeffe’s life?

(KR) I think it was her ability to recreate herself, or rather redefine herself as an artist by claiming New Mexico as her own.  Early on Alfred Steiglitz, a brilliant strategist, introduced and shaped public opinion of O’Keeffe’s work. She was a “woman on paper.”  After New Mexico, her work took a dramatically new turn. She had to break-free of Stieglitz, the pain of his public affair with Dorothy Norman, and the perceptions everyone had developed of who she was to save her own creative energy.

(MHC) Do you have any favorite performance memories?

(KR) My favorite performances have been when my mother and father have been in the audience. They always nurtured and encouraged my love of acting, understanding from the time I was a child that it was my source of joy.

(MHC) What is it like reincarnating Georgia O’Keeffe on stage?

(KR) It’s a powerful and helpful experience to attempt to channel O’Keeffe’s courage, independence and commitment to her art. Helpful, because although sometimes larger than life, she struggled with the issues common to many woman. The fight for independence, recognition, the desire to be loved and to love, the demons of self-doubt that Georgia O’Keeffe fought are part of all human experience. I appreciate and learn from reincarnating her every performance.

(MHC) If not Georgia O’Keeffe, who would you perform as?

(KR) I have always been a writer and performer. My dream is to one day thread together some of my stories about my experiences into my own one-woman show about myself.

(MHC) What are you most excited about for this year’s Chautauqua series?

(KR) Acting has been my artistic passion since I was young. I always had dreams of being on Broadway, or working for a Repertory company. As the saying goes, “life got in the way.” The challenges of balancing an alternate career and raising children, although immensely rewarding, never left room for really taking a show “on-the-road.” With Chautauqua I will have that experience. I am thrilled to finally have a chance to have so many consecutive performances. There is much preparation for a one-woman show, so I am excited to reap the artistic benefit of more than a one-night performance.   Because of the Q & A as O’Keeffe that will follow the performance as part of the Chautauqua experience, I have also been revisiting research. I am rediscovering and gaining new insight that I hope will add to my portrayal. I find the whole process of preparation absorbing and exciting as I begin to live, breath and think like Georgia O’Keeffe.

If you liked this Q&A, MHC interviewed the two other Chautauqua performers, MiMI Zannino performing as Emily Dickinson and Marian Licha performing as Frida Kahlo. Be sure to read those interviews for information about the scholars and the historical women. Chautauqua runs from July 5th – July 14th, and check out our Youtube page if you want to see some of our past performers. We hope to see you at the performances!

June 17th, 2014

Chautauqua Scholar Q&A: Marian Licha as Frida Kahlo

The Maryland Humanities Council (MHC) Chautauqua event is less than a month away, and in preparation for the performances, MHC spoke with the women headlining the events. The performances run from July 5th to July 14th. This week’s interview is with Marian Licha, performing scholar of Frida Kahlo. We spoke about Frida Kahlo’s life, art, and legacy. Marian Licha succinctly summarized Frida Kahlo’s importance, and anyone wanting to know more, or even glean questions for the Chautauqau, will enjoy her words.

Marian Licha as Frida Kahlo

(MHC) What drew you to Frida Kahlo and what was the research involved?

(ML)What drew me to Frida was that I knew I wanted to write a one-woman show about a Hispanic woman, and a friend of mine who’s Mexican American suggested that I write about Frida Kahlo.  At that time I had seen many of her paintings, and I thought they were so stunning that I knew then that I definitely wanted to know more about this woman and to base my play on her world.   I started reading every book I could find about Frida.  I also joined the Playwrights’ Forum (PF) so I could bring in writingand get feedback.  One of the teachers at PF at the time was Karen Zacarias, and she helped me a lot in the process as well as one of the students in the class, R Dennis Green, who became a co-author of “Frida Vice-Versa.”  I also listened to interviews of people who had known Frida.  There were many resources and books to read about this fascinating woman.  One day, Karen said to me, “stop the research, and start writing.”  That day I wrote the first scene, and slowly more and more scenes were written.  Then, the challenge was how to put all of these scenes together and have a story with a beginning, middle, and end.   From the beginning I had envisioned that Frida would be teaching a class and my co-author reminded me about that original idea.  That was how the structure of the play became a Master class with ten lessons becoming the thread that put together the scenes.  Frida Kahlo had taught painting in real life, so I wanted the one-woman show to be as true to her life as possible.

(MHC) How did you prepare to become Frida, thinking of the acting process?

(ML) When it comes to the acting, I trained at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in NY, and this method acting technique makes you draw experiences from one’s own life to create the reality of the character.  The director, Jessica Lefkow,  helped to bring out the specific moments to convey.  It was a combination of the acting, training, intuition, and direction.

(MHC) What were Frida Kahlo’s beginnings?

(ML) Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, but she claimed to be born in 1910 because that was the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.  She was the daughter of a German Jew called Guillermo Kahlo, and her mother was a devout Catholic called Matilde Calderon.  Guillermo was a successful photographer who was commissioned by the Mexican government to take pictures of the nation’s architectural heritage.  Frida would accompany Guillermo on his outings and his style clearly influenced Frida’s paintings. Frida had polio at age six and a trolley accident when she was a teenager that affected her health throughout her whole life.  She had many operations and was unable to complete a pregnancy.  While she was bed bound for a year, she started painting.  Her easel had a mirror attached to it so she could see herself and that’s how she started painting self-portraits.  Before the accident, she had wanted to study to be a doctor.  She was accepted at the most prestigious school in Mexico, The National Preparatory School.

  • Check out the schedule to see when and where Marian Licha will be performing!

 (MHC) Frida Kahlo was involved in a wreck that caused her pain throughout most of her life, and her physical pain is prevalent in all of her paintings. But Diego Rivera, her husband, also caused her enormous heart pain. Can you tell us a little bit about that story and how it influenced her work?

(ML)Frida took Diego as a mentor after her trolley accident.  She showed up at The Ministry of Education in Mexico City where Diego Rivera was painting a mural, to show her some of her paintings.  She warned him that she wasn’t there to flirt with him but to get his opinion about her paintings as she was not going to paint for her own vanity, she had to help her parents financially.  He was very impressed at how Frida could express her feelings in her paintings.  His philandering caused Frida much pain.  She expressed this pain in her paintings.  A good example is the painting entitled “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.”  In the painting Frida is sitting with a pair of scissors in hand and there’s hair on the floor and she has a short haircut.  Diego loved her long hair and she had threatened to cut it if she continued his affair with Paulette Goddard or maybe it was with her own sister Cristina. The painting and the cutting was in response to his affairs.  Another self-portrait called “Diego and I” shows her despair over his philandering.  Diego’s portrait is in her forehead but he seems to be somewhere else and Frida’s hair seems to be strangling her.

“Diego and I” by Frida Kahlo

(MHC) Frida Kahlo is such a historical figure, and a lot of people are familiar with her name. Some people, however, may not be familiar with her impact. Could you summarize the importance of her work?

(ML) In fighting and ultimately overcoming the prejudice of a then male-centric art world – even outshining for a time her famous, talented husband Diego Rivera – she demonstrated by example how women can earn respect.  She was the first Latin American woman to exhibit a painting in The Louvre.  A year before her passing, Frida had a one woman show in Mexico City, which was unheard of for a woman at the time.  Her paintings were always personal and she didn’t follow any school. The subject of her paintings was always her sensations, her states of mind, what she could not say any other way. She wanted her work to be a contribution to the struggle of the people for peace and liberty.

 (MHC) Why is Frida Kahlo such an important figure in feminism?

(ML) I think because her story appeals to women.  She painted and took her work to dealers and museums when women’s art was not taken seriously.  She didn’t let her gender get in the way of achieving her dream of becoming a painter.  She also had affairs with women as well as with men.  She had a strong sense of self.

 (MHC) Do any of Frida Kahlo’s communist political ideologies emerge in her work?

(ML)I’d say that her political ideology was sometimes reflected in her paintings.  Toward the end of her life, she tried to add political inscriptions, flags and doves nesting among the fruits of her still lives. She tried to do socialist art but her still lives are more of an expression of life and nature.  One painting that reflects her political ideology is one in which there’s an image of herself dividing Mexico and the United States.  The American side is crowded with buildings and machines.  The Mexican side has old Aztec ruins and shows heritage.  Frida is depicted holding a Mexican flag.  Also, in the painting entitled The Bus, she includes stereotypes of Mexican society who range in social class.  She portrayed them with humor.

“Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States” by Frida Kahlo

(MHC)  Do you get any questions that are particularly hard to answer at a performance?

(ML) I’ve been lucky not to have questions that were difficult to answer in Q&A’s.

(MHC)  Do you have a favorite performance memory?

(ML) Yes.  Before a performance at a high school I was told that because of class schedules, a whole class was going to have to leave the performance before the show was over.  I warned them that Frida wasn’t going to be pleased about that.  When the time came for the class to leave, Frida looked in that direction and caught the eye of a sixteen year old young man who gave Frida the thumps up.

Also joining Ms. Licha is MiMi Zannino as Emily Dickinson and Kelley Rouse as Georgia O’Keeffe. Follow up on our blog next week to check out the Q&A with Kelley Rouse. Also, watch some of our past Chautauqua’s on our Youtube page, and don’t forget to check the schedule to find an event location close to you.  We hope to see you at the Chautauqua!

June 11th, 2014

Chautauqua Scholar Q&A: MiMi Zannino as Emily Dickinson

Excited for Chautauqua? In preparation for our Chautauqua event, Creative Women: Breaking the Mold, featuring Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe, running from July 5th to July 14th, the Maryland Humanities Council interviewed MiMi Zannino, performing scholar of Emily Dickinson. We spoke about what makes Emily Dickinson interesting, about MiMi’s own poetry, and about her anticipation for the Chautauqua event.

(MHC) Why Emily Dickinson? 


Emily Dickinson daguerreotype

(MZ)I was searching for a challenge that would combine my love of poetry, theater and American history. I’d seen the live solo performance of The Belle of Amherst 25 years ago and was fascinated. But when researching current scholarly works 6 years ago, it became clear that there were layers and sparkling facets to Dickinson that lay hidden from the world. She was being mythologized in a limiting framework of obscure details. Quickly I began to embody the depth and breadth of her life, her passions and her view of the world through her words in personal letters and through her poetry. Patterns emerged that guided my script to allow her to speak. I am simply the vessel and the physical voice. The portrayal is all Emily. It is definitely not an impersonation. Rather it’s an homage or tribute. And perhaps an interpretation of subtle meanings as I use my voice to give emphasis or use tone to suggest mood

(MHC)What made you want to perform?

(MZ)I have been adapting stories since about 9 years old. I adapted the story and played the part of Snow White in elementary school; Mary Poppins in middle school; and I played the part of Juliet—as in Romeo and Juliet—in 9th grade and Nellie Forbush from the play South Pacific in 12th grade. For years I was traveling across the state working with children for my Poet in Residence position. My motivation was to encourage children to write original poetry and recite original poetry. When I was reading my own poetry at adult poetry readings,  that fulfilled my need to connect with people. I always had a desire to perform again in a theater, but I didn’t have the time because of my travelling for the Poet in Residence program.  About six years ago, I said “It is now or never.” The only way to make this work is if I choose a character that I feel strongly about. So I did.

(MHC)What was challenging about beginning to perform as Emily Dickinson? 

(MZ)The first challenge was getting the facts right when the facts are over a century old. The second challenge is memorizing a script. Writing the script was easy and fun, to be honest.  The third challenge is overcoming the butterflies in my stomach in front of every new audience.

 (MHC)On your website it says you focus on Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s relationship with Dickinson, why? 

(MZ) She had a relationship through letters with him for 24 years of her life until she died at 56. Many facets of her personality are revealed in those letters, particularly her sharp wit, her expansive knowledge of current events and literature as well as art. There are so many reasons. She asked him to be a mentor to her, but she did not take his advice. And I believe what we know now is that she was breaking new ground and she knew it. Colonel Higginson was well travelled and well connected in the literary circles of Boston and other New England towns, so she could learn through him the current events. He was a Civil War colonel—he was also very interested in the arts—so he could give her updates in his letters. She looked forward to meeting him, but only met twice face-to-face in her home, and he gave a eulogy at her funeral. And a few years after she died, he co-edited her first book of poetry. It wasn’t until she died that he recognized that he had been writing to a genius for 24 years, but he hadn’t yet opened his mind to this new way of writing poetry.

 (MHC) What drew you to write poetry?

MiMi Zannino dressed as Emily Dickinson. Photo by Thomas Law

(MZ) I started writing poetry when I was 7 as a gift to my Sicilian great-grandmother and my family members. My poems were my gifts.  It felt good to express my emotions and my observations about people and about my environment. I am one of eight children. It was a way to quiet my mind, and to express myself. The emotion that I felt just naturally expressed itself in a poem. It was really a spontaneous act that I repeated over and over from early childhood. Some children sing, some tap dance, and I wrote poems.

(MHC) How has Dickinson influenced your own poetry?

(MZ) It hasn’t. What we have in common is a love of nature, and we both use natural images that work as a metaphor that symbolizes something deeper in human nature.  The other aspect of poetry that we have in common is the desire to explore the mysteries of life, particularly the mysteries surrounding complex human emotions.

 (MHC) Can you talk a bit about your own poetry, themes, what you’re trying to invoke, your books Red Curlers and Other Brown-Eyed Poems, In a Bed of Stones, and Home Remedy?

(MZ) My poems are a celebration of the real people and places in my life. It’s a way to preserve and to document the moment, whether the moment is people focused or whether the moment is nature focused or whether the moment is emotion focused.  In some ways those three collections mirror my heart, the history of my heart, and of the people and places that my heart came in contact with. Some poetry is academic poetry, my poetry is heart poetry.

(MHC) What is it like participating in a Chautauqua?

(MZ) Well this is my first time. I’ve been an audience member for years, and one of my goals while writing Time Travel With Dickinson was to perform for Chautauqua.

(MHC) Are you nervous?

(MZ) I’m more excited than nervous. I have been performing all around the state for 2 years, but I’m excited because Chautauqua is the perfect venue for Emily Dickinson.

(MHC) What are you looking forward to at this year’s Chautauqua?

(MZ) The challenge of the audience questions. They can be so much fun! They are a lot of fun to listen to as a member of the audience, so I know it is going to be a lot of fun to answer them as the presenter. I love the interaction of Chautauqua. That is what makes it a unique theater experience. People want to interact with performers, and Chautauqua gives people the opportunity to participate

Also joining Ms. Zannino is Kelley Rouse as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marian Licha as Frida Kahlo. Be sure to check out Kelley Rouse’s and Marian Licha’s Q&As that will be published soon and our Youtube page showing past Chautauqua events! We hope to see you at the Chautauqua! Be sure to check the schedule to see when and where one of these creative women will be performing.

June 4th, 2014

Remembering D-Day on its 70th Anniversary

Operation Overlord was the largest seaborne invasion in history where 12,000 soldiers lost their lives in a single day—100,000 during the entire invasion. The operation is more commonly known as one word – D-Day. The military uses D-Day as a term to signify when combat operations will begin; however, we remember one day as the D-Day – June 6th, 1944.

As June 6th nears, let us stop to remember the soldiers who stormed the Western Front at near dawn while the full moon was setting; the soldiers who fought German forces while scrambling in sinking sand and beating waves, with bullets whizzing over them; and the soldiers who ended a massive Holocaust which killed millions of innocent Jews, Roma, Catholics, the disabled, and homosexuals.

This Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and people will gather around the globe to remember those who lost their lives on that day, both Allied and German troops. Many Marylanders also gave their lives, but one branch of the military stands out in our state’s history.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day. June 5th, 1944. Source: wikipedia

Maryland’s 29th Infantry Division of the National Guard was among the first to storm Omaha Beach (now called “Bloody Omaha”), where many among their ranks lost their lives. The beach was the most heavily defended, with large steel barricades in the ocean and sand bars preventing boats from landing. All told,  27 tanks took water and sank. Marylanders should be especially proud of the 29th Infantry Division, who persevered in spite of many obstacles and were able to hold the beach.

It is stories like these that make D-Day such an important day to remember. It is a day that highlights one great quality of the American people – perseverance. Without the men who stormed that beach, the Western Front may have been unobtainable. If the beach had never been secured, the war would have been even more difficult to win. But thankfully, these are merely “if” thoughts, because the men who participated in D-Day gave our forces a foothold to push back the Germans and finally win the war.

Wondering about nearby D-Day events in which you can participate?

  • Visit the War Memorial Plaza between City Hall and the Baltimore War Memorial.
  • Watch the United States Airforce Band on Maryland Public Television (MPT) on Friday, June 6th, 9:30-10:00pm.
  • See rare footage shows and gripping interviews in HD on the History Channel on Friday, June 6th, 9:00-11:00pm.
  • But if you’re feeling like traveling, the largest D-Day remembrance in the country will be held at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA (about a 4 hour drive). Remembrance will be held at 11am on Friday, June 6th, but activities are planned for the entire weekend.



April 14th, 2014

The 2014 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year

Faith Majors, 8th grade English/Language Arts Teacher at Samuel Ogle Middle School in Bowie, Maryland received the 2014 Christine D. Sarbanes Award on April 12, 2014 at the Maryland Letters About Literature Awards Ceremony. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her acceptance speech:

Good Morning.
This award realizes one of my life’s ambitions—to be recognized as an outstanding teacher. It is with gratitude and a deep sense of humility that I accept this award.

Faith’s students congratulate their teacher.

I would like to thank the Maryland Humanities Council and the Sarbanes Family for this great honor and for promoting the importance of reading and writing at large. I would like to thank my family and friends for their continued love, support and encouragement.
I would also like to thank all of my colleagues from whom I’ve learned so much, who’ve mentored me and given me fellowship and guidance. It is truly appreciated and has helped me grow both personally and professionally. There are so many teachers who are equally deserving of this award for their commitment and tireless dedication to inspire our youth.
And of course I want to thank my students for their determination and commitment to improvement as they stand up to meet the challenges ahead. I realize that the hard work, loyalty and personal sacrifices of those previously mentioned have made this recognition possible. I consider this honor as one in a representative capacity to be shared with all of my colleagues.

The love of literature is something that I have always had. My mother tells how she would hear me cackling in the middle of the night as a young child in my crib. She would come in and there I would be a book in hand, dolls around me pretending to read. Lining up the dolls and teaching them, reading to them, making up my own story. So it was no surprise to my mother that I would grow up to be a teacher, besides, it is in my blood. My grandmother was also a teacher.
The fact that I can be a part of instilling this love of literature, this love of words, in our youth is awe-inspiring. If I can get a student to enjoy a book, I’ve gotten them to enjoy reading, if I can get them to enjoy reading, I’ve helped to create a reader. If I’ve created a reader, I’ve helped to create a thinker which is a benefit to this world.
My hope is that these thinkers, writers, readers, the next generation, can continue to add to the voices of our diverse literary tradition. My hope is that they continue to read, continue to write, continue to let their voices be heard and make an impact on our world.
As a final thought, I would like to leave you with a quote: “When a reader enters the pages of a book…he or she enters a world where dreams transform the past into knowledge made applicable to the present, and where visions shape the present into extraordinary possibilities for the future.” – Aberjhani, Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black.

I hope your dreams and futures are extraordinary. Thank you.

Faith Majors is a National Board Certified Teacher who brings enthusiasm, structure, and creativity to her classroom. She focuses on the whole child when she teachers, going the extra mile to find books and materials that will interest even the most reluctant reader. Her hard work, and that of her students, has helped to increase her special education students’ measured reading level during their time with her each year. Read more about Faith