In the early '90s, I received a scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I was 24 years old and the opportunity was a big deal for me. I was nervous, excited and had no idea what to expect.
The conference was to be held at The Miramar Hotel, a beach resort known for its blue-roofed bungalows and pristine location nestled right on Southern Californian beach property.
Many of my fellow aspiring writers had traveled from all over the state to attend the conference. A few of them traveled from across the country. Me? I had traveled only 33 miles north from my hometown of Oxnard. Oxnard is agricultural town and, like Santa Barbara, on the coast. But that's where the similarities end. While Santa Barbara showcases affluence, Oxnard gasps for survival. In other words, we are the crop-dusted strawberry field behind the frothy strawberry margarita that Santa Barbara enjoys during Happy Hour.
The conference offered me, along with all the other aspiring writers, the chance to network with literary agents and editors, listen and learn from guest speakers (i.e., published authors), and participate in workshops where one may learn how to find their "voice." As a native Californian of Mexican descent, the latter greatly appealed to me. I was often told by former high school teachers and even then current college creative writing instructors that my writer's "voice" just wasn't universal enough. It may never garner the interest of any reputable publisher.
On the very first day of the conference when I was asked by a few fellow aspiring attendees where I was from, I replied Oxnard.
"No," they pressed. "Where are you really from?"
I was used to this follow-up question. Yes, even though I (as well as my parents and grandmothers) was born just 30 minutes away from the beach resort where we were all guests, my brown skin alluded that I was most likely from some far away "there" rather than nearby "here."
Later, at the lunch buffet line, another aspiring writer nudged me. "Look," he motioned to a basket of tortilla chips. "I guess they knew you were coming."
There were so many ways I wanted to respond, but I just couldn't find the right voice. Instead I just sorta weakly smiled and claimed that I didn't get the joke. I looked around. The majority of the attendees were white, seemed to have money, and I suddenly felt naive. In Santa Barbara, at a writer's conference, what had I expected?
Later, after lunch, I made my way to a bungalow with about 10 other aspiring writers. When we entered the bungalow, our facilitator told us that his friend, who lived nearby in Montecito, would be stopping by to share some writing advice.
"You might wanna have your notepads ready," our facilitator excitedly suggested. "I think you're all gonna wanna take alot of notes!"
When our facilitator's friend entered the bungalow, I immediately smiled. A genuine smile. Even without the white granny wig and frumpy black Victorian frock that he sometimes wore as Maude Fricket, I immediately recognized Jonathan Winters.
Jonathan Winters took over the bungalow's mini sofa and we all took out our notepads and pens and sat diligently on the carpet in front of him. He spoke a lot about craft and discipline and timing. He was engaging and, of course, he was funny. But what I remember most fondly about his talk, and really what I remember best from the entire conference, is when he cracked about how all "these people from Santa Barbara love to brag and brag that they are fourth-, fifth-generation Californians and I just look at them and say, 'Funny, you don't look Mexican.'"
I laughed straight up out loud while the facilitator and the group just sorta weakly smiled. I guess they didn't get the joke. But me? I finally had an ally that afternoon. Sure, he was a white man, a white man from Santa Barbara who most definitely had some money and who most likely enjoyed a frothy strawberry margarita on a hot Southern Californian day, but that particular day, he tapped into a voice, one that conveyed message with comedy, that I was still struggling to find.