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LA ÑAPA

In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.

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Vermont Governor's
Award for Excellence in the Arts

Three Musketeers with Governor and VCA chairman Carris, November 2011
Three Musketeers with Governor and
VCA Chairman Carris

Well, the excitement is over! On November 4, Bill and I drove over to Montpelier to attend the gala evening where I would receive the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. It helped the butterflies in my stomach to know that I would be sharing the evening with my old friend, Syd Lea, who was being proclaimed the state's poet laureate, as well as with a new friend, Christian Wolff, the composer, who was being honored with Walter Cerf Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. Three Musketeers are definitely better than one at fending off an attack of NERVES, and so I was glad that Vermont economically got all its ceremonious business over and done with in one evening, then clapped its big workhands and said, "Okay, everybody, back to work!"

As you'll hear from an excerpt (below) of my speech, I was a little reluctant to accept the award when I first got the call with the news. But when I heard that I could invite anyone I wanted to, I got to thinking that this was a way of having my funeral and getting to enjoy it! So I accepted and proceeded to make a guest list a mile long. (Poor Vermont Arts Council's Marie Bernier who sent out all those invitations.) I included a bunch of Stateside familia, tíos and tías, primos and primas, as well as old friends from before I had ever published a book. Of course, I invited all my publishers; my editors (alas, my Algonquin editor, Shannon Ravenel is in Singapore this year); my agent, Susan Bergholz, and her partner-in-crime, Stuart Bernstein! Heck, I even invited dear old Ada, who used to work cleaning our house in Queens when I was a teenager. Since she would need a ride, I also included her daughter, Dinorah (whom I wanted to see anyhow -- I swear, Di), and her two cute kids, Mary and Matteo. I mean this was going to be a big funeral. You only die once, after all.

Of course, I didn't expect most of these people to come. In fact, as the day drew closer, I thought (gulp!) no one would come, except my dear compañero, Bill, and my good friend, Jay Parini, who had to come because he had agreed to introduce me. But I was truly surprised and blessed by having many friends show up. (They all get a dispensation from attending my funeral.) Even people who couldn't come wrote me notes and emails and left messages on my phone. One of the best surprises was my baby sister, who hadn't answered my email asking if she was coming. And showed up with four shopping bags of gifts (okay, three were for my grandkids), a bouquet of flowers, AND her daughter, my niece, Lauri, and her compañero, Steve. She sat in the front row and clapped shamelessly and, I'm almost sure, initiated the standing ovation after my speech.

Vermont Governor Shumlin presents Julia Alvarez with the Award for Excellence in the Arts, November 2011
Julia with Governor Shumlin

I think a good time was had by all, or I hope so, because otherwise, I hogged all the happiness. Here is an excerpt from my speech, which I tried to make short, given that it was a long evening, and unlike my usual luck with a name like Alvarez, I was unalphabetically last!

P.S. I almost forgot: I got an awesome trophy: a glass sculpture; Christian got an impressive medal that hung around his neck from a ribbon, and I don't know what Syd Lea got. His title, I suppose.

Here is a part of the speech:

I come at the end of a very long night and so I'll try to keep my remarks short!
First off, I'm really honored to be getting this award from you, Governor Shumlin, a governor I'm proud of, one I voted and campaigned for. (Just so the rest of you don't think this is payback, I've only just now admitted it to him.) Thanks for the great job you're doing: you've rolled up your sleeves and addressed challenging issues, like our broken health care system, for one, and most recently your rebuilding efforts on behalf of our devastated communities after hurricane Irene. In fact when Irene destroyed the lives of so many of our communities, I thought, maybe we should call off this night. We were all in mourning and there was so much work to be done. But then I thought, no, this is one of the ways we rebuild Vermont, by celebrating our storytellers, our poets, our composers, the artists, who do that important, critical work of connecting us to each other in ways that are profound and renewing.
I've long been a believer in these kinds of gatherings. How cool to get my belief corroborated by something I read about the Australian Aborigines. They believe that there are invisible songlines holding the world together, but these lines that have to be sung afresh with each generation to keep the land and the people alive. To build strong communities whose spirits are bright, whose hearts are big, whose bodies are strong. That's what we're doing in our own Vermont way here tonight. . .
I could really spend my twenty minutes thanking everyone here. . . [I did thank a whole bunch of people.] But truly, every one I invited, I wanted you to be here, not so you could watch me get my award, but because I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. It's our award. There's a word from Mandela's South African tribe that I've been using as my mantra lately, UBUNTU, which translates into: "I am because you are."
A little story on getting the call from Alex Aldrich, the head of the Vermont Arts Council, to tell me I'd been chosen for this Award. I asked him if I could have twenty-four hours to think about it. I was greatly honored, don't get me wrong, but I was also deeply humbled. So many wonderful writers and artists in this state! Many of them in this room tonight. And at some level, I have an Occupy Wall Street mentality about the arts, rather than the hierarchy of prize winners or award recipients, I'd rather think of myself as participating in the model where all of us are contributing our little part to making the whole richer for all of us. It's in that spirit of UBUNTU that I can even dare to accept this award.
There's also the not so small matter of me, a Dominican, being a Vermont writer! As a real Vermonter told my husband when Bill dared call his daughters, born in other states, but raised in Vermont, Vermonters: "Just 'cause your cat went and had kittens in the oven, you wouldn't call them biscuits, would you?"
About fifteen years ago, I got a letter from a Vermont high school student, telling me that she had just read How the García Girls Lost Their Accents in her Vermont writers course, and she wanted to know if I really considered myself a Vermont writer.
Notwithstanding the real Vermonter's comment, I have lived here in this state the longest I've lived anywhere, thirty years in all, that's three times as long as my first ten years in my parent's homeland of the Dominican Republic. But of all the things that tie me to this state and that make me clap like a Dominican when the little plane lands in Burlington, I'm going to mention the most important one: community. And this is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in response to that high school student, titled, "A Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic."
Okay, I've gone on long enough. The rest of the speech is mostly a reading of excerpts from that essay in my collection, Something to Declare. . .
Julia Alvarez
Weybridge, Vermont
November 2011

Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2011-2017.
All rights reserved. No further duplication, downloading or
distribution permitted without written agreement of the author
(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).

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