Kathi Marquesa, a wiry 40-something—maybe 50-something, it’s a little hard to say since there’s little in her manner that doesn’t scream enthusiastic 20-something! OMG! This cannot get any more cool!—is a Flamenco dancer, art administrator, and sort of a generalized “assistant.” She’s lost a series of jobs in recent years, which would be heartbreaking if it weren’t so damn commonplace these days, and noticeable if she weren’t so damn excited about everything. And I do sort of mean, everything. She speaks, for example, at breakneck speed, with the pacing of a good, if nervous, comedian. When I ask her what she’s thinking of doing next, for example, she jokes about capitalizing on what could be her greatest skill: making whatever you’re working on work. Well. “I’m going to make business cards that say, ‘Let Me Help You Get Your Shit Together’,” she explains.
She’s light skinned, but her mom’s family is Cuban. She’d like to get some grant money to help run the dance studio she runs but, she says, she’s “not Hispanic enough.”
I comment on what seems to me an ever-shifting set of identities: boundless enthusiasm, light-skinned Latina, indeterminate age, and she sympathizes.
I’m really bad with a couple of things, one is the passing of time, people’s height, and the age of people, so I always think anyone who is my supervisor is older than me and everyone else is my age, including 12 year olds. I always think everyone is the same height as me only to discover later that they’re shorter or taller, and I can’t remember how long I’ve been here but let me see if I can reconstruct that.
I think I got to Chicago in the early ’90s. I’m from New York and when you’re from New York you always think you’re gonna come back to your hometown like everyone does, but my hometown is the greatest city in the world—this is all subjective opinion of course—so you need to discover other things and then go back to your hometown. So I thought, what do I want to see what’s better than New York? Well I have to see California, I should look at Boston, let’s go to Europe, dah dah dah, so I did all those things and one of the places I ended up was Chicago. Once I got here I realized it was so livable and it was also affordable for a female working in the arts or in media or anything like that—you always make one sixteenth of everybody else—so I was really shocked. When I first got here, I could afford an apartment and a motor vehicle. This had never happened to me before, an apartment with two bedrooms, that was really key. As soon as I moved here, my brother moved here to go to law school and one of my best friends moved here to go to grad school in architecture. We all lived in the same house. It was just crazy but it was fun.
I worked for something called a development house which is—when the publishers in the ’80s bought each other and then divested all their employees, what they divested themselves of was the actual brain trust of people who knew how to make books: trade books, text books, elementary and high school books, and after a year these manufacturers discovered, well, we have no product, because they didn’t know how to make it. So they went back to the people they fired who had, in the meantime, sort of cobbled together these little companies. These companies actually developed and created most of the textbooks from ’85 through—jeez I don’t know, probably ’99, 2002. I worked for a company called Ligature which was very trendy and hip at the time and they created a social studies series for K through 12. It was one of the first of its kind and each level was targeted to explain things that had never been explained before from an alternate point of view. They also made state books, so their state book for California is Oh, California which deals with California issues. And they had a state book for Texas which goes into great detail about the Alamo—which, by the way, we lost—but that is a requirement for Texas that you have to cover that material extensively, it’s part of the textbook adoption process.
So I was hired. They had just done this English version of a series. It was a Houghton Mifflin product, and they went 8 million dollars over budget to produce it. They went to Houghton Mifflin and said, “Hey, we need 8 million dollars.” And they said, “Too bad, that’s not in your contract.” So that company declared bankruptcy but they were required by the states of California, Texas and one other state, I think it was Illinois, to have a Spanish edition in order to submit. If you do not have a Spanish edition printed in the textbook depository you will not be considered for adoption. So they had to do this Spanish edition. They had like six employees at that point. It was a ghost town: cobwebs on the computers, and I went in to direct the translation of this book. We restripped the film—we tried to do it as cheaply as possible and we came in so far under budget that the bankruptcy lawyers came in to talk to me. They said, We don’t believe you’re finished. That’s impossible you haven’t spent even one quarter of the money allocated.
I’m like, That’s how much it cost. That was great, I pulled that company out of bankruptcy, then they grew and got crazy and I couldn’t take it anymore.