Baristanet Profile: Elizabeth Méndez Berry

 

Name: Elizabeth Méndez Berry

Where do you live? Montclair, NJ

When did you move there? Four years ago

Where did you grow up? In exotic Toronto, Canada

How do you make a living? OR What is your everyday passion? I’m lucky that I’m passionate about my 9 to 5: I’m vice president and executive editor of One World books, an imprint of Penguin Random House that publishes authors like Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cathy Park Hong. After starting my career as a music critic and journalist, and then working in philanthropy, I started this gig in February 2020. I was in the office for a month. Even though it was wild to make a big professional transition right before the pandemic it has turned out to be such a gift. I feel like I found my professional home. Shameless plug: sign up for our newsletter here.

I also work with several organizations I’m passionate about: Critical Minded, an initiative to support cultural critics of color that I co-founded; A Long Walk Home, which works to end gender-based violence, Unlock her Potential, a mentorship program for women, the Latinx Project which supports Latinx art and culture at New York University, and Seen, a journal of visual culture put out by the Blackstar Film Festival team. Keeps me busy.

I’m also very passionate about neon. I wear something neon most days, in celebration of my dearly departed friend Kevin Estrada, who taught me to love that unnatural glow.

Coffee, tea or … ? As a person of Colombian descent I’m contractually obligated to say coffee. I also drink tea—hot tea, iced tea, bubble tea– but I keep it quiet.

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend day?

I love a lazy morning, which for me means getting up at 8, delicious breakfast at home ideally huevos divorciados (when I’m lucky my kids make fresh tortillas). Forest bathing/hike in Mills, South Mountain or Apshawa Preserve. Time at a gallery, museum or bookstore. A nap. A great dinner. Ping pong, dominoes or a dance party with the familia. End with a bad Colombian telenovela.

What’s your favorite local restaurant? This is a tough one! I think Turtle and the Wolf, but The Corner is close, I love Le Souk too, and I go to Noches de Colombia a lot for the pan de bono, but I can’t eat there because there are too many TVs.

What’s on your nightstand? Books: right now Neruda on the Park by Montclair’s own Cleyvis Natera, Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, My Broken Language by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the first One World book that I played a small role in editing. Our Unfinished March by Eric Holder, on voting rights and how the franchise has never been expanded without a fight. Manuscripts of books I’m working on. Magazines. Hopefully no phone.

What are you listening to? Music: Bomba Estereo. Rapsody. Systema Solar. I dance around the house to old school Colombian cumbia, salsa, reggaeton and house. Podcasts: “Our Body Politic” with Farai Chideya. “School Colors” is absolutely fascinating on American schools, race and class. “How to Survive the End of the World” with adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown. And “Loud,” Futuro Media’s podcast on the history of reggae ton, hosted by the legend Ivy Queen, is great. I’m also listening to the January 6 hearings, and they are terrifying.

What are your current indulgences? The flourless chocolate cake with sprinkles from Cucina 98. Cardamom and fresh mint ice cream from Il Laboratorio. Lobster tails from Palazzone 1960.

What talent you would most like to have? The ability to remember choreography. I woulda been a backup dancer, but I can’t seem to memorize the moves.

What’s the worst-kept (or best-kept!) secret about Montclair?

I’d say the best-kept secret is the difference between diversity and equity. I think people like me move to Montclair for the diversity, but once we get here, we don’t always understand that it takes work to get from diversity to actual racial justice. It’s more than putting up a Black Lives Matter lawn sign, it’s about advocating for equity in every aspect of our town and this country, even when it’s inconvenient. Personally, I feel guilty for the times I have not voted in local elections, and then have been disappointed by the results. As a newcomer and parent, I’ve been awed by the history of parent activism for educational equity in this town, which is the reason the integrated school system we love exists (watch the fascinating doc “Our Town Our Schools”—it’s amazing to see the history). Parents fought hard to make this happen, and I hope we can honor that legacy by continuing to fight.

I think partly because we have so many recent arrivals like myself, people think the work has been done, and that’s it. A lot has been done, but there’s a lot still to do. I say this as somebody who has recently been to several four-hour Board of Education meetings to speak up for the first time– it’s unsexy but important. With the length of these meetings I feel like being an engaged parent is more about stamina than strategy. So that’s one big one. And as a Latina who moved here from the planeta of Jackson Heights, Queens, I’m excited about the efforts of groups like Latinos of Montclair and MFEE’s Oruguitas program to increase our visibility and to support Latinx families. Right now, we’re a best-kept secret but hopefully we won’t be for long.

What do you hope they say about you at your funeral? That I loved my family and community with all my heart. That the books I wrote (plural! I have big dreams) and edited changed lives. That I danced until I couldn’t dance anymore. That I was defiant in a good way (shout out to my author Dr. Sunita Sah). That I devoured life.

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