The first time I met Michele Carlo, she was reading at the First Annual East Harlem Book Fair (El Festival del Libro) in the fall of 2013. As she kept the crowd laughing, no one seemed to notice, myself included, that she wasn’t turning the pages of her memoir, Fish Out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks (Citadel, 2010).
She read that excerpt entirely from memory.
“I was a performer before I was a writer,” Carlo told me when I later sat down with her at The Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “The book is just there as a prop basically. I’ve told that story so many times.”
Fish Out of Agua is a slice of life about a redheaded Puerto Rican growing up in the working-class Italian/Irish East Bronx of the 1970s. “My story has a Latin flavor,” she said. “But it’s also a universal one about growing up as ‘double outsider’. ” Carlo doesn’t much look like what most of us would term “Latina.” A freckled redhead who wasn’t brought up speaking Spanish, Carlo wasn’t Latina enough for many in her family and she stood out in her community as a whole.
Carlo’s background as a performer started in the mid-1990s, as part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side alternative comedy and theater scene at a now-defunct venue called Surf Reality. “It was where I found my first voice as a performer.” Soon, after watching a documentary about Carmen Miranda, a Portuguese/Brazilian samba singer, dancer and actress well-known in the 1940s for her outsize fruit headdresses and personality, Carlo created an alter ego, “Carmen Mofongo: The Lower East Side’s One and Only Latin Lady with Stuff on her Head, as “the reincarnation of Carmen Miranda, as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx…me!”
(Michele Carlo chats with From Page to Stage about her career as a performer and writer.)