Carolyn Curiel has visited Los Angeles countless times--and in Air Force One, no less--as a speech writer in the White House.
But today, Curiel, who recently left her job as U.S. ambassador to Belize, is doing L.A. her way. Playing tourist here for the first time in 20 years, she's strolling along Santa Monica Beach, taking in some movies, exercising, partying at an awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton hotel and making a road trip to Vegas. But it's hard to let go of VIP treatment, even though she's a private citizen again.
So along with the behind-the-scenes tour of the J. Paul Getty Museum--always being addressed as "ambassador"--Curiel sees the works of Latino artists that are usually under lock and key. She also visits with the museum's conservatory team working to save some ancient ruins in Copan, Honduras, and is escorted throughout the grounds by several tour guides and two Getty publicists.
But a big shot tourist can only take so much personal attention. A few hours later, Curiel focuses her attention on the girls at Ramona Opportunity High School, an LAUSD school in Boyle Heights for troubled young teens trying to put their lives back on track.
On many a presidential trip with Bill Clinton to L.A., Curiel had heard about Ramona from friend and political activist Margie Hernandez, a school supporter.
Standing in front of the tough crowd of 44 girls--some nodding off--Curiel grabs their attention with two Spanish words: \o7 presumida, \f7 to display confidence that could be mistaken for being a showoff, and \o7 pediche\f7 , slang for always asking for stuff.
Latinas, she tells them, girlfriend to girlfriend, are often taught to do neither in a culture--sometimes shaped by religion and generational beliefs--that stresses humility and modesty. Don't get her wrong, she says, humility and modesty are wonderful traits.
"But you \o7 have \f7 to be confident," she declares. "And the person who asks for help is the smart one. The one who doesn't is doing damage to herself."
She tells the girls that when she was their age she walked around with her head down and later, as an adult, she used to double up on shoulder pads to give her ego a boost.
The girls perk up, they connect. Curiel, 48, urges them to let go of their cultural baggage and think on their own. She has. And look where's it taken her: to the Washington Post as a copy editor, the New York Times' foreign and national desks, ABC's "Nightline" as a producer, the White House as its first Latina speech writer and to Belize, where she was addressed as "Your Excellency." And why not? She negotiated three treaties, helped to snuff out drug trafficking, needing a personal bodyguard--and get this--she put out fires during the recent filming of Fox's "Temptation Island."
Curiel, who was born in Hammond, Ind., and returned to Washington, D.C., after serving in Belize for three years, tells the students stories about her encounters with crocodiles, snakes and sharks--and those are just the politicians on Capitol Hill. She shares a poignant personal story about feeling out of place when she was a young woman because she was short and plus-sized, not the long-legged, slender, blond image she saw in magazines.
"The magazines were all about being the 'anti-Carolyns.' I wasted all that time beating myself up," says Curiel, who is single. "I finally got comfortable in my own skin. I look like you. I'm here because each of you has the potential to be what ever you want to be."
With that, Curiel ends her talk. But many of the girls stay to talk for another hour. They have made a new girlfriend, so the conversation turns to relationships with guys, raising their babies and managing a higher education. "The more you learn, the more you earn," she tells them. They take photos and ask if they could stay in touch.
Student Yulma Chavez agrees that Curiel was "one of us. We think that because she was able to do it, we can do it too."
After a full day and two new outfits--an elegant black-and-white pantsuit for the Getty, a hipper salmon-colored one from Vittadini Woman she changed into at Ramona--Curiel is still energized. And hungry. So off to Nel & John's Belizean-American Restaurant on South Western Avenue, where she meets friends. "It was kind of an eclectic day. It was all about connecting," she says, explaining that as many times as she's been here she discovers new things.
Sure, she misses Air Force One, the Oval Office, state dinners and her own banana tree in Belize.
But away from the frenetic pace of political life, she can take a breather, staying with friends in Santa Monica and Whittier and just being a regular tourist for two weeks that "Her Excellency" could chalk up as a totally excellent adventure.
She does some window-shopping on posh Rodeo Drive but doesn't venture into the expensive stores. "I didn't want to do a 'Pretty Woman' thing," Curiel says. "It's a little too rich for my blood."
She hits L.A. tourist hot spots--Hollywood Walk of Fame, Mann's Chinese Theatre--and sees "The Princess Diaries" at the El Capitan. She rubs elbows with a Hollywood producer at a Dodgers game where she sits just a few rows behind John Cusack and Mary Hart.