Luis Guzman: Vermont one of safest places in world right now

Luis Guzman: Vermont one of safest places in world right now
Actor Luis Guzman and his all-terrain vehicle near his firewood pile at his home in Cabot. Photo by Jon Kalish

The actor Luis Guzman has made Vermont his home since 1995. But his deep connection to the state was cemented more than 20 years earlier when he joined other Puerto Rican teenagers from New York for a visit to Goddard College.

“It gave me a different perspective on life and humanity,” Guzman recalls of his first visit in 1974. “I discovered a new sense of freedom when I came up here. The fresh air, the vibe, growing your own food, solar energy. These guys were doing all that type of stuff. I was going to the quarry and swimming and everybody was butt naked. Oh, hell, yeah!”

These guys were the students and teachers at the Institute for Social Ecology, a hotbed of alternative energy and agriculture technology housed at Goddard’s Cate Farm, which abutted the Winooski River in Plainfield. Goddard sold the farm in 1981.

 The institute was co-founded by Murray Bookchin, an anarchist/theorist, and Dan Chodorkoff, an urban anthropologist who was responsible for bringing Guzman and other members of a Lower East Side activist group called Charas to Vermont. The 18-year-old Guzman and his Nuyorican compatriots were doing work similar to the institute’s back in their neighborhood, or Loisaida, as the Puerto Ricans referred to it. Charas created a community garden, built a geodesic dome with Buckminster Fuller, rehabilitated abandoned housing with sweat equity and transformed a vacant public school into an arts center.

Chodorkoff, who now lives in Marshfield, remembers young Guzman as having “tremendous energy and smarts. He was just a really magnetic person.”

“I remember coming up here in the fall when the foliage was in full explosion,” Chodorkoff recalled. “It was really something to see it through Louie’s eyes, this kid from the Lower East Side who had never experienced fall foliage in all its grandeur. I think he was very taken with that.”

Guzman’s first movie role was a non-speaking part in the 1977 film “Short Eyes,” which was based on a play of the same name written by a friend in the Nuyorican poetry scene.

By 1991, Guzman had enough movie and TV credits under his belt to buy a getaway place in South Newfane. Before he moved his family to Vermont permanently in 1995, he used to fly up on People Express Airlines, which merged into Continental; a round-trip ticket from New York to Berlin cost $79. 

Since 1999, Guzman, his wife Angelita and their five children have lived in the Northeast Kingdom. The kids are all in their 20s now. Guzman and his wife are divorced.

With four of his acting projects canceled by the pandemic, including a film in which he was to portray the captain of the Queen Mary, Guzman is hunkered down these days on his 130-acre spread in Cabot, just up the road from the creamery whose cheese he promoted in videos wearing a red-and-black-checked lumberjack shirt.

‘One of the safest places in the world’

When VTDigger caught up with him in August, the actor was sitting outside his house sipping ice water. A small all-terrain vehicle was parked near a pile of firewood. On a house post a sign warned “Caution: Look up. Falling Ice.” 

Guzman’s 63 now, and his full head of wavy hair and goatee are streaked with gray. A visitor might be surprised that this big-time movie star has a slight lisp.

“During this Covid-19 thing, for me, Vermont is one of the safest places in the world to be,” he said. 

Guzman offered to move his mother, Rosa, to Cabot, but she declined because, at the age of 81, she’s still working at a hospital in New York. The work ethic has clearly been passed down to her son. Guzman has appeared in more than 100 films and some 30 TV shows, including his own ill-fated sitcom.

Long ago, he accepted the fact that a lot more people recognize his face than know his name. And what a face it is. At times fierce with a piercing gaze, Guzman’s face has been described as “wolfish.”

“You walk down the street and people recognize him but they [often] can’t quite place him,” Chodorkoff observed.

Sometimes that happens at the Cabot town dump.

“People don’t believe I go to the dump,” Guzman said, shaking his head in disbelief. “‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Dumping my garbage.’ I get that from people who come up here for the summer.”

“Louie does not go into hiding when he’s up here,” said Jay Craven, the Northeast Kingdom-based director who tapped Guzman to play a whiskey-smuggling monk in his 2006 feature film “Disappearances.” “He’s available to community organizations; he’s supportive of the community that he lives in — and people like that,” Craven said, noting Guzman’s willingness to judge teenage film slams, screen his own films for local schoolchildren and mentor students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts

Commitment to community

Guzman’s commitment to community service extends back to his years as a teenager and young adult. He had a job helping young people prepare for the world of work, which he refers to as some of the most important work of his career.

His children, who grew up visiting their father on-set when he was away from Vermont making movies, joined him in 2012 serving Thanksgiving meals to homeless people in Hawaii. When Guzman was in Miami promoting the animated film “Turbo,” in which he plays a taco chef, Guzman spent time giving out toys at a children’s hospital.

Ann Davila Cardinal, another Puerto Rican New Yorker who settled in Vermont, turned to Guzman for help in promoting her new young adult novel, “Category Five,” whose launch in June was scrapped because of the upheaval following the killing of George Floyd.

“He’s just supportive,” said Cardinal, who works as a student recruiter at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “He’s been so gracious.”

“When I asked him to help me with my launch, I was nervous,” Cardinal said. “This guy’s a big star. He said, ‘Of course, Ann. This is what we do for each other.’”

Guzman appeared on Instagram Live with Cardinal in August. She couldn’t help noticing that during the video chat Guzman took a phone call while she was talking. Cardinal asked afterward what was so pressing and the actor explained that the call was from his pasteles connection. Pasteles are not a drug; they’re a kind of tamale popular in Puerto Rican households at Christmas. Guzman does say that he likes the fact that you can grow marijuana in Vermont.

‘We’re not the ones that need the sensitivity training’

During a wide-ranging interview on his life in Vermont, Guzman declared, “Property taxes up here suck.” But his biggest beef is that Vermont doesn’t have a film commission. 

“That could bring in so much revenue,” he suggested. “Maybe we can open some kind of soundstage here in Vermont.”

Asked what it’s been like for him as a Latino to live in a state that is so white, Guzman acknowledges that his celebrity status is likely responsible for his relatively easy time in Vermont. 

“Being Luis Guzman and people knowing who you are, it’s a little different for me,” he concedes. “For the most part, I find people in Vermont to be pretty respectful.”

But he confides that other members of his Latino family have faced difficulties, especially his kids as they were growing up.

“There are some places here that really don’t know how to embrace, how to accept, how to understand people of color,” Guzman said. “I think my kids have had to deal with the most stuff like that here in Vermont, you know. It wasn’t, like, all the time but it was enough times.”

Some of his kids have been harassed by police for minor vehicle infractions, Guzman said. Things like having something hanging from the rear-view mirror inside the car.

He’s 24 now but when Guzman’s son Yoruba was a child, a decision was made to take him out of a school after a series of incidents. The final straw was when a classmate did a stick-figure drawing in which one figure was shooting Guzman’s son.

“We get a call from the principal because he wanted to address this,” Guzman recalled. “We were going to be sent for sensitivity training. And I said, ‘Yo, we’re not the ones that need the sensitivity training.’ It’s these kids and their families, you know, and to a certain degree, some of these teachers.”

Only two of the Guzman kids are still in Vermont. The eldest, Cemi, is an aspiring film producer who lives with his mother in Peacham. One of Guzman’s daughters lives with him in Cabot.

Figuring out how to keep young people in Vermont or attract new ones to the state has, of course, been a vexing concern for years now. As director Jay Craven sees it, increasing the diversity of Vermont’s population might be something that brings more young people into the state.

“The state’s future, I think, depends on diversity and younger people coming to the state,” Craven said. “I think Louie could probably play a role in helping to advance that.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Luis Guzman: Vermont one of safest places in world right now.

This content was originally published here.

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