Local musician airs nationally

With PBS talk show host Dinorah, guests open up over dinner

Dinorah can’t stop smiling 
about her show.

Dinorah can’t stop smiling about her show.

Photo by karlos rene ayala

Dinorah Desde airs on PBS in 2018. Learn more at dinorahdesde.com.

Dinorah Klinger and Raquela Mejia spend the 15 minutes leading up to the filming of their travel-food show Dinorah Desde in totally opposite ways. Host Dinorah, 47, who goes by her first name—like Madonna—is quietly watching videos on her phone, preparing questions for guest José Hernandez, one of the first dozen Latino astronauts to go into space. Meanwhile, producer and creator Mejia, 58, frantically runs around, working with her crew of two to make sure that the lights, cameras and sound are set up properly.

That day, they filmed the 12th episode of their 13-episode premiere season, which will air on PBS in 2018. They are set up in Nena’s, a Mexican restaurant inside of the historic Waterfront Warehouse in Stockton, California. All around them, diners eat lunch like nothing unusual is happening.

Dinorah and Mejia take a break to discuss the upcoming interview. “I’m going to ask him what the Earth looked like from space,” Dinorah tells Mejia. “I would have cried.”

Mejia is visibly excited to be meeting Hernandez, an idol of hers who’s recently been featured in a Modelo commercial. Hernandez said that Hollywood producers have shown interest in taking his life story to the big screen: The son of migrant workers, he didn’t learn English until 12. He eventually earned a master’s in electrical and computer engineering and then traveled through space to the International Space Station.

“There’s no celebrities on this show,” Mejia says to me. “Everyone wants to interview celebrities. This is about inspirational people, people that are making a difference in the world.”

Once Hernandez shows up, the filming begins. He and Dinorah chat like old friends over lunch. They talk a lot less about being in space, and a lot more about what it took for him to get there.

“You were 10 years old when you knew what you wanted, and that never changed?” Dinorah asks.

He tells her that he was rejected by NASA 11 times before being accepted. Hernandez attributes his success to the overwhelming support of his family.

Another peculiar aspect about the interview? They talk about the food they’re eating in detail. The owner of the restaurant, Maria Elena “Nena” Salcedo, shows up with dishes partway through the conversation, interrupting Hernandez’s story. Hernandez has the chicken mole. Dinorah has the carne asada with green enchiladas.

“It’s a food show, and it’s a people show,” Mejia explains.

Mejia first conceived of the idea a few years ago after thinking about the dinner parties she and her husband would host.

“You invite someone over for dinner, you bring some wine, you have a good meal,” Mejia says. “It’s so magical. People start talking. You just open up.”

The focus, she explains, is equally on the people and their life stories of overcoming obstacles, and the food at the restaurants that the guests choose. Hernandez picked Nena’s because it was the place that catered his wedding. Other guests have included Vivian Stancil, a senior Olympic swimmer who’s legally blind, and Vivian Romero, Montebello’s first openly gay mayor.

“They all have a story to tell,” Mejia says. “I don’t think stories like this are being told enough. They’re such simple people, but they have such a beautiful story. And I love that myself. I get teary-eyed when I see stories like that.’Cause there’s heroes amongst us.”

The first season of the show has been filmed up and down California, and not really past that, mostly due to its shoestring budget, but also because it’s where Dinorah and Mejia live, and it’s the world they know and love.

Most folks in Sacramento know Dinorah for her music. She’s lived in Sacramento for a decade playing parties, weddings and regular gigs around town, like at Mesa Mercado, where she plays solo every Thursday (starting again in February). At Mango’s, she plays every second and fourth Saturday of the month with her band Dinorah and Crosswinds. She mixes traditional Mexican music with rock ’n’ roll. Being a PBS TV host is a totally new gig for her, and she seems quite comfortable at it.

Mejia has lived in Los Angeles for most of her life, but grew up in Sacramento, and got her start in the music industry, not unlike Dinorah. In fact, when she met Dinorah 10 years ago, she saw a lot of herself in Dinorah, and had even played restaurants like Dinorah when she was younger. It’s this connection that has led to a wonderful collaboration for the show.

Even though Dinorah Desde was conceived by Mejia, it might not have been picked up by PBS were it not for Dinorah’s involvement. After they had shot a few episodes, Mejia found herself watching PBS and wondered: Why can’t my show be on PBS? She reached out and showed the network some clips. The producers were really taken with Dinorah.

“They said, ’We want to meet you, and we want to meet your host. Is she really that bubbly?’ Cause they saw a clip where she’s laughing and hugging,” Mejia says. “Yep, that’s pretty much what she is. They loved her. They loved her charisma.” The show was picked up in August of 2017.

Dinorah and Mejia met when Dinorah was relatively new in Sacramento. Dinorah was playing music at Zocalo during brunch, and Mejia was visiting town. Mejia had her 50th birthday party scheduled later that night, and was so taken by Dinorah’s talent that she hired her to come play for her birthday party that night. From then on, the two have remained friends.

“She’s very openhearted,” Mejia says. “When she interviews, she really feels the passion coming from the people. So, I thought, she’d be perfect for the show. I know a lot of people in this industry, but none of them have the charm that she has. For me, it was important that we have that connection with our guests.”

I am also struck with Dinorah’s passion for people. When we talk after her episode with Hernandez, all she can think about is his life story and everything that amazed her about him. In particular, she hones in on his parents.

“Look at how important the role of the father is,” Dinorah tells me. “He says, ’I’m telling you as your father, you will be an astronaut if you do what I say.’ And he believed his father. This is a child of a farm family. Poor as heck. What really saved this kid, not only saved him, but took him wherever he went: The love of his family. That’s it.”

Dinorah is only partially surprised that she’s quickly become so comfortable in her new position as host. As a musician, she’s been singing in front of people since was 3 years old.

She started playing guitar at age 9. She grew up in Mexico City, and moved to Los Angeles when she was 26, then Michigan, then Colorado, before making her home in Sacramento 10 years ago. She’s got two albums under her belt. She’s expecting to release her third—all salsa music—in early 2018. She’s also planning to release a line of salsas (the edible type) in early 2018 as well. It’ll be called Flame of Love.

Still, when Mejia invited Dinorah to host her show, she was shocked. It was out of left field.

“I could not picture myself as a host,” Dinorah says. “I am not a journalist. I didn’t study to do this, but I love people, and I like to hear what they have to say. I am a really curious person. I think that helps me. My nature is friendly. I make friends very easily. I am a hugger. I’m Latina, of course we’re going to have a lot of hugs.”

The mix of Mejia’s vision and Dinorah’s charisma makes for a nice combo. Mejia recalls a time when she was managing the musician Dwayne Verheyden, and how superficial some of the reporters’ interviews of Verheyden were. She prefers Dinorah’s personable approach.

As an example, Dinorah, at one point, tells me about her heartfelt interview with senior Olympic swimmer Stancil.

“That night I cried,” Dinorah says. “I cried with her. We hugged and I told her how much I felt bad for all the suffering that she had to go through. These interviews are not just: ’So tell me about your awards.’ It’s way deeper. I’ve seen other interviews. And there’s information you can find on Wikipedia. What year they graduated, what year they started working on this. All that information, I like to go deeper.”

Mejia was particularly proud of scoring Hernandez. When she got the deal with PBS, she had two people in mind: Hernandez and Anthony Bourdain. Now that she’s got Hernandez, she hopes the show does well enough that PBS will give her a higher budget for the second season that can afford to send them to New York to do a segment with Bourdain. But even if she does start flying out of state to shoot the show, she wants to continue to highlight people in Sacramento, the town she grew up in and loves dearly.

“Hopefully there’ll be more opportunity to showcase interesting people in this area,” Mejia says. “Sacramento is my favorite city in the world.”