I cried a lot growing up. I don't know why, but I did. I haven't told many people. I think it was because I was never satisfied with myself; I never loved myself. I hated me. It's hard to shed that self-disgust or humiliation. I never really owned it.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY in a decent neighborhood and in an okay one-bedroom apartment and I cried for a long time. I lived in a mostly Jewish and Russian community stocked with a few buildings where people of color filled their own corners This was my neighborhood; and my friends lived in other areas where more people of color lived.
My parents were from Ecuador and Honduras (Indigenous woman meets a White Latino with a Mulatto family background) and they met in Brooklyn. My dad lived as a teenager in Brooklyn where Puertoricans and Black populations dominated. A young Spanish-speaking Centro Americano living where he lived had to choose, but he didn't, he couldn't. He didn't know the language. So he grew up strong and hard. He was small but no one messed with him.
My dad tried to raise me up the same, but I was too soft; my mother's boy. I was too nice. I didn't speak up very much. I didn't look very handsome. I wasn't very athletic despite all his attempts; nor could I speak Spanish very well--my mom got scared and spoke to us in English because the White lady from school told her 'he's not going to go anywhere Mrs. Diaz if he doesn't learn English.' He was away a lot anyway because he worked two jobs. Could I blame him? No.
So I cried. I cried because I wasn't good looking; because like Oscar Wao from Junot Diaz's book, tuvo ese tigueraje--I wasn't smooth, like my dad. People flocked to my dad. They loved him. He was charismatic.
So I envied him, and I loved my Mamita. She was beautiful, she is! Hasn't aged a day from my earliest memories. An Indigenous princess; an Inca queen. Black hair that I grew up touching when scared at night, we grew up in that one-bedroom apartment with her; all my brothers and sisters in one bed.
I was never very cool. In fact, I wasn't. I was funny, but that's because I let people make fun of me. You gotta' be PuertoRican or Dominican to be cool, maybe Italian but that's not very Latino. Hispanics also gotta' listen to rap or Hip Hop, gotta' where baggy clothes with a chain or two, and hang around the finest females they can try and tap. So I was never sure. How could I be? In high school I made the Spanish clicks laugh a lot. Again, mostly making fun of me or me making fun of myself. They said, "Hey, this guy's funny," and I laughed with them. I wanted them to like me, and who wouldn't? The girls were beautiful and the guys were cool. PuertoRicans and Dominicans hung out in their own groups. Too cool to integrate, too prideful to realize they shared more than they had different. They fought each other too. Over girls, drugs, spots in high school. Whatever.
There were also the "Mexicans" and I hung out with them too. They took me in. Beat me up too so I could hang out in their sect, and they laughed as well--again, mostly at me but I felt better about it this time. I envied the Caribeno's, they were so bad-ass, so cool, so sexy, even the guys. But the "Mexicans"--no one was actually Mexican, but they were all Ecuadorean or Peruvian and other countries, yet I don't know how they eventually came to be called "Mexicans"--were cool too. Their girls looked beautiful in a different way, like Indigenous beautiful and then there was Afro-beautiful or Latina beautiful. But the guys looked hard, rough. The guys used to let me smoke with them, laugh at my jokes, and introduce me to the girls and even the girls touched my face and said, "Tino, jaja you're so funny."
I had friends from everywhere! I guess that's the beauty of living in a city like mine. People from everywhere. I had a Black Jew as a friend, an Irish guy, Italian dude, 2 Ecuadorian fella's, a half-Black and half-White character, an Egyptian best friend, and a Chinese friend. One of my best friends was this Black girl and we're still close. She was "goth" and I guess you could say I was a very soft-core version of that too. I LOVED rock and roll, alternative and heavy metal! She did too and we were close. Most of the guys I mentioned filled their typical societal roles so we all made a very odd group of friends.
I was never very involved at school. I don't think any of us were. I didn't even go to prom! Maybe the Italians were student government folks, maybe, but the Latinos did dance student clubs. I don't think I ever really cared about any of that but I used to love writing. I could write short stories and poems; and with those I escaped my settings often. I left the city to go see places and leave the same damn 8 block circumference that seemed to always hold me prisoner.
I read books about places and people, so different that they all seemed fantasy. Native Americans? Do they still exist? What are they like? I used to look out at the stars from my apartment window--you know I believed in Aliens and I would have a little notebook waiting for one to arrive so I could plot its course in my notebook--and think to myself that there had to be so much more out there, so much more.
I dated a Black girl and Korean girl. I wasn't very cool but hey, everybody's gotta' have somebody to love. Right? I thought she was gorgeous, plenty of my homies did not. She had hips, she had curves, and a protruding set of teeth deviated with the cutest gaps. It didn't last long though. When my mom found out she was about to kill me! Partly because she was Black and another part because Mormon kids aren't supposed to date till they're 16. On our fourth kiss I accidentally bit her lip when we were making out in the train station. Oh well...
I like to say I lost my virginity to the Korean girl, but the truth is she was my first experience in the nude with a woman—but that’s it. She actually approached me and I was shocked because again, it's not like I got way better looking as the years passed or that my tigueraje became like "mad fly". We went out and she told me she really liked me and again, shocked! We went to her place one night where we put on my music and I showed her how to dance the Caribeno dances and slowly we got closer, and slowly we kissed. Before I knew it, it was over. We went out a few times more. Homegirl really liked me, maybe loved me. She said her parents told her to watch out for me because "he's Latino, you know how many young girls those guys leave pregnant!" I didn't treat her very well though, and I have to be honest, she deserved better.
I left to college one day with a scholarship to BYU-Idaho--it was my one ticket out of the dump that held me hostage so I took it even if I didn't want it. Kim even wrote me a letter telling me how much she cared for me, and how she would miss my touch and all this other stuff. I feel sad about it now but back then, I was just glad someone would give me the chance. Terrible, right?
Then 9/11 happened and I remembered the day well. I had another good friend in class who was more or less pointed out for wearing her hijab, a symbol of her faith. Terrorist? I could see the eyes and minds of classmates, even the teacher, targeting her. I felt bad for her that day, as bad as I felt the afternoon a good friend and I went to the roof of our building and saw the smoke of the towers melt into the bloody horizon.
It was my first time thinking about justice and equity.
As I reflect on the experiences of my youth I am astonished that I have written this much and with such frankness in some cases. I've enjoyed the process and feel very liberated in some ways. I also feel somewhat embarrassed by some of the things I wrote but again, I feel very liberated. I wrote in the style I feel most comfortable in, which allowed me to fully express what I feel.
I notice that I had very deficit views of my own community. I couldn't wait to get out. I wanted to leave so badly. Honestly I feel very fortunate to have had the experiences I've had but I wish I looked at them from a different point of view. I wished I had developed a lens in my youth to actually be a part of something. I feel that there were so many things that happened that demanded action and participation, but so many of us were blind to it. All of our teachers were White and in many cases our classes were sites of discipline.
While I write about my dad a lot, I feel that he has still influenced me for the better. He came to Utah when I had a terrible accident and he left everything and started over here. It's my fault that they struggle now but he's so proud of me; and though I'm not sure if I'll ever have a great relationship with him, I love him.
I feel that I can attribute my activism and sincere love for people to my Mamita. She taught me to care for the poor and people in need. She engrained in me a sincere desire for justice and equity. To say how she did this would require another 3-page paper but I owe everything that is good in me to her.
I miss the people I've talked about in this paper. I didn't realize I did. However as I shed my deficit thinking of how not-so-participatory we were I notice that we had it in us; that we were capable and that systems in our schools and structures that ravaged our neighborhoods, actually held us down. We could have been heroes, and maybe plenty of us were. After all, I did leave.
I can't say that we were very active in our communities and schools, to not say that I think would hide a very explicit reality that systems of power bind and restrict our youth.
I term Utah my training site because now I feel ready to go back and do so much in the context of community and activism. Another whole autobiography would have to explain what has occurred for me here but I have no regrets. I think every act and course my life has taken has provided me with insight and perspective; enough so that I feel we as youth, and our younger brothers and sisters, are capable beyond dream, and that we have much to offer this world in the end. That we no longer have to cry in our sleep, hiding our shame as if there is actually something to be shameful about. We ought to not cry, but if we do, it's okay, let's talk about it, I hope we do. I don't cry anymore, and if I do, it's with the hope and love that things are actually not too bad...