Growing up with a very religious single mom I wasn’t allowed to see a lot of things on TV. We didn’t have cable, so already there were very little questionable TV shows in the early 90s, and since there was only one TV in our small illegally* converted garage apartment the only thing that would be on after 6, 7, or 8 pm when my mom got home from work was Univision or Telemundo. My mother always paid attention to the news, as any undocumented immigrant would. Univision was our fucking lawyer when I grew up and I was an eight or nine year old kid who knew the cops were after me because I’m brown.
I knew this because California had enacted Prop 187, a terrible anti-immigrant law that scared the shit out of me. My mother would teach me how to act during an ICE raid (it was INS back in the day) because she had her work permit and I didn’t. She would come home from work and I may have asked her if I’m going to get deported.
Then I got hit by a car, and when the driver learned that I had no papers, he never paid the medical bills the way a hit and run criminal should. Thankfully nothing broke, but Prop 187 was around, I knew why the guy didn’t pay for the bills like he should have, my entire left side was throbbing, and my bullies didn’t give a shit that I had almost died. No fucks given by them. Not that I would’ve told my bullies not to hit me because I got hit by a car. Even then I knew that’d be stupid.
My cousin in El Salvador died around the time in which I got into this accident. I didn’t remember him but my mother was devastated. Immigration had given her permission to leave the country for two weeks, but I didn’t want to be left alone with aunt’s** husband. Plus, my body was in pain. So in the immigration office near what is now the American Apparel factory in downtown L.A. I cried out–
“Don’t leave me!” And then I burst into tears in front of everyone.***
In the midst of all that was happening eventually the pain on my arm went away. The school sent me to a psychologist because I was afraid of crossing the street, afraid of the police or anyone in a uniform, afraid of white people, afraid to be brown in L.A. even though L.A. was indigenous, then owned by Mexico before white people stole this particular part of Mexico from Santa Anna in the 1800s (well, I didn’t know this much back then). One evening I remember my mom was cooking or something. Perhaps folding laundry. I turned on the TV and there was a Latino kid named Joseph Gordon-Levitt dressed in a baseball outfit. Of course I didn’t know the Latino kid’s name. Shit, I used to just watch TV and movies without any inkling of the actual hard work you have to put into getting a single shot–but I digress. Anyway, the film was called Angels in the Outfield and as I watched the movie I realize that half of it had already been aired, but it looked happy. It talked about angels and I was some kid in the City of Angels going through my own personal hell.
At the end of the film, this Latino kid started flapping his arms like an angel and then his team won the game. The thing that struck me the most was seeing some kid that looked like me on screen. We had Univision, and Sesame Street, yeah, but I had rarely seen a Latino kid on screen actually being in a fucking film and having a happy ending. As I saw the badly CGI’d angels I wanted one of my own. I wanted an angel to just hand me a social security card and tell me that everything was going to be okay. I wanted something to bring my cousin–who I didn’t remember–back to life so that my mother would feel better. I wanted us to live in a bigger apartment because my mother and I had recently stopped sharing a bed.****
But for a few seconds I realized I was happy to see this Latino kid on TV. It made me think that perhaps I could do this for a living someday. After seeing this Latino baseball hat wearing child on TV I began to pay more attention to TV and film. I suddenly realized that “Spielberg” was a name that was attached to my cheesy favorite films. I went to junior high and tried out for the drama club, where I was constantly bullied because I frequently got the lead in the plays that my middle school teacher wrote herself, or I got cast for some shoddy part and worked as hard as if I had been cast the lead–because that’s what a good actor does. And at that point I didn’t care what my bullies said. I got to be on stage, dress up and be whoever I wanted and I felt free.
Today we talk about how the Oscars were so white in 2015 and I know it’ll probably be that way for the next years to come unless we do something about it. I can’t say how much seeing that Latino kid***** impacted me, but things changed. I learned that I could watch comedy and I could smile through the pain, even if no one else understood me. I was an only child until age 13 and that kind of surrogate company meant a lot to me back then. So I know that people who constantly harp on the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry are right. It took me years to finally get my act together and start writing scripts, start formulating plans for my films/documentaries in hopes of having the same effect on someone, but now that I started I haven’t looked back.
It all began by watching some film so many years ago.
*we were undocumented immigrants in L.A. at time, okaaaaayyyyy?! I have zero shame and remorse about this
**my aunt’s husband was abusive to her. I knew he was a pervert and feared being alone with him at any given time. That’s because you grow up fast when you’re poor in South L.A., and although my mother didn’t let me watch The Simpsons, for whatever reason we’d watch Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola films together. I’m pretty sure Scorsese waited until his daughter hit puberty to let her watch his films. I’m not basing this on any actual facts though. I would never dream of putting any words in the legend’s mouth, you gotta fucking respect Scorsese–and yeah, I’m guessing.
***now that I’m older I regret having prevented my mother from going to El Salvador. She had plenty of friends that were like family to me that I’m sure she would’ve let me stay with. My mom knew about my aunt’s husband. She wasn’t stupid. I feel I should’ve trusted her and I had to watch her devastation in the ensuing weeks to come, and deal with mine.
****again, now that I’m older I see why my mother and I shared a bed until I was about 8. It’s fucking tough to afford a large space, furniture and beds for two people when you’re a Civil War Refugee from a country in which 75,000 people fucking disappeared when you have no child support and a boss that exploits you. I wish I had known then. My mother and I shared a room until I turned 11. We had a bunk bed. I had my own room at age 11. Now I know how lucky I am. Some people never even have a bed their entire life. What the fuck was I ever complaining about? I wish Marty McFly’s time machine were a real thing so I could back to that time and tell my little selfish shit self that it’s not easy, to stop crying, and buy myself a chocolate cheesecake or something. I didn’t taste cheesecake for the first time until age 10-11 or so. It’s still my favorite dessert.
***** Yes I fucking know Joe is NOT a Latino. I found this out when 3rd Rock From the Sun came out because 1. I saw his name, and though there are Latinos with Jewish last names, very few of them act, and 2. I confirmed this because of Wikipedia, but let’s just pretend that I DON’T know Joe isn’t a Latino. Let’s just keep my childhood myth alive and have Latinos adopt Joe, ok?
Originally written in 2015 and self-published on HitRECord