The Gran Varones is a legacy project that uses video and photography to tell the stories of Latino & Afro-Latino Gay, Queer and Trans men. Our stories shine light on what being “out” and “proud” means to us, our families, and our communities.
My mother began smoking crack in the summer of 1986. At that time, it was widely known as “crack rock.” I was 9 years old and I already had mastered the art of secrecy. I didn’t call it art or survival; it was just life under the “rock.” I learned many things that summer that would forever change me.
I learned to check the spoons for burn residue before using them. I taught my brothers to do the same. I learned to hide my single speaker radio before going to school. I taught my brothers to do the same. I learned to play in the dark when the electricity was cut off. I learned that people were more than comfortable calling my mother “crack head” in front of our young eyes and ears. I learned to grow numb and I taught my brothers to do the same.
The greatest lesson I learned was not to be ashamed of my mother. Trust me when I say that this was no easy task during a time when life was polarized by dichotomies of “clean” or “dirty,” “crack head” or human.
These lessons sustained our sanity. These lessons fortified me, along with millions of black and brown families in the 1980s and ‘90s, tried to survive life under the “rock.”
Being the oldest child, I was charged with ensuring that my brothers were fed and taken care of. While I resented the responsibility, it provided me a kind of access to my mother that my brothers didn’t have. After coming down from her high, she would wake me from my sleep to play board games with her at 2 a.m. She would tell me about how AIDS had stolen her friends and how bad she missed them. She would tell me that I was the “good” one and it was my responsibility to keep my younger brother Nicholas out of trouble. We talked about pretty much everything – except life under the “rock.”
It was difficult for anyone in my neighborhood to call someone else’s mother a “crack head” without quickly being reminded that their mother too was a “crack head.” So, the insults had to be more specific; hairs had to be split: “Well at least my mother didn’t sell the TV.” “Well at least we have food in the house.”
My brothers and I were lucky in this sense. Our mother had done neither and so we found solace in that. I believe that this alone helped us to survive with whatever dignity we had left as I watched the will to live disappear from the eyes of other kids living in and being surrounded by crack addiction.
As noted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than one thousand stories about crack appeared in the press in 1986, with NBC reporting over 400 reports on the crack “epidemic” alone. The media coverage was instrumental in shaping the nation’s perception of those who struggled with and/or were directly impacted by crack addiction. This perception has since been inherited by a new generation of HIV advocates and activists, who only associate the Presidency of Ronald Reagan with his failed response to AIDS. But those who survived the Reagan years also associate that time with the government’s swift and violent response to crack that stole the lives and promise of many, deliberately destroying black and brown families.
Thirty years later, the conversation about addiction has shifted dramatically. The same government that demonized, dehumanized and then criminalized people like my mother now urges us all to remember that people struggling with addiction have a disease and require love, patience and treatment. This reminder comes just as the face of addiction is now that of white affluent youth struggling with heroin addiction. This compassion, while critical and necessary, was not made available to black and brown communities that struggled with the presence of crack. I will venture to say that this approach is still NOT available to individuals who still struggle in the shadows of a crack addiction.
Yes, it is important that we evolve as a society and it is equally important that we make amends with ourselves for allowing this to happen on our watch. Even more importantly, we cannot validate our evolution without a true account of what happened, who it happened to and why it happened in the first place.
I have come a long way from the small room I shared with my mother and brothers. I no longer have to check spoons for burn residue but I no longer have family to bear witness to the atrocities we survived.
My mother struggled with addiction until her death last June. My brother Nicholas was murdered in 2001. I sometimes struggle with survivor’s guilt. This is not uncommon for those who have survived war. Every day, I am learning to reconcile my survival with the sacrifices my mother and brother made for me to live life out from under the “rock.”
Atonement is often the last act of any complete apology. As a nation, how do we atone for the heinous behavior of the government during the Reagan years? It’s simple: We don’t ignore the heroes of my generation. Instead, we honor the legacies of my mother and every mother who provided light in darkest days of the war raged on our families. We memorialize them like we would the heroes who were lost in battle.
Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca is an Afro-Boricua artist born and raised in Philadelphia. Louie understands firsthand the impact of intersecting oppressions of racism, homophobia, poverty, and AIDS-phobia. These experiences inspire his commitment to document the lives and oral history of Latino gay and queer men through his project, “The Gran Varones.” Louie is also the 2015 winner of the Hispanic Choice Awards Creative Artist of the Year.
No one spoke of the beautiful boys But you did while others kindly whispered Ugly words that made me shiver And unkindly delivered my esteem hung on a branch. I grew deaf to beautiful words Because I believed that they were lies The lids on my eyes remained closed Because I wanted no one to know Just how often I wanted to die.
No one ever speaks of the beautiful boys, Ones that move as fancy unfolds And a graceful stroll On blood stained concrete, The boys that made flowers grow Even in December. But you remembered our beautiful traits When the beautiful world just couldn’t wait To label us the “the tainted ones” Who painted suns On bedroom walls to light the nights When our beautiful bodies were used For a monster’s delight. No one teaches beautiful boys How to fight, So we never spoke of molestation But you did. You looked me in my beautiful eyes and stayed And said “I believe you. We will be okay” Reminded me that other boys who understand The violation of human hands.
I used to let these secrets mold the man That got scared whenever the lights were dimmed I smoked the beautiful green earth to forget about him But you knew and you exhaled You knew in detail the rhythmic dance Of feeling ugly, dumb and fat But you held my body and not for pleasure And I felt the beauty of peace forever, You made it better Because you cried when I cried The monster beneath my bed finally died You took my beautiful hands And we walked across the beautiful sky Of mercy bound And our feet never touched the ground We floated and I noted the clouds we touched As we roamed I didn’t realize just how close I was to home And the beautiful sights I could behold No one told the beautiful boys that they were But you did. You still do. You still say “I believe you.” I know of beautiful truths And beautiful boys because of you You are the proof because you give A space and place where the beautiful boy Can go to live And we thank you.
a few days ago, i posted thispicture. the response i have received has not just been amazingly supportive but it has helped make the little boy inside of me who still struggles with his body in the dark, feel heard.
since then, i have received tons of messages from other men sharing their stories and experiences with sexual abuse. words cannot described how humbled i am that strangers from all over trusted me enough to share something that, for some, requires every bit of courage our bodies can conjure up.
this poem is for us. for those of us who told. and for those of us who didn’t. i believe you.