The Multiple Identities of Roberto Chavez
Honest to God, how am I going to tell my story? How do I write all of this down? It almost seems impossible; there’s just so much to say. I have written numerous memoirs, narratives, poems, and unfinished monologues on what it’s like to be Latino and the complexities that make me who I am. It just all seems like a big task to handle, even though I am more than willing to embark on this journey. The intersections of my identity, outside of my Hispanic heritage, are vast and complex, and I am still currently labeling those aspects of myself. (Are they outside of my heritage or are they intertwined? I have more questions than answers.) While this is a reflection, I still feel strange being so informal and personal. Perhaps being personal is the best. It’s so honest. It would be strange to just be factual in describing oneself in the third person, but here goes (for a paragraph at least):
Roberto C. Chavez (the middle initial standing for ‘Carlos’) is a Pace University student, a history major, a theatre-geek, an actor, a poet, a gay male, an aspiring educator (who likes the word ‘aspiring’), a native New Yorker, an American citizen, the son of immigrant parents, an Ecuadorian-American (who believes in the hyphenated American identity), a non-practicing Catholic, a confirmed Catholic, an Agnostic (now leaning towards being an Atheist), a gringo, el gringo de la familia, one who speaks Americanized Spanish, the son of an alcoholic/former alcoholic/recovering alcoholic, a bibliophile, a bookworm, a self-identified (and proud) nerd/dork/geek, a germaphobe, and a rambling writer.
Now I feel as though the primary aspects of my identity are my homosexuality and my Hispanic heritage. I am an Ecuadorian-American who writes in English, struggles with Spanish, and loves being a part of a rich culture. I am bilingual. I am bicultural. I am monosexual. I am homosexual. I am a bi and trans ally. I am a prisoner of the Spanish language. I’m out of its reach. Out of touch with my culture, with my family, with understanding how everything that makes me the individual that I am fits together. In order to properly explain my story, I must go back. I must tell the story of my parents and their immigration to the United States, and then I may address who I am.
My parents, Manuel and Marcia Chavez, came from Otavalo, Ecuador. Even though they originated from the same town, they actually never met until they came to the United States in the seventies. My mother and father eventually married one another and had two children: Natalia Rebecca Chavez and Roberto Carlos Chavez. My sister Natalia and I have a nine year age difference since my mother and father did not want to have more children after Natalia (apparently she was a handful), but when my sister was near the age of nine, she wanted a younger sibling. To this day my sister jokes that I owe my existence to her. Having a little baby brother at the age of nine helped my sister mature faster into adolescence and I occasionally still call her “Mami” since it was, at times, like growing up with two mothers. One could say I was part of the traditional family structure: there was a mother, a father, a daughter, and a son; however, I saw a change in my nuclear family over the later years of my adolescence.
The primary focus of this narrative will be my relationship with both my parents, with my mother in particular, and how my relationships with them and how my homosexuality were affected by their Ecuadorian upbringing and their immigration to the United States. While my sister has played an incredibly important role in my life, my true connection to my Hispanic heritage would be through my parents (but mostly my mother).
I never thought of it before, but I’ve been lucky that both my parents throughout my entire childhood and adolescence had consistent, stable jobs; my mother has been a housekeeper and personal chef for the Weiksner family on the Upper East Side for nearly twenty-eight years now and my father had worked as a garage manager for twenty-eight years until my senior year of high school. I also never thought about the fact that my parents were together for so long; my sister, who grew up in the eighties, noted being one of the few children going to P.S.6. that did not have divorced parents. Looking back, the reason for my parents not divorcing, despite not loving each other, reflected the issue of staying together as a family and was influenced by their upbringing on divorce. My mother wanted to spare Natalia and I the pain of being a divided family like our peers around us; however, as I neared the end of high school she had regretted not leaving my father and finding a better male figure in our lives.
My mother has been an inspirational, moving force in my life, and even though she and I have sparred at times and struggled with understanding one another, I never doubted that my mother loved me unconditionally. The unconditional love in my household gave me a stable living environment, although it was at times strict. My mother had pushed my sister and me to gain the best education we can achieve; she was unable to accomplish her dream of being a lawyer due to her father denying her the chance to go to law school. Later on when she came to the New York City, language became a barrier and her need to work and support her family abroad hindered any hopes of finishing her dreams. Her love of the United States, which has been her home since she was twenty, made her firmly believe her children could get the best education they could because they spoke the native language and grew up here with all the benefits of being citizens.
While my mother’s devotion to the United States is strong, she in a way never completely left Ecuador. We, as a family, have visited our relatives over the summers and my mother has assisted her family financially ever since she came to the States. She described the immigrant experience as: “You fall in love with your new surroundings and it becomes your home, but you are always homesick for your homeland. It’s like leaving a part of your heart wherever you go. You are never complete.” She eloquently described what it meant to be an immigrant and, in essence, also described what it meant to be the American child of an immigrant – a person of two cultures, two languages, two worlds, here and there.
Language and assimilation were not immediate problems while growing up. My father’s alcoholism was the main conflict in the household. He emotionally neglected us at times; he was there, but he wasn’t really. My father had been and continues to be the subject of many poems expressing the hurt and betrayal a son experiences with a relapsing alcoholic father. My sister and I have been emotionally odd with him; the relationship with him has never been clear – one week it was loving, the next week there was resentment, and the other week could have been total indifference. My mother tried to protect us as best as she could from seeing him intoxicated, but it became almost impossible as I entered my adolescence. As a result, my mother became both a mother and father to us. She feared him losing his job – which he came close to many times and eventually did – and worried about his safety while driving to work. She never seemed weak to me though. Whatever problems she faced, she voiced herself loud and clear, and was not the submissive housewife image she was raised to be. She held herself up with pride and that pride kept her silent on occasion.
When I came out to her at the age of fifteen, she cried and went through a long mourning process since the dreams she had for me were shattered; it was very difficult and she often felt alone in her suffering, due to her pride, yet her love for me never changed. She became increasingly worried about my safety in certain neighborhoods and worried I would be jumped. She scared me with her concerns about my father’s reaction – she worried he would drink again (at the time he was sober for two years) and that shook me so terribly that I did not come out to him until four years later. The pressures she felt of having a gay son and the pressures I faced in being gay in a Hispanic household, with many gossiping relatives, did put a strain on our relationship, which had always been close.
I must note the difficulty in condensing years of struggling with both my family and my former internalized homophobia. Overall I have had a wonderful time at home, but it was hard growing up gay with frequently hearing comments of “not being dignified” or “not being private” about personal matters. There have been homosexual and suspected homosexuals in my family, particularly on my paternal side, and I am the only openly gay family member there is. I have an Ecuadorian uncle named Jaime Andrade, who is a successful and rich art curator. It is common but unspoken knowledge that he is gay, yet he keeps that aspect of his life separate from his family. Due to Facebook and online communication, relatives now see me freely expressing myself, my gay rights interests, and my current relationship with my boyfriend, and I have yet to be confronted by relatives on both sides, in both countries. After many long discussions with my mother, her unconditional love for me truly showed when she, bit by bit, began to express her support for me.
At one point, I feared I would have to separate myself from my family in order to be free. Free from their homophobia, free from the worry of constant gossip, free from a household that was both home and hell. I really believed I would not be able to be close with my family when I grew up. I felt like I would have to exile myself in order to have a relationship and be open and true to myself. I thought I would be one of those gays that moved away, hid their personal lives from their family, and completely cut ties; however, to split myself from my family is impossible. My family is my heritage. My family is my culture. My safety net. My world. To separate my sexuality and my heritage would be like splitting my soul. It’s impossible. It was not easy to come to this realization, but after all the fighting, a dialogue was opened that allowed us to acknowledge how much we as a family loved each other. And as Frederick Douglass once said, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.” That quote is true for my family and for who I am.