Where are you from? What are you doing?
I don't like this question for the same reason I struggle to answer, where did I come from? Because only giving one part of it feels like a lie of omission. I was born in San Diego, then raised some years in Tijuana. Moved around the Midwest and Florida.
In many ways, if I were to say where to place me on a map, it’s Cocoa Beach, Florida. The recurring theme I’m noticing about the environments I love (and feel safe in) is that they’re all natural, they’re all isolated, and I often find myself there on my own or with a friend or two. Communing with that–the spirit of something far older and the spirits of those long gone–in nature feels like the only community I’ve ever had, to be perfectly honest – and it’s very lonely. This is partially why it took awhile to answer this question: it required admitting that my entire existence has been diasporic, but then finding beauty in that.
All that said, at this very moment I’m in Brooklyn with my darling daughter, Anastasia the cat. I’m a writer. Before this I lived in DC but came up to New York after being laid off from a political communications job at a think tank – where I helped with union efforts and DEI issues, though COVID eventually killed the job. Now I also drive Uber for courier deliveries to make ends meet. It is actually how I met IWR – I helped transport your Mostly Made in America hats!
I think the thing that has been true the longest is I've been a writer kind of by necessity. English is not my first language. Stories are how I learned language quite literally – my dad was playing Age of Empires 2 and there was a story about William Wallace in the game and I wanted to know what was happening. Sure, in childhood we don’t often think about grand epic historical narratives. They may just be this “American” story that you dress up as Native Americans or pilgrims in school, or cowboys.
I moved across the country and storytelling is how I maintained a semblance of stability, home and like, linguistic cohesion.
Give me an example of telling a story that carried you through this geographical change as a child.
I have the perfect example and it's very corny and it's very American. So when my mom and I first moved to Florida, we headed to Cocoa Beach or Cape Canaveral more specifically where the rockets go off. I was immediately drawn to the rockets and wanted to understand how they worked. Rather than bog down my class with all my questions, I researched rockets on my own at the library and made a picture book – in part to document my understanding. My teacher saw me working on it in my off-time and told me that I could enter this into a competition.
That was officially my first foray as a published author in Kindergarten. I won a blue ribbon for first prize, so that was nice. Literally, it's that process of research, understanding, and then questioning and then seeing what impact did it have.
So you told stories to understand the things around you? Very Joan Didion.
Exactly. The first time I ended up messing seriously with fiction, I was applying for college. I really wanted to emulate great American authors like Ernest Hemingway. He’s literally the first bingo square on the creative writing major thing. But because I had this background from Mexico, I had this connection with the Spanish part of his literary voyage; him going to Key West, Cuba, or his participation in the Spanish Civil War. Through his canon you can discover not just Western literature, but also Latin American and Hispanic poets in the periphery.
“America” isn't just the United States of America, we forget.
Right. When we talk about the beginning of America we may say the 1700s, but there is the 1617 Project–controversial in itself for bringing the “original sin” of slavery to the founding. But the conflict has been going on since 1492 and the European landing. The whole of American history has been one of people migrating constantly – perhaps that is the truest “native” American experience and my own. I feel like my own lack of geographic rootedness is almost the story not just of the country, but of the continent. Where is it safe to go as a native? As a brown person? You read about Wounded Knee or the Mexican government opening firing on students in 1968 and again in the 2000s, or the burning of Black Wall Street and lynchings. All of that history is still there and still real and still ongoing. Jumping back and forth has unfortunately exposed me to that side of the American experience too.
What is your favorite thing "made in America?"
From my gut? Watermelon. I have always seen people selling them on the side of the road everywhere I have lived. That's the one consistent staple about literally any American highway or road. There will always be like two guys with a U-Haul selling watermelons out of the back. Their race changes based on… actually I’m not even sure based on what! It's just always watermelons and like why watermelons? Where do they grow? Where are these watermelon fields that all of these people are getting ostensibly enough watermelons to sell that make a living for the season at least? There's one stand literally two blocks away from me. If you go down I-95 there are tons. Sure in Georgia, you'll see peaches. Maybe in North Carolina it’s apricots and nuts. Corn. But there is also always watermelon. Also, watermelon flavoring is such a distinctly American thing that has nothing to do with the natural flavor… but it’s the best. I mean, sure, there is watermelon flavored vodka, which is kind of disgusting, but if you want to talk about the campy side of Americana, the logic is “let's take this distinctly foreign thing, like vodka, and then ruin it with watermelon flavor.” But then sometimes that leads to, like, slurpees.
But I guess in terms of “made in America” there is cannabis too.
I remember reading a history of even the word marijuana, and it was like, Maria and Juan smoking… “mari-juana.” Just blaming Mexicans?
I’m aware that if I gave a strong answer towards cannabis I’d be blamed in some stereotypically Mexican “bad hombre” way. But cannabis is not distinctly a Mexican or American tradition – the border doesn’t matter. Similarly, so much of global cuisine is New World crops. Tomatoes. Squash. Corn. I remember growing up in the era of the Atkins diet and people were eating “wraps.” My friend, that is a tortilla. That isn’t a “chicken salad wrap.” That is a chicken burrito.
Do you have a vocation or a job?
I definitely have side gigs with the delivery thing, but my vocation is with writing. It's not something that I feel is a choice, honestly.
I'm working on this creative project about a magical little mouse named Poppy, a neurodivergent mouse. I had a cat who sadly passed away. Her name was Poppy. This story is me continuing the story of Poppy, not as a cat, but as a mouse. So much of my return to faith has been flipping a fundamentally sad emotion, inverting it, changing a medium, and then processing grief by seeing a fictionalized Poppy in a fantasy world, defeating an empire. It gives me an outlet for a deeply personal loss, but also grief about modern society.
I remember you asking me if I believed in the American dream. And I think there's a distinction between belief in the dream and just seeing lived reality, particularly one wrought from bouncing around, with so many different perspectives. I remember growing up and being frustrated with Harry Potter. He has literal magic powers and they're just going to school? I mean, the school is cool. Don't get me wrong. But why our generation resonated with this franchise was that it gave us a vision into a potential other world where you could fight evil. I’m writing these Poppy stories for both childhood-me, but also my cousin’s not-yet-arrived daughter and other kids in my life–giving them an example of an outsider who can topple an empire just by existing in your truth.
But I have also wanted to take Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and subvert it. That kind of storytelling leaves kids with this “only character” or “main character” syndrome. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily – it encourages kids to take agency in their lives, to see themselves as part of a grand destiny. Yet these journeys also have serious pain. They are also real: you might actually be a subject in perpetual exile or perpetual movement, always the stranger, always learning new languages. That is also part of the American experience that is hard– but produces some really good stories.
This is an excerpt from The Wonderous World of Poppy Mouse which you can support on this Patreon.
Is well done better than well said?
“Well done?” I think of a steak! I have a literal Mac wheel turning in my head with this question. Could I have another?
Do you think as an I or as a we?
“We” for sure. I don't know if that's maybe a gender thing a little bit– like part of me perceiving things in a masculine sense while also a feminine one.
Like I feel two contradictory “wolves” inside me. On the one hand, I see this masculine survivor Emiliano Zapata with a poncho, some kind of “revolutionary activist.” Yet then there is also another part of me that is a caretaker, at home making tortillas, making sure everyone is fed, the children are reared. I guess those are very traditional gendered divisions of labor that I feel equally called to.
I’m aware this is a sensitive question, but do you think that being a person of color, there is more of a sense of collectivism because you're naturally lumped in with folks of your same skin tone, whereas white people can just kind of “be themselves” in this hyper-individualized way?
Yes, that is kind of what I'm alluding to. I have to be aware that when people look at me, what are they seeing? Who are they seeing? Which member of the community and what community are they seeing at any given moment? And when I think about how we operate in day-to-day society and how I operate. What's happening to “us” right now, as opposed to how am I affecting things individually? It means you give up individual agency because you’re also impacted by and impact others.
What do you mean by that?
If I committed a crime right now, the only thing that would be in the headline is like “a 28 year old Latin man commits crime” … if it even becomes a headline. Full stop, that's what's written. Maybe in other arenas, my non-binary sort of androgynous aspect will get played up more–especially in the conservative, particularly Mexican, traditional community. In some ways, the “culture war” has barely begun in mainstream Spanish-speaking civil discourse. “Identity politics” isn’t discussed as much – it’s seen as a white people thing.
I know a Mexican political organizer in the feminist space. She tries to talk about “macho” culture with male colleagues, but it’s hard to talk about the nuanced elements of it and how they perpetuate it when people point to explicit violence and massive numbers of femicide in that country.
As much as I love my people, there is a lot of catcalling. In this instance, I am thinking about the “I versus the we” but then this doesn’t feel like a “we” it feels like a “them.” I get catcalled pretty regularly if I wear tight jeans or have my hair done. Or I might get yelled at, something about my brown skin. But when my hair was short, people said I looked like a skinny George Lopez – kinda racist?
In the words of famous Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, Progress or Return?
It’s like the last question: there is a paradox of both. We feel they are supposed to contradict each other and they actually don’t. We definitely need to return to a collective sensibility. Yes, you and I might not have the same identity. We may share a few. I don’t think we need to “return” to some specific collective spiritual cohesion though.
Did you have a studied religious upbringing or is this “collectivity” something that is something that you learned later in life?
Later in life. A lot of my study and approach to theology as an adult has been because of Muslims. A Muslim took seriously my panic attacks and helped me with them. Before that, I’d never received that kind of help or kindness from anyone in that way.
When was that? What happened?
I was delivering pizzas in college in Tallahassee, Florida. I was having panic attacks, almost like visions. They felt apocalyptic. They were instances of me having to drive on a flooded street – but later it happened in person. Then I had one where a building in front of me just erupted in fire to the sound of cheering. Another one was being fired on by police with pepper spray – I woke up feeling like my mom had been roasting peppers in the kitchen all day.
There was no discernible explanation for any of it. I felt like I was losing my mind. But my boss took it seriously. One day, I came in late and my hands were trembling. I tried to downplay what was going on. It was Ramadan at the time, I remember, and my boss wasn’t eating. He took me outside, I thought to scold or fire me but instead he just asked me what was going on. He believed me. He briefly mentioned he was in the wars – he was Albanian. He explained that his hands also had started shaking but then he learned to read the Quran to calm down. It reminded him of his childhood and it relaxed him, reminded him of a simpler time. He wasn’t trying to proselytize. Anyways, he got me a whole pizza and a coffee and the next day when I showed up for work, he gave me a copy of the Quran that is written in the Sufi tradition, actually by someone up in the Hudson River Valley.
So, did I “progress” or did I “return?” I think we need to return to a sense of self in the same way I think I returned to a relationship with faith. When we return to spirituality, we may be going somewhere completely different in terms of progress.
Do you feel like now you lean on parts of the faith traditions or technologies you were brought up with? Or is it something wholly new and invented or adopted?
I mean, you mentioned the Inventory feels like Tarot sometimes – that was “baby’s first spirituality.” I draw from all of them I guess – the Abrahamic religions. I'm getting into heretical territory where it's like, I'm literally inventing something. I feel like I'm doing a very American thing of inventing a belief system out of existing beliefs and following which parts work together functionally as opposed to just following ones I grew up with.
What is your favorite culture war battle ground?
Well, it's not a “favorite” battle ground. But the gun thing. The monopolization of violence from the perspective of a state entity or state apparatus, that's literally one of the foundational basics. Like you're a state, you need to have the monopoly on violence. That perspective gives me a different perspective. When we're talking about the gun issue in terms of the culture war, it's like... “gun control or no gun control” or “yes to the second amendment or no.” Yet it is more complicated. In some communities, you’ll find people who play at wanting to overthrow the state and establish another American entity. That is a different conversation entirely.
As you talk about guns, you also talk about the monopolization of violence from the state. This is a foundational question. The whole point of the second amendment right, in a weird way, is to counter the monopolization of violence by the state. It's to say, the people also have guns, not just the state.
If me and my friends have just declared open armed revolt or open armed insurrection against a monarchy, I would also maybe write gun ownership into my founding document to make sure I had narrative legitimacy. But like literally right after the Revolutionary War, one of the first things that the Continental Army did was stop an armed rebellion because soldiers wanted their back pay. Maybe there is some hypocrisy there too in the conservative founding story?
There is another side of liberals, progressives, whatever you want to call them…there is a large cohort of people who want to change things, who are deeply frustrated with how everything is operating, and yet are unwilling to change anything about how they revolt because they are not "gun people." Gun people to them exist “over there” as opposed to guns being about part of a fundamental idea of who has or does not have the right to commit violence on a day to day basis.
So you’re saying that there are material realities about violence and power existing in the world. Who do you want to be able to commit violence or have power? Do you want to give that power to the state? Do you want to give it to your neighbor? Who is the state? It's like the federal government, the local citizens, the state trooper, the local police force? Who do you want to be able to respond in moments of violence?
Right. I couldn't have said it better myself. Do you give violence to your neighbor? Do you give it to one neighbor? Which? Do you know your neighbors? Have you talked to them? Are you on good terms with them? Like that type of thing. It forces you to start asking a lot of different questions about not even the gun thing, but how you connect with other people.
The gun works as a symbol for this idea of American individualism and exception and, at the end of the day, believing “I can say no to this system.” But even with all this American-ness around guns, I remember celebratory firing comes from Mexican vaqueros and revolutionaries. Guns aren’t just for the USA. But look, there is a whole history in the US (and the New World) with revolution. What is stability? What is oversight? What even is the government in a place where the government is weak? So when you begin to think about “Who is gonna protect me?” Probably the guy in the town with the gun, who may even be your boss. I mean, this is Mexico today. There are pockets of government control but outside of that? Who protects you? It’s the guys with the guns.
I’ve read about how American gunmakers have advertised guns to narcos in Mexico – where rights for gun ownership are much more limited. Americans talk about the problem of the drug trade, the “war on drugs” but what you also have is a problem with guns too. You can’t have a drug trade without an arms trade. The drugs are a good business in Mexico. The guns illegally exported into Mexico are a good business in the US!
You see some of the videos of these narcos on Telegram and all of their stuff is American optics. They're wearing American body armor. Blinged out American military surplus. And one begins to wonder like, oh, how did they get that? It's the hypocrisy thing that gets me. I think that's why it's like my “favorite” culture war issue, because it reveals the hypocrisy of everybody simultaneously for different reasons. It forces people to say the quiet part out loud. This whole conversation is about who in society gets to wield violence, the state or not the state. And once put it in those terms, you start having a different conversation.
What do you know now that you wish you had known 10 years ago?
You’re autistic. Don't spend the next 10 years of your life literally trying to figure out why you are different. You're right, you are different. That's why.
I know it's a very simple thing, but I feel like that would have changed how I showed up at work, particularly when I was coming from this very displaced background. I found myself having, or like not really being able to relate to my coworkers who grew up in the DMV area, like this particular type of mid-Atlantic kid where like all of their friend group is lawyers, NGO people, and organizers. Completely unknown world to me. Realizing my own neurodivergence just would have eliminated one more level of alienation that amplified these differences.
I also would want to tell 2015-me that the hurricane in your dreams would happen in three years. The dream of the burning building was Minneapolis PD, and of the George Floyd protests — and of being there.
You're a seer?
A bit? And that's why I started turning to Muslim mystical theology. I guess there's Kabbalah a little bit too, but these mystic traditions take that type of thing seriously. And I mean, Aztec and pre-Columbian religion has that baked into it too.
Do you have indigenous roots?
Yeah, oh, literally, like my whole mom's side. I've got a cousin named Xochitl, an uncle named Acamapichtli, and then his son's name is Cuitláhuac. Wait, hang on, I feel it's more obvious if I just let my hair down entirely.
I wear my hair back in a ponytail normally. I was making a delivery to a Hasidic man, a Russian Hasidic man. And he asked me point blank, like he looked at me very surprised, “Are you Native American?" I didn’t spend too much time on it but I said, “Well, technically yes.” I mean, if you just remove the U.S.-Mexico border and acknowledge that like, oh, Comanche, Cherokee, Aztec, Mayan, like all of that is likely a lot blurrier than we think. And now my hair has grown long enough to the point where I can't deny it. I just look like that.
Judaism is a tribe. There's a sort of bizarre kinship of understanding other peoples who come from tribes or an idea of the tribe. And I think that there's a certain fascination in certain parts of the Jewish community for that reason.
It also makes sense what he said to me afterwards, where he was like, “Oh yeah, I like that you're keeping the culture going and you're expressing that. That's good.”
What are some false idols America needs to kill?
I'm gonna say Christian Nationalism in general. The false idol is white Jesus.
You're not the first person to say that in an interview.
Amazing. Acknowledging the history of both mental health and Christianity requires extending your empathy out towards a lot of different people that are classified as unworthy or un- approachable, whatever. From my theological understanding of Christianity, the “truest expression” of it is liberation theology, which, if you told that to a Christian Nationalist, they would say that's communism. And you'd kind of nod and be like, “A little?”
What tears at me is that like, you'll have religious communities like the Jehovah's Witnesses taking advantage of marginalized, usually racialized populations, saying, “All of this shit you're going through in your life, all of the racism you're experiencing, all of the repercussions of having lived under an imperialist system for the past 600 years or so….. that's not real. Or it might be real, but it's not important because after this life, for your suffering, you'll get something in the end.” The white nationalist will hear that too. I have family up in Spokane, Washington where there is a heavy white nationalist organizing hub. White Nationalist, Christian Nationalism like that type of thing. They love this type of religiosity because it keeps black and brown communities bound by this very almost feudal mentality of, “We will get eventually what's deserved to us if we suffer through this.”
It is important to have religion, a kind of spiritual technology in your life. Even as a way to organize society, but sometimes that way of organizing is not always the most just. There are examples of religious communities where people find a lot of freedom: like writing a sonnet, you’re restrained but there is elegance in that restraint. But balancing those things, especially when some institutions are so old they were or are the perpetrators of injustice…. It’s hard. Like at least a lot of people came to the New World to escape those institutions!
I think you’re right. I find it is very fundamentally an American thing to kill the false idols of the past. Taking and creating your own belief system, whether that's religious belief, philosophical belief -- its a very American thing. This continent, this New World, does give you the place to do that. That much I believe in.
Who are your people?
I think my people are like the native people of the Americas in general, up to and including every Native American tribe, every tribe in Mexico and Guatemala, just that whole thing, that aspect of it. I feel like I belong to that leftover tradition of Spanish leftism, I guess like those who fled when Franco came to power. Or in Mexico and the continued organizing over there– teaching people quietly about anarcho-syndicalism and radical organizing. And when I hear both organs and call to prayers, I find that like my skin tingles with familiarity to both. I know that's a little bit of a cop-out answer that again contradicts itself in a few different ways but… it’s the answer.