Breaking The Mold: My Father's Son

.This is a special Father's Day edition of Random Strands, the regular schedule will resume on Tuesday.
 

There are a lot of lessons my dad taught me when I was growing up. A lot of those ended with "your grandfather told me about this, but I didn't listen, and I should have" and I know that when I become a father, my children will also struggle with that because if there's anything that's carried down through three generations is a singular type of stubbornness that's both familial and cultural.

I'm sure I've gotten on a lot of people's nerves because it's so easy for me to slip into a "my father always says..." comment. But today on this father's day, it's going to be me saying and writing things about my father that he knows but I still want to write them because that's what I do and that's the man I was forged to be.

In our culture, it is very common for the son to follow in the father's footsteps and I think my father is doubly proud that one of his sons is going to do just that, beginning in July this year and that the other is going to take a completely different approach. Both paths coincided in the idea of helping others, only one path is shrouded in lab coats and research data and the other in art and pretty words.

So let me tell you about my dad. My dad is the type of man to break and redefine notions of what being a Mexican is about. For instance, my dad is not big on soccer. He'll watch it, mainly to humor me, but mostly to tease me when America or El Tri loses. I know part of it is because he prefers to watch tennis, and the other part is because my grandfather wasn't big on soccer either, preferring to watch baseball and bullfights instead. My dad's taste in music falls on the Classic Rock and Spanish ballads instead of traditional rancheras. I learned about Jim Croce, America, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Janis Joplin, Alberto Cortez and Rocio Durcal years before I learned about Vicente Fernandez and Jose Alfredo Jimenez.

He loves to run and bike and play tennis. It was the first sport I played and the first sport where I learned that athletic competition is as much mental as it is physical. If someone has an advantage physically, you're able to negate it by using your brains. My dad taught me how to cook because he was taught to cook at an early age and because a true test of maturity is being able to fend for yourself. If you don't cook, you don't eat, simple as that. And beyond just cooking, there's also the appreciation for different kinds of food that are out there. I remember I hated shrimp, just absolutely loathed it but my dad helped me start to like it and now it's one of my favorite things to eat.

My dad taught of being respectful to everyone. Everyone is valued, and everyone needs to be treated with respect. It started with the gifts my brother and I would get for our birthdays and Christmas, he would write down the names of every person and made sure to send them thank you notes BACK IN THE DAY WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND SOCIAL MEDIA WASN'T A THING. He still does it. Whenever there's a new faculty member or staff member on campus, he'll make sure to introduce himself and make the newcomer feel welcome because that's what he does. It's not because he's different or anything, it's because for him, the default state is that people are worthy of respect, consideration, and gratitude. Ever since I've started submitting my poems and short stories to journals, I always make sure to say thank you whenever I get a reply, good or bad. because by saying thank you I'm expecting them to go "OH WE'VE RECONSIDERED YOUR SUBMISSION!" but because that should be my default state. Like, seriously, we shouldn't be praised for confirming for something that should be everyone's default.

My dad is an entertainer, and it's a bit of a pained admission that my dad threw and went to more parties when I was in high school than I did in high school and college. He did it then and does it now because for him, there is a beauty to conversation, there is a beauty to togetherness and it doesn't matter if it's with someone he saw just a few hours ago or someone he hasn't seen in years, it's the same kind of feeling.

My dad is an artist, and he loves to draw and color and I am convinced if he hadn't gone into medicine he would have been a cartoonist. A number of my notebooks and journals are decorated with his art. To date, he is the only physician I know with good handwriting.

My dad loves museums, and he loves to travel, and he loves to read, and it's easy for him to make conversation and get to know anyone.

My dad set the tone for my career as an activist because he has always believed and shown me that actions speak louder than words. That's why I campaign, why I move, why I organize, why I agitate. The shitposting on Facebook is good, superficially. But I'm a bit more than that and that's why I'm a Librotraficante.

My dad also set the tone for my personality when it comes to writing. As it might come across as a GREAT SURPRISE to you all, there's a lot of vanity in this industry, a lot of entitlement. Here's the thing, I was still pulled naked, kicking and screaming from someone's body when I was born and so were all these other writers. I'm immensely proud of my craft but you know, my poop stinks just as much as the poop of any member of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Although there's probably less corn in mine.

My dad taught me that hard work is the way forward because el huevon y el pendejo son la misma cosa. I wasn't entitled to shit. Even if I was "smarter" than someone, if they worked harder than I did, they deserved it more than I did. When he started as a lecturer at the college in 2005, he struggled with his English. But every night, he studied, he reviewed, and he practiced. He'd have me look over things he wrote or things he wanted to say and even though his firstborn (read: me) could be an impatient brat at being deprived for a few minutes of his videogames or his non-school-related books, he kept his cool and trudged on ahead. He started as a lecturer, at the very bottom of the academic totem pole, and worked his way up to being to a professor, and he is also the director of the pre-medicine program at the university. The kicker: That's the second time he's done it in his life, starting from the bottom to go all the way to professor, while being a father and being there for his family.

Family is incredibly important to my dad and to him, that family extends beyond his sister and cousins, beyond my mom, beyond my brother and I, beyond his compadres and comadres. Family is the South Texas community, to every student that's gone through his class, to the faculty and staff of the university, to every future doctor and health professional that starts his medical path at UTRGV.

My dad believes, like his father believed, that it doesn't matter what you do in life so long as you work hard at it. My parents both knew I was going to get an MFA before I did, and it was because of my dad that I learned about UTEP's fantastic MFA program. I was at a very low point in my life then, having left law school in not the best emotional state. But through the darkness, there were voices that I could hear going, get up. get up. get up.

Growing up, I always struggled with this notion that I was under his shadow. Here was this man, who's done so much in his life, who's known and loved by everyone he meets.

And here was his son. Who had his name, who looked like him, who had a lot of the same tics he had, but who felt like a complete and total fraud because he wasn't going to be a doctor, or because he wasn't really known, or because everyone said, oh you're going to be just like your dad.

I felt like a fraud because I wasn't like him.

I love heavy metal.

I hate Oscar-bait movies.

I'm a late riser.

I'd rather watch football and soccer and basketball than tennis.

I don't really enjoy swimming.

In high school, I only really did well in Physics because my teacher didn't give two shits about the topic and preferred to talk about motorcycles instead. In college, I got Bs and Cs in Anatomy and Physiology because I stubbornly refused to study in a stupid and near-sighted act of rebellion.

I still felt like a fraud because I wasn't my dad.

It wasn't until I left home that I finally understood what he had been trying to tell me from the very beginning: He didn't care. The only thing he cared that I become successful on my own terms, make my own path, and be happy by doing what I wanted. He cared that I learned that it was up to me to define my own path, and not anyone else. I finally understood that when people said I was going to be like my dad, none of them meant it for the superficial things. They meant it for the things that mattered: being a good person, helping others, and working hard, leaving a good impression on people, and making a difference. That's who my father is.

I like compliments because I'm still vain.

No joke. I remember how excited I was when a former naval officer and teacher praised one of my essays for his class. I remember how stoked I was when one of the best spoken word performers out there told me he really liked one of my poems I read. I remember how happy I get every time someone says they like my poetry or they like my fiction.

But honestly, my favorite compliment is when someone says that I am my father's son.