I’ve taught youth for a while. I’ve been a tutor, a mentor, a life coach; I’ve been a lot of things for young people. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own nonprofit organization, DSTL Arts, in order to teach at-risk youth that the arts can foster careers for individuals. It helps to be an artist myself, to have always wanted to be a working artist.
I was five years old when my mom taught me how to make masks out of cardboard. Before then I was used to buying coloring books and pads of paper for entertainment purposes. But when my mom taught me how to make masks, that opened up a whole new world of creativity for me.
My first mask was of a robot/cyborg character from an old Nintendo game I had. I can’t remember the name of the game now, but I remember the mask. The rubber band we used to keep the mask wrapped around my head pulled my hair something fierce, but that didn’t stop me from running around our front and back yard with my swap-meet-brand toy sword. I broke a lot of those plastic swords playing like that, improvising those broken pieces into projectiles in my make-believe games with my younger brother.
Imagination was a real escape for me. It kept me out of trouble, capable of playing indoors all summer when my parents worked and we were on vacation. I could build towers of Legos and develop intricate storylines of deceit and heroism, self-sacrifice and humanity while Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures played out various roles in our universe. My brother followed my lead in these stories with little to no guidance from me. He knew the direction our stories would go in. It was a glorious time. And to think now that it all stemmed from being taught mask making techniques at five years old. Wow.
As I got older, I sought only how-to-draw books at the school library. The public library in Vista had a very weak selection of art books for kids, but the Scholastic Book Fairs at Bobier Elementary held me down. I remember how eager I was to buy simple kids books that taught how to use basic shapes to form monsters and aliens. I traced a lot of the shapes, but that helped me develop a sense of style. I draw monsters now, without thinking, almost exclusively when not attempting to draw something specific, like a cover design concept for my students’ chapbooks.
Drawing is escape. Art is escape. But I sometimes wonder if I need to escape. There are moments where listening to a love song now makes me melancholy. I love my fiancé. I have no regrets in being with her. But there’s something that bothers me on particular days when I listen to songs by La Arrolladora Banda el Limón. Or Donny Hathaway. Or even a Vicente Fernández song with a lot of soul.
What is art to me? I try to think of it as I dedicate my life to teaching and helping young artists develop a sense of purpose in their work. I tattooed on myself the phrase “El poeta es dios” because I believe in the double meaning of it. The poet is God, and the poet is god. We divine messages through art that are spiritual in meaning. We also act as God, creating new worlds, new identities, new lives for beings that can only exist in our imaginations. If that isn’t being like God, then I don’t know what is. But does that explain the melancholy I feel frequently? Is there regret in creating and destroying worlds in my art? I don’t know how to answer that.
Children, especially in poor communities like mine, grow up thinking that the arts are childish endeavors, not worth exploring beyond elementary school. Our parents teach us to aspire to more, “illustrious” careers, such as doctor, lawyer, engineer. But those jobs don’t always resonate with kids like me. Kids with large imaginations need nurturing, because, ultimately, those will be the innovative adults in society. Not all people deserve to be artists. Just like not all people should be doctors or lawyers. There is a place in this world for everyone, from janitors and handymen, to artists, doctors, and engineers. And I believe that we need to start teaching parents in low-income communities that the labor market is as diverse as our children.
Maybe that’s where my melancholy stems from. There’s a romantic notion I hold onto somewhere deep in my heart. I wish I was a child again, designing intricate Lego towers and playing on the carpet of my apartment with my brother as we go through the motion of storytelling with Transformers as our puppets in melodramas that teach more about being a part of society than simply going to work everyday, answering to others with no appreciation for creativity and play.
I know that listening to love songs connects me with my childhood in many ways. I slept to love songs by Los Felinos, Los Yonics, and Los Bukis often in my childhood as my dad spent hours recording mixtapes for coworkers who paid him for some slamming tunes. I connect cumbia, banda, norteño with being a child. I know that. But nothing calls me to relive my childhood as much as creating art. I want to be carefree, living an adult life with little to no preoccupation other than what will I create today. I guess I just have to keep working as an artist. Only by following my dreams and meeting my goals will I attain that nirvana I seek.