I sat in the passenger seat of my mother’s car as she drove me to William Paterson for a second interview with the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program.
In the 15 minutes that it took us to get there, I reflected back on the four years of my life in high school and kept thinking to myself: you blew it—you let life beat you down and while you may have done enough to graduate, you won’t be the one to break the cycle and be the first person in your family to graduate college. You won’t become someone because no school has accepted you.
Back then I couldn’t think of those thoughts as the shame I was carrying. The shame I felt because my high school GPA was a 2.0, for being gay, Latino, poor, disabled, and from a single mother household. As I walked into the office of the EOF program, as I waited to speak to the director Carmen Ortiz, my heart couldn’t stop racing.
I thought to myself: this woman I don’t know, this woman who happens to have the same first name as my mother, will literally have my future in her hands. I have to impress her; I have to convince her to give me a shot. What my high school self didn’t know about Carmen (the Almighty) as many of her EOF children refer to her as, is that Carmen has a special ability to see the potential in all of those she comes across. She saw something in me, even if I was unable or unwilling to see it in myself.
To quote Leo Buscaglia, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Carmen—or as I refer to her as, my other mami, gave me an opportunity of a lifetime and because of her, I’m done with college (okay…I still have one final paper to write this weekend but I’ve passed all of my courses) and while the road wasn’t always easy or ideal, Carmen never gave up on me. She refused to give up on me and didn’t allow me to give up on myself either. She didn’t care what anyone else said, I was going to make it—I knew I had no choice but to make it because I promised her the day I met her that I would get good grades and get involved, that I would graduate college.
Carmen, you are my hero. In my darkest hours you have been a constant source of light. In my brightest hours you have been a constant anchor, keeping me grounded and focused. You saved me from uncertainty, from following a path that so many brown and black young men have walked when opportunities were kept away from them. You saw a greater version of the man I would become long before the little boy in me knew it was fully okay to be different, to be a man who loves other men, to be fierce and femme.
I can’t help but cry when I reflect back on all the ways you made me a better person. You gave me access to walk through a door that would forever change the way I viewed and existed in a world that aims to shut me down and keep me disempowered.
You protected me in ways only a mother can, like a lioness; you did your best to shield me from all harm. For the times when I dared to step from behind your shield, when I didn’t listen to your advice, when I let my emotions get the best of me, you were there to pick me up when I had fallen to pieces.
Every time some jerk decided he was going to break my heart, you reminded me that I was deserving of a better kind of man. Every time someone made me feel like I would never be intellectual enough, you reminded me that I was indeed brilliant and that they were just jealous of how fabulous I am.
I hope you know that one day when I make it, when my career is established and I become a New York Time’s best-selling author, I plan on repaying both of the Carmen’s in my life for all that you’ve both done to make this moment in my life possible.
Mami you are my hero and I will forever be indebted to you. Thank you for providing me an opportunity of a lifetime and for making my dreams more of a possibility—thank you for turning my life around when I thought I reached a dead end. Love you lots!
DISCLAIMER: This isn’t a post that is intended to reflect on the entirety of my William Paterson experience, I will write a blog on commencement thanking EVERYONE who contributed to my success but this blog was intended to thank my hero, Carmen who made my acceptance into the University community possible.