Thursday, March 08, 2007

Yoseñio Vicente Lewis, Interviewed January 15, 2005

Yoseñio Vicente Lewis, writer/activist

Yoseñio V. Lewis, born on October 25, 1959 in Newport, Rhode Island

Interviewed on January 15, 2005 by Ana-Maurine Lara

Can you tell me about where you were born?

I was born October 25, 1959 in Newport, Rhode Island, on an actual island. On Aquidneck Island.


The Aquidneck Indians of New England. I was born, actually, I was born in the naval hospital. I thought I was born in Newport Hospital, but I was born in the naval hospital. At the time my mother was not married. But her father or her step-father had rights to be on the military base, so I was able to be born there. I’m the first born in my immediate family and the first born in my whole family to be born in this country. My family’s from Panama.

On your dad and your mom’s side?

016 Um-hmm. Everybody’s from over der, except me and my sister and brothers and subsequent cousins. What do I remember from my childhood? Mmm, mmm, mmm. Well, I remember a lot of evil, nasty, horrible things. But I also remember a few really wonderful things which I choose to dwell on at this particular moment. One of those good things was a friend of mine, bobby, who lived across the street from my grandmother, who just adored me and I adored him. And we played together all the time. And then he had a little brother, Carl, and I was just so jealous of him cause you know, Bobby wanted to spend time with him, and I was like [little noises], ‘What about me? I’m your bestest friend.’ But we had a good time together and I always enjoyed him. And now that I think back, all of my close friends were men, boys. A little hint for the future. Cause after that it was Bruce. And he was…Bobby was white. Well, he was Portuguese. He was dark enough that there was no conflict between his family and mine. But Bruce was white, white, white, white, snow white. And his family did not did not like me, and did not like my family. My family loved him. We used to, when school was over we’d walk from school and we’d get to my grandmother’s house before we’d get to his house. So if we’d get to my grandmothers’ house, my great-grandmother was there. She’d say ‘Come on in’ and she’d make us sandwiches. She’d make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cornmeal. Or chicken soup or something. But it was always a sandwich and something warm. And we’d eat eat eat and we’d watch some of her stories with her. She’d watch the stores on CBS.

The stories?

Guiding Light and…Guiding Light is the one that sticks out in my head. I’m sure there were others that were on CBS. What’s the one that everybody watches on CBS now? Young and Restless? That wasn’t on. That wasn’t in existence yet.

General Hospital?

041 Naw, but that’s ABC. Sacrilege! ABC. But Guiding Light I remember us watching. I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, I just waited for that to be over, case the next thing on that came on was Dark Shadows and Bruce and I would sit and watch Dark Shadows and then it was time for him to go home. So then I’d walk him to his house and it was a whole different story. I never got invited in. His family just wanted nothing to do with me. And I don’t know why he liked me, but he did. And he made a point of always finding me so that we could walk home together and we could go to my grandmother’s and my great-grandmother would feed us and then we’d watch Guiding Light and Dark Shadows and then go to his place. And I don’t think either of us ever were thinking about, ‘well, we’re not supposed to be hanging out with each other.’ There’s a boy and a girl, there’s black and white. We’re not supposed to have anything to do with each other, and we just did. We enjoyed each other’s company quite a lot.

Cause this is during the Civil Rights era, right?

052 This was in the ‘60’s, yeah. We just…none of that stuff was having an impact on us. All we cared about was, we liked each other and we spent a lot of time together. What other nice things?

Did your family ever talk about what was going on with the Civil Rights struggle?

056 It was never directly discussed with me. Except with one uncle and that was only in between his bipolar rages. When he had a moment when he’d agree to take the lithium and it would balance him out and then we’d have a discussion. But most of the time, he was too sick. And I couldn’t really trust what he was saying cause it was so off the wall. Or he wasn’t saying anything at all cause he was in that depressive phase and he just didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone.

So when was it that you first started coming out? And what does that mean to you?

Oh it means so many tings. The very first thought I had around coming out is 13, when I guess I was working in a, not working, going to an after-school kind of thing ‘teenagers, keep them off the streets, we’re gonna have them go into the community center’

Yeah – like Kiwanis Club or somethin’

069 Yeah – something that allows you to not be on the street and acting up and getting in trouble. And I remember there was a group and I was sitting on the floor and a lot of people were sitting on the couch and we were talking about drugs. And everybody admitted ‘oh you know, I’ve had a beer.’ Or ‘I’ve smoked pot’ or ‘I’ve done this or I’ve done that.’ And when it came to me I said ‘I haven’t done any of that.’ And everyone looked at me like ‘Come on. We’re being honest now. You can go ahead and you can tell us.’ ‘But no, I really haven’t done any of that.’ And it got to the point where people refused to believe me. ‘No, really, I just haven’t done this.’ ‘Yes you have! Everybody does it. Everyone’s done it!’ ‘Well, no, not me.’

They couldn’t believe it.

078 Exactly and I felt well, I’ve always felt a little different. But now, I feel it in a group setting and it’s very clear I am different from everybody in this room. There was something unbelievably different that is setting me so far apart from people. Because from that day on I was treated differently. Like there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t really be trusted and I wasn’t allowed to associate with people as I had been previously, because I revealed this big secret about myself.

I imagine you hadn’t thought of it as a secret.

084 Exactly. Well, okay, I don’t judge you because you have had beer or you still drink beer or whatever. That’s your choice. You’re 13 and you’re not supposed to, but hey, whatever. But for me, being someone who didn’t do that made me an outsider. Even more of an outsider because I was dark. And nine times out of ten I was the darkest one in whatever room I walked into and I was intelligent and I chose to revel in that intelligence. I didn’t play in school. I learned and I enjoyed that learning and I felt it was my way to get out of all the unhappiness I was experiencing with my family.

So that was really a way for you to survive, was to be in school.

095 Exactly and I revered absolutely all of my teachers. It didn’t matter how crazy there were, it didn’t matter the ones who were drinking in class and had their little bottle in the drawer. I didn’t care about any of that stuff, like ‘you’re a teacher? You’re so cool. I love you. You’re perfect.’ That’s how I revered them. So they could o no wrong and I couldn’t wait to go to school. I loved it. It was my refuge from all of my craziness at home. So 13 was my first coming out. And that same year was also the same year I started my activism because I got frustrated, well I moved from frustrated to angry and pissed off seeing how – with what we now call developmental disabilities or mentally delayed, but back then we said people who were mentally retarded – how they were being treated. I was just frustrated and angry and I just couldn’t understand it. And it didn’t occur to me…I don’t even remember what the actual incident was. I just remember the anger that I had and it didn’t occur to me that I needed to speak to someone at the center, the community center that we were at, maybe a case manager or a counselor or the person running the show. No. I wrote a letter to the Governor of the state saying ‘I don’t really understand this. This is wrong. And you need to do something about this. You run this state, so you’re responsible.’ And I actually got a response back saying, ‘Well, okay, we’re going to investigate this.’ And they found there were actual abuses, this wasn’t just some 13 year old making stuff up. There really were abuses and there were some systemic changes made to the way people with developmental conditions were treated. So, then I felt emboldened. You know, ‘I wrote a letter and things happened and I’m gonna do all kinds of stuff now.’ And I got more involved in student government when I got into junior high and high school. Again as a way to think I can affect some kind of change. And I could show people that people who looked like me could do this because there was also growing up on an island, and growing up in New England, it’s not like I had a lot of exposure to people who looked like me.

125 That actually was one positive thing about coming to New York for my summers, coming to Brooklyn, is that I got to see a lot of people who looked like me and I got to see a lot of Panamanians who looked like me. That really helped me. But I decided when I was home there are some things here that need to be changed, some discussions that people have that…I didn’t believe in that moment that people were purposely saying racist things or purposely engaging in racist behavior. I think they just had no other context in which to express themselves. And they used whatever was handy and whatever was taught to them. I have since learned to let go of that Pollyanna way of thinking, but back then it was about ‘oh, they don’t really mean it like this they’re just confused. And it’s my responsibility to help them understand that there’s a different way to experience people.’

I imagine, you couldn’t possibly understand that someone would think that way. That happens for me, I can’t believe someone would actually think that way.

Exactly, when I haven’t done anything wrong or bad or immoral or hurtful to you for you to think it’s ok for you to speak to me that way, or it’s okay for you to treat to me that way. Or treat someone who looks like me that way. Or to speak to them that way. So obviously, it’s just that you just don’t know. It didn’t take too long for me to find out ‘ooh – they do know, and they’re still acting that way.’ But I kept my Pollyanna ways for a little bit.

148 I think that…so I have to go back. I’ve already gone up to high school but now I have to go back. As something else that was significant in my life when I was young, single digits, was the church and the time I spent in Catholic school and the nuns and the priests really influencing me to believe I was worthless and the struggle that I had with going to Church, and then being in Catholic school you go to Mass five times a day cause you have to pray every 15 seconds or you’re going to be doomed [laughter].

You were in Catholic school all throughout elementary?

158 No. I was in Catholic school from third grade to sixth grade. So, going through all of that and constantly questioning helped me not only to recognize, there is a spirituality here that I am very much attracted to, but there is a religiosity that I am very much appalled by and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. So it was a very big struggle for me. Because there’s so much about Catholicism that I truly enjoy. Truly, truly enjoy and I would never give it up. I will never let anyone tell me, ‘well, you can’t call yourself a Catholic because you do this, or you feel this way, and you think this way and you love this person.’ You’re not Jesus, so you can’t tell me how I can be a Catholic and how I can’t be. Until He presents Himself in front of me and says ‘this is what you can do and what you can’t do’ there’s nothing that you can say. I don’t know how I got that strength early on, but I had it. I had it to the point where I would go to Mass and there’s a point right before the Eucharist where you have to say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” And to this day, I don’t ever remember saying “Lord I am not worthy to receive you.” I just would let that part go.

So you were born in resistance, is that what you’re saying? [laughter]

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.

Cause here you have all these elements in your Catholic school and all these things happening at home, there was a part of you that was like ‘I deserve to be alive. And I deserve to have a place in the world.’

Yeah, there has to be a reason that I was born. There has to be a reason that I survived all that I survived. But it can’t be so that I can be told ‘you’re worthless. You’re not anything. You won’t amount to anything. There’s really no point in you being here, but since you are here, you must give and suffer and sacrifice.’ All of that giving and suffering and sacrifice, yes – that’s part of life. Everyone has to go through that. But that’s not all and I refused to believe that that was all. I refuse to believe now that’s all I’m here to do. So, I would not say that part. But I would still go up and receive my communion. Cause I’m going to get the blood and body of Christ.

So, come back and tell me. You were talking about coming out and how that coincided with your budding activism.

195 Yes, so now we go forward. We moved back and so I’m doing my student government. President of the Student Council for a couple of years. Wanted to institute some other changes and that really got the resistance. ‘You know, I don’t know where you’re from, but that’s not how we do it here.’ I said ‘I’m from here. So what I learned is what you people taught me. Either directly or indirectly, this is what you taught me.’ I had a lot of great teachers who didn’t always agree with what I was saying, but always agreed that I should say it and encouraged me to say it. And expected me to say it. So I felt that that sense of support, like people had my back – even if they didn’t agree, they had my back – and so I would keep saying things. And then shortly thereafter I was no longer President of the Student Council. But that was okay because it helped me to understand that sometimes you’re going to take a stand that is very unpopular and people are going to try to retaliate in whatever way the can to get you away so that your voice is not heard and that’s why you have to be strong and you have to be willing to scream if you have to get yourself heard, because there are going to be people trying to silence you.

216 Okay, so. I come to college in California for no good reason except I missed my brother and he was already here and I just couldn’t stand it. I had a whole year away from hi m and I couldn’t do anymore. ‘I don’t care where I go to school. I don’t care what I study. I just need to be near him cause I miss him.’ So I go to the University of San Diego and maybe my freshman year, maybe the first semester of my freshman year, I enjoyed it. It was a new environment, there were people who were studying. It was an opportunity to learn so much. I tested out of so many classes because I actually went to a high school that cared about teaching and so you were required to learn things and to do things. So I didn’t…I was already past freshman level when I got to college. So I was proud of myself for that. But I was also feeling ‘Oh, I still want to hang out with these people, cause this is my class, so don’t put me too far ahead.’ Second semester is when it began. I think because it was moving in to the spring and summer time and it was even more the time when people could ditch classes and spend the day at the beach or do whatever they wanted to do.

They’d gotten used to the rules and knew how far they could bend them?

236 Exactly. And it also became more apparent to me how many people never went to class. Or went maybe once a week and were able to get passing grades. And for the life of me I couldn’t understand that. Until I was introduced to this whole concept of the legacy program whereby so and so smith whose parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents went to the school and gave money and every generation since then has gone to the school and given money, so junior at my level, in my class, before you were born you knew you were going to go to this school.

And you were going to pass.

Right. And so there were so many kids who were there under that guise. And they never studied. They never had to and that irritated me to no end. Then they had a strong influence on some people that think I really did want to learn but were influencing them, but they didn’t really have to. ‘Oh, my dad has money. We’ll just get a building on the campus. We’ll be fine.’ And that…that inequity and that sense of entitlement just tanned my hide. I was so upset by that. Likewise…

And you should have been.

Likewise what I thought, what I took to be indifference on the part of the professors. I’d never been in a situation where someone gave me an assignment and didn’t care if I completed it and didn’t pull me up if I didn’t complete it. But here we are in college, and the response I got was ‘well, you’re an adult now. It’s up to you to do your work. And if you don’t then you’ll deal with the consequences, but I’m not going to sit you down and explain to you, you’re cheating yourself. I still get paid whether you do your homework or not. But if you don’t do your homework, you don’t get paid. Emotionally, mentally, intellectually, you lose.’

It was like a wake up call to the world of mediocrity.

270 Right. Exactly. And I just thought, ‘but wait a minute. I’m the same age I was when I graduated high school and even then as I was graduating my teacher were telling me ‘You’d better do this, you’d better do that. I know you got good study habits, but you’d better get better ones cause in college you have a lot more work to do. And you have stronger, tighter deadlines and blaah, blaah, blaah.’ And then just encouraging me and telling me ‘be prepared’ and then I come here and it’s like ‘here’s the assignment but if you choose not to do it, I’m not going to say anything to you. I’m not going to be the substitute parent for you. I’m not going to have that kind of responsibility.’

I’m not going to have expectations.

283 Exactly. If you do it great. If you don’t, oh well. Onto the next person. That really hurt me. I felt like, ‘I’m being abandoned again.’ I hear it as again, somebody in a position of authority that I’ve placed in the position of authority is saying to me ‘I really don’t care what you do.’ And I did not like that at all. I didn’t think that was an appropriate way to treat someone, especially a freshman. I could see that with somebody who’s a junior or a senior in college, if you don’t have it by then – if you don’t have study habits, if you don’t have a sense of yourself and how important you are in the scheme of you learning, well, then, you’re not going to get it. But you’re a freshman who came from all this support and all this care and you’re just being thrown out there and told, just go do it. I don’t think that’s a right way to do it. I don’t think that’s a right way to introduce the real world, if you want to call it that, to someone.

How did you deal with that?

I studied. I called on the habits that I had learned. And I continued to use them. And I got good grades, but I was very unhappy because I didn’t feel supported. And I felt abandoned because I had put all of my desire for acknowledgement and approval and acceptance into these people who were in the teaching professions. And here they were saying to me ‘I don’t really care what you do.’ So I lost my desire.

Your motivation…

And as time went on, I didn’t care what kind of grades I got. Freshman year, if you even thought of giving me anything less than an A, that was the end of it. I’m going to kill myself. If I get a B, oh no – it is totally over. By junior, senior year. B? Please. So? I don’t care. And I felt horrible that I had gone to that level. And I understand that there was a certain amount of not vanity, I can’t think of the word I want to call it right now. There’s a certain amount of vanity in that attitude of ‘oh – it’s a B, I don’t care’ because I know there were a lot of people who struggled to get a B. And I know that I didn’t have to struggle as much.

To get a B?

325 Right. I didn’t have to struggle to get the As because I loved it. I wanted it. Staying up writing a 20 page paper was a joy to me, it was a treat to me. It wasn’t a chore. It wasn’t work. It was what I loved to do. And then to have somebody just dismiss it, or to have somebody else in the class not do it, or do five pages and get the same grade that I would get? No. That’s not fair at all. And it totally drove my motivation away. To the point where I would always go to class but I wouldn’t listen. It actually was kinda good for my writing. Because I would start writing and just all these stories would come out of me, all these things that I wanted to talk about that I felt I couldn’t talk about because I didn’t feel like there’s really anyone that I could trust to share those intricacies, those delicacies with. So I didn’t. I just wrote about them. And then I would go and take classes that were way over my head. I tried to take them. I would audit them if I wasn’t allowed to take them for credit. Because I wanted to be challenged and I just wasn’t feeling challenged. I really wasn’t feeling it and I didn’t have a daddy who could donate a million dollars to the school so that they could name a building after me or a street named after me or a bust of me would be in the atrium of a building. I didn’t have any of that kind of access. So, all I could give them was my mind and my energy and they didn’t want it. Or, it appeared to me that they didn’t want it.

358 I recognize that I’m looking at this all through my own lenses. And there were other things going on that I wasn’t aware of. That I wasn’t clued in about cause I was still a kid, still trying to find my way. Nonetheless I felt very alone. Very without support. And I don’t recall every really talking to any of my classmates about it. So, I just stayed. I had two majors, two minors. I would have had more if I had been allowed to have more. Cause I was so interested in everything. I wanted to know everything.

You’re still that way.

I know. I know I am. I like that I haven’t let go of that quality.

Were there other black and/or latino students there?

374 There were…hmmm…Ray. There was Ray and Eddie and hmmm…I’m seeing people’s faces and not remembering names. And, Alicia and a couple of others. Maybe 10, 12 other students of color in my class. Certainly there were others in other classes. There were sophomores and juniors and seniors and graduate students, so out of a campus total of maybe, maybe 8,000 people – undergraduate and graduate combined – I would say maybe 700 – 1000 were people of color.

396 What I also got introduced to in college was the knowledge that there were people of color who had serious money. I had not experienced that before at all. Most of them were Asian or Middle Eastern. First off, I rarely met Asian people in my time as a kid. I think we had a Chinese restaurant in Rhode Island. But I don’t remember actually seeing any Chinese people there. I remember seeing a Chinese restaurant. And that was it. And I never met anyone from the Middle East. And if I did, I can’t recall it.

And if you did, they may not have told you.

True. So, get to California and I’m meeting all these people from places I’d never heard of and they’re talking about foods and cultures and interests I’d never heard of and it was fascinating to me. And I thought, ‘well, this is the cool thing, about California.’ There’re people from everywhere and it’s like New York and it’s great. These people have money. Look at this! Driving around in fancy cars…well, back then a fancy car was a BMW or a Mercedes.

It still is. Well, except we got Hummers.

Yeah. So, they’re driving around in these cars and not going to class and having parties all the time and ‘oh – what are you doing for Thanksgiving?’ ‘Oh, I’m going to Switzerland for skiing.’ ‘What? You’re a student. How could you possibly…?’ Ohh. You have money. Okay. That’s how you do all that.

I heard you say earlier you were doing your own writing. Can you tell me about your own writing?

439 When I was in high school, I wrote a book of poems that I self-published.

B 000 I’m so embarrassed by this book because I thought it wasn’t good enough. And people bought it, but I thought they were just being nice to this little kid who didn’t know what she was doing at the time, so I refused to have a copy. And I’m so upset with myself now that I actually published a book and I don’t even have a copy of it. Someday I’ll find it. Anyway, when I got to college, and I was remembering my English classes in high school and exercises my English teacher had me do, I decided in college, ‘well, you know what, I’m in this class where the teacher doesn’t seem to care – or professor, I should say – the professor doesn’t seem to care and half the time doesn’t even show up, I’m going to make use of this time.’ So I got a little booklet and I just started writing. I’d end up getting those Scantron books a lot of times and just write in them.

The old exam books?

B 13 Yeah, with the blue, the light blue cover. Yeah so I’d get those and start writing in those and just write. I would write plays. When I was in college, I’d write a lot of plays.


B 16 Mostly about how I wanted my life to be as opposed to how it was. So, in the beginning they were plays about me having money. They were plays about me having influence. They were plays about me being a professor and about being able to have this poor child who just wanted someone to acknowledge him or her. Just a lot of grandiose stuff. But it was a way to get all that stuff out of me, so that there was room for other stuff to come in.

B 22 And then I started writing…I started going back to writing poetry. And most of it was angry poetry because I had, I was more aware of the world and more aware of the injustice in the world. So it’d be a lot about what was going on in and what was wrong in the world. Because I was in San Diego, I also learned a lot about the abject poverty in Tijuana and yet how we in San Diego used and abused those people all the time while talking about how horrible they were and how dirty they were and our water would always get messed up by their sewage and then I would think, but then how does their sewage get down there because it’s really our sewage pumped down there, but once it gets there they’ve got an antiquated system which backs up and then it comes back to us. So it’s our own shit that’s coming back to us and polluting our waters and then we want to blame them, instead of helping them fix up their system and then fixing up our system so that we aren’t pumping our shit to them to begin with. So stuff like that.

So you would write poetry about it?

Oh yes, about being that little kid in Tijuana trying to take a bath and trying to drink some water and it was brown. Or trying to walk…What are we talking about?

We’re talking about what you wrote about.

B 48 oh so yeah – I’m sorry, I’m distracted by this painting. I didn’t even see this. How cool is that? Okay, for everybody who’s not here, this is a beautiful painting created by my beautiful friend who has just a beautiful view on life, who can see the spectacular beauty in the midst of the darkness.

Hmm. Well that’s some poetry right there.

Yeah, okay, so it would go from writing about the people in Tijuana and what they had to endure from these crazy ass people in the United States to my jealousy of the people who I went to school with who had money to my family and how they just didn’t treat me right to all the other kids who didn’t have families who treated them right to the [Vietnam] war. Because I could finally start talking about the fact that I came from a military family so there were so few people that I knew who were not in the military and how all of my uncles were impacted by that war because all of them had something to do with it in one way or another.

B 62 Okay, why don’t we stop right there and continue in February, because we spent a great deal of time talking about how you came to your activism and I want to also learn more about your own personal process in getting to the writing.

Okey dokey.

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