Lisa & Alejandro
A single mother and her
teenage son discuss the complexities and strengths
of their relationship
Interview by Katharine Hada
“So any criticism that I’ve gotten from people,
like the way that I speak
or what I talk about,
I sort of just
take it on the nose.”
Q: When Alejandro was little, who did you wish for him to be?
Lisa: My answer is based on very good family friends of mine who have children about 10 years older than Alejandro, because he was just going into kindergarten and they were teenagers. And I remember they looked me in the eye. They asked me questions about me and my life. And I remember just being so awestruck and going, “Oh my God! That’s what I want my kid to be like.” I remember saying that to their mother and she explained that had to do with the school they attended and the education they were receiving there. I remember her telling me one time she went out and had left a note for her kids of chores they should do while she was gone. I thought, “Wow, so that’s what the expectation is of older children.” Which is why I am so proud of Alejandro now watching him interact with other people, because I see that he does that. He looks them in the eye and receives the other person and engages with them.
Q: Do you notice any difference in how you interact with others versus how they interact with you?
Alejandro: A little bit. I think that I probably, like my mom said, I receive people more in my conversations with them. I do tend to listen more than I find typical people do.
Q: As Alejandro was growing up, how did you help figure out any social struggles that came up?
A: I think that being called different negatively impacted me in the beginning. I had really long hair as a kid for a long time, so other kids teased me for that saying, “You look stupid!” or “You’re ugly.” And I guess I did take it to heart because I ended up cutting my hair because I wanted to stop hearing that. And then in seventh or eighth grade I started becoming interested in psychology, and that’s pretty much all I’ve talked about since. So any criticism that I’ve gotten from people, like the way that I speak or what I talk about, I sort of just take it on the nose. This is who I am, this is what I want to pursue, and that’s just how it’s going to be.
L: What was happening in preschool? Two kids were bothering you. I don’t remember what they were bothering you about, but whatever it was, I decided to take a page out of a friend’s book. Parents were allowed to go in and visit during school hours then, so I just decided to go in. I sat down with these two children who had been bothering him.
We started chatting, you know, like, “How are you?” or “What are you drawing?” or something like that, and then I said, “So, I hear from Alejandro that you’re telling him blah, blah, blah,” whatever they had been saying. And then I said, “I’m sure I’ll never hear that again.” And you never came home complaining about it again. You know, I wasn’t mean or rude; I was just matter-of-fact and friendly. I don’t know why I didn’t get the teacher’s involved; I guess I didn’t want it to be a big thing. But it seemed to handle it. I haven’t heard it recommended elsewhere, but it worked.
But you never really seemed to draw that much negative attention growing up. And I don’t think you were dishing it out either. It seemed pretty clear to me that you weren’t a disher-outer.
Q: What are some important characteristics you hope to instill in Alejandro?
L: Enjoyment of life. I think that may be more pronounced now than ever before. But you did start out life with puppets talking to you, and dancing, and singing, and stories when you were little. Everything was made to be pretty exciting both by his dad and me. We were totally in the same mentality! Like we’d wake up going, “Woohoo! It’s breakfast time!” You know, from the moment he woke up it was like one fun thing after another. Why not?
I remember telling you this at some point, too. I think you were probably 10 or 11, and it was the idea that there were just two important things for life. The first was take responsibility, and the second was have a hell of a good time. And, you know, that kind of seemed to cover the waterfront. And it was so good! I don’t think there’s anything more important than that. Maybe be kind to other people, but I didn’t really focus on that.
A: I think you focused a lot more about being kind to myself.
L: (Laughs) Really? Interesting. Since I seemed to have so much trouble with that myself. How did I do that?
A: Literally saying, “Be kind to yourself, take care of yourself.” You said it many times. I don’t know how much of that was talking to me or talking to yourself, but…
L: Well, I didn’t want you to make the mistake of not doing that. You know, cause my life has had a bundle of mistakes because of not doing that. And I think you got it ‘cause I had to back up a lot of times to remember. Like I would go, “What do you want to do?” ‘Cause I wouldn’t often know what I wanted to do. So I would make suggestions of what we could do. But you always knew what you wanted to do. One of the things I learned is to just go along with you, because at least you knew what you wanted to do. You seemed to know what was going to make you happy. And then I would find out through doing that with you that I enjoyed it too and we would end up having a blast!
I think one of the most important things I really wanted – and I know this is more than three – but it’s that most of the time you want to stay in. And I would always want you to go out and do things. So part of my incentive was to think: “Well surely if we go out enough and enough awesome things happen to us, then you’ll want to come out!” But really want has happened is that no matter how many awesome things happen, and you have admitted they do happen, you still don’t want to go out!
And that’s what makes you happy. I love that you know that. I remember when you were a very small child, this is one of my most favorite possessions, and you did a drawing in school. You drew a remote. And there are all these buttons labeled different things, but there’s this big button in the middle and on it you wrote, “Everything awesome happens to me for my whole life.” So if I have any hope for you, it exactly that. That everything awesome happens to you for your whole life!
Q: How did/do you want Alejandro to view the world around him?
L: I wanted him to think of it as a thing to go out into. That it was a safe place, a fun place. That it was filled with love and that he would have a lovely time.
Q: How do you view the world around you?
A: I think that both my mom and my dad did a very, very good job of preparing me to go out into the world whether it’s beautiful or not. At times I think that the world is beautiful, and sometimes I go out and I don’t think it’s beautiful at all. You know, 2016 was probably not the best year to be a young person, or to be anybody really. But mostly I do think it is beautiful. I think that view mostly comes from my mom.
Q: Did you/do you worry that he will be viewed for how he looks versus who he is or how he behaves?
L: No, I’ve never been worried about that. The only thing I’ve ever worried about or noticed is that he has white privilege. And that he doesn’t know from that first hand experience what it’s like to not be white in a white world.
Q: Have you found that’s the case?
A: Yea. I guess I was raised in a “white way” if that makes sense? I mean, look at the neighborhood we’re in. The way I see it, Berkeley is a bubble inside the Bay Area bubble, which is inside the California bubble, which is on the West Coast bubble. No amount of liberal diversity is going to change that. Now I’ve been to other countries and I’ve seen white privilege, but that doesn’t mean I can experience it. That’s the difference between being able to empathize with and have compassion for the situation.
Q: So you’ve grown up in this Berkeley bubble within a bubble within a bubble, and you’re applying to colleges mostly on the East Coast. Are you worried about any potential changes that might come with that move?
A: Yeah, I know that it’s not going to be the same, and I think that’s what’s so attractive about it. My mom has instilled in me a wonderful sense of accepting change as it comes, and so has my dad. So that’s been my upbringing. You know, my dad always wants me to try new things, so this is me, quite literally, trying new things. Leaving the home that I can literally still see even after taking a 40-minute hike. Being able to see new things and interact with different people with different ways of thinking, I think that’s what so attractive about that change.
“You know, my parents have given me a lot, and then now is the time psychologically speaking where the individual tries to go out and form his or her own identity.”
Q: Did you feel any need or pressure to connect with your Guatemalan heritage on your Dad’s side growing up?
A: I think that I became conscious of wanting to connect to that side just a few years ago. I kind of just took it for granted when I was younger. I went through a huge space of time in my life where I didn’t want to know about it and I didn’t want to go down there and visit. I think just as recently as three years ago I wanted to connect to that more, and I have actively pursued those roots. You know, telling my dad, “I want to go down there, I want to see my family, I want to know those parts of my roots,” in a way that I wasn’t before. I even expanded to my own body getting my tattoo of Guatemala’s national bird on my arm.
Q: Do you know what caused that impulse to connect to your roots?
A: I think that a lot of it had to do with the space that I am in in my developmental stage. I want to form my identity. You know, my parents have given me a lot, and then now is the time psychologically speaking where the individual tries to go out and form his or her own identity. And that’s I guess part of what I wanted to do.
Q: Did anyone ever explain to you how to behave or how to interact with others?
A: I think it had something to do with my personality, which tends to be a little determined, a little driven. I kind of do whatever I want to do or whatever makes me happy. And also from what my mom always said, which was, “There comes a point in any argument where you can just agree with them, whatever somebody is trying to hook onto, and they’ll just go nowhere. Because they’ll just be speaking into the air.” So if I’m not affected by it, then they’ll kind of just lose steam. So someone will come up to me and go, “You know, you’re X, Y, and Z!” and I’ll go, “You know, sometime, yes.” And then they’ll get flustered and go, “And also this!” And I’ll reply, “You know, maybe.”
L: That’s funny that that’s the thing that stuck. And you know it’s mostly true because we’re everything, and that’s the problem. We are all assholes sometimes, but we are also kind a lot of the time too.
A: I mean, people make the mistake of saying no in hard situations and disagreeing completely. They match the negative with the negative. Instead you could just take the honest route, and then what are they going to pick at after that? There’s not much left. And I picked that up from my mom.
L: I’m glad that worked.
A: Apparently so!