America has rarely seen more division, polarization and disunion than at this moment. And yet our best selves long for connection. Deep down, we know that separation is an illusion, that there is no us and them, just us. We want to remember that we belong to each other, no matter how we voted a year ago.
Sometimes, college professors make their students read my book about Homeboy Industries, “Tattoos on the Heart,” against their will. (I’m not complaining.) Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Wash., strong-armed its entire freshman class into it a few years ago, and then invited me to speak and asked that I bring along two of the gang members I work with.
Whenever such a chance presents itself, I pick homies who’ve never flown before. (Recently, on a trip to Washington, D.C., one of them asked, “Are we flying Virgin airlines because it is our first time?”). When I went to Spokane, I took Mario and Bobby.
We flew out of Burbank , where passengers walk on to the airport tarmac and go up stairs to get into the planes. Of the hundreds of first-timers I’ve traveled with over the years, no one has ever been as terrified as Mario. He was gasping and flushed — and we were still inside the terminal. Out the window I could see flight attendants climbing the stairs, each holding two Venti-sized drinks. Mario emerged from his terror tunnel long enough to ask, in a panicky whine, “When are we gonna board?”
I pointed to the coffee-carrying attendants. “As soon as they sober up the pilots.” I probably shouldn’t have said this.
Tall and gangly, Mario may be the most tattooed individual ever at Homeboy. He is all “sleeved out,” neck blackened with the name of his gang and his entire face covered in tattoos. I had never been in public with him, and I watched as people sidestepped us in the airport. Mothers pulled their kids in tightly. The recoiling was pronounced and widespread. And yet, everyone at Homeboy would agree that Mario is the gentlest of men. He calmed himself, and we got to Spokane without event.
At Gonzaga, the auditorium was full, maybe 1,000 people. Mario and Bobby spoke first. Nervous (again), hands and voices shaking, they told their stories of violence, terror and abuse of all kinds. Honest to God, their words were like flames; you had to keep your distance or get scorched.
I asked Bobby and Mario to join me for the question-and-answer period. A woman near the front spoke first.
“You say you’re a father,” she said to Mario, “and your son and daughter are starting to reach their teenage years. What wisdom do you impart to them?” She recalibrated. “What advice do you give them?”
She sat, and Mario sifted her words, looking for a response. “I just…”
Standing next to him, I could feel his effort to complete his thought. He clutched the microphone and teared up, stretching his arm toward the woman as if he were pleading with her.
“I just, I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”
The woman stood again. Now it was her turn to cry. “You are loving, you are kind,” she said, steadying herself. “I hope your kids turn out to be like you.”
There wasn’t much of a pause before the audience stood and began to clap. All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands.
A lanky, tattooed gang member revealed his wounds in front of a thousand strangers, who lost the temptation to despise him and recognized themselves in his brokenness. Suddenly, kinship — an exquisite mutuality. No matter how we voted.