The Prince and the Sheeple
Updated: Jul 11, 2019
This is episode #27 of Studio Confession
This is a confessional at its best. And right up front I must warn you there will be foul emphatic language. Just because that’s the way this story went. It’s not because it’s been said that people who use bad words are intellectually smarter. So if you don’t want to be dragged into the dark side of sarcasms, then I ask you gracefully to put down this story.
What you are about to read are all true stories, at least they were to me, and I still have some bruises to show for them. But why am I telling you this? Because writing this down is cheaper than therapy? Because I am a narcissist who loves to outwardly reflect every chance he gets? Sure. The real reason for sharing these stories is because I exist. And, there are others like me.
You would not know this by looking out the window, watching television, magazines or book, at least not in the American mainstream. Not there. When I went to Mexico for the first time I saw Mexicans that looked like me. Not the whiter or taller versions of me. I saw Mexicans that look like ME, unapologetically 5 feet 5 inches in height.
Not only did I see this reflection in the service industry, much like we do in the states. I saw lawyers and businessmen carrying briefcases. I saw women of commerce as architects. I got to see so many people who reflected me and I thought how ignorant of me to have believed the American narrative of Mexicans and Latinos.
I had eaten up. I ate it. I believed it. Even when I wasn’t living this narrative. I didn’t question it. So this is a small testament to my existence. I existed, I lived, I survived and I thrived and still thriving. “So what?”, you might say. The thing is that some of us are not set up for success. Some of us, if not most of us are not meant to survive. Quite the opposite, there are systems in place designed for the very few to win. We know this.
But I won, and I am winning. When I do this. When I write or speak my stories, I claim my prize. I really hope you do too. I have always been cool, well not always. Not in elementary or middle school, but whoever was. I did grow up in art museums with Picassos, Pollocks and Rothkos around me, that’s pretty cool. My mother was an outlaw and a certified broom carrying witch. I went to school at Fairfax High on Melrose Avenue, during the whole Melrose Place sitcom craze. Yup I was cool and I am old.
When I say I wasn’t cool in middle school, I mean I might have punched myself, actually I am pretty sure I did. I was an insecure, feminine kid with frizzy hair and a penchant for gold and silk via a dotting grandmother. Visualize it for a second, its a lot, especially when everyone around me never allowed me to forget it or look past it. I mean everyone. I couldn’t walk around school without being called fancy or fat. I was literally called “Fancy fat fag.” It was unbearably eroding. When I say I survived, I mean it.
Full disclosure I was an easy target. It didn’t make it right, but it happened. I emoted fear and distrust of the world and the people around me. It played out in the way I walked, the way I talked and moved. I didn’t know otherwise. No one was there to teach me. Not because I was raised by particularly horrible human beings, but because the people, who raised me were coping with their own traumas, and they were an number of people, who raised me. I was like volleyball being passed back and forth between mother, father and grandmother. Their identities were being formed and played out on survival mode.
We were immigrants. Even though I was born in the US, I was still developing with this immigrant mentality. Our modus operandi was invisibility. Not to be seen or heard meant safety. On top of that, pour on some serious magic realism family dynamics, what could they have done for me. This is why I try, really try not to second guess my selfies. Yes, I said selfies. This is also why I write and record myself speaking into to a void, just to put my voice out there into the ether, I have had no voice for so long it feels like training a muscle recovering from atrophy.
I need to be seen, I need to be heard. Wait, let's step back. I am not taking about the spaghetti faced selfies, of females in peak arousal or my brothers with wads of cash in rented cars and chained to gold. I am talking about you at the gym killing it, that is awesome. Your family dinners on a Fridays celebrating accomplishments and goals met. Not just the fact that you all made it through another week and dragged yourself to Friday. That’s not enough. Step up. Don’t get me wrong, the moment I can take a half decent shirtless selfie with a quarter six pack, I am on it!
As defeated as I felt, a feeling that lasted years, I never gave up. Something kept me going. It wasn’t anger, I didn’t feel the need for revenge, not from my bullies or my parents or anybody. I could feel I could do something. As vague as that sounds now, imagine me trying to conceptualize this as a child. I knew I needed to survive. I knew that if I survived, I could come back to help. That has been at the heart of me as long as I can remember.
I have always been me- this me, the sarcastic Gemini artist. Yes, I have always been fancy, and a wonderer. I have always known I was gay, the load was heavy, but I knew I could do good with the cards I was dealt. Then something happened, when I was in middle school. Something that would be the catalyst to my future, the future that I am living now. Thanks to my middle school art teacher, Miss Monnet – Miss Monnet, wherever you are, I love you and thank you for the story I am about to share.
Miss Monnet entered me in an art contest for the winter Olympics, and I won. The prize package, it wasn’t just a certificate, this prize package came with a five thousand dollar scholarship and a round trip ticket to New York fucking city, with my parents, of course. Also an appearance in the Today show, the nationally syndicated morning show, but who cares, I was going to fucking New York.
It was winter, the best time to meet the city for the first time. The moment I stepped of the plane and breathed in that mix of cold crisp and moist New York air I felt like I could breath for the first time. I knew this is where I needed to be. The money was great, the air time on national television was awesome and super awkward. When I returned home I didn’t think much about the ramifications that something like this would have for a school kid. All of a sudden my bullies were my friends, in big old quotation marks, “Friends”.
This brush with celebrity was only heightened by the daily intercom announcements during homeroom. The school vibrated blasting my name for two week straight. I was the local “art star”, and it changed everything. As what usually happens with celebrity, it turned me into a rebellious jerk. Just for a second though, all of a sudden I was part of “the” group and if they wanted me to throw shaved ice at the passing cars by the doughnut shop, how could I say no. It all came to a halt when a “friend” from the group was caught vandalizing the mall. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t with them that time. At that moment my real identity was solidifying, I was out with a teacher, smoking cigarettes over coffee no doubt.
My detained friend called my dad for bail, instead of her own. That didn’t sit well with dad, and that was that. I would no longer be part of the group. I remember even then feeling like there was a lesson to be learned in all this, I couldn’t figure it out, but no doubt it came to me.
When it was time to go to high school, I aimed to go to an art magnet somewhere in West Hollywood. It would be one of those specialized schools you get bussed to. Another four years with the same batch of tormentors was unthinkable, even if they were smiling to my face. I could hear them still calling me “fancy fat fag” even if now it was just in their heads. No thank you, I learned quick how to identify disingenuousness on the school ground battlefield.
I didn’t mind braking away from the new and only tradition in my family since arriving to the United States. My dad and aunt attended the same elementary, middles school and high school. It provided a subliminal sense of legacy or permeance, it was the only roots we had in Los Angeles. The roots weren’t deep enough to hold me, so I attended Fairfax High School on Melrose in West Hollywood. Though according to city limits the school was not actually in West Hollywood, it made no difference in my eyes. If my neighborhood high school was earth, Fairfax was outer space within the realm of nebulas and shooting stars.
Fairfax was unlike anything I could have imagined. I had only ever gone to school with Latino kids, with similar if not identical social and economic backgrounds. To see so many white kids, black kids, Asian kids, Latino Kids and everybody else felt like a party. The kids smoked on the lawn unbothered. They dressed in all textures and colors! Colors that I had been forbidden to use by my middle school because they could be read as gang colors to potential drive by shooters. The kids at Fairfax wore hats, an unthinkable form of utilitarian fashion in sunny LA for an intercity youth like me. Anything was possible at Fairfax it seemed. The sense of freedom was a game changer.
On my first day of high school, as my first period teacher, which happed to be an art class, took attendance, something clicked in me. When she called “Luis, Luis Martin”, or more accurately she said “Lewis, Lewis Marten”, I heard neither pronunciations, what I did hear and saw, was a flash of noise that said “Fancy, Fancy Fat Fag, is Fancy Fat Fag here?” I immediately squashed the image in my head. “It Marteen” I said adding a high pitch to the “tin” in the pronunciation, “I go by my last name” I added.
It was a declaration, and also a lie. No one had ever called me that. As a matter of fact my family never even called me Luis, they called me “Beto”, short for Alberto. I didn’t much care for that one either. This new act of self-assertiveness melted some fear away. I had a clean palette, I gave myself license to create myself from scratch, so I did. I had already lost the weight, which allowed me to explore my wardrobe like a person with multiple personalities. Goth sometimes, grunge others, a dashiki here and there, I had felt like nothing and been invisible for so long, I wanted to be everything.
Mostly I was a rebel. A 90’s Chicano rebel with multiple causes. Light on the greaser, heavy on the sulky, yes I like the Smiths. I got to finally to wear close that fit. No restrictions on colors or sizes. Truth be told both then and now, I would have rather just worm huge mumu every moment of the day. The most effective change was to my face. I could not afford plastic surgery but something need to be done. From that first day at Fairfax high school and for many years later, I wore a scowl on my face. My eyebrows would permanently point down to my nose. Like an enchanted talisman, it warded off any potential bullies, unwanted attention, and people in general. I was officially on survival mode. It worked too, nobody fucked with me. Good thing too, because if someone had, I am not sure what I would have done then.
My stint in art high school heaven didn’t last too long. I got into some hetero teen age romance melodrama. All of my making of course, scaring a wonderful girl in the process. I decided to change sense. I ended up keeping up with tradition and attending the family alma mater. This was also the place where I would learn about social economics and sociological variances, concepts that became by filters for survival. I was also about to learn first-hand about group think dynamics and the impact they played on my peers. The awareness of these dichotomies was what finally made school fun for me.
Belmont high school, is a huge school on the periphery of downtown LA. The down town LA of the 90’s, before it was the hashtag #DTLA and before all the New Yorkers moved in driving prices to insane heights. The school was composed of 90% Latinos and most alarming 99.9% if not all of my middle school bullies. Returning to the “hood” from a privileged school I became virtually invisible. Academically I could coast through the classes and physically I could disappear in the lanes of crowded halls. What kept me from dissolving all together was that I became a big-art fish in a small pond, it fortified the first positive pillar of my identity.
What I hadn’t give much thought to, was that I was returning to the bullies and jerks from my past as a different person. At this point I couldn’t name any of these bullies, but every one of them seemed to be in my classes, the hallways, in the locker room and they did not recognize me. I was “Martin” not Luis, not the Fancy Fat Fag, not anymore. I was now that new kid, who someone had heard about from a friend’s cousin, had got kicked out of that art school in West Hollywood. I’d stretched out, lost more weight, dressed like a rebel which resonated in the Latino population as a nonconformist, more than kitsch or camp as it did preserved as it did at Fairfax. More importantly I still wore my don’t fuck with me scowl, which by the way, has given me a permanent case of resting bitch face.
The difference was out of this world. VIP treatment because of my attitude, my look, and most importantly my indifference. I wasn’t going to remind then where we’d being, l thought, let them revel on my cold and mysterious demeanor, because how long would it really last. For all intents an purposes I had already achieved the adolescent dream, I was cool. At least in their eyes. Inside I was gaging and tickled by how superficial the situation was. I could not believe people could be so mean one moment and swoon the next because the packaging was different. I was new and improved with 90% more crunchy cynicism inside. It opened my eyes on how the world operated, at least this little world, though as an adult now, I can’t say it is any different in any the other worlds I’ve come to know.
After a few weeks the niceties did not stop. I still was not interested in making friends. I just wanted to get done with high school so I could move on to New York. The was the plan. However I did make one friend, and as I would later learn she was also everybody’s friend. This also meant she have very few real friends. None the less she knew everyone. Not in the goody-goody kind of way but rather in the antithesis of it. She was connected. You need a guy she probably knows two, her brothers might be, might not have been, cholos, I still don’t know. She might or might not beat you up after class for messing with her girls, I don’t know.
We became friends. Unlike the other student body, Betty felt genuine with a good heart. I think we also connected because I might have been the first guy she met that wasn’t after her pants. She was a beautiful girl with curly frothy hear, beautiful brown eyes that seemed to be bejeweled and a smile that would set ablaze any room. Despite her flocks of sheeple friends, I still refused to befriend them or anybody else. She became my home base in what still felt like a hostel place.
We walk around arm and arm as kids do. Not romantically in anyway. I was out, she knew, but nobody else knew. Because I still wore my resting bitch face, the flocks of sheeple assumed I was her new overprotective and angry boyfriend. This really amused me and I played into it. It was overwhelming, I could believe the attention I was getting from the students that gave me so much grief. This taught me what compelled people to treat other people in a certain way, was in large part influenced if not dictated by group think mentality. As an young artist, I also viewed the situation as a question of esthetics, I no longer projected weakness of fear. Now I projected strength, confidence and more intriguing to my teenage peers, I wore my indifference like a crown.
I really couldn’t get over the situation, which is way even now I am still processing it by writing about it. There are movies about this, Mean Girls, Heathers, Carrie, but none of them have a brown queer boy name Beto as the main character. I am the main character, this is my story. Even then, while I was having the experience, the ethos of the situation prompted me to push and pull the farce as far as I could. So, I devised a “sociological experiment.” That is exactly how I pitched it to Betty.
I didn’t learn about sociology in school, not at Belmont obviously. I didn’t even read my first book cover to cover until I was in middle school. Now I can’t stop reading, it’s as if I am try to catch up. I learned about the magic of sociology from my aunt, my only aunt, Maribel. She was taking a course in collage and often shared her findings with me. She would go on to be the first to graduate from college in our family. What she showed me blew my mind. Early on she and I would have conversations about nurture versus nature, she allowed me to play with dolls with out judgment. She provided a safe space for me growing up which taught me how far I could go and accomplish if I did feel safe. Maribel or Marie as I preferred to call her after learning about Marie Antoinette in her French 101 text book, was also the one they called when the bully thing become an issue. She did not make me feel like a coward, or give me boxing gloves and tell me to man up. She just made me feel like I could be me. This space allowed me to remove myself from the experience and not let it scar me too deep or take it for face value. Had she not schooled me it would have been a different experience.
I understood Belmont was not reality, and that this microcosm of a reality, if I could call it that, had some teachable moments. I needed to prove to myself that the lessons were real. I told myself I need evidence from this superficial case study for my own personal development and research. So I thought I’d have fun. Timing was on my side, home coming was around the corner. This was my simple but poignant hypothesis in laymen: I, a friendless stranger, run for homecoming prince will win if I run on the same ballot as Betty, the most popular influencer of her time, at Belmont high school. Plain and simple.
I was certain everyone would vote for us. I knew everyone would by default vote for me. I let Betty in on the plan and she was in. We made flier and posters, “VOTE FOR BETTY, and Martin”. We’d hang out, walk around arm and arm, with my chest a little extra puffed up. We didn’t stage make out sessions or any aggressive PR stints. We did not need them, it was a sure win. On homecoming night I didn’t have a surprise male date to jump out and make out with me when I was declared prince, nor did Betty and I arrive in a limo as tradition dictates.
On stage standing next to my running mates, I didn’t see familiar or friendly face in the crowd. On the opposite side of the stage was Betty with her running mates. As they called out the winners I heard my name, Luis, Luis Martin, then silence. There was no echo or trace of Fancy Fat Fag, just the flashes of disposable cameras going off. Underneath the sounds of the flashes I could hear the muffled voice that had called my name announcing “the homecoming princess of 1994 is Rosario Valdez” I looked over at Betty who was having such a good time on stage the lose did not even register. She cheered Rosario on.
I had won, without Betty. I had won, not because I was this gorgeous boy with amazing magnetism, no, I don’t think so. I won because I knew Betty and more over I know how to leverage her popularity. Rosario Valdez probably won too, because she knew a guy or two. I had been right. I pulled it off. What I had proven both empowered me and hardened me. It taught me that most people are sheeps looking for shepherds. People want to be told what to think. I know that was the moment I would have to choose, am I a sheep or am I a shepard. It wasn’t really a question but the experience taught me to be wary of people and groups. Moving forward I saw the difference in my own thought process.
My filter question about anything became “Am I a sheep or am I a Shepard?”, do I really think this or am I being lead? It plays out in the mundane too, am I singing the chorus of that stupid song because it resonates with me or has it just be programed into my brain by the eight song rotation they play everywhere I go? It goes deeper, the perception of our choices in who we hate, in who we trust, or who we become is more often than not, something we are shepard into. Go to school, get married, get a mortgage, retire when you are old, then wait to die, why? Why in that order? This isn’t some kind leftist propaganda advocating rights for any counter culture, if anything this is an adolescent’s call for anarchy. You need to know a few things about yourself and the many contexts and systems our stories are being played out in, all of which are fluid. You can change your name, take the thrown to push and pull your own narrative right now.