On my second birthday, we landed on the moon.
Obviously, I have no actual memory of watching it happen. No memory of being huddled around a small black and white television in the family den. No memory of watching this happen while wearing a birthday hat, mouth lathered in the remnants of cake. First of all, I was two years old. Secondly, I’m not even sure my family had a small black and white television, or a family den for that matter. Thirdly, and most importantly, when I say “we” landed on the moon I have no fucking idea who the we is.
When we landed on the moon, my family hadn’t immigrated to the United States yet. We were still in Portugal. Living under fascist rule. And when my father saw a rocket escape the atmosphere and plant an American flag on a celestial body that he could see in his own sky with his own eyes, I think he decided that flag was a pretty good indicator of where freedom came from. And he decided to emigrate.
(I’ve never had the heart to tell him the rocket was developed by fascists.)
I’m writing this because today’s my fiftieth birthday. And I didn’t want to let it pass without some sort of accounting. And after fifty years of not dying, I’ve decided I can take the time for a little self-reflection.
On my second birthday, we landed on the moon. And 48 years later “we” is still the most difficult word in that sentence. And it’s the word I’ve been trying to get an understanding of for 50 years.
When we arrived in the United States in 1970, we settled in Philadelphia because it was the home of a lot of Portuguese immigrants from the small town my parents (and I guess me) came from. And so the we grew from a family unit to a community of immigrants who looked out for each other. We shopped at a Portuguese grocery store because they gave us credit. We rented from a Portuguese landlord because he wasn’t concerned about a rental history. And my parents worked for Portuguese businesses because we didn’t come here to steal jobs, but to create them.
This same community also looked out for each other. When there was trouble, we were there. When someone was laid off a construction job for the winter, we cooked and delivered meals. When someone’s son ended up in jail, we found bail. And when someone’s relative wanted to immigrate, we lined up jobs and moved money to the right bank accounts to prove solvency.
On my second birthday, we landed on the moon. And 48 years later “we” is still the most difficult word in that sentence.
But as anyone who has ever grown up in an immigrant community knows, we also demands a them. They were not us. And they didn’t see us as them either. And at the risk of airing immigrant dirty laundry in public, I can attest that immigrant communities can be racist as fuck. We hated blacks. We hated Puerto Ricans. (It wasn’t too long ago I had to ask my mom to stop talking about “lazy Puerto Ricans” in front of her half-Puerto Rican grandchildren.) We hated Jews. In our eagerness to show Americans we belonged, we adopted their racism. (We also brought some of our own with us.)
We hung Ronald Reagan election posters in our stores, even as he worked to bleach America of us. And the more I saw that our definition of ourselves was being defined by our exclusion of others, the more uncomfortable I became. Oh, but trust me, I’m not painting myself as an exception to this. I did participate. I said shameful things. I thought shameful thoughts. I fought for shameful reasons. Every fight at school was between races. And as an immigrant, I was never white enough not to get my ass kicked by the Irish kids, and just white enough to get my ass kicked by the black kids. But my mouth earned every one of those beatings.
The only we I saw was that we all hated each other. And to survive I needed to keep looking for a better we. (…and although I was too young to realize it yet, a better me.)
On my sixteenth birthday I came home with a broken nose and my mother reminded me that we didn’t live in our own country, and would never have the same rights as those who’d been born here. (Thirty some years later we would elect Donald Trump president, ultimately proving my mother right.) I wasn’t willing to accept this. America was the only country I knew. I watched the same TV as American kids. I ate the same junk food. I listened to the same music. I watched the same sports. How was I not an American too? How was this not my country? And if not this one, then which? And yet, as we drove to the emergency room, my mother crying, my father in a rage, and me with a bag of frozen peas (we had adopted some American comforts) held up to my bloody nose, I had to admit that when other Americans looked at me, they didn’t think we. They thought them.
Luckily, Reagan’s America provided a solid solution for sixteen year olds living in Philadelphia who saw themselves as outcasts:
Turns out the combination of art school and punk rock was an amazing drug for a kid who felt like an outcast. Come to think of it, drugs were an amazing drug too!
The world doesn’t want to include me. But the world didn’t want to include a lot of people. And for a brief moment in time we found each other. We met in abandoned halls, we met in the back of steak shops, we met in shitty bars, we met in basements. But we met. And we supported each other.
The beauty of mosh pits is that people only knocked you down so they could pick you back up.
It didn’t matter that we couldn’t play instruments very well. (I never even attempted.) We played them anyway and if you played them faster, no one realized you messed up. It didn’t matter that no one would publish our writing. We made our own zines. It didn’t matter that no one made clothes we liked. We put our own together with safety pins. We didn’t need you to let us into your community. We made our own. And our community was made up of all kinds of people. All backgrounds. All sexual orientations—with revolving doors to choose a new one whenever you liked. In these basements, in these halls, in these art school classrooms, I met the most amazing fucked-up people and they loved you for who you were. Here in these halls of kindness I met people who I’d previously avoided, been afraid of, mocked, reviled, and flat-out hated and they were calling me brother. And I loved them back.
We weren’t afraid to do anything because we decided Reagan was going to kill us all. We were invincible because we decided we were already dead.
Meanwhile, underneath all this fun and excitement, and drugs, was depression. The escape velocity I used to break free of the gravity of my parents’ house was exhausted. And the moon loomed over me like something that had to be dealt with at some point. My brain, which is shared by me and my depression, told me it was time to run.
I took off to see other parts of America. I needed to see who else was out there. I knew the moon would follow. It took me another ten years to deal with my depression.
On my thirtieth birthday, I held my infant son in my arms.
I had no template for being a good father. My father didn’t either, so I’m not putting this at his feet as much as I’m acknowledging it. But I wanted to be a good father. And when I went back in time, I couldn’t find a template for it. My own father and I, that was a troubled we. (The same could be said about me and my mother.) And as I looked at my new son, I knew that we were in unchartered waters. I would have to figure out how this relationship — this thing between father and son — could make room for happiness.
As I looked down at my new son, I realized that for the first time in my life I was in a relationship I could not run away from, could not put on someone else, could not half-ass, could not pretend to do right. Even if I managed to to get all those things right, what genetic malfeasance had I saddled this kid with? I looked at this little bundle of pink flesh and spit and poop and realized that inside him there was the genetic code for depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer, anxiety, and all sorts of other shit. I looked at that little kid and thought, little one you are fucked.
My son made me realize that we are also a genetic code that travels through time. We are ancestors. We are descendants. And while we can’t fix the problems of the past in the present, we can make sure that we break the patterns that formed those problems. We can make sure the problems of our ancestors don’t plague our descendants. I want to be a good ancestor. Because I want my son to be a good ancestor someday too.
We don’t have to be the people our parents raised us to be. We need to be the people our children need us to be. The truth is our children raise us more than our parents ever did.
I think I’ve been a good father. (I can attest to being a better father than husband, but that is a story for another time.) I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has been a good son. He has pushed me to do things I was previously afraid to do. Because I didn’t want him to be afraid to do them. He has taught me kindness, he has taught me patience, and he has taught me how to love someone unconditionally. But most of all, he has taught me that we have to stick around and get things as right as possible.
In my forties, an amazing thing happened. I got over my fear of public speaking. I found out that not only did I enjoy it, I was good at it. And so people would invite me all over the world to speak in front of them.
I found myself in places I never expected to be: overlooking a glacier in Norway, dancing in an anarchist bar in Copenhagen, bartering in a Muslim market in Hyderabad, bouncing in an inflatable castle full of sex workers in Melbourne, biking through Malmo, eating falafel in Paris, setting off (minor) explosives in Budapest, riding bullet trains in Japan, sneaking horribly flavored vodka into old Soviet buildings in Warsaw, drinking in lesbian or gay or oh-who-the-hell-cares bars in Berlin. And with each trip, I met more people, and with each trip my definition of we increased. With each trip, I realized that we had so much in common, and that we had so much that was weird and different and that both were just as amazing.
But nothing touched me more than going back home to Philadelphia this past January. The city where I grew up an immigrant, and got beat up on for being an immigrant, and joining a pro-immigration march at the airport. We chanted together. We marched together. We resisted together.
We don’t live in a bubble. We live on a bubble. A fragile fucking bubble that withstands so many pricks. So many pricks. So many pricks shouting same same same same. So much fear of difference. So much energy spent hating what is different from the small definition of we that we grew up with. So much energy being wasted, that we get further and further away from the moon with every subsequent generation. But every time you reach across the world and call someone brother or call someone sister, you are kicking against those pricks.
Nine years ago, I was on a flight from Louisville, Kentucky. We were disembarking kind of slow. Annoyingly slow. When I finally got out to the gate I found out why. There was a small crowd gathering around one man. Getting their pictures taken with him. He was holding himself steady on a walker. His hand trembled as he reached out to shake people’s hands. But his smile was unmistakable. I’d shared a flight with Muhammad Ali. For three hours our paths on Earth crossed just close enough to put us on the same plane. For three hours we’d breathed the same air. I cried that night. Standing there looking at someone who’d done so much to expand who we think of as we. I cried again the day he died. And I remembered those 3 hours we shared the same air. And I realized, that in a larger sense, from the day I was born until the day he died, we’d shared the same air while traveling on an even bigger ship traveling through space. And I considered myself lucky.
On my second birthday, the moon hung in the sky like a glowing pin on a map. That same moon had hung in the sky forever. But this time it was different. This time, we were on it. This time, we were looking back. We took a picture of what we saw.
We are here. We did the celestial version of running across the street to get a photo with all of us in the shot. And in that shot, if we look closely, we’ll see a bunch of people trying to live both ordinary and extraordinary lives. We are bent over a table paying bills. We are watching TV. We are crying over a dead pet. We are preparing dinner. We are toppling dictators. We are filling out a school application. We are learning how to kiss. We are casting nets into the sea. We are arguing. We are making up. We are fucking. We are making babies. We are dreaming of faraway places we’ve seen in books. We are wondering if we’ll ever have the courage to to talk to that girl or boy in our social studies class. We are looking up into the night sky deciding to take our families to a place where they might have a chance to be free. We are all in that picture.
In fifty years of sharing this planet with you, I’ve learned less than some and more than others. I’ve learned half what I need to and twice what I was ever expected to. But I feel pretty confident telling you this: life is messy. Sometimes glorious, sometimes sad, sometimes terrible, sometimes exciting, sometimes a garbage fire, sometimes there are moments you want to bottle up and keep safe so you can return to them forever and ever. And with all that, it is messy. But as long as our definition of we gets a little bit bigger every day, and our definition of them gets a little bit smaller every day — we have a chance.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s my birthday and you forgot to get me something. Awkward. Not to worry though. I found a classroom full of immigrant and refugee kids in Minnesota looking to improve their research skills. They need laptops. That’s what you’re going to get me. I love you too.
Update: The kids got funded! So now we’re gonna help some immigrant punks throw an awesome festival in Philly!