Xavier Rivera is an award-winning artist, a father, a comic-book lover, and a man who is striving to command respect and incite change through the quality of his work.

Join us May 25th for the fourth chapter in our UNDIVIDED series where we’ll share more beautiful perspectives like Xavier’s. More information here.

Growing up was design something you were always interested in?

Growing up I didn’t have a lot of direct choices, it was whatever was available. So I would do things like read the back of cooking books, cereal boxs — whatever was around, and appreciate how the information was laid out, mind you this was when I was five or six years old. My parents were always working and even when they were home, they were always prepping for the next day. So I would spend a lot of time with my cousins and my grandmother, but for some reason, I was always reserved even when I was with my family. So I would find whatever was available. We ran around a lot outside and played basketball almost every day. We didn’t have video game systems until later on, so anything that was in front of me, I would read it. Even if it looked boring, like my dad’s electrical wiring manuals, I would crack it open.

Do you think that was a form of escapism or were you just inherently curious?

So that’s funny. Escapism is a term people kind of develop when getting out of a particular situation, through activities that would help them forget about the daily struggle; some people choose positive outlets, and some go a more negative route. When I was very young, I saw a lot, and that made me aware of my situation, but I was part of a big family with a lot of love that helped balance the whole experience out. Growing up in Brentwood, New York, you had to grow up fast because of everything going on around you. Music was also big factor in my life. My dad and grandmother had a lot of old music playing. My cousins had their own interest in graffiti and even tried creating a local hip hop group that was forming around the same time as pioneers like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, which were Queens and Long Island rap groups. They rubbed off on me a lot, so I looked up to them for inspiration. Being directly tied to that culture and experience, and having my birth take place in Long Island, I’ve seen a lot of interesting things — that shift in culture and seeing the dial start to move in terms of acceptance. Representation matters, it’s inspiring to see others who look like you rise up and become someone valued through their hard work and persistence.

So there was a lot more representation?

Yeah, I lived in a huge melting pot, mostly Hispanic. A lot of African-American, Central American, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican and Dominican. We had our own Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade out there, one weekend removed from the big one in New York City. My mom is African American, and my dad is Puerto Rican, so I got to experience both of those cultures. And in that area, it’s one and the same, we treat each other the same because we had to stick together to cut through it all. My father had lots of friends from all walks of life and he always took us with him when he wasn’t working, and I developed a great respect for him out of that.

Moving to Florida must have been a huge culture shift?

It was, it was for a long time. There are bits of me that still can’t accept it from my childhood mind. I moved here when I was turning 15 and it was so different, in terms of pace and of life and culture. I’ve had a lot of friends come and go and also becoming a father in my late twenties changed my perspective a little bit, but it still feels new every day. Doing things that we’re doing now, like sitting in this coffee shop, that never had relevance or value to me, because the early part of my life was so survival focused. That was not part of my thought process — to have the opportunity to do things like this without thinking twice about it. It was always about working hard to prove otherwise. And it still is a little bit, but it’s starting to feel real in terms of reaching goals. There are days where I’m trying to figure out how to accept these positives because I’ve worked this hard to get to where I am on my own, but also hold onto the values made me appreciate much less.

Is that why you’re in advertising because it’s a way of making commerce out of art?

I always knew I wanted to be some an artist, no matter what I did. Cooking, music, literature, it didn’t matter. Even going back to the stories of cousins on both sides of my family and even my older brothers having their own graffiti groups that would go out and do trains and do walls, and I was always just too young to go with them. So I used to take their sketchbooks and copy them and show it off to my friends in elementary and middle school like: “Hey, I can do this too.” I was already interested in the arts. It was sports, music, and art. That was my escapism. I wouldn’t think about all the crazy stuff going on around me, I would just focus on those subjects. And as long as I kept my mind on something that felt close to my heart, then I felt free for a moment. It was something that I liked to do, and I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do and reciprocate that into success. Be successful and be happy are dreams that a lot of people have, no matter where they come from. It’s a sticking point no matter where you’re at in life, most people want to dovetail what they want to do into success that can support their lifestyle and their habits — and hopefully doing good in the world and making themselves happy are by-products of having no choice but to work their ass off every day. Make it mean something.

Do you think identity politics has ever affected you in the workplace?

If you’re referring to current events or having the president we have now and the way things are going, honestly I feel like people are getting a taste of what people who are divided or disenfranchised socioeconomically, especially on the lower end of the spectrum, kinda have to think about daily. Physically and mentally it’s one stressful situation after another, figuring out how to make something out of nothing and just live. That definitely affects your thought process — down to the way you dress or how you act in front of people. People are always judging you based on your appearance. A lot of things feel controversial. You are the controversy for simply existing. I’ve always tried to not put myself in my bubble but then something always happens to remind you of what you are to some people in society, which is not necessarily what you are to yourself. The latter is much more important.

Do you think that’s something people in Tampa struggle with? Do you see that?

I think I’ve experienced it first hand throughout my life. Not where I work now because being in advertising, it’s much more accepting and open than other industries. There are a lot of great people of color that have done substantial work in our industry who inspire me, like Tom Burrell, and Gail Anderson. I live by something called commanding respect versus demanding respect and that’s through the level of work and the passion of the work that you do. You want people to respect you for what you do and also tie that to being a really good human being. People time and time again have done things out of necessity and survival to benefit themselves, and then mentally they can become a good person and pay that forward. The whole identity politics question isn’t as simple as even saying that. It goes much deeper, I couldn’t even crack the surface. My experience… it’s great now based on the freedom I have at work and the family life that I’ve developed at home. It’s definitely a complete 180 from the options I thought I had growing up. I made that reality for myself. And as a person of color, I feel that if your work isn’t impeccable, you don’t have the same opportunity to make as many mistakes as others do. There is still a huge disparity, and one day I hope to help keep changing that.

In terms of a market, do you think Tampa is diverse?

I think I came at a time where it’s starting to change. Even prominent people I follow for inspiration, you see agencies all over the world changing with more inclusion every day, even though there is still quite a long way to go. I’ve asked myself: “Where are all the Hispanic designers? Where are all the Black designers? Where are they?” We’ve been there the whole time, just not a huge part of the industry as a percentage of people, but the talent is definitely there. I think too, people will see through to your talent, no matter what you appear to be to them.

What would you say to young Hispanic or Black artists who are coming up now?

I would tell them that it’s ok to feel like you’re tired when you work day in and day out. It’s ok to feel like wanting to give up. It’s ok to take the scenic route to try and figure out what you want to do — just don’t give up on doing what you want to do. Command respect through the quality of your work. Because regardless of what you look like or what people think about you, they have to respect the caliber of work that you put out. Don’t be afraid to fail. I think those things will help anyone that wants to succeed. The biggest problem that I have with our current political climate and the socioeconomic construct that we’ve all grown up in is that you hear people say: “You should really pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But if you don’t have boots or straps, how are you supposed to do that? When you’re thinking about things like, “how am I going to eat today” or “am I going to see my parents again.” It’s challenging for anyone to go through, but on top of all that you also have other things you have to think about like, “how should I dress to fit in with the rest of American society” or “how should I do my do my hair to fit in.” Be proud of who you are regardless of what stereotypes people will try to associate you with. There are roses growing from the concrete all over the world.

You’re a fairly young parent; if one of your kids came up to you and said: “I want to have a creative career.” What would you tell them?

With my kids being four and seven years old, I try to give them a level of accountability that they can talk to me because they hear about life all around them anyway. I don’t want to shelter them from that too much, in terms of figuring out your own strengths and weaknesses. Kids have a certain level of attitude that they’re born with and I think as a parent I’m more of a guide. And it’s my obligation to create the best possible human being to place out into the world, one that can make their own decisions based on positivity and helping other people. That’s a big thing in my house: respecting others. Even when you’re angry, tired, sad, hungry you figure all those things out because you don’t know what kind of day another person’s had — I want to show them that as early as possible. So I would tell them: “Go do it. Fail. Learn to fail. Learn to accept failure, because that is integral to growth.” Also dad loves you no matter what.

What do you think the future holds for you?

My hope is that people keep accepting me for the person that I am; somebody that’s willing to work hard and admit when they don’t know something. I hope to be someone that people look up to and remain humble, maybe even change the world for better one day. I just think I have to be an example and keep being true to myself. And hopefully, that will be enough. A lot of people out there just want to work and when you work hard, sometimes you don’t have time to think about all the things that come into the conversation in terms of diversity because you are trying to get through life as it is. I think it’s important to have a sense of family wherever you work, wherever you thrive. That’s what I like about working in Tampa, even though it’s a place that seems pretty split politically, people are trying to find ways to work together and it’s important to do that. But also, now’s the time to speak loudly about what you believe in because people are tired of standing by while nothing is done and tired of fighting for fairness to no avail.

Someone once said there is never a right time to show what you got, but this is THE time to really show your best and show you’re the best at what you do. A lot of ugly things about our society crept out from the shadows with this past presidential election, and because of that a lot of people also have shown who they really are. You can continue to be positive and show them how much better of a person you can be, and hopefully that can be infectious enough to change society as a whole. It’s almost like a tide has risen from two sides and they’re constantly clashing and rolling back, but if we can find a way to create some sort of direction for the future together, it’s going to make society better for career opportunity, for societal growth for the economy, for everything — all that stuff is tied together.

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The UNDIVIDED / Community chapter and interviews were conducted by Ad 2 Tampa Bay Diversity Director, Mouzel Manugas and designed by Tommy Eliason.

Join us May 25th for the fourth chapter in our UNDIVIDED series where we’ll share more beautiful perspectives like Xavier’s. More information here.