I wrote this in 2011 when I was celebrating the successes of my adopted Mexican son. He continues to grow and flourish and succeed much to his father's great pride and enjoyment. And I thought I’d republish it in the spirit of Fathers’ Day.
I moved to Mexico a dozen years ago and immediately placed an ad seeking a bilingual roommate. I knew little about Guadalajara and understood even less about Mexican culture and the Spanish language. The ad also said “gay” because the country is very religious and I didn’t want my identity to seem like a secret or become a surprise.
Javier, 20, answered the ad and we met and talked. He was so innocent and so nervous, I liked him immediately and our “interview” lasted most of the afternoon. The following day, he expressed his interest in becoming friends as well as roommates. I helped him move from his aunts’ home and we quickly became camaradas.
My first questions of him, of course, were about the ambient gay of Guadalajara. Which were his favorite bars? Did he have a lot of gay friends? Was he dating someone special? No, actually, I was the only person who knew he was gay. He’d never been to a gay bar or on a date and had never talked with anyone about his sexuality. Nada.
I was stunned.
As we got to know each other, we discussed our backgrounds and feelings regularly and at length. He had lots of questions and was appreciative of any answers from experience. He was such a likeable and vulnerable kid, I slipped easily into the “gay mentor” role and when I explained the concept to him, I included my favorite observation: that we had all been raised by straight parents. That resonated with him and made us “family” in the gay definition.
As he began to venture out, I was on hand when he made his first trek to the premier gay dance club (conveniently located right across the street) and when he had his first date (after primping and pacing for an hour!). Later, he even shared with me details of his first romantic encounter. We had become very close and I was honored that he trusted me with details he would never have shared with anyone previously.
But outside of me (and Octavio, his new novio), he wouldn’t chance letting anyone know about his identity. If he was suspected or accused of being gay, he cringed and fled in shame. And we'd talk about it later.
It should also be noted that although Mexicanos are adamantly live-and-let-live, you can be fired from your job for any reason your employer chooses, including being gay.
At the same time, I was learning about the abandonment Javier had suffered throughout his childhood. His father, mother and custodial aunt had each left him without reason or warning, dumping him on someone else to raise. He ultimately grew up in the home of spinster aunts who afforded him little more than a roof over his head. His father had even taken his older brother with him when he deserted the family, a deeper betrayal of his younger son. Many times Javier was left wondering why he’d been left behind. What was wrong with him?
On the morning I had to return to the Bay Area to find work, I was up early checking my flight status when I first noticed Javier. He slipped into the chair opposite me at the dining room table, behind my computer’s monitor. He could only have had an hour or two of sleep after his overnight work shift. As I craned my neck to greet him, his gaze didn’t meet mine. His face was etched with pain, his eyes were dark and sullen and he stared at the floor in silence. “Javier,” I said, “you look terrible; are you OK?”
“I’m never going to see you again,” he said.
At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. Then I realized this was the abandonment talking. Sure, if he hadn’t been worthy of his parents’ love, in his child’s mind, how could he hope to keep this Gringo’s friendship?
“You will return to your country and you won’t come back,” he said. “I will never see you again. This is how it always happens.” Now I could see his tears. I rounded the table and scooped him up into a hug. The kid was trembling and I felt his wet cheek against my neck. I cursed his parents in my mind.
“No,” I said, “this trip is only about business! I will come back as soon as I can. I want to live here. I want to live here with you. We will always be very good friends.” But even to me, my words sounded like a weak boast against his lifetime of loss.
I had a very hard time letting go of him in that moment and, although I knew I shouldn’t leave him, I had a plane to catch. Damn.
I already knew how much I would miss him and this wasn’t helping. And I was very concerned because we’d worked out an elaborate system of transferring money internationally so he could maintain the apartment and pay the bills until I returned in a few months. I never doubted our friendship but I needed him to keep up his end of the bargain.
Back in the U.S., I spent a small fortune on the phone each month maintaining our connection and relationship. Never before had I truly appreciated the slogan, “Reach out and touch someone.” Now, I was living it.
Eighteen months later, I would adopt Javier in California as my son. I specifically wanted to make good on my promise to him but I also wanted to guarantee our relationship for me. He was the most genuine, honorable and humble young person I’d ever met and I wanted us to be family for my sake, too. He even took my Irish surname for his own. Consider: Ernesto Javier Avila Dougherty. Catchy, no? Honestly, I was deeply touched.
But in the first month I was gone, Octavio dumped him. More abandonment! Javier was crushed. “I wish you were here so we could drink beers until we fall down,” he said in his best, non-idiomatic construction. I still wasn’t working and hated to think of him being alone and lonely, so I sent him a ticket to San Francisco. It would be his first trip outside Estado Jalisco and his first plane ride.
He’d had a visa from an old employer for training in Texas and I erroneously assumed it would also get him to San Francisco for a personal visit. But when he arrived, U.S. Immigration told him he was ineligible for entry and would have to return to Mexico…ticket used. But when he told the immigration officer about the purpose of his trip and our relationship (and he also produced documents of his university status, employment, bank account, residence and my identity), they let him in and lengthened the time of his visa. Whew!
I was still staying with close friends in Sonoma whom I’d told all about him. They agreed that he would benefit from a visit and they really wanted to meet him after hearing my incessant promotions of him.
Stephen and Tawny were young progressives and very open-minded. In fact, Stephen had a gay, younger brother and they’d recently gone through his coming-out. I told them how secretive and fearful Javier was and we concocted a plan to help relieve him of his shame: they wouldn’t say anything about Stephen’s brother and I would set him up to come out.
When I picked up Javier at the airport, I told him the “truth” on the way home: Everyone I knew in California knew I was gay and, therefore, any man seen with me would be assumed to be gay, also. Including him. My eyes were stern; his got big. “Everyone?”
We four spent a relaxed evening over dinner and Javier and I slept on the guestroom futon. In the morning, the first thing he mentioned was that our hosts seemed to like him. Yes, I assured him, they did. “Stephen and Tawny are very nice. And they know I’m gay?” Yes, most definitely. “And they said nothing!” My plan was working.
Over the next month, I introduced him to all my friends and they saw in him just what I had seen: a breath of fresh air with an illuminating smile and a heart of gold. Then I’d remind him that, by association, they knew more about him than he may have considered and more than was mentioned. Truthfully, I have no idea what they thought but, after a while, and predictably, the shock of my white lies began to wear off.
We had a great time as I showed him northern California from the redwoods to Big Sur and much of San Francisco (and probably all of the Castro). He made many gay friends if only for a beer in Twin Peaks or a dance at The Café.
And several nights I sat in the car with a slice of pizza and a newspaper while he cavorted until closing. As a Mexican joven, he was far too considerate to suggest that parents (even future, potentially-adoptive parents) weren’t cool. But I knew the deal. I wanted him to spread his wings in the gay-Mecca that is San Francisco with nothing to remind him of his shame. Including this old Gringo.
Before he left for home, I recapped: all my friends knew him and liked him. They were now his friends, too. And although we’d only discussed gay topics with gay friends or in gay locations, there were no secrets as to his lifestyle. He was an “out,” gay Mexican-Californian!
When he got home to Guadalajara, he immediately came out to his close friends and family and called me to report his new status. Some were surprised, he told me; some were not. But nobody really cared. They loved him for who he was and just wanted him to be happy.
It was then that I told him of my devious plan. We laughed and laughed, especially when I got to the part about Stephen’s brother.
And like most of us who’ve gone through that process somewhat traumatically, he’s never looked back.
Right after I left Mexico, Javier’s college aspirations seemed to fall apart. It was understandable to me because of the impossible schedule he’d attempted to keep. But he was supremely disappointed in himself.
When we’d shared the apartment, I had been waking him at 9 p.m. and taking him to his company’s bus for his overnight shift in the zona industrial. He’d return in the middle of the night, catch a few hours of sleep and head off to a full day of school. Afterward, he’d attempt to study until it was time for work again.
Now he was oversleeping. And he was so exhausted, he was missing school and had to withdraw for the semester or risk losing his scholarship. He was dejected and felt defeated and unworthy. And I felt powerless to help.
It was then that I suggested that I pay his bills so he didn’t have to work. He needed living expenses and couldn’t possibly handle both full-time work (48 hours/week in Mexico) and full-time school. And sometimes he needed money for books and incidentals which he didn’t have.
And I could help; I was now working. We weren’t talking about much money by U.S. standards and it was profoundly clear to me how important Javier was in my life.
But he was not receptive to my offer. He pointedly said he couldn’t take money from me or anyone. So, I reminded him of the depth and permanence of our friendship and its impact on both our lives. His success-and-happiness was now my success-and-happiness. I also impressed the incredible timing of our meeting. This was fate; this was meant to be.
OK, he finally relented, but I absolutely had to agree that he would pay me back everything, peso for peso. [N.B.: After the adoption, Javier revised his repayment plan to an affirmation that he would always take care of me when I was “older and grayer.”]
It was then that I realized I was Javier’s “break” in life. All he needed was a little good fortune, something that went his way, the assurance of someone who cared. But this intelligent, hard-working, eager, innocent, genuine, industrious guy couldn’t see how he deserved a break. Because he’d never had one.
Javier completed his bachelor’s degree in 3 years with a 95 average. His final semester included 53 hours of class time per week plus study, labs and assignments, plus tutoring younger students. (“Community service” is a requirement of degree candidates in Mexico.) When I later asked him why he’d compressed his education into 3 years, he responded, “Because it was your money.” I was dumbfounded…but not surprised.
Although he was worthy of UC Berkeley’s Haas Graduate School of Business, I couldn’t qualify him as a California resident’s child for purposes of tuition and I couldn’t afford retail. We then worked on scholarships but 9/11 happened and all possibilities imploded.
Since he was far more concerned about repaying his student loan than going back to school, he began work for a well-known German multinational corporation rather than pursue an MBA. (Did I mention he speaks 4 languages?)
He has done very, very well. He is currently one of a handful of international logistics managers for a huge corporation and is based in Chicago. (Ironically, he lives only blocks from the house I grew up in.) He is responsible for €250M of product, annually, and travels throughout Europe in his position. He is scheduled to take up Japan and Brazil this year as his responsibilities have mushroomed. He expects all future assignments will have him working out of Corporate in Germany. And on his way out of Guadalajara, he bought me a condominium for my retirement.
Every time I speak to him, my son thanks me for everything good that has happened in his life…everything. And somehow, to this day, he thinks he got the better part of the deal.
I can’t begin to thank my son for what he’s given me. I never would have dreamed it possible to feel this much love and pride for someone who strode into my life with just an innocent smile and a pure heart. But it is. And even more so after all these years. I think of him every single day.
Happy Father’s Day!