Nicaraguan/ Spoken Word Artist/Educator/Vegan
I truly believe that understanding your roots is absolutely essential to unlocking your true power and understanding where you want to go. It is precisely because of my family’s stories, struggles, and sacrifices that I was able to pursue my dreams. They struggled so that my brothers, cousins, and I wouldn’t have to. I understand and reflect on this consistently to remind me of just how blessed I am and to remind of me how far we’ve come.
When I was a teenager my father taught me about the significance of my roots. He taught me the meaning of the word “Nicoya”. It’s slang, a term used to describe oneself as being from Nicaragua, a small nation tucked away on the isthmus that is Central America. I thought it was the most badass thing. It was a new way for me to describe myself, to give identity to myself, especially at a time such as adolescence. The nickname “Niko” was then born, and since the age of 14 I have been going by it ever since. Even though my mother is from Colombia, I have always shared a stronger bond with my Nicaraguan roots, as my grandparents from that side of the family had more children who then spawned more of their own. I, along with my two brothers and many cousins, am one of these children. It was through large family gatherings and through participation in programs at school that I came to fall in love with music, specifically Hip Hop.
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved the sound of the drum, an instrument that is at the heart of Latin and African music and sounds. I discovered poetry and spoken word in middle and high school, began tagging walls, notebooks, and desks, bought my first pair of turntables at 11, and although I never mastered the moonwalk or a windmill, I absolutely love to dance. Through Hip Hop I was able to further master myself and my identity, and perhaps even more importantly, educate myself. It was through Hip Hop culture that I was able to expand my lens of the world and therefore grow. This combination of my ancestral roots and history and Hip Hop allowed me to understand who I was so that I can better understand where I wanted to go.
During the summer before my senior year of high school, I attended a program that was known back then as the Hispanic Youth Symposium (HYS), a 4 day, 3 night college and life skills empowerment program for high school students in Virginia. Up until that point I was an academic screw up; I basically coasted through high school as a C average student, but by the time the symposium came up, I had been writing poetry for years. The symposium offered scholarship winning opportunities through three different avenues: a writing contest, a speech contest, and a talent show. I wrote and performed a new poem specifically for the event which focused and reflected on the Latinx/American identity and experiences, and to my surprise actually ended up taking 3rd place, walking away with a $500 scholarship. The amount of love and support I received both during and after my performance was euphoric, a feeling I had never felt before in my life. Up until then, I don’t think I had ever cried such tears of joy as I did that night. For the first time in my life, people from outside of my family helped me tap into my own potential and realize the power I had inside of me, the power to make the world a better place through art, creativity, and imagination. However, it wasn’t just the talent show that helped me recognize my power, but also the symposium as a whole. I met high school and college students, each with their own amazing stories and struggles, along with mentors and volunteers that exemplified Brown excellence at it’s finest. For the first time in my life, I saw other young people of color who were either pursuing or had already established careers in medicine, law, education, engineering, entertainment, and media, just to name a few. For a young brown person of color whose family was only familiar with hard labor and blue collar, working class jobs, this was absolutely life changing. To this day, not only do I keep in touch with many of the people that I met nearly a decade ago, I became the best of friends with many of them, further cementing a legacy of friendships and leadership with other members of my community. I am absolutely indebted and owe so much to the Hispanic College Fund for the amazing job they did, and continue to do, to empower young people of color to pursue their dreams through higher education.
Because of all of this and more, I have been fortunate enough to have established a career in education, in which I work to empower low-income high school students of color to pursue higher education and beyond. While it can be demanding work, it is also the most rewarding, and I absolutely love what I do.
Although I have grown and accomplished so much in my life, I know that I am not done, and I actively seek to grow in as many ways I see possible. Currently, I have found myself on a new path of nutrition, fitness, and health. For the past four years, I have been an on and off vegetarian, never taking it much too seriously and mainly doing it for fitness reasons. It wasn’t until this year, 2017, that I decided to make it my new year’s resolution to cut meat out of my diet completely for the entire year. As of this writing, I have been completely meat free for the past 6 months. The results and the benefits have been stunning and tremendous, not only helping me maintain my weight but making me leaner as well. To be more specific about my diet, I not only cut meat out, but went plant-based, meaning my diet mostly consists of lots of fruits, even more veggies, and various forms of nuts and grains. I knew my journey was not going to be easy. I mean, after all, I am 26 years young and have been a meat eater for about 25 of those years. Making that transition was pretty tough, but I knew I had to discipline myself in order to attain my fitness and health goals. As of this writing, I have actually decided to take it a step further and go full on vegan, meaning I will be cutting out all animal products that also include dairy products such as eggs and cheese. The biggest challenge I have faced with these lifestyle changes comes on two fronts: from other men and from communities of color.
Unfortunately for many reasons, our society has raised us to believe that eating meat and masculinity are correlated and linked, meaning the more meat you eat the more manly you are. We’ve essentially masculinized eating meat. There’s a lot more to say about this, but to get to the point, I have received a lot of criticism and resistance to the idea of not eating meat from a lot of men. This has only hardened my position on my dietary and health choices because I have lived and experienced the benefits of training on a plant-based diet. As mentioned earlier, the payoff has been tremendous, giving me higher levels of energy, getting better sleep, and training lighter and getting faster and leaner.
It’s not just men who respond to me this way, but also both men and women from communities of color, where meat-centric plates and dishes are both delicious and abundant. Growing up in a Latinx household, we had meat for dinner practically every night. To a lot of people in my community, the idea of not eating meat in our culture is preposterous and insane; meat is a staple of our daily diet. Many people of color sometimes give me shocked expressions when I tell them that I do not consume meat, and then attempt to wrap their heads around this revelation by naming all the many dishes I am missing out on.
I get it, there aren’t that many plant-based, non meat eating athletes/people of color, but this is exactly why I want to start changing that conversation by being one of the few, by being that anomaly in the system that shakes it up a little more day by day through my daily practices of eating healthier and cleaner, protecting our environment, and showing a little more empathy for the animals that call Mother Earth their home too. I am not that militant vegetarian guy who’s screaming at everyone’s face and scoffing at them for what they consume. During my time as a carnivore, not only did those of type of people make me not want to try it, but it also pushed me away from the idea even more. You can’t force that kind of change on people, and I never will. I just choose to affect change through my daily actions, through my leadership, and through examples of what a healthier, more positive lifestyle can potentially be and look like, especially for both men and communities of color. Healthy eating and healthy living is essential and vital for our communities to grow and thrive into thoughtful, mindful, and conscious human beings.
I work every day to be better than I was yesterday, so I can be better tomorrow. I apply this mindset to every aspect of my life, including my career. I wake up everyday and ask myself how I can continue to inspire and empower my students; I ask how I can continue to be a better version of myself so that I can exemplify a positive role model for them. I don’t like to compare others’ success to mine because everyone is on a different life path. Everyone has their own struggles and obstacles to overcome, and I can’t knock them for that, but what I can do is help others be successful in their journeys. To me, it’s more about what you’re doing in your life right now to better your situation, your life, and yourself, and how we can all help each other get there. When I see others make it, that’s when I feel the most inspired to continue growing too.
Embrace your struggle, don’t run away from it, help others climb up with you, and you will come out a champion and stronger than you and your community ever were before. As a person of color in 21st century America, we have no room not to be unapologetically ourselves, especially during these turbulent political times. Oppression still exists, but we can no longer afford to be complacent or to remain quiet about systems and institutions that not only seek to keep us in these positions of complacency, but also do not welcome us in their spaces. And if that’s the case it should not be a matter of “Oh, well I wasn’t welcome there, so I’ll try looking for another place until I’m let in,” but rather a case of “Oh, well they didn’t realize my potential there, so I’ll go and create the space for myself and others like me.” Know your roots, embrace your struggle, think outside of the matrix, and shock this system.
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