So, just how many Latinos (or Hispanics – the terms are interchangeable four our purpose) live in the U.S.? More than 53 million and growing! This means that 16.7% of the U.S. population is Hispanic or 1 in 6 adults. Compare this to 12.2% of the population for African Americans. But more important is the fact that 1 in 4 children today is Hispanic. According to the U.S. Census, this means that by the year 2060 one in three Americans will claim to be of Hispanic descent.
These numbers make it obvious why we should care about this American demographic. It is critical that as the rest of the U.S. becomes more secularized, Hispanic Americans should not lag behind thus avoiding becoming a 53 million people anchor-heavy dragging us back to religiosity. So how can we make sure of this doesn’t happen? By creating points of inflection! Let’s take a look at one example: the real story of Juan… you could say he is “Juan in a million” or to be more accurate,” Juan in 53 million!” There are many stories, but this might just be a typical one.
Juan was born in Niquia, a small South American neighborhood created by the Pantex textile company in order to provide affordable housing to its workers. The neighborhood had dirt streets, the water came from a well, and San Antonio Maria Claret Catholic church was just half a block away. Juan’s parents had him baptized 7 minutes after birth to mitigate the risk of the child ending up in Limbus (the edge of hell due to Original Sin).
Within 4 years of his birth and by the time his mother was 23 years old, Juan had 4 new siblings (yes, there is a set of twins there). She had somewhat liberal parents that had allowed her to finish high school before marrying, but Juan’s father barely had finished the 3rd grade.
It turns out that Juan, as most normal kids between 4-7 years old, asked so many questions that his parents and family called him “Juanito el preguntón” (Johnny the questioner). Some of his questions were innocent enough: If god is stronger than the devil, why won’t god just destroy him and, this way, ensure that all people go to heaven?; Why does god need the pope instead of just talking to each person individually?; If Jesus is also god, why did he pray to himself? Of course, his parents were often flustered with so many questions they couldn’t answer and would typically tell him: God will reveal all these divine mysteries when you get to heaven which was code for “stop asking, stop thinking and shut up”.
The local textile company paid for Juan’s education (and his siblings) at the local Catholic grade school and Juan’s life revolved fully around church and church activities. By age of 10 he was an altar boy, and before you ask, no – he was not molested (as Bill Maher would say, either he was a very ugly kid or the priests he came into contact were not pedophiles … the latter is probably the case).
Point of Inflection #1
Although it could be argued that before this time, there had been thousands, perhaps millions of single points of failure or inflection points that shaped Juan’s life, he felt that his first major Point of Inflection came when Juan’s father was offered a job in the U.S. Perhaps one might think that being left alone at age 12, in charge of his four younger siblings in a third world country, for 3 months, and with a hand gun “to defend the home if anyone broke in” would be such an inflection point, but it was not. It was moving to the U.S. Within a few months of his father arrival in the U.S., the whole family had legally migrated to Central Falls, RI. At that time, this city of one square mile boasted the most churches and the most bars per square mile of any place in the U.S. and Juan felt right at home, by finding a thriving Catholic Spanish-speaking community in his new neighborhood. Interesting enough, RI at that time was about 91% Catholic and, as you probably know, Rhode Island brags of being the first state in the Union to have freedom of religion (thanks to Roger Williams and others). Thus Juan found himself learning a new language, a new culture, and for the first time in his life, able to get up for second helpings at the dinner table.
“En el país de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey” – The Formative Years (ok, if your Spanish is rusty, it is an old Spanish saying “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King”.
Juan’s life was changing fast and he used religion to stay grounded. He readily consumed several Knights of Columbus mail courses on Catholicism while realizing for the first time that other religions existed… but of course, they were all wrong! At age 15 Juan considered becoming a priest and, really, the only thing that kept him from doing so was his horror in thinking that he would never know the pleasure of being with a woman… naïve wasn’t he?
Juan’s parents had the foresight to inculcate within him the idea that the only way out of poverty was through education. His high school was very poor and didn’t offer Calculus, so he convinced the school administrators to allow him to teach himself Calculus. Mr. Vincent Hey, the chemistry teacher, agreed to provide him with periodic exams and homework. This was the only way Juan could have a chance to be accepted at a decent college.
Calculus – Inflection #2
It wasn’t long before Juan realized that if hell existed, it was probably full of calculus problems. Calculus is hard enough with a teacher, but just about impossible without one. After his first quarter, Juan was extremely depressed because he was starting to see his dreams of college fade. Juan took every class available in school, but also worked delivering medicine for a large pharmacy 7 hours after school every day.
One day Juan was entering a nursing home, when a very old woman in a wheel chair but with a surprising strong grip grabbed him by his wrist. She said “take me out of here, just take me and drop me off a few miles from here – I hate this place”. Juan thought she was perhaps a little demented and with a gentle smile told her that he was only 17 and would get in a lot of trouble. He added “Ma’am, how can you hate it here? They take care of you, you can watch any TV show you want… you have no problems; I on the other hand, have lots of problems”. The old woman stopped acting crazy and looking straight at him asked “What possible problems can a 17 year old have?” Looking for her pity, he explained his failure of self-teaching calculus and his future going down the drain. The woman asked to see his homework which he carried with him at all times to study during his breaks. The old woman laughed and said, “this is simple stuff… let me show you how it’s done…“ and she did! It turned out she used to be a mathematics professor at Brown University many years before. She agreed to tutor Juan in exchange for his visits, which she insisted had to be at the nearby park half a block away. She was just lonely and Juan received an A that year. To Juan, she was god-sent. The old woman passed away two days before Juan received his final grade, never really knowing how she had changed Juan’s future.
Upward Bound - Inflection Point #3
Central Falls Jr. Sr. High School was already fast becoming the worst school in the nation (eventually the state took it over and fired all the teachers and administrators- look it up). Juan’s chances to getting into college were still slim to none. But one school administrator, seeing his passion for learning recommended him to the Upward Bound Federal program for “disadvantaged” kids. Juan was thrilled beyond belief. While other kids complained about school, Juan was taking Upward Bound classes on Saturdays and for the entire summer weeks at Rhode Island College from grade 9-12. Today some Upward Bound alumni include Oprah Winfrey, John Quiñones, Angela Bassett and Juan’s friend and classmate at that time, movie star Viola Davis. This program guaranteed that Juan could get accepted into college.
A stranger saves his future – Inflection Point #4
Juan applied and was accepted to seven major universities and he couldn’t be happier… until he told his parents. With a great deal of sadness and shame, his parents said that he couldn’t go to college because they couldn’t afford to pay. Furthermore, Juan’s father was very ill and unemployed while his mother was working in a sweatshop textile factory for minimum wage. Supporting a family of 7 with such a salary was impossible and Juan’s family was literally going hungry.
Over the years, Juan had become chess champion (didn’t require a lot of speaking in English) and had received, among many trophies, a jacket that denoted his chess achievements. Using chess, an Air Force recruiter had been wowing Juan to join, promising him lots of money for education and a way out of poverty. On a particular Saturday, shortly after his 18th birthday, the recruiter met Juan for a game of chess and told him “Juan, you don’t need your parents’ permission – just be a man and sign here and you will be one less burden on your family”. With a pen in his hand ready to sign, Juan suddenly realized he had promised his mom to be home for lunch and he was very late. He promised the recruiter he would return that afternoon to sign the papers.
When Juan got home, his mother asked him to go buy milk at Cumberland Farms (a local New England convenience chain). When Juan noticed she was hold food stamps in her hand, he refused as did the rest of his siblings. “Give me real money and I’ll go, but I’m embarrassed to use food stamps” Juan said to his mother. With a deep sigh and she said “Don’t worry son, I’ll go buy it”. At that moment Juan noticed just how humiliating this was for his mother and how much of a failure she felt for not being a proper provider for her children”. Juan immediately stopped his mother and with a fake smile said “Mom, I was just kidding – I’ll go no problem!”
Juan was mortified and ashamed. He made sure to be the last person in line so no one but the clerk would see the “fake money” he was using, but suddenly a new customer appeared and got behind him. Juan offered to let him go ahead, but the man refused and instead started asking him lots of questions. “Nice jacket… so you are a chess champion from Central Falls High School… good for you…” After asking for his class, grades, college plans, etc. the man told him in an alarmed voice “You mean to tell me that you are the second best student in your school, you have been accepted to U. Mass, URI, Providence College and George Washington University and you want to join the Air Force as a private soldier? Juan explained he didn’t have money for college and the man took out a piece of paper and wrote: $2,500 guaranteed student loan; $2,000 national direct student loan; $3,000 Pell Grant; $5,000 work study….etc. He then said “Son, pick the school you like best and write to their financial aid office and tell them you want this aid in order to attend. Now tell me, where the hell is your guidance counselor?” In shock, Juan sheepishly informed him that his guidance counselor had a heart attack very early in the year and was never replaced. Juan asked him how he knew about all these financial aid things he the man responded that he was a guidance counselor for a rival high school not far from there. Juan cried with joy three days later when George Washington University responded “Your financial aid has been accepted. We look forward to having you here in the fall”
Juan graduated from GWU, got his first job at the International Monetary Fund and married an atheist girl he met while doing homework at GWU. He was still a believer but after a many years with his non-religious wife and by just reading a lot of science, Juan became an atheist. No traumatic event – simple scientific skepticism grew within him. Of course it took him 42 years to get rid of superstitious beliefs, but his atheist wife was always there for him. Juan became much more savvy and noticed that discrimination is alive and well in the U.S. and, as a way to minimize its effects on him, he officially dropped his first name and kept his middle name: David.
David touches a man’s heart: Inflection Point #5
After joining some local atheists groups David noticed how very few Hispanics there were and decided to create a small meet up, but on the 4th meeting and with about half a dozen people, he was impacted by another man’s story. Going around the table having each person tell their story, the turn came to a day laborer who, still in his dirty work clothes, said with in a colloquial Spanish and tears in his eyes “Thank you for having this group! All my life I thought I had something wrong with me because I couldn’t believe in god. I now see before me, men and women who are better educated than me and who agree with me. Thank you for letting me know that there is nothing wrong with me, that I am normal. Thank you for giving back to me my self-worth...” and his voice trailed off – at this moment, David Tamayo decided to create a non-profit 501(c)3 organization called Hispanic American Freethinkers, Inc. (HAFree) which is currently the only national Hispanic organization focused on helping the largest minority in the nation.
HAFree helps students by teaching critical thinking skills in high schools and it serves as an advisory and sound board for Hispanics with issues in coming out as atheists. There are many other functions and things HAFree does, but the point is that now there is an organization that is in touch with Latino issues relating to secularism.
This story is not unique. It shows us the power of simple small things that can change someone’s life and by that virtue, the life of countless others. Each one of us should strive to be a Point of Inflection for someone else. Without the busybody guidance counselor or the old woman in a wheelchair, HAFree might have never existed and hundreds of people who already have benefited from HAFree wouldn’t have received such help. Let’s be a point of Inflection for the next “Juan”.