The next evening, I went to see the new film starring Benjamin Bratt. My daughter was correct. The film reflects a piece of our community and culture—the Latino “Mission” community of San Francisco. The story is about a real decent human-being (Che Rivera) who is also a macho dad who explodes into violence when he discovers his high school son (Jes) is gay. In many ways it’s the sad story lived by many families who learn that their son or daughter is gay and then continue hurting each through shame, violence, separation, or icy accommodation.
Yet, there is a quality to this film that challenges one to consider—what actions could I have taken to aide this family? Like many others, the Rivera family is extended. While Che is a single parent and Jes an only son, their family includes a cool uncle and aunt, long-term neighbors, a friendly new neighbor, the father’s colorful group of compadres (tight buddies), and Jes’s best friend. So, after the blow out where Jes gets beaten-up and kicked out of the house, if you were one of these relationships what could you have done to support healing for this father and son?
For the past 35 years I have been working on this and similar questions, and the result is the practice of family activism and facilitation. It was over a generation ago, that a similar sickness within my family prompted me to realize that within our Latino culture we have a host of tools for strengthening and healing our families. We only need to get courageous and use them.
My discovery began after my brother came out as a gay man and I began to realize the family love that sustained us was being destroyed underneath layers of fear, anger, avoidance, and lies. One brother refused to be in the same room as the gay brother, my father refuse to talk about my “sick” brother, and my mother was dying of guilt for causing this to happen many years ago when she had prayed for a daughter. This is when I awakened to the contradiction I was living. I was organizing communities throughout the Southwest to better the lives of Latino families, so I had tools and skills that could assist my family. Yet, regarding my family I had that feeling of EL NO, that sense of “who am I” to make a difference, combined with a fear of dealing with my macho dad. This is when I began to develop the practice of family activism. Family activism is about courageously using our common sense and wisdom to create the positive change we desire for our family, friends and our world.
So if we are to practice family activism…what might that look like? In the story of La Mission, Che and Jes needed someone to step-up and serve as a family facilitator to assist communication between them. There were over a half a dozen people connected to the Rivera family that could have volunteered, yet for a combination of fear and the lack of a designated role they didn’t. As a family activist, one asserts a helper role, “I am here because I am your brother, cousin, uncle or friend, and my role is to help you get your or our family together.” “It begins with talking, so I am present to facilitate the conversation to make certain we address the right questions and that everyone hears each other.”
I realize that for many of us there surfaces a self-doubt, “Who me? I can’t do that!” Over the years I have discovered that in every network of family and friends there is at least one or two people that because of their good heart and natural skills they can serve as a facilitator. They can be even more effective if they become familiar with a few tools like how to call for a family council, use a talking stick, facilitate conversations, or organize an honoring circle. All these are tools that can be used by almost any person genuinely committed to strengthen or advance healing within the family or among friends dear to them.
In the Rivera story, it took a shooting, the loss of life, and some spiritual connection before Che realized that his love for his son was too valuable to toss away. In this made-for-film story it ultimately took only a few months for our macho father to realize his need for change. In my family story in which I used a host of communication tools, it took us several years before there was enough healing that we could all fully join together and support each other, including my gay brother and his partner. Yet, our families and friends are too precious not to invest the time to make them healthy, supportive and joyful.
Echoing my daughter’s enthusiasm, I say go out and see La Mission and learn about a slice of Latino culture and be challenged to consider your role in healing your family. Also, go out and pick-up my book titled Family Activism (Berrett-Koehler Press, 2008) and deepen your learning to serve your family and friends as a family facilitator.