“Where Are You Really From?”  It is a question Carlos Andrés Gómez, being a fair-skinned Latino man, gets asked quite a lot. He unpacks the same question in a poem of his. Though he constantly replies with “I’m from New York”, this reaction is usually met with “But your name is Carlos…where are you really [...]


“I’m going to do my daughter’s hair”

Change should start at home, Carlos Andrés Gómez tells Francesca Muddanayake as he talks of poetry and tackling toxic masculinity in 2018

“Where Are You Really From?”  It is a question Carlos Andrés Gómez, being a fair-skinned Latino man, gets asked quite a lot. He unpacks the same question in a poem of his. Though he constantly replies with “I’m from New York”, this reaction is usually met with “But your name is Carlos…where are you really from?” It is not enough to merely read the poem – one has to see him perform it to get a true sense of how Gómez’s mind works as the words tumble out aggressively – “The question where are you from in our current America is a slur disguised as a question mark. A passive aggression micro-aggression saying you are Other. You are not from here…”

Carlos: Creating radical empathy and connection through performance poetry

The complexity which underpins much of Gómez’s work is a direct result of his own textured life. Sitting down at the Galle Fort Hotel on the first day of the Fairway Galle Literary Festival, Gómez explains, “I attended 12 schools and lived in four different countries before graduating high school.” The son of a U.N official from Colombia and an American linguist, much of his childhood was spent being quite introspective – always the outsider looking on the inside. Fast forward a few decades and Gómez has worked as a public school teacher, activist, public speaker, actor, poet (he’s a two time International Poetry Slam champion), and now a celebrated author.

Tackling the issues surrounding modern masculinity, his book ‘Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood’ is part memoir, “written through the lens of my intersecting identities, though perhaps most dominantly through the prism of my gender (and masculinity), in an attempt to unpack, challenge, and dismantle the toxic ways I was socialized to understand what it means to be a man.” A timely topic no doubt, especially in 2018 when the rules around masculinity and what constitutes as being a man are constantly changing.

“A lot of people told me I couldn’t be a boy and soft, a boy and not masculine,” said Gomez. “So much of toxic masculine culture is centred on the idea that if you don’t sleep with her you’re not a guy, if you don’t fight with that guy you’re not a man. You know, stop crying – be a man!”  “But I wish I knew that it was okay to love to write and to understand poetry. I wish I was reading people like bell hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw(eminent black female scholars) at 17. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to like writing or those things.”

Our conversation shifts gears slightly as we get onto the topic of the #metoo movement. With the Harvey Weinstein scandal blowing the lid off so many concealed cases of sexual harrassment across all industries, I wondered whether there was a link between toxic masculinity and the violence it causes people. “It’s all about hit, smash or crush. That’s literally the language we use. The culture of masculinity as I’ve understood it is like the ideal incubator for a world that we’ve now found ourselves in. It’s long overdue and I think it’s a hopeful thing that there are a lot of men who are forcing themselves to reckon with the ways they have been taught to be men. My hope is that it is an awakening…a catalyst for men changing because until that happens there’s not going to be a global shift in the world we live in.”

He recently partnered with John Legend (ten-time Grammy award winner) and AXE to start up “Senior Orientation” which he describes as “aligning with all the things I believe in. It’s centred on the idea of promoting mentorship and relationships between high school boys – the older boys mentoring the younger boys and promoting this idea of inclusive masculinity. What that phrase means is that there is not one way to be a guy, there are infinite ways to be a guy. To be in collaboration with a man like John Legend who is a revolutionary model of masculinity is just such an honour.”

In the flesh, Gómez exudes positivity and enthusiasm. A natural public speaker (he has spoken at around 500 colleges and universities), his conversation is no different speaking with sentences that are carefully and eloquently strung together. Though he has probably repeated many of these answers before he has a certain knack for making words sound fresh and appealing. It is perhaps what has made his poems including “What Latino Looks Like” and “Where are You Really From” go viral online. He performs with such ferocity that it is impossible to forget it. “If you’re going to perform poetry read it as if you care about it…like you wrote it! I think of my performances as an experience before anything else I want people to leave and not be really sure how to categorise what they’ve experienced.”

Do you feel people connecting with your poetry whilst onstage? “Human beings are so beautiful. Sometimes they think they can keep this shield up, they have so much you don’t see and as I watch them open themselves up over the course of an hour long show – they show themselves. It’s like we’re all bare to each other. My hope is that when people leave a show they feel like anything is possible and they leave knowing that at least I want them to stay on this Earth as long as humanely possibly and they are important. I feel like I’m a magician  of connection and I think when I get up in front of a room full of people my only goal is to create a space of radical empathy and connection.”

And connection is what he ultimately achieves, particularly when capturing the thoughts and emotions of minority groups that perhaps do not always have a voice. His wife is African-American and together they have one daughter and another on the way. I tell him I enjoyed his poem ‘Black Hair’ which was ostensibly written for his daughter. “So much of my writing is at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and nationality and that’s one of the things I consider, being a parent to a black child in the United States at a moment in time where the murder and control of black bodies feels ubiquitous and overwhelming for me and I’m not of the African diaspora. I get her up every day for daycare and I do her hair. It’s about subverting and interrupting sexism, misogyny, white supremacy and rape culture. People say what am I doing to dismantle white supremacy – well I’m working on myself and I’m also going to do my daughter’s hair before daycare tomorrow! And we’re going to unpack colourism with her cousins.  I fear for my family, I fear for my daughter and I fear for the child we’re going to have in the next few months. But part of trying to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy is knowing how to do my daughter’s hair.”

And there have you have it! Poetry, masculinity, white supremacy, the human connection. Gómez has a lot on his plate and various ideas about how we can institute change but like the ideals he believes in, home is where it all starts.

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