Notes from a Southern Boy: a collection of short essays by josh Inocéncio

An ode to southern fringes

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from, everybody’s worryin’ ‘bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done. But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.—Iris DeMent

A third of my heart is buried in the Kentucky hills, a land of rich, black soil that nurtured my mother’s childhood. My father’s parents immigrated to the United States from Austria and Mexico, but my mother’s family has lived in eastern Kentucky for generations—far back enough that we don’t know where many of them originated before Appalachia. We are the Greenwoods, the Copes, the Johnsons, and the Hamptons. My mother grew up in and around Laurel County, amid gospel charmers and moonshine makers, amid nocturnal truckers and gaudy quilters. And shortly after she turned 19, she burst from the small town sticks and drove to Houston, one of the biggest cities she could find.

While Kentucky teeters on the northern peaks of the South, the legacies of slavery and homophobia tinge our blood just as permanently as my uncle’s all but faded Confederate flag tattoo. My mom, I suppose, was indifferent to the ol’ Dixie fandom that rallied many men in my family, but when she came to Texas, she carried her Kentucky roots with her. She may have yearned for a big city like Houston, but living in deeply red Texas allowed her firebrand Pentecostal denomination to thrive. This religion, obsessed with catastrophe and apocalypse, remained a staunch border that contained my queerness until I was 23.

I came out to my mother first, unwillingly, in an airport right before we embarked on a mother-son trip to Philadelphia and New York. She choked it out of me, as I joke with her now. For days, I had quietly avoided her, anticipating that I would break—and break I did, tears flowing while blurrily recollecting old memories about first loves, trying to patch together this hidden history to explain myself. In her white face and blonde hair, I saw myself as her own eyes welled. Flooded with images of purple sores on AIDS patients, fishnets on drag queens, and whatever else tore into her imagination, she lamented both a past she never knew and a future she couldn’t predict. I was neither a drag queen nor HIV-positive, but her limited dose of “gay culture” on the nightly news was enough to unnerve.

But long before I came out to her on that June morning, I had to wrestle with coming out to myself despite my religious upbringing. I knew I was queer and attracted to other boys by age 13, but instead of telling my parents or friends, I silenced myself and committed to “praying the gay away.” For 10 years, I wandered in my own desert, devoid of sexual and romantic firsts, as I drank the dregs of religious hope. Even after my family departed Pentecostal radicalism when I was 15, traces of Christian dread and guilt stained my soul. I nestled into a more intellectualized Christianity, inspired by C.S. Lewis and Søren Kierkegaard, but still swallowed my sexuality. Like Paul of Tarsus, I considered queerness a “thorn in my side”—a pain I would always live with, but never embrace.

Ironically, I gathered the courage to come out after living in Tallahassee, a city smaller and more traditionally southern than Houston or anywhere in Kentucky. Hovelled in libraries and theatres as a graduate student at Florida State, my work as a researcher and performer (as well as the miles and miles between Houston and me) allowed for intimate play with the identity collisions I experienced as a queer, a southerner, a Texan, a Latino—and with other guys who were just as conflicted as me. As Southern queer boys, we hold a little extra anguish.

My mother and I, both charred in our own ways by conservative youths and false promises of religion, have found a peace with each other, and now she’s protective of her queer son. With a few exceptions, the rest of my family in Kentucky trudges to acceptance, mired in apostolic visions of sexuality and rural worship of masculinity, but time and distance cultivate wondrous feats. My mother defines her childhood religion on her own terms now, while I—after moving from Pentecostal and Baptist affairs to Episcopalian and Catholic flirtations—have found a home in not-knowing, in a kind of agnosticism. As Iris DeMent revels in her ballad, I’m happy to “let the mystery be.”

June 2017.

Don’t let ‘it’ get to you: facing childhood fears with the king of horror

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

For the first time in two years, I felt Appalachia’s old tug as I stepped out of my rental car in Tennessee and the first gush of pine trees whisked through my nostrils. Pines are prolific in the U.S., but their potency increases once you approach the foothills of Appalachia. Kentucky was now less than a state away, just over the ominous Jellico Mountain (not to be mistaken, as a child’s mind did years ago, with Jericho Mountain).

Like many writers excavating their pasts, I returned to Kentucky—a site of my childhood—to collect oral histories from my mother’s side on front porches and curvy roads. Here, I’d begin work on the final play in my trilogy that confronts collisions between ethnicity and sexuality. This third installment—Chocolate Gravy & White Jesus—focuses on my eastern Kentucky roots with all their attending myths and mysticism, along with the one word that hasn’t left my mind since I conceived this play: horror.

I had packed three books with me: a 2017 road atlas, a journal, and It by Stephen King—which I had decided to read with the advent of the new film.

My childhood was texturized by horror films, particularly adaptations of King’s work. People still gasp when they hear I watched the original Carrie and It before age 10, The Shining by age 12, along with a host of other classics in between. In Kentucky, I would always spend a night at my Aunt Judy’s and we’d huddle under blankets while watching a horror movie on her wood-paneled TV.

I say they left traces; my friend says, “more like craters in your subconscious.”

But amid the frights, there’s something immensely relatable about many of King’s novels. He frequently crafts writer characters whose work is entrenched in a kind of spiritual or psychological exorcism. In The Shining, Jack Torrance (unsuccessfully) uses his position as caretaker of the Overlook hotel to overcome alcoholism and write a new play. In ‘Salem’s Lot, novelist Ben Mears returns to his childhood home of four years to research the Marsten House where he once saw an undead man. And in It, best-selling author Bill Denbrough buries the memories of his brother Georgie’s violent death by churning out horror fiction.

It is the first King novel I’d picked up, and while it didn’t inspire the conception of my play, personal parallels eerily emerged as I read the monolith over the summer.

For one, the bulk of the novel’s action takes place from May to August—the same period it took me to read It. Every 27 years, the monster that shapeshifts into Pennywise the Dancing Clown strikes in Derry, Maine, bringing back the Loser’s Club to face their childhood fears. In the days before I turned 27, I went to Kentucky to wrangle my own personal demons and find peace with the place. It’s no secret that Kentucky isn’t the friendliest state for gay people, and I’ve had many rough conversations with family in the region. Finally, I started seeing blue and orange balloons soon before I read the grisly passage where the adult characters find their friend Stan’s severed head surrounded by balloons of the same color.

But, as though the novel was playing pranks on me, I greeted most of these little connections with a chuckle. After all, I chased horror content in my youth (I used to watch horror films right before bed in hopes they’d grant me lucid dreams). And here I was again, heading to eastern Kentucky, after two years ago saying I might never go back.

Alongside hunger for horror films and fiction, my Grams told stories from the holler when I was growing up. Folk tales tucked amid the hills about a pair of floating eyes and a “wild thing” banging the side of the house.

My dad never shied away from scaring me with tales about Dr. Smith on the hill and the homeless woman in the cellar. Until I was eight years old, Grams lived in a well-exposed trailer on a hill. But shortly after her mother died, she bought an old house nestled in the crook of a hill—a downward slope on one side leading to a street and an upward slope on the other coming to a crescendo with Smith’s house.

Despite the coziness of this five-bedroom home, I’d often choose to fall asleep in front of the TV on the living room couch. The back bedrooms went pitch black at night with nothing but the moon looming in the window. But in the living room, I’d use the flashing television colors as a night light while peeping every now and then at the basement door—just to make sure that woman didn’t stir the cellar dust and creep up the stairs.

Grams, with no intention of frightening me, always shared the strange things she’d witnessed out where streetlights don’t shine. Usually, we’d be around the kitchen table after dinner while the laundry machines hummed down in the cellar.

She could recollect a little girl that visited her in the dead of night. Grams said, “that child was a-staring at me by my bedside, soakin’ wet. And, honey, I tell ya, I broke into tongues right there, speakin’ to the Lord, squirmin’ in the sheets, and consumed by the Spirit, hopin’ she’d leave. Didn’t know if she was a demon or ghost none.”

And she told me once, “when the kids was little and I was still married to Myles, he worked days a-fixin’ cars and I worked nights in a yarn factory spinnin’ machines. Most mornings, I’d come home just before Myles and the kids woke up to get ready for the day. But one time, just after the sun rose, I walked inside the house and there was Myles, sitting on the couch in his underwear and a cap, a-sweatin’, and clinging to one of his rifles. I stood in the doorway with my mouth a-hangin’ damn near the floor and he didn’t look at me nor say a darn word.

“What on earth is wrong, honey?” Grams finally asked.

Grandpa Myles looked over at her and in between breaths, said, “You didn’t see it outside?”

“See what?”

“There’s somethin’ out there. Been circling the house all night. You didn’t see nothin’?”

“There ain’t nothin’ out there, Myles. I just walked up the driveway-”

“Oh, no, I heard it. Hittin’ the sides of the house. Thump, thump, thump. All night. Startin’ just after Lenora and Ray dozed to sleep. I don’t think they heard it, and, Faye, I’m not surprised a bit you didn’t hear or see it either. Whatever was out there, it was just for me.”

Nobody ever challenged Grams’ stories either. My Paps would stay silent, my mom would sometimes corroborate, and I’d just listen. My dad is a little skeptical, city fellow that he is, and the further we go out onto country roads, the tighter he clings to his pistol. But I don’t think there’s much that man-made tools can do to harm the things Grams has seen.

The veneer of London, Kentucky is quaint with a quintessentially American Main Street that slides up and down hills—not unlike Derry. And as with Derry—or any other small town in King’s topography of Maine—the manifest monsters are tied to the darkness that lurks within us.

“It is a trademark of Mr. King’s to use supernatural events to expose and inflame wounds already festering in small towns,” The Economist noted in an article written around the release of the new film adaptation of It. “In It, the protagonists are dealing with homophobia, racism, sexual abuse and anti-Semitism before Pennywise the Dancing Clown emerges from the sewers and begins ripping limbs off children.”

The core of King’s project is demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between humans and demons—how we allow them to feed on us. These anxieties about the holler frothed in my mind as I drove toward Kentucky again, trading the bayou marshes of the South with the thickly cloaked pines of Appalachia. Not the first road-trip to the region as an out gay man, but certainly the first in confidence.

When I went to Kentucky in 2015, memories still gnawed at my soul—particularly the lingering images of apocalypse from my Pentecostal youth. The air is clearer near London, but it was always harder to breathe—and certain smells aroused decaying fears. There was the terror of what skulked around Grams’ house, as well as what consequences I might endure if I ever came out as queer. Pentecostals, the Christians who speak in tongues, preach three visions of hellfire and the Rapture for every one of charity. If there was anything to light Grams’ back bedrooms after sundown, it was the image of the Devil’s flames licking my feet anytime I’d dream about an attractive boy my age.

Despite all I know now, you’d still get me to believe quite a few things out in the woods—but it’s astounding what you can cast out when you’re at peace with yourself. There was little to fear when I arrived this time. A wave of turmoil had dissipated with time, and Grams and I cheered a few glasses of bourbon.

Now, King’s novels are an addiction (or a temporary ritual?), particularly the ones that depict writers. As I’m writing this, I’m less than 200 pages from finishing ‘Salem’s Lot—a novel that’s caused me to gasp mid-page no less than three times. On the docket are also Misery, The Dark Half, and Lisey’s Story.

As a child, rusty pipes spooked me because I thought Pennywise might be swimming beneath them. After watching the miniseries, I’d shower with both eyes locked on the drain. And we have creatures of our own, too—like the thumping beast outside the house that, after hearing that story, I always listened for as I fell asleep.

Now that I’m a “grown up,” these traces—or “craters”—haven’t fully bid adieu, but I can sleep a bit more soundly in the pitch dark night.

October, 2017.

Appalachian pit stops: Where to stop on kentucky’s I-75 corridor

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South

While much of Kentucky tourism centers around the annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville and the popular bourbon distilleries that speckle the state, there are booming smaller towns right off Interstate 75 that are revitalizing their downtowns and embracing the farm-to-table movement. Driving northbound on I-75, travelers might easily miss CorbinLondonBereaRichmond, and even Lexington.

After you cross Jellico Mountain on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, Corbin is a mere 30 minutes into the Bluegrass state. When I was a kid visiting family in Kentucky, we’d often leave London and head to Corbin because they had the “better” Chinese restaurant, among other eateries. Twenty years later, this holds true as Corbin reshapes itself as an inviting city for fresh businesses.

On Main Street downtown, there’s the Wrigley Taproom & Eatery which has an ever-changing menu as well as local and national craft beers on draught. As the name suggests, the restaurant features all-American cuisine in a old Wrigley gum warehouse. Wrigley’s chef sources ingredients from her family-owned farm in Kentucky. Alongside weekly specials, Wrigley features a few staples, such as the Americano burger with Applewood bacon and garlic aioli. Their popular appetizers include brussels sprouts with honey-ancho sauce, Brauhaus pretzel, and pub frites. When I visited last December, I tried the Smokey Bacon Ramen, a rotating menu item, that included bacon broth, braised tenderloin, a six-minute egg, Napa cabbage, scallions, and sesame seeds. If you’re at a loss with their tap list of 24 beers, you can do a local flight, and I recommend you at least sample a glass of bourbon barrel ale. It’s heavy, but it doesn’t get more Kentucky than that—even my teetotaler grandma will have a taste!

This stretch of the state also boasts numerous spots for day hiking, including the Daniel Boone National Forest in which Corbin is situated. Tucked into these protected trees, Laurel Lake, with its white sands, is minutes away from Corbin. And London, Corbin’s neighbor less than 15 miles north, has easy access to trailheads. Both cities are a short drive from Cumberland Falls (in the national forest), which has cabins and plenty of hiking spots near the Cumberland River.

While London doesn’t have as many city offerings as Corbin, they do have The Abbey on Main Street. Growing up, London was part of a dry county (meaning neither restaurants nor stores could sell alcohol), but that’s since changed and you can now drink both beer and liquor at The Abbey. They have typical fried southern fare, but I’d recommend the burgers, particularly the bison burger, with sweet potato fries.

Forty miles north is Berea, noted for Berea College—the first coeducational and desegregated college in the South where critical theorist bell hooks and novelist Silas House both teach. The college is also significant for its work study program that allows students to graduate with no debt. Thus, you’ll find students working not only on campus, but even in College Square’s coffee and artisan shops. Berea’s also home to the Boone Tavern, a historic hotel that’s had famous guests, such as the Dalai Lama and Maya Angelou, and features a lush cocktail bar and outdoor porch seating with wooden rocking chairs. Around the tavern, you’ll find the Craft Gallery, Berea College Student Crafts (closed typically on student holidays), Berea Fudge ShoppeBerea Soaps & Gifts, and a bookstore. A short driving distance from College Square, you’ll find more artisan shops, such as weaving and jewelry, near the Berea Welcome Center. And, like London and Corbin, Berea also has day hiking opportunities at both the Pinnacles and Anglin Falls. The latter, as the name suggests, ends at a waterfall and is a great summer trek complete with boulders to scale.

Another 15 miles north, Richmond, home to Eastern Kentucky University, is another college town with a rich downtown area. I haven’t explored Richmond as much as the other cities, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Four Sisters Soap & Tea Emporium. Designed like a cozy British tea shop one might find in Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter series, Four Sisters serves a diverse array of green, white, black, herbal, and fruit teas by the pot or cup, as well as breakfast items, soups and sandwiches, and sweets.

Less than 30 miles north of Richmond is Lexington, which is one of the most underrated culinary cities in the U.S. In fact, Zagat placed Lexington on its list of “30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America 2017,” alongside culinary titans Philadelphia, Houston, New York City, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

My first encounter with Lexington’s burgeoning culinary landscape was at The Village Idiot, subtitled “Lexington’s First Gastropub,” located downtown. Like Wrigley, they have a long list of beers on tap. As far as food (which is locally–sourced), I’d recommend their brussels sprouts, as well as the spicy fried cauliflower. For dinner, the Korean fried chicken sandwich with gojuchang sauce is my personal favorite, but I also love the Duck & Waffles and the Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese. Just outside of downtown in the Distillery District is Middle Fork, another locally-sourced restaurant that features large tables and family-style entrees. As owner and executive chef Mark Jensen writes on the website, “We like to think that our plates are sharable. You not only get to enjoy a variety of dishes, you get to create your own experience.” Their menu changes, too, but a constant and a must among the smaller plates is the PB&J, which is strips of fire-grilled baguette with a ginger peanut sauce, lime-orange jam, chilis, cilantro, and red onion pickles. For dinner, I shared an order of Hog & Oats (goetta on a bed of grits with red tomato jam, confit of green tomatoes, and a soft poached egg) and half a chicken (with sorghum-maple glaze). Their drinks are among the best cocktails I’ve had in Kentucky, so I’d recommend one of their creative bourbon concoctions.

Finally, Lexington also has several notable distilleries, but if you’re already in the area, I’d recommend the short drive west to Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, to visit the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Not only is it free, but it’s the longest continuously–running bourbon distillery in the country (it stayed open during Prohibition because doctors prescribed bourbon to treat ailments). On their standard tour, you’ll be able to view how the distillery works, as well sample their bourbon, rye, or speciality vodka at the end.

In any of these cities, it’s worth spending a few days if you can spare them. However, even an evening’s jaunt is worth the visit. You can even make a day trip out of the stretch, brunching in Corbin, hiking around London, shopping and drinking in Berea, and then culminating in an exquisite Lexington dinner!

July, 2018.

"Think Globally, act hillbilly": A road-trip through kentucky on grindr, tinder

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

As a kid, family road trips to Kentucky always began with Simon & Garfunkel. Buried under quilts in my makeshift fort in the backseat of our Nissan Pathfinder, I’d wake up somewhere between Houston and Beaumont to their smooth voices singing “Scarborough Fair” or “El Condor Pasa.” And on my first solo drive from Texas to Kentucky, I revived this childhood tradition, allowing Simon & Garfunkel—as well as the Fleet Foxes—to ready me for an eight-day journey throughout the state where I spent so many summers and winters with my Grams and the rest of my mother’s family.

This time, however, my aim wasn’t to just visit family. A huge part of me grew up closeted in Kentucky, and I know that—in a state of roughly four million folks—lots of other boys did, too. And while the cities of Louisville and Lexington brim with gay bars and rainbow crosswalks, there are plenty of guys living out and proud in smaller towns, too. I wanted to meet and connect with these fellow gay men across Kentucky, so I rebooted Tinder and Grindr.

My family mostly lives in London, the seat of Laurel County right off Interstate 75, so I set up camp there first. A small city in eastern Kentucky (as one can see from actor Stephen Fry’s road-trip stop there on BBC’s Stephen Fry in America), London’s nifty advantage is that other cities in the state are, for the most part, just a day trip away. When I first jumped on Tinder, I set my radius to 12 miles, wanting to match with guys in the rural regions. But given that Grindr is more popular in rural areas because it allows for greater anonymity for discreet users, the Tinder algorithms threw me beyond my narrow radius and into bigger cities like Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, and Berea where queer boys can comfortably be out. Thus, it was up to Grindr to link me with guys in more rural areas. And the app didn’t disappoint.

Within hours of arriving in London, several guys messaged me on Grindr, wondering why, as my profile indicated, I was writing about Kentucky. “Why Appalachia?” a guy named Jacob, the son of a Baptist minister, asked immediately. “If you’re a writer, I feel like I could offer you a unique perspective. I just don’t want wrong presumptions of this area to be made.”

Another guy warned me against indulging in “poverty porn.” Another recommended American Hollow, an HBO film directed by Rory Kennedy that featured his family and their lives in eastern Kentucky.

But the main suspicion, it seemed, was that I had no familiarity with the region, that I was from a coastal city like New York or Los Angeles, and that I was just another journalist in a tired lineage there to blast the desolation of Appalachia. Certainly, these reservations eased when I disclosed the time I had spent in Kentucky. But what every guy proved was that Kentucky—despite challenges of homophobia—is a place where gay men can thrive. That, just like Texas, the state government’s homophobic legislation (or Kim Davis) does not represent the views of every Kentuckian.

After establishing links over our families in Kentucky, Jacob and I met in person for a beach day at Laurel Lake. Tucked into the Daniel Boone National Forest where I hiked trails as a child in a coonskin cap, we rendezvoused in neighboring Whitley County and then drove to the spillway with the white sand beach.

Now, I had hiked in Daniel Boone before, but prior to this trip, I had never gone down to the lake (my mother would later tell me that she had many a wild night there as a teenager). But Jacob recommended the lake and unabashedly showed up to this rather conservative spot in a neon speedo. “I can generally tell if I’m going to get along with someone by how they react to the way I’m dressed,” he said.

With a backdrop of anti-Trump graffiti, Jacob and I chatted about Kentucky roots, going to college followed by grad school, staying well read, and traveling around the world. He had studied at the University of Louisville for a Master’s in College Student Personnel, and, like me, had moved back home to live with his parents and save money before his next move. We also talked about using Grindr to make friends in an area with no gay bars or gayborhoods.

After London, I drove to Berea for a weekend to visit friends and interview a gay writer who teaches at the city’s college. Founded with social justice aims in 1855, Berea was the first desegregated and co-educational college in the South. And while the town itself has struggled with LGBT rights, Berea College is a haven for queer Appalachian students. On Grindr, one student gave travel recommendations, such as the Berea Pinnacles (which are a fun hike!), and even offered me wine and homemade doughnuts while hanging out with a group of friends. In fact, everyone in Berea welcomed me when they saw I was a traveler, inviting me to community events and coffee conversations.

As far as Tinder in Kentucky, I matched and struck up conversations with several guys in Lexington, Louisville, and Bowling Green. From western Kentucky, I connected with a fellow Latino who had no desire to move to a bigger city because he loved the vibe in Bowling Green. And while we couldn’t meet this trip, we followed each other on Instagram and agreed to hang out next time.

But the most adventurous stop was Lexington.

I matched with Nate, who studied English in college. Right away we discovered we were both writers and swapped our favorite poets and playwrights on the app. When I got to Lexington, we met up and headed over to Third Street Stuff—a colorful coffeehouse that sells quirky trinkets—and discussed queer and non-queer cinema (we even made a Google doc to exchange titles). Embedded in our cinephilia, we shared how we had both obsessed over The Wizard of Oz as kids, even dressing up as Dorothy in red high heels. After coffee, he generously showed me around Lexington on a little walking tour that started near the Transylvania University campus and took us to plantation-style homes converted into contemporary condos. “I smell a mix of barbecue and KFC,” he sniffed, as we weaved through a public gathering filled with food-stands and U.S. flags. “It’s a Kentucky Fourth!”

As dusk approached, we grabbed dinner at The Village Idiot before exploring a 24-hour art exhibit at the Kentucky-based 21c Museum Hotel downtown. There, we bonded over indie music and the human-animal sculptures on display. Plus, he packed my summer reading list with queer poets and novelists, including C.P. Cavafy, Frank Bidart, Garth Greenwell, and Pajtim Statovci.

When my last day arrived, I found myself already planning my next road trip to Kentucky. Bearing a renewed sense of harmony after connecting with fellow gay guys in the state, I left for the next part of my journey. And as the rain poured down on the interstate, I cranked up the new Fleet Foxes album, Crack-Up, and wept tears of joy on the drive out of Appalachia.

July 2017.

Sacred steps: a Pilgrimage to mexico city

This short essay originally appeared on Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

“No way,” I groaned from the hotel bed as my skin squirmed with chills. “There’s no way I have Montezuma’s Revenge. Not after all the street shit and creepy crawlies I ate in Guadalajara and Seoul a few years back.”

I boast an easy tan (and I thought an iron stomach) that’s no doubt because of the Mexican drips of blood in my body, but my fairer skin and blonde hair speedily betray my Austrian and Appalachian roots. Hours later, I hurled a swirl of green chunks into the porcelain sink and a gag that burned two generations back.

For half a century before my first visit to the Mexican capital, my Austrian grandma, Fritzi, toured the country, all the way down to Michoacán and Mexico City, to see her husband’s homeland. She, too, got sick and whittled her weight down on the journey.

But the history of my family (and an outrageously cheap Expedia deal) is why I ventured to Mexico City in May, to finally look upon the sites that compose a whole third of my ancestors. And though Montezuma’s Revenge confined me to an entire day of gulping peach Pedialite and binging Master of None, I still paid pilgrimage to everything I wanted to see. From the Catholic cathedrals to the Teotihuacan pyramids to Frida Kahlo’s studio, my three friends and I spent five full days delighting in Mexico City’s offerings.

The flight to Mexico City is less than two hours from Houston and Bush airport has plenty of early voyages. We arrived in the city by 10 a.m., our hotels in the Centro Histórico by 11:30 a.m., and we had sampled our first street tacos by the Zócalo square by noon. The day included walking over to the 17th century Metropolitan Cathedral, the Supreme Court justice building brimming with Jose Clemente Orozco murals, and a cab ride over to the Basilica de Guadalupe about 30 minutes north of the Centro Histórico.

Seventy years ago, my great-grandpa Jesus Ynosencio dug his knees into the dirt and crawled to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. This was the eve of America’s role in Europe during World War II, and Jesus, a strawberry farmer, wanted to prevent his sons, immigrants to the United States, from going to battle overseas. His prayers to La Virgen weren’t answered, and Jesus’s three sons (including my grandfather José) traded wartime for U.S. citizenships. All three men survived, and a decade later, my grandfather moved with his Austrian wife, Fritzi (whom he met while he was stationed in Linz), to Texas. And during her road-trip with his family to Mexico City, she saw the same Basilica.

In 2017, the Basilica complex that my great-grandfather and grandmother visited in the 1940s and 1950s has transformed with a new sanctuary, finished in 1976, that houses La Virgen’s shawl. In Mexican tradition, the shawl of La Virgen is a sacred imprint of the visit between Juan Diego—the first Nahuatl convert to Catholicism after Hernan Cortes defeated Tenochtitlan—and the Virgin Mary. According to Mexican lore, however, it wasn’t just La Virgen that visited Juan Diego, but the indigenous goddess Tonantzin in disguise. Many Nahuatl folk and Mesoamerican enthusiasts maintain she dressed as the Virgin Mary to ease tensions between the Spanish and Indian populations.

Within the Basilica, Catholics still crawl on the marble floor from the first pews to the altar that contains the sacred shawl. I didn’t join the knee-bound pilgrims, but I did leave with two rosaries for my Grandma Fritzi and me. Neither of us are Catholics, but we do appreciate our histories.

The next day, the four of us ventured over to Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec. The first floor of the museum contains 12 halls that cover the pre-Columbian history of various indigenous societies. On the second floor, 12 corresponding halls demonstrate contemporary life for indigenous tribes across the country. (Housed in the central Mexica hall is a replica of Emperor Montezuma’s headdress as the original is too fragile to transport from its current home in Vienna—an ethnic irony not lost on me.) Then, following a late lunch in the Polanco neighborhood walking distance from the museum, we took an Uber to Frida Kahlo’s house.

Tucked in the Coyoacan neighborhood just thirty minutes south of Centro Histórico is the Museo Frida Kahlo, which is the former home of Frida and Diego Rivera. The museum includes the guest room where Leon Trotsky stayed when he fled the nascent Soviet Union, a kitchen with Frida’s mole recipe posted on the doorway, her painting studio with the mirror she used for self-portraits, and her bedroom with an urn containing her ashes still on the dressing table.

After you exit the house, there’s an almost-secret exhibit around the corner from the gift shop. Pushing apart black curtains, viewers will find the indigenous-inspired dresses that Frida wore to presence her Mesoamerican identity. But there’s also an extended exhibit, with materials hidden for many years, on the accouterment she wore at first to correct her uneven legs after suffering polio as a child, and then to stabilize her body after her 1953 accident where doctors amputated her leg. In the final four years of her life, she continued to paint from a wheelchair (which is in her studio).

On our third day, we hired an Uber for the nearly two-hour drive north of Mexico City, and my two years studying Mesoamerican myths as a graduate student at Florida State flooded back to my memory as my friends and I hiked the Pyramid of the Moon, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Pyramid of the Sun. We didn’t book the trip to be among the final hikers to these pre-Aztec pyramids, but we discovered that, after 2017, tourists are no longer allowed to hike the structures. And the Teotihuacan pyramids aren’t the only pyramids that are closing to tourist hikes.

Unfortunately, altitude sunburn mixed with a jolt of Montezuma’s Revenge slayed me the evening we returned from the pyramids. But, in the name of history, my eyes—as well as my stomach—relived the journeys before me to Mexico City.

A few other stops thrown in, such as the Palacio Nacional and the Templo Mayor, made for a perfect week in an international city that is at once indigenous and Catholic, Latin American and European. Like New York or London, the streets whir with Dutch, Italian, German, French, and Japanese as travelers from the world over bustle in to see the western hemisphere’s largest city.

July 2017.

Traveling under trump

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

“I heard the first foreign leader Trump is meeting with is Theresa May. Tell me, boys, will he grab her fanny?” quipped an Irish cab driver as my friend Jeff and I piled into his car on our way to a train station in Dublin.

Witty questions like these rained over our recent trip to Ireland and the United Kingdom, a stark reminder not only of realities back across the Atlantic but our changing image in Europe as President Barack Obama ended his eight-year tenure to make way for President Donald J. Trump. And while we mustered laughs in response, our somber transition from Obama to Trump was as gloomy as the moors we rode through from Dublin to Galway.

By coincidence, Jeff and I departed Houston for a research trip the day before the inauguration. We may not have purposely planned to miss the ceremony on American soil, but I’m thankful we witnessed it brimming with bold reactions from the Irish in Dublin, Galway, and even the rural island of Inishmore. And even though the British residents we encountered in London were less outspoken (perhaps from mutual shame over the Brexit mess), the members of Parliament in our tourist visit to the House of Commons weren’t restrained in their debate over the “threat of Trump.”

To be sure, the sting of embarrassment abroad over our raucous new leader was familiar. Shortly after I graduated high school in 2008, I left for Europe and toured seven nations over the course of five weeks. You could see the exhaustion many Europeans had with the waning Bush administration and the hope for then-senator Barack Obama. Traveling through Europe then, I couldn’t avoid political conversations over breakfasts in Lübeck or Bergen. What would America do, they wondered?

Nearly nine years later and in a new nation, my interactions with the Irish were no less pointed. As soon as we arrived in Dublin on our first day, our 70-year-old cab driver lamented Hillary Clinton’s loss.

“She did a good job as the secretary of state,” he said, as local news about the United States’ big day played on his radio. “She deserves credit for that.” Later as we checked into our hotel near St. Stephen’s Green, the receptionist handed us an Irish newspaper and chortled, “Going to watch the big show in a bit?”

We did watch, trodden with jetlag yet armed with the full repertoire of sarcasm from the BBC’s Katty Kay as she comically navigated the disbelief and dismay at Trump’s victorious march into the White House.

In Dublin, we had participated in the Women’s March—one of many international marches all over the world—and we discovered remnants of a smaller one in the college town of Galway. We found signs plastered in Eyre Square (where President John F. Kennedy visited in 1963) that read, “Galway Stands Opposed to Trump,” and graffiti that proclaimed, “My Body, My Choice.” The battle for reproductive rights is more fraught in Ireland as the 8th amendment in their constitution bans abortions.

This anti-Trump sentiment was just as ripe in Inishmore, a small island off the coast of Galway. In the States, you’d expect to find Trump havens in less cosmopolitan regions, but not so on Inishmore. As I browsed Celtic artwork in a stonewalled shop on my way to Dún Aonghasa (an ancient fort nearly 4,000 years old), the shopkeeper, an older woman, asked, “Are you American?”


“Oh! Your president is a madman.”

She then asked if I “did YouTube” and urged me to watch the America First, The Netherlands Second parody video.

Certainly, there are Trump admirers in Ireland. But in all of our interactions across the tiny country, the Irish lampooned the new president. And while Ireland remains a conservative bastion in the West for anti-abortion forces, they are no strangers to progress. They remain the only nation in the world that has legalized same-sex marriage by popular referendum. With a fast growing economy, their capital city is home to the European headquarters for both Google and Facebook. And despite their own right-wing parties, they have so far navigated through the brash nationalism swallowing the continent.

And as with many of our Western European allies, the Irish are deeply fond of Barack Obama who, like Kennedy, has ancestral roots in Ireland. While conservatives in the States peddled the absurd narrative that President Obama was harming America’s image abroad, our relationships to Ireland, Germany, France, and other allies only fortified after the rickety Bush years. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll last year “conducted in 10 European nations, four major Asia-Pacific countries, Canada, and the United States finds that half or more of those polled in 15 of 16 countries express confidence in the American leader.”

But far more worried than the jocular Irish were the British MPs in Parliament. In our visit to the House of Commons just hours before their Brexit vote, the government and the opposition both discussed imminent threats from President Trump and cast concerns on exiting the European Union amid uncertainty from the United States’ commitment to the proverbial “special relationship.” Naturally, the Labour Party was most resolute in their disdain for handing over negotiation powers to Prime Minister Theresa May, and several Scottish MPs offered colorful speeches with hellish predictions for the U.K. and Trump.

In a landslide vote hours later, they passed the Brexit resolution to allow May to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations on a Brexit deal with Europe. Yet both sides in the House led by Speaker John Bercow have agreed that President Trump will not address Parliament during his state visit. Instead of a formal rejection, the visit will take place when Parliament isn’t in session in late July or early August—when Queen Elizabeth II is at her residence in Scotland. Thus, the British government is seeking to keep Trump not only out of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, but out of London to avoid protests (especially considering Londoners organized a massive women’s march).

Trump has barely hung up his golden curtains in the Oval Office and he’s created headaches for our European friends. Far from demanding respect for America, Trump has almost overnight made us appear both clownish and menacing.

Through a decade of traveling to foreign countries, I’ve unpacked most of my American exceptionalism. Many of our imperial ventures thrived under Obama as well, sewing animosity with our declared enemies. But as we teeter on a gusty precipice with Trump, I do fear the increasing mistrust from our most loyal allies. We may have domestic issues to confront, but we’re far too privileged and interconnected to espouse an “only America First” position in a globalized world. It’s true that Trump is only temporary, thanks to the prescient 22nd Amendment, yet his decisions may cultivate an irreparable isolation that a centrist Republican or Democrat could only wearily repair.

On behalf of our global influence, American citizens must continue to resist. The only way to sustain faith in the United States is through resisting Trump. We would be foolish to abate for four years until the next presidential election. Our reputation on this planet now depends on our durability as free citizens. Now isn’t the time to withdraw, but to stay informed and active. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, resistance works.

After all, as the Oscar Wilde monument in Dublin reads, “There is no sin except stupidity.”

February 2017.

Beam us UP: Why the next star trek series needs an openly gay captain

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

In November, CBS announced that Star Trek would return to television in 2017, a platform where, as the New York Times joked, it’s boldly been before.

As we watch the sci-fi franchise venture back into familiar territory, I challenge the creators to boldly go where no Star Trek series has gone before: placing an openly gay captain at the helm of the Enterprise. That’s right. A gay captain. Not some expendable red-shirt who’s dead by episode three.

The reason I love Star Trek (even slightly more than Star Wars—yes, I said it!) is because the series has always soared to the final frontier of social-justice issues. During the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War, the original 1966 Star Trek presented us with a diverse crew featuring Sulu, a Japanese helmsman; Chekov, a Russian security officer; and Uhura, an African communications officer. Although 1960s-era sexism did infiltrate the writing, Star Trek projected a future where there is no longer any race or gender discrimination on Earth (as characters in each installment frequently point out). By the 1990s, Deep Space Nine and Voyager even featured an African-American captain and a female captain, respectively. Yet despite this longstanding commitment to representing minority groups, the show hasn’t been nearly as progressive with representing LGBT individuals.

To be fair, Star Trek is no stranger to LGBT-themed episodes. There are scarce examples in The Original Series, but The Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, pushed the envelope with several episodes, including “The Offspring” where Commander Data creates a genderless android child who chooses to be a woman, and “The Outcast” where Commander Riker falls in love with Soren, a female-identified member of the androgynous J’naii species that shuns gender binaries and ultimately persecutes Soren. Later, Deep Space Nineand Star Trek: Enterprise featured episodes that lightly addressed LGBT-related issues, but none with an openly gay or lesbian character.

As we can see, Star Trek has a history of producing episodes that challenge gender and sexuality norms. But other sci-fi and superhero series are in LGBT warp drive, rapidly leaving Star Trek stuck in the 20th century—the same bygone era that it professes to have evolved beyond. For example, the X-Men films have introduced a pansexual Deadpool, the comics have confirmed a gay Iceman, and CW’s The Flashand Arrow have featured a gay villain and a bisexual superhero. When asked if society is ready for a gay superhero, Arrow actor John Barrowman replied, “Personally, I don’t care if they are or not. It’s time we had one.”

So not only does the prevalence of LGBT characters on television set the stage for a gay captain in Star Trek, but we are also living in an era where our president has repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and has appointed the first openly gay Secretary of the Army. Since Starfleet is a military entity, I’m sure Spock would agree that a gay captain is only logical.

Of course, even with the Supreme Court’s marriage-equality ruling and the repeal of DADT, our society still hasn’t abandoned homophobia. But since we’re increasingly rejecting strict gender and sexuality roles, a gay captain would further challenge heteronormativity by promoting equal representation. Fans—especially Millennials who are coming out of the closet at younger ages—are ready for a gay man or a lesbian to assume the captain’s chair. In addition, a gay captain (the most authoritative figure on a starship) would absolutely empower young people who are questioning their identities and coming to terms with their sexuality.

And does anyone question the contributions of gay Star Trek actors George Takei and Zachary Quinto? With these two activists rallying Trekkies across the sexuality spectrum, I don’t think fans doubt the ability of a gay captain to explore strange new worlds and face-offs with Klingons.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1992, Mark Altman revealed in theCinefantastique magazine article “Tackling Gay Rights” that creator Gene Roddenberry told LGBT fans that he’d commit to representing gay characters in The Next Generation. One of the show’s writers, David Gerrold, even wrote an episode called “Blood and Fire” that featured a same-sex couple. However, the episode went unproduced because Roddenberry and the creative team ultimately weren’t ready to air material that seemed too controversial at the time. Certainly, the writers for the new series can redress this exclusion.

If Star Trek is going to continue envisioning a utopian future with advanced medical technology, peace on Earth, and the Prime Directive that seeks to rectify colonialism, it’s only going to blast itself in the foot by marginalizing queer identities. The show that brought us the first television kiss in U.S. history between a white man and a black woman can’t afford to neglect any demographic without reneging on its continuing mission.

And for goodness’ sake, let’s not forget that the show has been comfortably representing interspecies relationships ever since the 1960s. If Captain Kirk is shacking up with green aliens, I daresay a gay captain pursuing a romance on the Enterprise wouldn’t be out of this galaxy!

Your move, CBS.

January 2016.