Men need to be redefined to shape the world to be as beautiful as the women who opened the gates to it.
A Nourishing Conversation with Gerald Guevarra
I met Gerald Guevarra eight years ago, in 2009. I was visiting one of my best friends who worked in the dormitory as a Resident Assistant at Loyola University in Chicago. Gerald was a resident in her dorm. He stopped by to ask my friend about a venue that he was looking to use to host a fundraising event for a student organization called GlobeMed at Loyola University. We ended up talking for hours that day about GlobeMed’s mission, partnership model, health equity, Guatemala, women’s rights, and beyond.
We became good friends from then on.
My friendship with Gerald is defined by many full-circle moments. We have the GlobeMed full-circle: Gerald told me about the organization the day we met back in 2009, and I started working as the Director of Partnerships at the GlobeMed Global Headquarters in 2015. We have the Guatemala full-circle: Gerald went to Guatemala for the first time in 2010, where he read and became obsessed with Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that he recommended to me over and over and one that I finally started reading when I traveled to Guatemala in 2015. On a bleaker note, we also shared the client referral full-circle: Gerald used to work at an organization, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, that provided domestic violence counseling services, and they often referred their clients to receive immigration legal services at my former place of work, the National Immigrant Justice Center.
I had a nourishing conversation with Gerald on a Sunday afternoon in a coffee shop in Andersonville. I also had the fun opportunity to do a photoshoot with him afterwards and am excited to share some of those moments with you here.
Gerald is co-founding his own brand consulting and lifestyle creative agency. He is currently based in Chicago but is in transition to New York City.
Asking the Question: What is Masculinity?
S: We have been pretty good friends for a while now. But if I asked you to tell me your story, what would you focus on?
G: That question used to be a really difficult one to answer, because I would think about so many different things in my life. But more recently, I have honed in on particular moments that have defined the way I frame myself, especially on the issues that matter to me now.
One story that really defines me happened when I was a teenager. I was 16 years old. I was dating someone. And she got pregnant.
Finding out that news, as you can imagine, was heavy and earth-shattering. Suddenly, I had no framing of the world. My world was rocked, and the ground underneath me was gone. My mind and my heart were feeling so many different things. It felt chaotic. I was thinking, with each passing day, what choices to make. My mind felt unstable. I thought about what would our decision say about me, about her, what did this mean for my future, what did this mean for her future. There were times when I felt selfish and had to make it about me; there were times when it felt so convoluted with questions about whose priorities, thoughts, and choices mattered, including this human being who could potentially be part of the world.
“Finding out that news…was heavy and earth-shattering. Suddenly, I had no framing of the world. My world was rocked, and the ground underneath me was gone.”
Ultimately, my partner and I decided that the best choice for us was to have an abortion, because we were both 16 and weren’t ready to be parents.
So we went to Planned Parenthood. The moment that we walked into the clinic is still a moment that defines me today.
My partner and I were accompanied by her mother. We walked in, her mom first, followed by my partner at the time, and I was last. There were three other girls in the waiting room, for I assume the same reason as us. As soon as I walked in through those doors to the waiting area, the faces of those three other teen girls showed their shock and sadness. Their own partners were not there. I was the only male partner there.
That moment spurred so many different emotions for me. In just a few seconds, upon that shared glance at one another I felt their sadness. I felt anger. My anger was directed both at the men who were not there and at myself. I was angry at the men who were not there. They were at least half the reason why these girls were there. It takes two to tango, but the weight of that burden rested only on the girls’ shoulders. I also was very much angry with myself, because I almost didn’t show up. Sometimes when I tell this story, people have this impression that I was so good and so brave for being present and supportive. And yes, I acknowledge that for myself. But at the time, there were so many different things that I was wrestling with.
That experience pushed me to become an adult, even though I wasn’t ready. It framed for me the question of what it means to be a man, which is a question that I haven’t stopped thinking about since then.
It’s been a continuous journey for me to dive into this question of manhood and masculinity. Even as I am here telling you this story, it is a journey. It’s like the title of this blog, This Journey is Ours. It is a journey of me trying to cement myself enough to revisit this story with clarity.
Sharing this story aloud is a means of listening to myself. Very rarely do men do that. We don’t listen. But we need to, and it starts with listening to who you are.
Creating the Space: Reflection as a Means of Healing
G: I spend a lot of time thinking. It’s my way of healing. Reflecting is a means of healing for me.
In college, there was a great initiative that I was part of, called the Men’s Project. The Men’s Project was an initiative that a friend of mine, David, founded. He recruited other men to create a group of us to explore what it means to be a man.
I never had a space like that before. What he was envisioning excited me, and I knew a space like that had a lot of potential to help me to think about my journey. The anger that was provoked inside of me at that Planned Parenthood clinic led me to have bitter feelings towards men, including myself. I know that I can be just as guilty and imperfect. I was angry at myself when I walked through that clinic, because I thought about not going. I needed a space to help me make sense of those feelings.
“Reflecting is a means of healing for me.”
The space of the Men’s Project turned out to be a place of healing. We recruited other men from all walks of life, to gather them into a space of reflection. I did not know anyone in the group prior to the Men’s Project, but we met every week. We created a structured space to explore what it means to be a man: we talked about who shaped and inspired us, who was an example of the kind of man we wanted to be. Many times, we talked about the women in our lives – women who shaped how we saw ourselves as men.
David and I wrote a guide, a curriculum, for the space. I gotta give David credit that, when we were 19, 20 at the time, he thought deeply about intersectionality. I didn’t feel grounded in that term back then in the way that I can now. But we essentially layered our conversation based on the identities of the men that were in that space. Race was an obvious layer: David is a Black man, I am Filipino; we explored our identities coming from working class families; there were other men who identified as LGBTQ, who were in the military, etc. The intent was not only to explore what it meant to be a man, but also to understand the larger dynamics of the world we lived in. We were also intentional in using that space to cultivate and educate men to be better at combating sexual violence on campus. Men, disproportionately, perpetrate the majority of the violence that we see.
At the end of the day, what we created was a space to reflect and ask questions.
We opened up to each other in that space. But it did not come automatically. For the vast majority of us, we were strangers. It took some time to build trust, so we had to ground the space on trust. We also practiced a lot of self-love in that space. It wasn’t until after I had left that space that I realized this aspect. Rarely do we as men talk about loving ourselves, because we have been conditioned to think that we can’t. That oppresses us in so many ways, so we worked to unpack that. That space liberated us. I felt liberated and so clear about who I was.
Passing on the Message: Youth Development
G: After graduating from college, I wanted to take the values that I cemented in the Men’s Project space and carry it forward. I did that through youth development. I wanted to take the ideas from the Men’s Project and help to cultivate the next generation of young boys to develop healthy ideas about masculinity.
For nearly three years, I worked with an organization called Mujeres Latinas en Acción. Mujeres is a community-based organization in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Mujeres dedicates itself to working with Latinas and their families on combating violence, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault. I was in charge of the youth program where I worked with young people impacted by the trauma of violence. I had the good fortune of doing a lot of incredible things, like working with young women and helping them feel more grounded and empowered and working with young men to develop a collective understanding of healthy masculinity based on love and respect.
Through my work, I learned more about what some of the youth in my program had been taught. There were some boys who thought that hitting your partner was a normal thing and was an expression of love. I navigated working with young students who thought that they were not permitted to share their emotions, things that they learned from longstanding cultural beliefs fed to them by society.
S: and by family, right?
G: Yes, absolutely. My work with them focused on unlearning the things that they have been conditioned to believe and in the process, redefine what a healthy idea of masculinity could look like.
I also worked with young women in the program. We slowly helped them to share their ideas around their value and their worth – that their value is not dictated by men, that their value stems from themselves. The space we created for them was a mirror to help them discover the answers they already had within themselves. I wanted to create a culture that fostered badass young women and girls to be who they wanted to be.
“My work with [the youth] focused on unlearning the things that they have been conditioned to believe and in the process, redefine what a healthy idea of masculinity could look like.”
S: The idea of unlearning things we have been conditioned to believe is interesting and powerful to me. Reflecting on your own experiences, what have you unlearned?
G: One thing I have unlearned is that I am not a victim of my circumstances. When I was 16 and went through that intense experience, I was, in many ways, victimizing myself. I had to unlearn that. I had to learn that I had power and I can hold it in a way that uplifts me.
A lot of people are in places where they think of themselves as victims. They focus on the missed opportunities for reaching new heights, for a better life, instead of focusing on the endless possibility that we have the capacity to create.
“I had to learn that I had power and I can hold it in a way that uplifts me.”
Victimization creates anger. I have seen this in the cases of domestic violence. There were men that I interacted with at Mujeres, who I knew had been the perpetrators of domestic violence. Through conversations, I learned about how they saw it and how they justified their actions.
By no means am I justifying it, at all. But by listening to these men, I learned that the reasons why they exhibit violent behavior was because in their own lives, they felt victimized by their circumstance. They would think, “I have no job to provide for my family”, “I don’t feel as if I matter,” “But what I do have control over is my partner.”
They had no control over what happened at work; they had someone telling them what they could and could not do; so in order to have control over their lives, they manifested that over their partners.
These stories helped me to connect systematic oppression found in the patriarchy and in capitalism to the individual circumstances and the people who feel victimized. This toxic environment produces men pressured into reacting violently.
“These stories helped me to connect systematic oppression found in the patriarchy and in capitalism to the individual circumstances and the people who feel victimized.”
S: You said in the Men’s Project space it was really important to build trust before diving in. I imagine that is also important for the Mujeres youth group.
G: Yes, absolutely.
S: So how do you do that? How do you build trust among teenage boys?
G: [Laughs] Yea, that is hard!
The process did not happen overnight. The process was ongoing.
We named the group the Men’s Project, because we saw it as a lifelong project. I imagine that even on my deathbed, I would be asking myself “what kind of man have I cultivated myself to be?” “Am I happy with it? Did I aspire to be better?” Not only for myself, but also for the people around me. It is always going to be a project. There is never a moment where I am perfect. We intentionally designed the Men’s Project space so that we have to wrestle with our imperfections. We wanted to wrestle with all of the multi-dimensions of who we were. We discussed this idea of the man box – there are certain things that we as men are allowed to do and feel. But once we break that box, we see the full spectrum of our humanity. And that is what we wanted to do.
“Once we break that box, we see the full spectrum of our humanity.”
To the question of trust – trust-building needs to be organic, and it takes place over time. Naturally, we guard ourselves as human beings. I don’t think it is an exclusively male thing, but from the way that men and boys are conditioned, there is definitely a greater tendency for that. Tackling that was hard. But I realized that if I am going to ask my students to be vulnerable, I needed to model that. So, I was open to sharing stories of my own. Many times, it hit students and many times it didn’t. But I had to allow myself to be brave; I had to be brave as a pathway to vulnerability – that is an expression of strength. There is an association for many boys and men that vulnerability is an expression of weakness. But it is quite the opposite. It takes a lot of courage to dive into those experiences and those stories that have hurt you, to be vulnerable.
“It takes a lot of courage to dive into those experiences and those stories that have hurt you, to be vulnerable.”
Trust comes when the person you are trying to build trust with is ready. You cannot dictate the timing. Suddenly, someone opens up and shares a story, and you know you have gotten to that moment when that trust has sprouted to a point where something beautiful can be revealed. You can never predict it. You can never know when a flower blooms. You never know when you plant a seed when exactly it will sprout. All you can do is nurture what is around it in order for it to feel strong enough to sprout something, even if it’s just a little bit of itself.
S: When you think back to your Mujeres experience, was there a moment when you realized that the program was working? Maybe a moment when you saw change or impact take place?
G: Aw, dang. This is an emotional piece for me. To be honest with you, I knew that the work was going to be making an impact, because it had an impact on me. I felt that every single day. I was changing and growing alongside my students.
I have a hard time answering this question because every single moment of every single day, there was a reminder that however small, there was an impact. There were days that tested that, but I still say that every day, there was an impact. Even now, I am seeing the fruits of the seeds that we planted. The very act of planting a seed is an impact. When you plant these seeds in all these students, they sprout in new and different ways.
It definitely hit me when I left Mujeres that I was part of something much bigger than myself.
“Every single moment of every single day, there was a reminder that however small, there was an impact.”
Through our program, many of them, for the first time, were starting to shift the way they perceived their education. Many of them, regardless of their immigration status, were going to keep fighting. I heard stories of their journeys crossing the U.S. border from Mexico, and their recollection of these experiences was also what drives them to aspire for something better. I saw the girls I worked with valuing themselves more than they ever had before. They knew that they were worthy, that they had power, and it came from within them. I saw the boys I worked with, the young boys who could have led a completely different life involving gangs, chose something different.
Youth work helps me to reflect on what I intend to leave behind so that young people can embrace and live fulfilling lives. Seeing their growth reminded me to grow as well. Youth work is a very humbling experience. I am really honored to have had that experience as a chapter in my life.
“Seeing their growth reminded me to grow as well. Youth work is a very humbling experience.”
One of my parting gifts to the center was a world map. We had all of the students pick a destination, anywhere in the world, that they planned to go to by the time they graduated from college. They could choose wherever they want, even if it was completely random. We had them put down a pin on Chicago, tie a string around it, and pull it to another pin that was at the destination they chose. We had them write down their names and the expected dates that they would graduate from college, which instilled the idea that they would graduate from college. And within that timeframe, they would go to that destination. It was a promise to themselves, not a promise to me. And when you finally make that dream come to life, you would return back to the Mujeres youth center and put a picture there as evidence that you made it happen. They were going to model for other students that it is possible. Because it is.
Some of my students, in the beginning, had a narrow-minded view of their world – a world that they were forced into. Sometimes, their world was literally just their neighborhood block. They learned that they couldn’t cross this street, because it was a different gang territory; they couldn’t go to this part of the neighborhood because they were not allowed to; they knew that there were parts of Chicago that they could not afford. That was a real thing for many of my students.
“Sometimes, their world was literally just their neighborhood block. They learned that they couldn’t cross this street, because it was a different gang territory; they couldn’t go to this part of the neighborhood because they were not allowed to; they knew that there were parts of Chicago that they could not afford.”
I wanted to use the map to manifest for them in a real way that the possibilities were endless.
We talked about the map and that it didn’t mean they had to even leave the country, though I do hope they get to do that at some point. But even within the city of Chicago, it is a very different world across different neighborhoods. During the youth program, I wanted to expose them to spaces they had never been before. Many of them had never imagined that they could be in the high-rise buildings down in the Chicago loop. We had the opportunity to feature some of our students as speakers at one of Mujeres’ largest fundraising events that was located in one of those Chicago Loop buildings. It was a powerful moment for them to leave the neighborhood and to have the chance to access a building that in their worldview was not something possible.
I see all their faces when I think and talk about them. It was a space of love.
One thing that has always guided me has been love.
Spreading Impact: Lifestyle Creative Agency
All of the experiences I have had still impact me deeply. But since leaving Mujeres in the summer of 2016, I have blossomed to do new things. The students at Mujeres had been family to me, and while it was hard to leave, leaving them has inspired me to grow in a new way.
I am starting a lifestyle creative agency that centers on promoting values of healthy masculinity. I want to go beyond the small circles of student groups at Mujeres. I want to discover a new way that could elevate those small experiences to shift the culture of men on a larger scale. I want to amplify the work that I had been doing. I want to use a platform, specifically fashion, as my vehicle to connect with other men of all ages, to stand on values that are healthy to our wellbeing.
“I want to discover a new way that could elevate those small experiences to shift the culture of men on a larger scale.”
S: Why fashion?
G: It is funny how I made this connection.
When I left Mujeres, I knew I needed something different. I think the nonprofit world, especially the work that I was doing, was really draining and oftentimes, it was centered on other people instead of myself. But now as an entrepreneur, I am holding myself accountable only to me. I found time, after leaving my job, to reflect and through that, I found myself missing the Men’s Project. I missed the essence of what that space was to me, how it created me, and the coalition of men that we gathered. Through my time with Mujeres, I had the honor of working alongside women in a space that was predominantly female-led. And it was inspiring and a privilege. But through this reflection, I realized that I have a deeper calling and responsibility to engage men.
When I reflect on my time with the Men’s Project, I remember that we all talked about clothes. I was in a space where we all had a unique style. When we would host events on campus, we would all dress up. Whether it was me wearing a suit or some other guys rocking their sneakers, we all had a flavor to us. There wasn’t a template that we followed. We all had a unique style that was reflected in how we dress.
Fashion and style also became important partly because of my experience as a man of color. I have been wrongly assumed to be something that I was not because of the color of my skin. The clothes I wear is a way to arm myself from being judged as something that I am not. One part of my style philosophy that makes me feel confident is wearing a suit. I love how a well-tailored suit can showcase my own intent to take time to refine and carry myself well. I can do it in a tangible way through the clothes I wear. It reflects how I want to be intentional about how I present myself to the world.
“Fashion and style also became important partly because of my experience as a man of color.”
So I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to shifting male culture as a whole. But how do you take that idea, an idea that is abstract, and communicate it in a way that is clear? A physical way? Style and fashion is a way for me do that.
I used to wear baggy clothes all the time because I was ashamed of being skinny. It wasn’t until I was comfortable in my own skin that I felt I can own the fact that this was my body. Our style is a physical way to manifest who we are. This is how fashion and style can be a platform that to communicate our sense of self and our values as men.
Another reason I want to tie our values to a product or a brand, particularly clothes, is because it showcases visually the principals of what we know in a theoretical way about masculinity. The word, masculinity, can sound very “academic”.
S: And we know that academia is oftentimes so inaccessible and exclusive.
G: Yes, and that is why we wanted to take a creative approach to communicating our values. Academia sometimes doesn’t engage people in ways that aims to reach a broad audience. I am not saying we should simplify the dialogue. But clothing in itself can be a statement of what we believe in to start that conversations with people. If we can engage brands to reflect our values, then wearing so-and-so’s brand is communicating the belief that men can express all different facets of who they are.
S: For your creative agency, do you plan to start by consulting existing fashion companies on how to tailor their message or do you hope to design your own line of clothing?
G: I have broken it into different phases, but no, we are not designing our own line. We want to partner with existing companies and public figures to promote our message.
We are literally starting an agency from scratch, with only our ideas and values. Part of the creative process is figuring out how do we tie what we believe into brands. I am working with two other guys who are Men’s Project alums and close friends of mine.
“We are literally starting an agency from scratch, with only our ideas and values.”
The intention is this: the early stages of the agency would be centered on content development. As a founding team we understand that masculinity is a spectrum. There are so many ways that we can express who we are as men. As individuals, there is a whole spectrum of experiences and stories of men. We want to reflect that in a visual way through the clothes we wear; we want to reflect that masculinity is a spectrum through which we can explore and share. Because we believe there is a diversity in who we are as men.
For example, I have an appreciation for being very minimalist in terms of what I wear.
S: [laughter]. This whole time that you have been talking about fashion, I have been looking at what you happen to be wearing today and yes, it is very minimalist.
“It is in the small details that you can find truths about who you are.”
G: Yes. To me, style is found in the small details. For me, it is in the small details that you can find truths about who you are. I love the minimalist approach because it is a return to basics. When I found myself and my world shattered at age 16, I had to go “back to basics” in order to understand who I was. I showcase my style through the smallest details, whether it is in a color or an accessory piece, there is a story behind each thing.
One of my friends from the Men’s Project once told me that he wears certain clothes as a tribute to his grandfather, who is a major figure in shaping who he is and how he understands himself. He is someone who, at first glance, displays a stoic-kind of vibe and is a man of few words. But when he speaks, he speaks with power. He gets a lot of that philosophy from his grandfather, and he pays tribute to what his grandfather has taught him through his style. That’s a unique story of who he is and who he sees himself as a man.
So, this is the first phase of developing content, writing stories and features on the philosophy behind the clothes that we wear and what it says about who we are as men.
Following that phase, we want to work to tie public figures, major public figures, with brands. We see young boys look to sports figures – a basketball player, a soccer player – to understand who they are and who they want to be. They look to role models in media, sports, music. If we position ourselves to collaborate with public figures as ambassadors of our messages, then we have an opportunity to educate young people on how they can see themselves becoming.
When it comes to exploring corporate partnerships, I want to be able to shift their cultures as well. But if it limits me in terms of what I can and cannot do, I won’t do it. Even though I know what it could grant me access to, I just can’t. My team and I are on the same page about this. There is a sense of integrity that we want to be able to maintain in the work that we do, because I don’t ever want to find myself in a compromised position.
S: That is real hard.
G: Yea. I know.
S: But like you said earlier, you are building this on a set of values. It is easier to maintain these values when you have them in the beginning. It is hard for a business that started as just a business and then later they decide to “give back to the community.” Sometimes they do it well, but oftentimes they don’t.
G: Yea. I hope our work reveals in people something much greater. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. In the midst of that uncertainty, we should allow ourselves to reflect on what we know to be true. This is a way to ground ourselves.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. In the midst of that uncertainty, we should allow ourselves to reflect on what we know to be true. This is a way to ground ourselves.”
I have the belief that the vast majority of men are good, but one of the things that I am critical of is that we can always aspire to be better, and that is what we are trying to do.
S: A question that came to my mind as you were talking about these concepts of masculinity and manhood is how are you defining these ideas as the world is becoming increasingly gender-fluid? How are these concepts relevant to transgender and genderqueer people? How are you educating the rest of the society about gender fluidity through these concepts?
G: That is a great question and I have thought a lot about this.
I use the terms masculine and masculinity as starting points, but ultimately, what I want to do is to dismantle the entire notion of masculinity. My intent is by showcasing that masculinity is fluid, is a spectrum, we are actually demonstrating that masculinity as a static thing doesn’t really exist. The feminine/masculine binary doesn’t exist. That is what I hope to convey.