When you say the word “grief,” it conjures what we have survived. Though the person, event, or circumstance connected to grief varies, we carry its memory. Alongside grief, there is joy…we hope. Between joy and grief, there is life, purpose, loss, and all we could not change. There is blood, people we love, people who love us, and the ones we point to and say, “Had it not been for you, I would not have made it.” Arguably, there is no power like that borne of resilience and an insistence to be great, to let our brilliance shine like a gold bullet caught between the teeth. Each of us has a journey. Jason Mendez, a writer and storyteller who completed a doctoral degree in Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses his grief as fuel to bring a nation of people up with him, from his family to his students to his friends and colleagues and people who experience his work. To listen to him is to hear a man with multi-faceted vision. He possesses a quiet, sharp intensity and power that stems from keen intellectual insight rooted in confidence, compassion, social justice, and honoring where he came from: Manida Street, Hunts Point, South Bronx. His journey as a scholar-artist-activist led him to North Carolina and now Pittsburgh where he is an instructor in the School of Social Work and the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. But no matter where he lives or goes, it is clear. He bleeds the art, culture, history, and stories of the Boogiedown Bronx.
“I was born in 1979 in the streets of the South Bronx. I grew up in the upper half of the 600th block of Manida. That’s why I love the movie A Bronx Tale,” Mendez says. “Down the block could have been a whole other state. Coster Street was the next street over but I couldn’t tell you who lived there. Each block had it’s own culture. The music. The vibe.”
The South Bronx was a beautiful, safe space for Mendez. He grew up in a spacious, multiple-family home. Part of his work and mission is to dismiss and debunk the stereotypical, white supremacist version of the South Bronx as violent, criminal, drug-infested, gang-populated, and blighted. His life and stories counter the mainstream narrative about the South Bronx that favors racist sensationalism and the need for a dark, hopeless narrative of gangster culture and cultural bankruptcy.
Memories of his friends on the block are alive inside him. He says their names, and you hear the love in every syllable. “Angel, Jose, Ryan, DJ, Espy, and I made it what it was. Not one person was more important than the other. But we all brought our own uniqueness to the whole Manida crew. There was no favoritism. No hierarchy. No leader of the pack. But at the same time, if one of us wasn’t there, we felt that. Now, if you were to go to that same block, it’s a different vibe. I don’t even know if kids hang out the way we used to at that time. Once we left, that died. Angel said, ‘We legends on that block.’ No one remembers who we were. But from the eighties to the nineties, we ran that block. We weren’t a gang. We weren’t bad. We were mischievous, but we weren’t in any trouble with the law.”
Mendez recently completed the competitive Penn Avenue Creative Fellowship, sponsored by the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The fellowship was an opportunity for Mendez to transition from an academic to an artist. “My last full-time academic position was at the premier white institution, Duke University, which has been at the forefront for racism, from nooses hung on a tree to a Black female student being attacked by white fraternity students,” Mendez says. “Duke is synonymous with institutional racism. It’s not just white; its Southern white. And not just Southern white, but elite Southern white. All those layers create an environment that is passively violent.”
For two years as visiting professor in Duke’s Department of Education, Mendez experienced microagressions and racism so prevalent that he developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) The environment in the all-white department was hostile, and Mendez felt it down to the marrow. When he was hired, Mendez was informed the position at Duke would become permanent. But the administration came to realize that Mendez was his own man and not merely there to fulfill a diversity quota or to march to the beat of their expectations–that he keep his head down and follow instructions. That he not do anything that would open doors of agency and representation for students of color at Duke, which he did.
Playing the [academia] game means putting on a white disguise in order to be successful. I refuse to do that.
Prior to becoming part of the Duke faculty, Mendez had a mix of positive experiences in North Carolina where he completed all of his degrees. He was a Puerto Rican in the Deep South where there are few Puerto Ricans. “My first introduction to North Carolina was through Mount Olive University, in the country, where I went for undergraduate school. You’re passing cornfields and wheat fields. The first time I visited I thought, ‘What the hell am I getting myself into?’ But I thought it was a nice environment. I fell in love with North Carolina. I spent the decade from 17 to 27 in North Carolina, and it’s where I became a man. In that process of becoming a man and always going back to the Bronx, which will always be home, I realized the Bronx wasn’t the same. Life for the Bronx moved on when I moved on. The lure to want to move back to the Bronx dissipated. Plus the cost of living is expensive.”
Mendez identifies as a Bronx Boricua—a resistance to the colonized identity of being called Puerto Rican. (The island of Borinquen was renamed “Puerto Rico” by Europeans who colonized it.) “It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I took on this Latino identity,” he says. “I never used that word until I moved to North Carolina. It felt weird to use that word. I went from a space that was predominantly Puerto Rican to a space where I was the only Puerto Rican.
“In the beginning it was cool. It became tiring after a while. I had to tell people that I wasn’t their Puerto Rican history lesson. I wanted a space where I could just exist and not have to explain myself. The only time I saw a Puerto Rican face is when I looked in the mirror, so I yearned for a type of familiarity and to not be treated like this cultural, exoticized commodity where people just want to ‘eat the other,’ as [cultural critic and writer] bell hooks says. I’m not here for your consumption.”
After graduating with a doctoral degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mendez briefly returned to New York to teach at York College, then he relocated to Pittsburgh where his wife, Dara, is from. “My wife showed me the Penn Avenue Creative opportunity. It had this social justice framework. It looked like a good opportunity to develop Sons of the Boogie as a business.” Mendez co-founded Sons of the Boogie with prolific, globally influential visual artist and aerosol arts innovator, P.H.A.S.E. 2, and Seku Grey, a hip hop dancer, artist, and choreographer. As an arts collective, Sons of the Boogie fuses storytelling, dance, and visual art to preserve the culture and legacy of the Bronx, while educating the local and global community about its history.
I met Mendez at the Penn Avenue Creative retreat, which kicked off the 12-week fellowship. As one of the workshop facilitators, I was asked to help the six Fellows develop clear mission statements about their work and find the heart of their passion as artist-change agents. I’d asked them to consider the thing that they had to do, that if they did not do it, it would feel like dying. “Sons of the Boogie was the first thing that came to mind,” Mendez says. “It wasn’t an academic position that was pulling at my heart. It was this creative space of doing what I wanted, which was to build up Sons of the Boogie in a way to build P.H.A.S.E. 2 up. I owe so much to him. He connected me to the real world while I pursued my PhD. He was part of my dissertation study, but he taught me, ‘What is the point of telling his story if I don’t value my own?’ If it wasn’t for him, I would have lost myself in academia. I think academia was slowly killing me. He saved my life. So I feel a responsibility to let the world know who he is. He is a renaissance artist.”
As a result of the Fellowship, Mendez began to see himself as a writer. Prior to the Fellowship, he saw his contributions to Sons of the Boogie as primarily business-oriented. Slowly, surely he became comfortable with shedding the “old skins” of being an academic writer. In that world, you must compare yourself to scholars in the field and be obsessed with perfection and pleasing peer reviewers. He wondered of his own storytelling, “When is it perfect? How to tell the perfect story?” Yet the decision to become a “man of letters” was never about academic publishing or posturing. Mendez decided to get a Masters and PhD, not only for his own success and career development, but also for his community. “No one talked about grad school in the Bronx. No one I knew went to grad school,” he says. “The only knowledge I had about grad school was from movies where the white professors had pipes and British accents. I just doubted my ability to be on that level.”
I dream about telling these stories, like A Bronx Tale. I want it to be a whole experience.
Though the road to becoming “Dr. Mendez” was not paved in gold, Mendez’s determination was. When he decided to apply to UNC, he wanted to make a personal connection and not just be a name on a graduate school application. So he set up meetings with a few professors in the program. He shared his life’s accomplishments, from being on track to graduate summa cum laude from North Carolina Central, to developing an innovative education program for preschool students, to doing unfulfilling work in IT sales.
Mendez recalls, “After my pitch of accomplishments, [one professor] asked, ‘What are you?’ For the first time, it was as if nothing I did mattered. It was about me being a diversity statistic. It was the first time I had dealt with something like that. I just pushed it to the side because I didn’t know what to do with that. I remember [the professor’s] follow-up response was that I could be their first Puerto Rican student.”
Initially, he was not admitted to the program and felt the weight of it on his shoulders. “I was crying in the car because I felt I had put my community from the Bronx on my back so I could do this. I saw the PhD as a way for me to make change in the community I had come from,” he says. “There is a low number of Latinos with PhDs and amongst those, an even lower number of Puerto Ricans with PhDs. I felt a commitment to address Puerto Rican representation in higher education.”
But the following year, Mendez was admitted to the program. When he graduated with his doctoral degree, he stopped halfway across the stage and removed the traditional doctoral cap and replaced it with his signature Yankees fitted cap, onto which he had attached a tassel. His friends and family cheered. “The hat showed a new representation of what an academic or intellectual can look like,” Mendez says.
“But more so, it meant that I came into UNC Bronx, and that’s the way I left. I realized I could not let my smartness be defined by someone else. I refused to play the game of just performing smartness. In classes, I used the way I would talk in the Bronx, not academic jargon. That was intentional. In retrospect, I saw that in order to be successful as an academic, you have to check your identity at the door; especially folks that represent marginalized identities. Playing the game means putting on a white disguise in order to be successful. I refused to that. So the hat symbolized that they didn’t change me. I came in wearing that hat, and I left wearing that hat.”
Mendez is at work on a memoir, The Search for the Golden Glow, and one-man show, Manida. “I have a lot of Walter Mitty moments where I daydream, when I’m driving or at home or whatever. I dream about telling these stories, like Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale and John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown. Instead of just performing, I want it to be a whole experience where all five senses for those people watching are stimulated. No one comes to my show just to watch. You’re a part of it as well. You don’t see yourself just as an audience member but a participant in the performance.”
Mendez performed the first installment of his one-man show at Duke before his departure. The atmosphere was electric with sounds and images from Mendez’s Bronx childhood–sounds of the subway train, of kids playing, of hip hop and other kinds of music. In a radical act of resistance, Mendez forced Duke to listen to him, to why his position there mattered, and why, despite their racist practices and policies, he would prevail. He shared the stage with Seku, his friend and business partner, as well as with students who danced, stepped, and performed spoken word poetry. His stage was inclusive, just like his politics and the platform he is building, brick by golden brick.
Perhaps his inclusive personal and communal politics are informed as much by his revolutionary zeal and commitment to social justice as by his being an only child. “Even when I lived with cousins, there were times when I would be alone as a kid. It wasn’t a lot, but it did happen.” Mendez, now a father of three, says. “For me, kids were a way to pour the love I have into something. I remember thinking about when I would have kids [of my own]. Even in undergrad when I would have hard classes, I’d think about my future kids. They were always a motivation, even ten years before my [first child, a son] Cairen was born. I wanted a lot of kids. Having more kids was an unconscious way of giving my kids a companion.”
Shortly after Cairen was born, Mendez lost his father to cancer. The endless beauty of welcoming a first child met the devastation of losing a father too soon. “From my relationship to my students and kids, to my memoir, to my one-man show, it’s all driven by grief,” Mendez says. “All these things bring me healing and recovery.”
(Visit 1839mag on Facebook to see more exclusive photos from Tameka Cage Conley’s interview with Jason Mendez)