Pobrecito Wao: #MeToo and the Code of Silence (OPINION)

Mar 17, 2021
11:57 AM

(Photo by Takemaru Hirai/CC0 1.0)

CHICAGO — My sister has a big head. It’s why her nickname is Bola. One of my nicknames is Gordo, which is void of any attempt for wordplay or metaphor. In high school I played football with Whopper and Whopper Jr. Obviously these were defensive linemen with bodies shaped like hamburgers.

Latinos have a dark sense of humor. I believe it’s because so much of our history is tragic with little recourse but to laugh at the pain. We address the elephant in the room because we know ignoring it won’t make it go away. It’s hard to imagine that there is any topic that is taboo for Latinos. And yet, for Latino men there is such a topic. It is difficult for us to talk about #MeToo when the accused is a Latino man we respect.

Code of Silence

In his collection of essays, How to Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon shares a letter in which he asks his friends to love and hold each other accountable. Kiese writes, “Please knock my hustle, Darnell. Please remain my friend when I knock yours. Please love me, brother, and encourage me to be a healthy part of healthy relationships, no matter what.” Kiese’s letter holds a mirror to the uncomfortable fact that I can name several savage men, but not one of them could say that I knocked their hustle. Instead, I chose silence. I feel shame.

Recently, I’ve learned of a man who was arrested for hitting his now ex-wife. I also learned of another man booted from a nonprofit due to accusations of sexual harassment. What these men have in common with me is that the three of us are militant Latino organizers. At different times, both these men were also my roommates. It would be one thing if I was completely shocked by their trajectories, but the reason for my shame is that I was not surprised to learn of their misconduct. While women have taken on the difficult task of direct action, I took the easy route of leaving a movement quietly rather than addressing the issues from within.

“I feel shame” is an easy sentence to write, but it’s three difficult words to live with. I wonder if my homies feel shame too? Some will read this and dismiss it because they don’t know the two men I’m talking about. They can wash their hands of responsibility. But we all know Junot Díaz. We’ve read the accusations. Our collective silence speaks volumes.

Some will say that we don’t have evidence. We don’t know what really happened. I wonder how anyone could prove unwanted touch? These cases will almost never have evidence. Who benefits from the lack of evidence? Who benefits from our silence in the name of fairness? It’s always the men.

Some will say that accusations of sexual misconduct have historically been levied against men of color to justify their destruction. We should be watchful of such threats, but let’s not pretend that all men of color are victims. Junot Díaz has too much institutional support to be considered prey. Emmett Till did not have a tenured position at MIT. Emmett Till didn’t do anything wrong. Emmett and Junot are not the same.

I think Latino men are scared of #MeToo because they do not want to be their next target. As if there is a roundtable of feminists drawing names out of a hat. It’s interesting to think about men’s fear of #MeToo, but that’s not the point of this piece. The question all Latino men should be asking is why those accused of sexual harassment are not afraid of the homies? Why are the homies not knocking each other’s hustle? I’m putting all my homies on notice. I’m done being silent. Be afraid of me.

It’s difficult to unlearn silence. I question myself because who am I to come after Junot Díaz? I didn’t write that beautiful novel. I didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize or a MacArthur Fellowship. I’m not an editor for Boston Review or an MIT professor. I’m not qualified to critique his writing, but I’m not talking about his writing. I’m talking about Junot Díaz the man.

The essay about the abuse he experienced as a child is Junot’s one piece of writing I hate. I hate that he used that story to excuse his own sexual misconduct. I say that as someone who has also experienced sexual abuse. I will not write about that here because it’s a story I’ve already told many times when I was a union organizer. Experiencing violence and humiliating oppression, such as sexual abuse, is what radicalized me. There are so many things Junot Díaz could have learned from his tragic experience. It’s disappointing that he learned the wrong lessons.

I am inspired by the women who continue to fight. To them, I say I’m sorry for showing up so late. I invite the homies to use your voice too. Let there be no more taboo subjects among us. Let us knock each other’s hustle. Let us address the elephant in the room. If it helps, we can give him a new name too. Let these words serve as a baptism for Junot Díaz. With the readers as witnesses, let us acknowledge the rebirth of Junot as Pobrecito Wao. I only wish little Pobrecito Wao had role models for how to be a survivor with dignity. I only wish he saw women.

Where Do We Go from Here?

This is uncharted territory for me. I want to end this essay with an uplifting vision for our society, but I do not have a clear roadmap for how to get there. I don’t even know what there looks like. All I can think of is ending the code of silence. But then what? I’ll start by ending this essay with the four nicknames that are the most important to me: Tater Tot, Cookie, MJ and Farolito.

To Tater Tot and Cookie, I don’t know if you read the things your uncle writes. I wouldn’t blame you if you have more interesting things to do with your time. But if you do stumble upon this, I want you to know that I hope that you haven’t experienced sexual abuse. But if it has happened or it does happen, I want you to know that I will believe you. I’m a man that will believe you.

To MJ and Farolito, you guys are too young to read this. I doubt that years from now you will find this, but if you do I want you to know that you cannot treat women like they’re your property. I’m confident that my sisters (your mothers) will teach you this the same way they taught it to me. But if you need to hear it from a man, I will say it as often as I have to. The world demands that you grow up to be good men. You must knock each other’s hustle.


Arturo “Tootie” Alvarez is based in Chicago. He trucks. He writes. Not at the same time. Twitter @TootieAlvarez.