By Abe Villarreal
I grew up in a small, traditional town. It was and still is, predominantly Hispanic and socially conservative.
Dad and mom taught us to dress well to attend church, to shake everyone’s hand, and to greet people with sir and mam.
I appreciate my upbringing and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. And yet, I missed something important in my rearing. Something that would have changed my thinking and understanding of communities, people, and society: meeting people that sounded, looked, and thought differently than I did.
As a kid, you are taught to think what your parents think. Talking to strangers is a no-no. People that are different from you are weird. They come from a different place. A place you don’t understand.
This framework discourages our youth from wanting to accept everyone despite his or her visible differences. We don’t have to agree with others’ personal or spiritual belief systems, but we can teach our children to know that it’s ok to be the opposite of everything you thought was normal.
I’ve lived my entire adult life in Silver City, New Mexico, a community where people come up to you and want to start a conversation. They do this despite the bumper stickers on your car or how many buttons you leave open on your shirt.
There are people like Kurt LaPrairie. He grew up a New York City boy in the 60s and in many ways hasn’t left his youth. When you see him, you think classic hippie.
Within seconds, Kurt can name the song title, artist, and release year of every classic rock tune from the 1970s he hears blasting loud on the radio.
On most days, Kurt can be found in the university library, reading and scrolling, trying to make it across every page on the Internet. He is fascinated by history and has read more books than most people I know.
On weekends, if the movie is to his liking, Kurt saves his dollars for admission to the local theater. He is a true movie enthusiast. From Bonnie and Clyde to the Florida Project, he searches and finds the social message in every sentence of dialogue shared by the characters on the Silver Screen.
At first, I’m ashamed to say that I dismissed Kurt. His baggie clothes, boots, layered jewelry, tattoos, and sun-beaten skin made him appear just like any other hippie lost in a time warp.
He doesn't feel like a Christian, although in some ways he showed spiritually. He eats at the Gospel Mission every day, but he’s not homeless.
I met Kurt serving at the local Mission. Each Saturday, as I served him a plate, he would tell me a story. I learned about the time he played for a rock band and the time he met U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
Kurt told me about his former wife and his love for the Yankees. He told me about the year he spent “away.” And through all his stories, Kurt was not only telling me of life’s experiences; he was teaching me.
I love talking to Kurt because he represents a dying breed of conversationalists. He believes and stands by what he says. That seems rare these days when most of us apologize for what we say before we say it. We’re afraid to speak our truth. It might be offensive or unpleasing to someone else.
And in all the things that he has told me, and convinced me, is that his generation of the 1960s, when people stood up in large crowds to influence change and sometimes even bring down significant people of power, made a difference that we are still feeling today.
If you feel it, and believe it to be true, don’t be afraid to rise up and be heard. Be like Kurt.
Power to the people.