The Record Parlour

“We buy stuff off the street. Used records. That’s where all these things come from. You get a bunch of people. And sometimes it’s a great interaction, and sometimes it’s not, you know?”

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Standing against the exposed brick of his vinyl record store, 41-year old Chadwick Hemus knows music has always been his true north. Co-owner of The Record Parlour in Hollywood, California, Chadwick remembers how records had an immediate allure for him, and working in worlds where records spin marked an early beginning to an enduring rhythm of life.

On his hand, there is a small tattoo of a faded cat sitting on a crescent moon.

“It’s off of a Ventures record cover. I don’t know. It just struck me.”

Music is like that for him, too.

His first record was a ’70’s Mickey Mouse Club record. “With Lisa Whelchel from Facts of Life, an ensemble cast,” he smiles.

Since that first vinyl, Chadwick can talk to you about Chick Corea while flipping an Otis Redding record.  The store is self-described as ‘a mecca of pre-digital entertainment and home to over 15,000 records, rare jukeboxes, restored vintage audio gear, music memorabilia and much more.’ Chandeliers and naked light bulbs glimmer in the sepia space rich with vinyl and other nostalgic things. Chadwick and his business partner Chris Honetschlaeger have been in business here for three years now.

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“This is the first time I’ve had my own store. But that’s all I’ve ever done since high school,” says Chadwick. “That’s how I’ve made a living.

“I grew up in San Diego, and I happened to be in a neighborhood where, at the time, there were  four or five music stores of varying size. There was a Tower and Warehouse. And then some very important independent stores in the area too. One of which ended up being the first place I worked.

“I just fell into that and had a knack for … kind of the way my brain works… you know, I’m pretty good at memorizing things. It lent itself to pricing,” he says. “It wasn’t something I thought consciously, ‘oh this is something I’m going to do with myself.’ I loved records.

“In the ’90’s, there was very much a trend for this snobbishness in music stores. That’s faded quite a bit. I think that overall the sort of humbling of maybe the music industry and the fact that the money’s not like it used to be …  there’s not really a lot of room for that.”

As much as his work in the record store is a labor of love, he admits there is definitely labor involved.

“It’s a lot of hours and there’s always a lot of other things to deal with besides just the good parts,” he says. “There’s a lot of street interactions. And when you run a business like this … you have a lot of other aspects to deal with that are not always pleasant.

“Sometimes you’re just a therapist. Just a bartender type helping somebody kind of move on. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is very very desperate and very upset that we’re not able to help them.

“It’s not always just the stuff off the street that can be crazy. I mean, the sourcing… the places you have to go to get stuff can be really pretty creepy.

“There’s a lot of hoarders that have a lot of records. Records kind of lend themselves to that.  And a lot of times, by the time their collections are available, the person has either passed or may be in a really bad part of their life. And you’re dealing with a lot of what comes with hoarders: the dirt and filth and bugs. So there’s a lot of that when you’re sourcing this kind of stuff.”

The Flip Side

“One of the mysteries of music… is the sort of power of it and the longevity of it.

“And one of the reasons I think we have been very successful in a short amount of time is there’s a lot of interaction with people. I want to find out what they want and what they want to be turned on to, and it really doesn’t matter if that’s what you’re into or not.  It’s more about getting someone streamlined into what they want. All of those interactions are what make a good day.

“Small businesses like this are always about relationships.  That’s why people come in. When people are selling records, especially when it’s their own records, they really want acknowledgement over them. That the stuff is good stuff. That they took care of it. Or maybe they didn’t because they loved them. But there’s definitely that exchange. It’s so often not about how much money. It’s so much about acknowledging the importance they’ve given these objects, and they really want you to give that.

“I’m sure this is part of what my over-arching dream would be for an existence. I don’t know what that is.  Right now, I’m more about survival and realigning. It’s a very strange time period. So the idea of sort of a dream or a bigger picture — ugh — it’s not where I’m at.

“My favorite mantra has always been ‘don’t look down.’

“That’s the key to hanging in there. ‘Cuz it’s pretty scary.”

Maybe music helps us look up. And make sense of things. Especially in tough times. In the moment. And well beyond. In the words of musician and artist David Byrne from his book How Music Works:

“A slew of musical associations bounce around in our heads, linking to recurring memories and feelings, which, after a while, facilitate the creation and reinforcement of specific neural pathways. These pathways help us make sense of those experiences. They make us who we are.

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The Power of Choice

How does one choice impact the trajectory of our lives?

The compound effect of our choices often takes time to be revealed, the influences so seemingly small.

And then some choices are more pivotal, singular, instantly decisive.

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Nineteen year-old Loc Le paced the dark beach late that night, eyes straining to see anything in the watery abyss. The plan was going wrong.

He walked up and down the shoreline, quietly convincing himself he was there at the right time, on the right day. This was his second attempt to catch the boat, and to avoid detection he had to go alone.

He found the house where the escape was coordinated. But when he spotted police hiding nearby, he knew not to approach.  “They waited to catch people who contact the person in the house.”

A small boat was supposed to pick him up and take him to a bigger boat. But where was it?

He waited. And waited.

“I cannot go to that house, so I don’t know where to go. I just think, ‘What can I do now? No one I can contact with.’”

Somewhere in the night, he hoped his father, step-mother and half brother had reached the big boat, and that they would be re-united soon.

They were all running. Away from Vietnam and communism. Into the unknown. Toward freedom.

It was 1979, and a few years had passed since the North defeated the South. When he turned 18, Loc was awakened in the middle of the night and forced to join the army. He wrapped up a few clothes and was put in a police car to report for military duty. He could feel his freedom slipping away.

Not long after, he escaped from the army for the first time. When he was caught, he was put in solitary confinement for one month. Months later, he was assigned to guard duty at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. His family didn’t know where he’d been sent. But his father searched through jungles, asking after his son, and eventually found him.

“I don’t know how he found me,” said Loc. “Only love can do that.”

Loc and his father told his superiors a story that Loc’s mother was ill, and he needed to go home.

Was that true, I asked?

“No! It’s not true at all. To survive under the communists, you cannot tell the truth.”

And his family fought to survive. His father had been a captain in the army for the South. Loc’s older brother, also a soldier, had been killed by soldiers from the North when Loc was just 12 years old. Loc’s paternal grandfather had also been killed, simply because he was working for French people and learning to speak French.

“You’re looking for the boat, right?” The voice came from a fisherman on the shore.

Loc said yes.

The fisherman said he would point him in the direction of the boat, but only for money. Loc had no money. None.

So he unclasped his necklace and gave it to the fisherman.  “I said, ‘Tell me, where is the boat?’”

The fisherman pointed to a faint light in the distance, a boat floating in the darkness on the South China Sea.

“That’s the boat that’s going to leave tonight,” he told Loc.

But how would he get there?

He walked back and forth until 2:00am, searching for a solution, searching for the small boat.

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“Then I heard the dogs start barking.” It was the police patrol, and they were moving toward the shore.

“At that time, I have to make decision.  If they catch me, they going to put me in jail because I escaped from the army. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.

“Now, the season is life or death. So I say, if I still have some life, I have to take it!

“So I start to swim.”

His emotions surface and the gravity of the situation is written on Loc’s face as he recounts the story.

“And I am not a good swimmer. But I swim. I swim. I swim. I swim I don’t know how long. And I reached the big boat. They pulled me up, and I passed out.”

The Big Boat

The big boat was just 12 feet long and three feet wide. When Loc finally regained consciousness, he was told he could go above deck to get some fresh air.  It was then he discovered he was one of 38 people aboard that small wooden boat.

“And I see my father there! Oh, what joyful! I see my step-mom. I see my half brother.  Oh, I am so happy.”

No sooner, news came that the boat had no food supply. The supply boat never came. “But they had to leave. So we have no food. We just have three gallons of water containers. For 38 people.”

A plan was quickly set to ration the water, using the small caps of the containers as serving sizes.

“We have three water caps. So, one at 10 o’clock, one at 12 o’clock, and one at 3 o’clock. Each people have three caps of water per day. No food.”

They went three days like that, in an overcrowded boat on the open sea, with only three caps of water per person per day.

Add to that, there were no experienced seamen on board. “No compass. No map. The captain, well, we call captain, of that boat: only thing he knows is that the sun rise and sun set.”

On the third day, they found a small damaged boat floating on the sea, and when Loc and other men climbed aboard, they discovered another container of water. Rusty water. “But who cares! I know I can survive a few more days with that much water in my body. So I drink and give to them and they drink it!”

The Philippines was the nearest destination, said Loc, but still they saw no land.

Day 4.

Day 5.

Day 6.

“We’re all exhausted, so we say ok, now we need to pray,” he said. “We need to pray something miracle happen.

“The next morning, around 8 o’clock, we see the cloud coming toward our boat. Maybe some rain!

“We get the tarp. Maybe some rain! Maybe some rain!

“And raindrops! The miracle thing. The raindrop! Oh, raindrops. We tried to lick the water on our hands. We tried to hold it in the tarp. Only for one minute, and that’s it. Then it stopped.”

And he stopped. He grew quiet and wiped his eyes. Finally he spoke.

“We survived on that rain.”

On the eighth day, they met a cargo ship from Holland, and while the crew couldn’t take them on, they gave everyone food and water. They also said they were close to the Philippines.

At around 6pm, they saw land. “Thank God that we see the land! Then the Philippine people, they get out, and they carry us to the land!”

He was free.

“As long as I feel free, that’s all I need. I didn’t feel fear of unknown. I can adapt. As long as I have freedom, it’s up to me!”

 Living Free, One Day at a Time

I asked Loc if that was the hardest thing he’s encountered in his life.

Through quiet tears, he answered, “Yes. Everything after that easier, yes.”

To describe his journey from the Philippines to America and to making a life here as easy would be a gross misstatement. It was hard too. But his family, freedom, faith and self-reliance were strength enough for the journey.

“Until you lose it, you don’t know how precious your freedom is. Nothing better than freedom. Nothing.

“If you have freedom, and if you have your will, then you will make it.”

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And he has made it.  Now 54 years old, if you were to visit his southern California business for dry cleaning, or alterations, or shoe repairs, the treatment you’d receive would feel less commercial and more familial. For 24 years, Loc “Peter” Le has had Knott’s Cleaners. He greets people warmly, asking about their families, their lives.

Peter’s own family consists of his wife Sunny and their teenage daughter Angelle. His father, Vien Le, is now 87 years old.

More than 30 years since their escape from Vietnam, his father still talks about that journey. “He just reminded me,” said Peter, of the day their prayers for rain were answered. “Last Monday, I took him to see the doctor. He just remind me again, that a miracle happened to us.”

Peter continues to live his life with an intense appreciation for freedom and the opportunities it allows.

“The man dignity does not matter what kind of work you do, but how you do the work. Do it with pride.”

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The Giving Side

After young Jireh’s uncle vanished, everything changed.

The danger was too close.

“We’re leaving tonight,” said Jireh’s father.  “Take whatever you can.”

Jireh (JEE-ray) Mabamba was just seven years old at the time, the fifth of six children — the sons and daughters of preachers.

It was 2001, and Jireh’s parents opposed the child soldier movement in their home country of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

And their opposition made them targets.

Jireh is still unclear about who exactly was after them… and about who exactly found his uncle instead.

All he knows is they had to leave.

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Now a 19 year-old college freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), Jireh sits inside a warm home. Outside, it’s a frigid midwestern morning.

“It was a nice house like this,” he says of his boyhood home in DRC, his eyes scanning the room.

His manner is calm and reflective right now, but he is charismatic and fun-loving too. Tall and fit, Jireh has the posture of an athlete and speaks English with eloquence. It might not be perfect, but it’s very good. In his delivery, you hear a mixture of accents and word selections acquired from the places he’s lived. It’s a melding of French, Swahili and Lingala influences from DRC, the mellifluous lilt of South African English and some American slag he’s picked up since coming to the United States.

“I was very young, so I do not remember what I took with me. However, I do remember us leaving a coat. It was green in color, and all my siblings including myself, had worn that coat. The family was very attached to it, but we had to leave it behind.”

Jireh’s memories of those initial months after fleeing DRC are vague, but stories have been passed down about the family’s existence as refugees.

“We drove, we walked, we drove, we walked, we took a boat.

“I think we went through Congo to Zambia, Zambia to Malawi, Malawi to Mozambique, Mozambique to South Africa.”

The small boy making his way through these refugee camps would have a very big dream one day. He just didn’t know it yet. But he does now, and it’s a dream that will lead him right back to where this story began. And he may just write a new chapter in his country’s history.

South Africa

“We were illegal,” says Jireh. “When we arrived in South Africa, we didn’t have documents.  We went to the home affairs, and we told them why we were there, and how we got there. We said we ran.”

Jireh’s parents and their children were registered as refugees.  But the documents they received did not come with food or shelter.

“We spent a couple of days outside on the street. And then later moved to a church,” he says. “Then the church couldn’t do that the whole time, so we moved to a shelter.”

Jireh’s sister started selling oranges to try to earn some money for the family. Jireh’s father, a French-speaking preacher in DRC, struggled to find work and communicate in a new language. He took a job as a car guard — a position that earns no pay if not for the occasional tip.

By now Jireh was nine and beginning fourth grade.

“We moved to a primary school. A lot of naughty kids would go. Kids that had been kicked out from other schools.”

But Jireh and his siblings immersed themselves in academics. “We’d go to school, stay after school, speak to teachers, ‘show me this, show me that’. We were very committed.”

In middle school, he passed all his classes and played “every single sport” but was particularly passionate about basketball.

Soon, he set his sights on a prestigious all-boys high school — Durban High School — and decided to apply. Coats, ties, polish. It was not the place refugee kids typically aspired to attend high school.

Jireh remembers kids around him saying ‘forget it, you’re not going to make it. Nobody’s going to accept you.’

“And they were right,” he says. “Even though I had a dream of somebody handing me the uniform when I applied. I applied, and they said, ‘Nope, we’re full.’”

But one month later, there was an opportunity for a second chance. “That same school sent an email to all schools saying they were having a scholarship available for basketball,” he says. Seven players could represent each school. “I was like, oh, I’m going!

“Every day, every night, I’d be at that basketball court working, training.”

And when the day of the try-outs arrived, Jireh was ready. “I was the first person at the courts. It was part of my plan. I knew coaches would usually arrive there early and organize things, and I thought, if I go early and start practicing they will see me, notice me.”

He was warming up. He was shooting. He was scoring.

Then came time for the scrimmage.

“We played five on five, and I didn’t score a basket! I was stopping kids from scoring, and I was passing the ball. But my position is a shooter, so I’m meant to score. But on that day,” he laughs, “nothing worked!”

When the day was done, the boys were told, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

Again, he waited.

“A month later, the principal of my middle school came, and he’s like, ‘Jireh, congratulations. You are the first child in this school to EVER get a scholarship to that school. You make us proud.’”

Leadership

Jireh Mabamba, a refugee from DRC, would attend Durban High School, the school where South African elite send their children.

“I was an average student. My first year, I was just following the rules: play basketball, do academics, play basketball.

“The following year, I decided to join leadership stuff. Oh, there’s a Toastmasters International course going on? I can join that.  And there is student government? I can join that. I started getting involved in leadership stuff at school. And slowly, while playing basketball still, I started getting involved into school life and building myself up.”

Forgiveness

Jireh made the most of his high school environment from grade eight through 12, but despite his optimism, it wasn’t always easy. The class differences were highlighted by some of the other students.

“The kids were like, Jireh, what do your parents do?”  Sometimes he would answer ‘car guard’. Sometimes he would answer ‘pastor’.

“Some of those kids were very mean. They would have things going on, but they wouldn’t invite me,” he says. “They just never consider me.”

Sometimes they called him names. Sometimes they talked about his parents.

I asked him if that hurt.

“It did. It did hurt.

“My mom would always say, ‘It’s ok. You know what you have to do for that scholarship, right?’ I said, “Yah, I just have to pass, mom.”

Jireh would tell his father, “‘They called me this, and they called me that. And they called you guys this.’

“My dad would say, ‘Are you what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Am I what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Is your mom and I so and so?’ I’m like, no. ‘Then why you worried about it? It’s not true. If it’s not true, then you don’t worry about it. And if it’s true, change it.’”

Jireh draws much of his ability to forgive from his parents as well as South African leader Nelson Mandela’s example.

“He spent 27 years in jail and got out and forgave those people who put him there. When I got to South Africa, we faced a lot of insults and a lot of hate from people.

“A normal person reacts to it and calls them back names. But because of my beliefs and because of Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive people that hated him for 27 years…” His thought trails off. “Mine was just a small period of time. So if he can do that for 27 years, I will just be myself and be good.”

Public Speaking

By the time Jireh was in the 11th grade, he was heavily involved in Toastmasters and was giving speeches and winning contests. One day at school, an assembly was called for all the boys in the student body to attend. Jireh Mabamba was giving a speech called You Too Can Have the Last Laugh.

The speech was startling at first. “Hey you, you’re a fat kid. You can’t play basketball. Hey you, you’re so skinny. What makes you think you’re going to be a rugby player?” He got everyone’s attention. The message in earnest was summed up by Jireh later. “People will talk about you. People will criticize you. People will call you names. But if you keep doing what you’re meant to do, you will have the last laugh.”

The speech was transformative for Jireh.

“I was nervous. Even though I was making that speech straight from the heart, I memorized it. After that speech was a whole life-changing experience. In the school, people gave me respect. I never felt like that before. It was a great feeling.

“The Toastmasters coarse itself helped me a lot because I’m a shy guy. People don’t believe me, but I am. Every time I talk I get SUPER nervous. My legs shake. That was scary stuff, but I did it anyway.”

Why?

“I wanted people to hear me. I wanted people to understand how I feel. That’s the motivation I got from my parents.  ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about them. God will be with you. My parents are very Christian. God will guide you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Service Above Self

Jireh’s high school guidance counsellor was very active in Rotary International.

“He asked me what I was going to do after high school. I said ‘I don’t know. My parents can’t afford for me to go to college.’”

“‘Well’,” said the counsellor. “‘There is this Rotary International scholarship that you can apply for, and I think you’re really qualified.’”

Rotary was familiar territory for Jireh. He had begun a life of  ‘Service above Self’, the Rotary motto, by often being a host friend to new Rotary scholars visiting Durban High School. Now it was his turn to be the visiting student.

With the help of Rotary International, he would become part of the Rotary Exchange program and a member of the senior class of Duluth East High School in northern Minnesota, USA. Latitude Durban: 29+ degrees South. Latitude Duluth: 46+ degrees North.

“I came here, and my first snowfall was while I was doing my math test. I’d never seen snow before falling from the sky. I was super distracted.”

He was staring out the window.

Suddenly he heard the voice that had been trying to wake him a few times already. “My teacher was saying, ‘Jireh, are you ok?’

“I said ‘no’, and everybody started laughing.” Jireh asked if he could go outside and take a photo of the falling snow.

“The teacher said, ‘Well, who wants to go outside to take a picture with Jireh?’  And the whole class put their hands up! And he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”

As the math class snapshot shows, Jireh has been welcomed like family here — in school, in host families, in life. During his first year in Duluth, he brought his magnetic personality to Rotary meetings, and now in his second year, he continues to do so while on scholarship at UMD studying business.

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“The Rotary means a lot to me. They believed in me enough to go out of their way to help get me back here for college. I would not have done it if it was not for the help of Rotary Club 25. I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. I hope that one day I will be successful enough so that I could make a difference in some student’s life like the Rotary did to me. They gave me hope and an opportunity to make change in this world.”

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Political future?

That young boy from the refugee camp has something in mind as to how he can make change in this world.

“I want to go to the Congo and set things straight. I want to become the president.”

Jireh explains how DRC is rich in minerals and how they have become a curse.

“People are fighting over them. The government is corrupt. They need somebody that can actually CARE not only about the minerals, but about the people themselves.

“Most people like that get killed,” he says.

I let that sink in.

Are you not afraid of that?

“I am. But my parents support me for it.  They know it’s the right thing to do.

“I want to go back, but before that, I want to study here, and have a family just in case anything happens.

“I want to have a house for my parents — have them stable. And if I do go, and if I don’t come back, I’ll know they’re fine.

“I’m on the receiving end of the coin, every time. I’d like to be on the other side. The giving side.”

To many, Jireh is already there.

How We Met — Disco Taco

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story. 

DISCO TACO

One gray weekend, I decided to stop thinking about it and do it.

The idea for this Another Door Opens project had been in my mind for a long time, and finally something needed to change.

If you never do, you’ll never know.

The worst that could happen is you don’t try.

The second worst that could happen is no one will talk with you.

So what if you’re not the best writer on the planet.

So what if you’re not the best photographer on the planet.

So what if you’re not the best storyteller on the planet.

Imperfections and vulnerability don’t make your efforts less worthwhile.

Do it.

It would be an experiment as short or as long as I chose to make it.

But I believed and still do in the core reason for doing this. Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to be heard. And we benefit by sharing our stories.

With new resolve, I immediately started looking for opportunities.

I stopped for lunch at a little spot called Disco Taco, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I walked through my first door without any bright lights or flashing signs.

I think it was Agnes de Mille who said, “No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made.”

As I talked with David Medina at the restaurant, and as I watched him interact with other customers, a voice inside said, ask him… start here.

The busy restaurant cleared out quickly, and before I’d finished my lunch, the place was empty.

“Can I run something by you?” I asked.

“Sure!” he said enthusiastically.

It was my first time to say what I was doing.

I explained the project in very short form, then asked David if he’d be willing to have me come back the next day to do an interview and take a few pictures.

“Yes! Why not?”

The first door opened!

Thank you, David. Thank you.

How We Met — Designing a New Future

Hello Readers, I’m taking a walk back and sharing with you how I met the first 10 people of the Another Door Opens project. I began with the most recent and am working my way back to the first. 

DESIGNING A NEW FUTURE

I had just come back to Chicago after about nine months of traveling and living out of a suitcase, and I was looking forward to boxing and kickboxing again with my friend Aaron.

Whenever I need to feel grounded in a new city — an experience I became accustomed to after moving around for more than 13 years for work — I find a place where I can do martial arts, boxing, kickboxing.

I’d only recently started down the path of opening new doors in the form of this Another Door Opens project, and I was eager to find the next person behind their door…. To hear their story… To ask them about their life… To share more deeply in the human experience.

Aaron knew of my project and was enthusiastic and encouraging. Then he mentioned his friend and colleague, Justin — telling me little, but emphatic that I should talk to him. I met Justin not long after and we agreed to meet again for an interview. He was 25 and making big changes in his life.

We sat on the floor at the gym, surrounded by heavy bags, and he told me his story with honesty, ownership, humility and pride. Thank you, Justin!

Hats Off

When I stepped inside Goorin Bros. Hat Shop in Chicago, there were hats on every table and every shelf — fedoras and flatcaps, baseball and bowlers. There, I met Tanya Jaramilla, and not unlike the establishment itself, she wears many hats: shopkeeper, wife, sister, student.

“I’ll be the first person in the whole family to graduate from college.”

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Tanya is 32 years old and approximately one year away from earning a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Communications from DePaul University.

Tanya’s grandparents came to the Windy City in the 1950’s from Puerto Rico on the promise of steady factory work.

“For my family, it was a BIG deal to finish high school.

“For me, I always wanted bigger and better and more.”

Tanya was certain she would go to college.

“I just didn’t know when or how or what that would look like. It’s really, really, really important that I get my degree and graduate — do the whole shebang!”

If you’re doing the math, you already guessed there was a detour after high school that Tanya will tell you was worth every minute and helped her become the person she is today.

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“I have no regrets, because if I hadn’t lived the life I already lived, I wouldn’t be living the life I have now. I run this fantastic little hat shop. The people that work for me are great, and the people that come and shop here are great. I’m doing school the way I wanted to do it, which is with all my focus and energy and attention.”

Straight out of high school, Tanya worked part-time at a Gap store and was soon promoted to a full-time manager position. What had been a balancing act between work and college tipped. “I did that for a really long time. And school just kind of fell to the back burner.”

Simultaneously, Tanya was in a long-term relationship.  About seven years later, and in a cloud of mistrust, Tanya’s relationship ended in a break-up that became a total life shake-up. She changed her job, her home, her city.

“I left and went to Vegas to live for a few months with my grandma, and that was one of the best experiences I ever had. I was able to connect with her on a level that I’d never done before.  We talked about her life, and I learned stories about her struggle.

“It really affirmed for me the decision that I had made to move on and change and do something that was right for me. So when it was time for me to come back to Chicago, I came back with a cleansed soul. I felt like a new me. I felt like the me that I was trying to get to for the last six or seven years, and it just never happened because I kept letting my comfort get in the way of it.”

Tanya says she wanted to do something important. Something that makes a difference. Something she could be passionate about. She found it in a non-profit organization called the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.

“It was a little surreal at the beginning because I was so used to having to struggle. And having to overcome something.

“I started digging in. I started really working with the organization in the community.”

And she realized something.

“This is what I was supposed to do, you know? It was meant to be. I was meant to get to know these young people who have all of these aspirations but no real support or access to resources. I was able to provide that for them in ways that they never had before.”

Tanya remembers an inquisitive little girl named Susie. “She made me feel like I … showed her that you don’t have to succumb to the neighborhood that you’re from. You don’t have to fall into the traps that the community around you sets for you.

“That’s something I try to instill in my little sisters. They are young moms, and it’s a conversation that I’ve had with them over and over. You don’t have to settle.

“I was settling for a really long time.” She thinks back to that old relationship. “Once I finally broke free of that, it was really important for me to make sure they understood that their lot in life doesn’t necessarily have to be that. They can work harder, they can be better, they can do more, if they want to.

“I grew as a person from my relationship experiences, but also as a woman.”

Tanya says in her relationship, she had become someone other than who she wanted to be. “In order to fulfill someone else’s happiness, I was turning a blind eye. I was in denial. The biggest challenge for me: being honest with myself.

“Another thing I taught my sisters was that people will only do to you what you allow them to.

“If I continue to let someone treat me terribly, they’re going to keep treating me terribly. Because I’m not putting a stop to it. And I’m not ending it. It gives them the message that that’s ok. And it’s not ok.

When Tanya was 27, that year was filled with introspection.  “I did a lot of digging into myself and thinking and feeling.

“It wasn’t easy. I don’t think those moments in life ever are. But I think it paved the way for me to be the person I am today. I feel like I am much stronger. I’m more confident. I have a better view of what my future’s going to be like.”

A future that includes her new husband Sonny Jaramilla. They were married just last month.

“When I found him, I realized that all of the things that I had worked through and I had lived through … that was preparation for me to get my mind right and my head right and my heart right and my soul right, so that when he came along, I was ready.”

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It was Sonny who reminded Tanya of her dream of graduating from college. “He gave me the kick in the butt.

“He is the one who encouraged me to leave the non-profit so that I could focus on school without having to try and juggle the two.”

Tanya is not abandoning her mission of making an impact on the community. She’s investing in it through education. And going forward, she plans to find ways to give young people who are from low income neighborhoods opportunities to engage in the arts.

“I’m very urban. I’ve lived in Chicago pretty much my whole life. And I know the challenges that urban life can bring.  But I also feel like there’s some opportunity and some beauty in that.

“Everyone cannot live in Lakeview, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the neighborhood and the community that you’re in. It should still be safe, and it should still be beautiful, and it should still be full of life and creativity!”

And that is where Tanya says her future will find her.

But first, she will keep working toward the day when she dons the style-impaired mortarboard and turns the tassel from right to left.

After that, Tanya will be wearing a proud new custom hat, in a style all her own.

Designing a New Future

Do you feel like you can exhale?

“Noooooo, not yet,” is the quick reply from Justin Hughes. “Not yet.”

Sitting on the floor of a Chicago gym surrounded by a forest of heavy bags, he is smiling and energized after teaching a boxing class.

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“I still wake up nervous.” He is more serious now. “Is a bullet gonna fly past me?”

The 25 year-old trainer and amateur MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter’s expression tells you he wants to exhale, but he can’t yet.

Justin grew up in South Chicago, where street signs delineate gang lines.

“We’re raised in a war zone, you know? You gotta learn how to survive while you’re trying to pursue your dreams.”

In that order.

“Surviving is more important than doing homework or track practice or going to the library, because you can get shot going to any of those.

“As a kid, I was a punk. I used to always get beat up. I had glasses. I was skinny. And I had no big brothers.” That meant no one to help him out in a fight. “No retaliation means they’re gonna do it again. And keep doing it.”

Wherever there is a void, something enters to fill it. Guys in the neighborhood did what they could to protect the young boy Justin from the streets.

“They used to tell me, ‘Go in the house, they’re about to start shooting.’ So, you know, I used to run in the house and then hear the gun shots.

And like many boys Justin knew, he didn’t have a father in his life.

“We can talk about me not having a dad. But that’s everybody!” he says, his arm sweeping wide. “Nobody had a dad.

“So we looked up to the guys in the neighborhood. They would make sure we stayed in school. We’d get punished if they’d see us ditching.”

As Justin got a little older, the ways they protected him became less parent, more peer.

“There’d be times where we’ll be fighting with other neighborhoods, and we’ll be sent to go shoot at them, and they’ll pick certain ones like, ‘no, you can’t go.'”

Sometimes Justin was among the ones who couldn’t go.

“It’s like being surrounded by water. And you’re trying to get to another land that you see over there.

“You gotta know how to swim. So eventually I had to dive into it. I had to learn how to swim with the sharks for a while.”

Even though his dad may have been absent, his mother was fully engaged.

“My mother is strong!” he smiles. “She’s like an Army general.

“And my mother was real strict. ‘Gotta be in the house before the street lights come on,'” she’d say. “And we used to have to ask to get water out of the refrigerator,” he laughs.  “I don’t see where THAT came in…”  But he understands what she was doing.

“There were a lot of kids that were very disrespectful to their mothers out there, and I guess she was making sure we would never EVER be like that. So it was good. She raised me good.”

Tough Times and Turning Points

The influence of people outside was growing. And darker days were coming.

“I kind of lost my way around 14,15. My mother definitely didn’t want me going down that path, as you can imagine.

“I’d come home with scratches, or the police would bring me home and tell my mom ‘your boy was fighting.'”

As Justin’s trouble increased, so did his mother’s pain. He remembers her crying. He remembers her trying to get through to him.

He didn’t want to listen. But she persisted.

“I’d go in the bathroom to take a shower, and there would be a letter there. She’d write me letters and leave them where I’d find them.

“They would say things like, ‘You need to slow down, son…'”

He stopped to think about that.

“That stuff always made me cry.”

He knew she cared, and beyond that, she was also highly intuitive when it came to Justin.

“I am inches and seconds away from getting into some crazy trouble,” he remembers. “And she’ll just call my cellphone. At first I’m ignoring her. But I can’t ignore my mom, because I’m in fear of her.”

So he’d answer, and hear her voice down the phone.

“‘What are you doing? Huh? What are you doing? Get back in the house!'”

Shaking his head, he smiles then laughs. There is a hint of awe.

“My mom is THE angel,” he beams. “I’m talking about THE number one angel!”

Justin’s mom, good grades and participation on sports teams kept Justin attached by a string to hard work and honest living. But increasingly he was marking time outside of school by more brushes with the law, violence, guns, selling drugs.

Even so, he graduated from prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, then went away to Champaign for college.  He loved art class. His professors saw promise in him. A new day was beginning.

But old patterns followed Justin, and his world changed again: Felony possession of a defaced firearm.

“They gave me a two year suspension from school. There was a trial…”

And a little jail time.

Justin went home to Chicago. And back to the streets.

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“I had no direction. I was getting in trouble every day. Just selling drugs and surviving. My mom kicked me out a couple of times.

It was to the point where I was like, man, I gotta do SOMETHING, you know?”

When things were on the mend, you could find Justin at home on the couch, playfully fighting with his mom over the television remote control. His mom would win.

“I was sitting there watching HGTV, and I was like, ‘Mom, this is BORING’.

“After a while, I was like, ‘They should have made the kitchen THAT color. They should have put the towel over there.’

“And one day a light bulb clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘I might actually LIKE this stuff.’

“I had started learning about colors and color therapy and how colors make people feel, and I felt art was deeper than what the mind can see.

He thought to himself, “I might need to pursue this. What does this cost?” He got on the internet and he searched.

He sought out the Illinois Institute of Art.

And he got in.

“Art school was very expensive, and you gotta get art supplies. I was applying for jobs, but they weren’t coming quick enough.

“So I started selling drugs even harder. I was out at 6:30 in the morning. I needed money.  And I used that money to buy my books and art supplies.”

It got him through. That and a lot of hard work. Across his chest, a tattoo in all capital letters reads HARD WORK. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture.

“I feel like college is a good point for finding yourself. I felt like the professors I had really helped me — the way they related the lectures and the work to life.”

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New Direction

Justin is meeting new people and developing new interests. New passions are being revealed. He has a talent for MMA and has become an amateur fighter. He wants to win a title belt. He found he not only has an aptitude for boxing, but also for teaching the sport. He is a personal trainer. Instead of selling crack, he now makes his money at the gym. He has an apartment of his own. Justin is starting to think about dreams a little more and basic survival a little less.

His yesterdays are still not far away though. When he visits his mom, he walks a fine line with some people from his past.

“When I come back, I can feel some resentment. But it’s my home.

“I’m trying to drag some of the little guys out of that life. They still look up to me. They see some of the stuff that I’m doing now. And they have seen where I came from. So they listen to me sometimes.”

Wherever Justin can find success, he plans to use it to help young people.  

In martial arts: “I want to coach kids. I want them to be the best.”  In music: “I love making beats. I want to help kids make beats.”  In art: “If I get the chance to open my own design firm, I’d like to hire some kids as interns. I want to show them there’s other things than playing basketball and rapping.

“Now, it’s not about ‘What do I want to BE’. But ‘What do I want to CREATE?'”

Justin wants to dream a bigger dream for kids than they do for themselves.

A football coach once did that for him. In his senior year of high school, Justin was new to the sport. When the team’s middle linebacker got hurt, Justin says coach Tim Franken summoned him.

“‘I want you to play middle linebacker,'” he said. Justin’s voice jumps in disbelief at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m 5’7”, a hundred and some change, soaking wet!’

“Coach Franken said, ‘I think you got heart. I see it.’

“He instilled so much confidence in me in that one sentence. ‘I think you got heart. I think you can do it.’ I swear to God, I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”

He laughs a little, uplifted by the thought of it.

His laugh is contagious and bright and transcends hardship. And it is not a laugh “an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle”, as scripted by Carl Sandburg in his raw rich poem “Chicago”. It is a laugh of joy and battles hard fought, of new horizons in view and of promise. It is a laugh that, when unguarded, vibrates with the sound of youth.

“I’m not lightly breezing through life, but I’m not fighting myself spiritually anymore.  I feel like I made it through a very rough stormy part…

“But I think I still got a lot to go.”