Editor’s Note: A month ago, over 100 young boys and men of color from California participated in the 2018 Sons & Brothers camp, a statewide camp dedicated towards empowering, healing and developing the leadership skills of young boys and men of color. Youth shared a lot of laughter, love, and memories in the northern woods of California. This is a reflection piece on the camp’s last day by Noah Santiago, a Youth Leader with Long Beach Forward & California Conference of Equality & Justice.
My name is Noah Santiago and I’m from Long Beach, California. In Long Beach, I’m involved with Building Healthy Communities, and CCEJ (California Conference of Equality and Justice). This year, I had the opportunity to join the Sons & Brothers 2018 camp.
Noah Santiago at Sons & Brothers Camp 2018.
I woke up at 6 a.m. to catch a long bus ride to camp and I felt so relieved when we got off the bus. I was really excited and I was looking forward to this week.
Honestly, when I had first asked to come, I initially signed up kind of as a joke. I didn’t think that they were going to let someone who was Trans come, because I thought it was like a cis-male only trip. When I found out that I was allowed to come, I was super excited.
The first night was cool. A lot of people were nervous or closed-off at first and it took them a while to open up. I learned a lot at these workshops. I remember elder Baba Greg said, “it’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to,” which really stuck with me. Because it doesn’t matter what people call you… People could call you all these mean and derogatory terms, but if you don’t answer to them, they’re not yours.
Campers arrive not knowing exactly what to expect.
Maestro Jerry, another camp elder, also taught us that “pain and suffering isn’t failure, it’s human.” Knowing that struggle and pain made us who we are but didn’t define us was inspiring. A lot of these elders have taught us a lot. I remember Cole [a third camp elder] taught us about relationships and love: “Love is a commitment and choice to actively avoid hurting through communication and trust. You have to be okay with yourself before you can be with someone else.”
Noah on top of a wall-climbing course.
The team building exercise that we did really helped bring us together. For example, my cabin mate Fernando didn’t really talk much the first few days and was even considering moving cabins. But if you look at him now he talks to all of us, and we are all like a crew, and he is always encouraging us to do better on the ropes course. Going on those ropes courses, it felt like I could trust everyone. When we were doing the flying squirrel challenge, I decided I wanted to go first. They gave me a choice of having my teammates run or walk to lift me up — and I chose to let them run. I remember being up there and looking down at my team and them being like, “damn, we did that,” and it was just a really cool feeling. We were all so excited and proud. It felt really nice to be able to trust my group. It was a turning point for our group when we realized that we could do this.
Campers tackle the challenging ropes course.
During the evening workshop sessions, I was really happy I got to learn about the djembe drum from Baba Mosheh [Baba is a traditional Afrikan designation for elders or mentors]. A few months ago, I had been taking classes at the Homeland Center in Long Beach, but I had stopped because I had gotten depressed. I was just staying at home and not doing much. Coming here to this camp though, I kind of checked myself and said, “hey, I need to really get myself up to get motivated to learn more or be doing something.”
It was an amazing experience to meet all these different groups of people who were willing to learn, and they were respecting my gender pronouns. Everyone was really there for me, and were always there to stand up for me whenever someone accidentally misgendered me. We have gender neutral bathrooms, so I didn’t even have to worry about that. I know that a few of the boys come from places where they were entirely new to all this language and didn’t really know how to bring up the question. But they were trying to learn, and they were accepting my identity, even if they didn’t understand, they were trying to understand, and that’s what truly mattered to me.
The healing circle was truly transformative. I had been looking forward to it, because I had heard a lot of things about it, but I was also really nervous. After coming out to the circle [a camp ritual where campers sit around a fire to share personal stories], I felt so much better. It felt like a huge weight was just lifted off my shoulder. I had the space to talk and become brothers with other people. I got to release a lot that I had been holding inside, and at the same time get closer to all my friends.
I feel like this camp has truly helped me with my self-confidence and who I am as a person. Learning about who I am, my own sacredness, it’s helped me appreciate the things and people in my life. I’ll never forget one of the lessons our elders taught us: “Life is hard, but it can also be a blessing.” Even though it is hard, there are good things and there are good people. It’s okay to be open about certain things. It is okay to talk about your feelings, and it’s okay to be myself without having to put up a wall. I don’t have to be a part of toxic masculinity in order to learn how to be a man.
I feel kind of sad that today is our last day… but I know that I gotta take everything I learned here and bring it back to Long Beach and apply it to my own life. I can’t let all this fade until the next time I come back. I really do hope I get to come back in the future as a mentor, so that I can make that same change in someone else’s life too. “Each one, teach one” is the motto, and I’ll never forget my week here at Sons and Brothers.
This piece was told to and compiled by Randy Villegas.