Essay: Mentors Have a Huge Role in Shaping Lives of NH Youth

Will Arvelo 2022crh

Courtesy photo

I’ve always said that I arrived where I am through shear vision, ambition, persistence, grit and hard work, and that I got where I am without the benefit of human support. The problem is that this is not true. No human can say this if they are being honest with themselves. Think about it. For better or worse, we are impacted by those around us. We learn from others: family, friends, teachers, co-workers, and both positive and negative influencers. To a large degree, we are the product of the sum of all those human connections.

In my case, I’ve come to realize that my life has been influenced more impactfully by the women. Maybe that’s true for most of us, yet we never talk about it — especially us males. There was my mother, grandmother, two sisters, friends, girlfriends, teachers, business owners, community leaders and, most importantly, my wife. The male figures in my family, suffice it to say, were either absent or drunk or both, except for an uncle, who, through his actions, taught me how to be a good and caring man. My father died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was 10. Basically, he drank himself to death and never served me as a role model.

From women I learned to love, to care and the importance of nurture. They taught me to look beyond myself and the importance of leading with integrity and respect. The strength that they gave me has allowed me to traverse many worlds from the rural poverty in the mountains of Puerto Rico to the concrete jungle of East Harlem to high school in Andover, Massachusetts, to serving as a college president and leading in the areas of economic development and homelessness eradication — and so much more.

When I was a young boy of 8, Harriet Tubman had a deep impact on my life. Her life story set a high bar for my experience with women, or any human for that matter. She led a long life of suffering, challenge, tenacity, overcoming, risk and success — a triumphant life as lives go. Luckily, in my life, I’ve encountered many heroes. Around the time of my father’s death and my learning about Harriet Tubman, three Black women heroes came into my life.

The Princess

On the street, I met a community leader who worked to care for and feed the neighborhood children in East Harlem. The years have dulled the memory of her name, but her impact has stayed with me. Tall and majestic, with the kindest smile and penetrating eyes, this woman wore her culture and history with pride. In her colorful, tall headdress and African dresses, she was a sight to behold for an 8-year-old skinny boy with big eyes in this strange new land. She not only fed my body, she fed my soul. From this woman I learned to appreciate a different type of music than the old boleros played in Spanish Harlem. She taught us African drum and dance and a beautiful African lullaby that I still remember more than 50 years later. She taught us piano and art and so much more. This beautiful woman, whose name I don’t recall but who had an oversized influence on my life, offered me sanctuary from the unpredictability of the streets in early 1970s Spanish Harlem. She taught me about the beauty of acceptance of difference and nurtured my natural curiosity and spirituality. To this Black woman, I am forever thankful.

The Queen

In school, there was Mrs. Martin, my sixth grade teacher. Short and stocky, but she might as well have been 100 feet tall. Mrs. Martin was the grandmotherly prototype, if there is such a thing. She had smiling eyes that pierced my soul. Like the other Black women in my life, she wore her strength and her truth unafraid — almost as if she knew something important that the rest of us were not privy to. She seemed to speak a language just with her eyes and her smile. I don’t recall if she was the same with everyone else as she was with me, but I suspect so. I do recall that she took a special interest in me, and we developed a special bond. I always wondered what it must have been to be her child or grandchild. If she had them, they must have been so fortunate to have such a loving woman in their lives. Like my princess above, my queen nurtured my curiosity for all things, a love of books and a love of writing. I doubt that without her nurturing the love of learning in me, I would have gone on to college and on to a successful career in higher education and leading nonprofits. She transformed me from a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican boy to a bilingual, bicultural boy learning to navigate multiple cultural experiences in a new world. To this Black woman, I am forever grateful.

The Rebel

Later in life in my early 20s, I met Luz Leida Jimenez, a 40-year-old Black Puerto Rican rebel. Luz Leida was many things and could traverse many worlds. Beautiful, tall, strong, spirited and revolutionary, she was a community leader and business owner. Self-assured and solidly rooted, Luz Leida questioned everything with her eternal attitude of “sticking it to the man.” She flowed through the world with a fluidity, liquidity and certainty like few people that I have known. She wore her blackness with pride, and wore her Puerto Ricanness with pride and joy. Luz Leida taught me about the nuance, complexity, certainty, beauty, vulnerability and strength of being a woman. She taught me about acceptance and questioning, to be vulnerable and to be strong, to laugh and to cry. Though rebellious by nature, she taught me about the importance of balance in things. She, more than anyone else, taught me to traverse two cultures, vastly different, which helped me to accept and understand the richness of diversity. To this Black woman, I am eternally appreciative.

Harriet Tubman came into my life early and continues to be a hero. How could she not be? The three women above have had a more direct and impactful influence, though as in most cases, they were never aware of their influence. Those of us who love people hope that we will help them along their lives’ trajectories. These women taught me to see beauty and find the positive in my often-dark environment. They gave their love and nurture freely expecting nothing in return. They taught me about grace, spirituality, optimism, being a change agent and how we are all connected, and so much more. Most importantly they taught me to love, to laugh and to see the joy in life. And for that, I always carry them in my heart.

Today, I have the joy and fortune of having many Black women still in my life — all friends, confidants and, even still, mentors. Like the early Black women in my life, they too are strong and proud, questioning, rebellious, architects and planners for their lives and the lives of those they love, always thinking about family and community. The best of friends, they have defined my life to a significant degree, and I am so fortunate to have had a large measure of their love and encouragement.

603diversity Issue7This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.

603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.

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