From Survivor to Artist… A story about Courage.

Almost every day, I think about what my journey will mean in the end or once I’m “high” enough to see the scope of everything I had to endure, survive and rise above to become whoever it is I’m becoming. Do I have enough fight in me to make it to that point? Will I let my fears win, be intimidated, hesitate, play it safe and allow my story to fade into obscurity or will I truly live up to my life’s fullest potential, be seen in all my raw glory, be a force to be reckoned with and do what most never dare to do?

I guess that’s the irony about being named Courage. You got to live up to the vision, chase your dreams in front of you and run faster than your fears… and the pain.

Today, I’m a full-time “Actor, Activist and Adventurer” as the site says, but that’s obvious. At first, I thought my story would be defined by the fact that I was a poor Native American boy with Chicano heritage who grew up in a little old farmhouse next to a very small town called Scottsbluff.

I was the last and youngest of thirteen kids in a two-generation family due to my dad, a silent, smiling giant, having two families at different times in his life. My oldest brother was 50 years older than me. Our one-bedroom house was often filled with my siblings, in-laws and their kids—relatives sharing our home off-and-on was common; we were a huge family but very close. My nephews, nieces and cousins numbered over a hundred at the time; my one surviving grandpa held us together and lived to be 107 years old.

I was a hyperactive weirdo (before it was cool) and mugged my mom’s camera every chance I got. In fact, because I was so different, I never had friends growing up; at school, I was the kid everyone loved to hate because no one would stand up for me. The bullying was so relentless I learned to fear other kids and embraced being a loner. Regardless, life at home was my sanctuary with the most loving father and supportive mother in the world. At the time, the only friend I felt I needed was the TV… watching shows like Digimon, Pokémon and Sailor Moon about kids who were misunderstood like me because they were destined for great adventures. Every day, I would play pretend believing that I too was destined for grand adventures in other worlds… this is when I was finally started to discover who I was: an “adventure actor.”

Mom picked up on it as soon as I asked to take free piano lessons in second grade which I continued for the next twelve years. She would then use everything she had to travel to another state for me to go to a twelve-week modeling school called Barbizon, later doing theater camps until my parents soon started driving me all over Nebraska to compete in singing competitions. My mom, despite working sometimes three jobs to support us, became my manager; often leaving to the newspaper with pictures of my accomplishments to pitch yet another story about something she was proud of. She sat in the front row of every show I did and spent hours on the computer finding out how a mom could best support a son pursuing entertainment. Give my mom five minutes and she’d talk a person’s ear off about me; my dad, always watching me as the ever-present fortress of love, gentleness and generosity I knew him as. I will always cherish the memory of how he would pick me up from school every day, get me a sandwich from Subway, pat me on the head proudly cheer, “That’s my boy!”

It wouldn’t be long until after I understood labels and identity, I came out to my mom as gay; one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. I’ll never forget the day she, in tears, after a day of frantic phone calls, embraced me, saying “I want to stand by my son.” My dad was too sick at the time to remember the day after but he was very worried for my safety talking about a gay man who had his house burned down in town. The murder of Matthew Shepard happened a few hours from where I lived. When I auditioned for the Crawford Agency and came out on MySpace, the Disney channel even contacted my mom telling her that they no longer wanted to accept submissions from me. Dad was right, it was (and still is) a dangerous time to be different in such a way.

It was also a time that ravaged my self-esteem, for as I would realizemuch later on in life: when you’re a teen entertainer from a poor brown family, training is just not a resource your family can afford which can lead to years of performances being humiliatingly mediocre. I’ll never forget when my parents took me home after my first martial arts class because they “just couldn’t afford it.” I knew I had talent, but especially as a singer, I was never very good which led to one of my darkest moments when I appeared on American Idol young and terrified. I would face seven years of public shaming from people in every part of the country recognizing me only for that one thing which led to my first struggles with suicide. In high school, I was already shunned by classmates and homophobic teachers for being a gay-presenting “too-good-for-friends local-celebrity who always appeared in the newspaper.” After the episode aired, I discovered a hate group of over a hundred peers and teachers made me realize how misperceived I would always be in life.

Regardless, somehow, I was committed to being the kind of person I emulated in the shows that kept me company as a kid and found another love in just being involved. I did everything from teaching sunday-school, getting super involved with youth advisory, democrat, astronomy, anime and multicultural clubs, start my career as a scare-actor in haunted attractions and wrote for different newspapers as a journalist. Everything I did allowed me to teach myself all the skills in marketing, design and writing that I know now. This is also the time in my life when I’d officially discover the Furry Fandom: now an inseparable, intimate and proud part of who I am now (which I find very indigenous, sharing your identity with an anthropomorphic spirit.)

However, a year before graduating high school, my father after attending a piano concert of mine fell down cement steps cracking open his head. His condition rapidly degenerated and he developed violent Dementia along with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, who was so dangerous he was forced from two separate nursing homes whose staff couldn’t handle him. For the next seven years, I became his full-time caregiver as I struggled to keep my mom’s mental health together while also raising a niece for nine years. Every day, I watched my father completely deteriorate in front of me, appealing three times to keep my financial aid to eventually become one of the first of my family to graduate from college after taking seven years to get my two-year degree in Anthropology. Nothing changes you like seeing a pure-hearted soul like my father lose his sanity and his life in the way he did. The only thing that ever brought me comfort was his self-awareness trying to prepare me long before he was sick, “Someday mijo, you’re going to lose me, and no matter what, it’s going to hurt very much…”

After the dust settled, the corner of the living room vacant from where my dad’s hospice bed was for so many years, my niece back with her mother, mom and I were the only ones left of what was once a house filled with family. So after some time, we made the decision to lock up the house and move together to Los Angeles and continue what we started… For the next seven years, I would find out firsthand just how far my mom would go for me, and it turned out until the very end.

Los Angeles…

Los Angeles… as I discovered as a poor indigenous boy from Nebraska, was a morally-depraved socially-decayed hyper-capitalistic predatory dystopia where its systems crushed everyone without ample resources to get themselves out of endless exploitive situations and institutional corruption. My mom and I fell into immediate homelessness due to a situation selling land back home. We ended up staying in a shelter together for several weeks until we temporarily returned to Nebraska which is where I ironically got cast in my first professionally produced musical as Lt. Cable in South Pacific and even a feature-length film in a lead role (After).

(This is when it gets insane, so buckle up.) When we returned, our living situation caused us to separate and I lived in a boarding house for men that became dangerous so I ended up moving near where my mom was to live in a closet for several years. I became a scare-actor at Universal Studios as one of the highest-rated actors that auditioned that year, volunteering for the Unitarian Church of Los Angeles where I spent time reading my acting books. The situation where my mom and I lived soon grew dire when the manager evicted both of us. My mom then decided to head back home to sell our actual home while I stayed behind to live in my car for a number of months, saying goodbye to my sick aging dog I had for eighteen years that mom was planning to put down as soon as she got home.

For the next five years in particular, they would come to be known as what I call the “time of 10,000 nightmares” doing everything I could to survive physically and spiritually, depending only on a small scooter to get everywhere in Los Angeles County with a car that barely ran. After being offered a place to stay at a kind friend’s house and being attacked by visiting relatives, I decided to try and stay semi-permanently in my car, using every resource at my disposal to persevere and somehow still focus on my career: storing belongings in three parts of town, sleeping in ditches by the freeway or on rooftops when I was far from my car for jobs, using free week passes at YMCAs in every part of the city for showers, etc.

I remember the thousands of interactions with heartless people who refused to listen to what I was saying and only responded back with a trained script, claiming they were in their rights to do something heartless or outrageous because of yet another “policy.” I swear LA is tightly designed to thwart the one thing it hates the most: desperation to survive. I remember when I walked my scooter ten miles after the wheel broke for the third time. One day after showering at the Y, I was stopped by police for making a wrong turn and had my scooter impounded where I then had to depend on ten people to help me pay for its release. Even the night before I was supposed to take a train back home to help my mom sell our actual house in Nebraska, my car’s battery once again died with my most cherished belongings in the trunk so I used jump cables to route what little power I could from my scooter to pop the trunk hood.

And of course, after I finally made it back to Nebraska for a few weeks, it suddenly hit me that the only home I ever knew for the first 25 years of my life had been sold, sneaking into it during the middle of the night to see it completely dark and empty… to say one last goodbye. Meanwhile at home, a friend and neighbor watching my car caught the police seizing it after a report of someone living in it; so even upon explaining who it belonged to, they coldly impounded it losing half of everything I owned that year.

When I returned to Los Angeles, it would continue like this for around five years. Literally the day I returned, when I attempted to ride my scooter to Big Bear for a spiritual retreat, my tire hit a screw and I crashed on the freeway where I was stranded in Diamond Bar for six days without a bike shop that ended with guns pointed at me, surrounded by police, because the manager of a store while I was waiting for a tow truck reported me saying I had been there waiting all night and that I had a gun. Back in Los Angeles, I ironically slept underneath the stairs of an art school for months—everyday traumatized, my very soul and mind lost in chaos and darkness, feeling like the nightmare would never end; hearing other privileged actors every day take classes that I was too broken, dissociated or obstructed by barriers to take.

To literally have a fighting chance at the kind of action-adventure roles I dreamed of, I remember the dozens of martial art trial passes I used, the parkour meet-ups hours away from bed… all the things I did for a single opportunity.Every job was a dead end or woefully insufficient to pay for a home and training. Every venture out for the simplest thing could easily turn into another living nightmare that would further scar me.

I feel like almost no one could ever understand how hundreds of disadvantages and factors could combine for the most terrifying scenario every single day: a bad phone battery, no GPS/poor-limited data, a cash/card/app only business, proof-of-address requirements, pre-auth holds, endless hidden fees and fines, unapologetically bad tech/apps/service, no backpack/bag check zones, exploitive/convoluted/valet-only parking, no-show/late buses, abusive security, policies that change with every face you get, etc. For most people, it’s an annoying, but for the poorest amongst us, it can be a death sentence. Being poor in LA is what I call “death by a thousand policies.”

The very second I would ever get ahead, I would be threatened to lose any support I received from the county. There were many times I tried speaking out and opening up to other actors about my experience only to be met with toxic positivity about how they didn’t want to hear my “negative mindset” and the best way to get out of poverty was to “stop talking about it.” When mention of my situation came out of me while I was at an actor Q&A, half of the audience groaned.

After my mom finally sold our old home, she quickly rushed back to Los Angeles, found an apartment in Downtown LA and urged me to stay with her. Even still, feeling defeated and so damaged spiritually and psychologically, I accepted and lived in a terrifying incredibly tiny studio with a single sink. Several years went by and the things I felt and saw at that place: screaming in the hallway when the manager was attacked, a fire on the top floor, a man who shot himself in the unit next to us and so many scary run-ins with the mentally ill. The worst then happened when my scooter was stolen by a homeless man and after the police found him with it, they said I had to pay hundreds to get it out of the impound which led to me losing the scooter that I depended on for so many years… I was forced to take the incredibly dangerous Metro transit system for over two years, even being shot at once by Crenshaw station. After almost losing my mind and grip on reality hundreds of times, I continued to fight even though every day felt like there was virtually no hope.

At this time, I had entirely reconnected with my Indigenous identity and community; seeing it and my indigenous values as the antithesis of everything wrong with the city around me. I sought counseling and immersed myself in my culture at United American Indian Involvement, I became a regular volunteer for the Red Circle Project at Aids Project Los Angeles and I volunteered at powwows everywhere. I would eventually find myself in the middle of the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota where I spent several months squaring off against police and military protecting my people’s only river from an oil pipeline. I eventually was discovered by inspiration and now friend, Elliot Page, to be featured on Gaycation as an activist in Washington DC, during the Inauguration Protests. I then came back to work with other activists to create the Divest LA movement where we eventually got the City of Los Angeles to divest eight billion dollars from a bank funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. For the first time, while I still spent every moment for the next few years without a dime in my pocket, something was happening.

(Pictured: Magic Fruit) Photo Credit: Jenny Graham

A year after Standing Rock, I was cast as the central lead in a large-scale musical about a homeless indigenous Water Protector in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (irony much?) for Cornerstone Theater called Magic Fruit. I also filmed my first starring leads in five Indigenous produced and directed films by Mike J Marin (Demon, Natives & Horror), Tess Potter (Indigenous Day, MMIW) and Jennifer Varenchik (Unlikely Action Hero). I reunited with an actress I met because one of my martial art trials and we partnered to raise $40,000 for a professionally produced action western called White Dove, where I had a leading role and we ended up winning almost a dozen awards at film festivals around the world. I would also find an incredible lifelong family of advocates at the Michelle Danner Acting Studio which where I would intern and study at to this day; a school that has been there for me more than any school ever will.

I would also later find a work-study opportunity that sponsored an entire year of training at the Tempest Freerunning Academy. Eventually, I ended up meeting an incredible mentor named Christopher Nyerges who’s taught outdoor survival classes for forty years after being offered to audition for Naked and Afraid who I continue to train with as an aspiring adventurer at the School of Self Reliance. Lastly, I would find a safe spiritual haven and workspace at the Los Angeles Baha’i’ Center where I started what soon became a career in voiceover, busing across town and wrapping myself in their sound-proof stage curtains and recording every time I got an audition.

I would also find an incredible life-long family of actors at the Michelle Danner Acting Studio which where I would intern for years and study at to this day; a school that has been there for me more than any school ever will. I would also later find a work-study opportunity that sponsored an entire year of training at the Tempest Freerunning Academy. Lastly, I would find a safe spiritual haven and work space at the Los Angeles Baha’i’ Center where I started what soon became a career in voiceover; busing across town and wrapping myself in their sound-proof stage curtains and recording every time I got an audition. Every time I came home, mom was always proud to hear about everything I ever did, ever-patient for when I could give us a better life; having many of her own adventures including tons of extra work. Every time I came home, mom was always proud to hear about everything I ever did, ever patient for when I could give us a better life; having many of her own adventures including a ton of extra work.

Then 2020 came.

It was the first time in Los Angeles I no longer had to suffer always deprived of resources vulnerable to whatever situation the city wanted to put me in. After being laid off from a job, I used what money I had left and raised what money I still needed to buy my first motorcycle since my scooter was stolen. I then found for my mom and I a room for rent in a beautiful house we could actually afford in Los Angeles. For the very first time since moving to Los Angeles, after seven years, I had a home I felt safe and sane in. What’s more, the house that we would spend the upcoming year in had an empty closet in the hallway, which after some very timely stimulus checks, I turned into a fully equipped voiceover studio where I started the business I now do full-time. Most surprisingly, even in the midst of COVID-19, a friend who I helped and met years prior got into casting and offered to become my first manager who then found me the three agents I have today in commercial, theatrical and voiceover.

…As my story comes closer to the present… there is simply no way to prepare any reader for what was to come. My mom, while living together in our room, came from a trip in town that she did too often despite my efforts to keep her home during Covid and became gravely ill. Nothing in the world will ever help me fully heal from the single worst thing anyone could ever experience in life, as she was later taken to the ER where two weeks later…

What then transpired for the next few months are moments so dark and twisted I will never feel comfortable to express what happened… As you lose your best friend, the center of your universe, the person who’s been with you since day one, your biggest fan and supporter, the person you made your responsibility to protect and was the main reason why you worked so hard in this city to create a better life for… 15 years of caregiving for both of my parents, the most beautiful human beings on this planet, both ended in the worst way imaginable…

I absolutely fell apart Facetiming her in the hospital, “Hey kid. Don’t cry kid. It’ll be ok. Hey kid, stop crying. I love you kid…” she said over the phone. The very last memory I have of her was the very next day asking if I had anything to eat… Until the very end, she was the most selfless, giving and supportive mom in the world…

…One month later after the passing, I received an unexpected check from my first commercial in the mail for $25,000…

If there EVER were a final sign that my mom fought every moment for me since the VERY beginning… if there EVER were evidence that she CONTINUES to fight for me… somehow… believes in me, loves me and sacrificed more and harder than any mother on the planet… it could have very well been that moment.

Despite the pain, the grieving, the guilt and the torment from that time—that check she gave me from the other side set me on the course my life is still on today in 2023… two years later since then, I have been living in my dream home in a gorgeous area now as a full-time SAG-E actor specializing in voiceover represented by three agencies.

I am still challenged every day, but I am happy… EVERYTHING I have now is thanks to you mom… every moment of love and sacrifice you ever showed me, every minute you believed in me… you taught me to dream and yes, you made me stubborn like you in all the best ways too. They say that a real parent’s goal in life is to ensure that their child has a better life than they did… even if they never get to experience it themselves, and as much I disagree with that confounded idea… it makes me love her (and of course my dad) more than I ever already did. To the reader, I ask this: Despite whatever kind of person I will become, whether I fail or fall to resentment and a lesser side of my humanity, I want everyone to at least know who my parents were and that they sacrificed everything, unconditionally. I can only hope I live up to their legacy of kindness and generosity.

What will my story mean?

So I guess that begs the original question: what will my story represent in the end? What kind of outlook can it provide for the industry I work in? I will never say that I am proof that anyone who tries as hard as I did can make it… I’ve seen way too many talented and amazing people fail, suffer too much or even die believing that to the very end. I am evidence that our society needs to change, that the cards are stacked way too high and no one should ever have to go through what I did to “make it” as an artist.

We need a more compassionate, more conscientious, and supportive industry that doesn’t require so much money, privilege and nepotism to have a fighting chance in it. You can never focus on being an artist when you’re always in survival mode. Way too many of the people that we see, especially minorities, as “proof” that anyone like them can make it are just the lucky ones, the exceptions in their own community. They say if you’ve been lucky enough in life to find success, send the elevator back down; well I want to BUILD A FREAKING LIFT. Artists should not have to suffer. The poor should not have to suffer. Yet every single day, everywhere I go, in every “safety net” institution, I see evidence that Los Angeles is not only comfortable with that reality it self-perpetuates, it’s content with making it even harder to make it.

Going to school and training for a chance to compete should be available to everyone who’s serious about it. Becoming an actor as an industry in itself shouldn’t be a racket. Joining the guilds should not be locked behind a paywall keeping the most talented of our poor out. The privileged shouldn’t have the lion’s share of opportunity and career mobility in this field of work. Having a HOME where you feel safe and sane shouldn’t be so far out of reach for most of the poorest in this country. Housing is a human right.

Despite how much better my life is today, it’s still a struggle to afford the ability to train in and compete at what I’m most passionate about and still pay for the basics of life with entirely flexible/gig work that this career path forces us to take. Whether it’s voiceover, stunt-work, martial arts, acting or any other type of entertainment, we as a twenty-first civilization need to value our artists more, give everyone the very basics they need and consider that maybe this society that colonists created and imposed on indigenous land is not based in balance, respect and equity-like my people’s old tribal societies but an every-man-for-himself dog-eat-dog individualism.

I stand for representation mattering but access needing to come first or else it’s pointless. I stand for authentic diversity, where indigenous, brown and LGBTQ+ talent in particular, are seen as valuable and count as hard as any other minority or marginalized face in entertainment. I stand for a better entertainment industry where no one has to worry about being blacklisted, fired, replaced or “canceled” because they’re living their authentic lives and speaking from their hearts about their experience and the truth that lies in it. I want to see an industry where we see fresh new faces all the time in lead roles that are brilliant fits for their roles and not just the same shortlist of talented individuals again and again, obstructing marginalized, oppressed and minority talent who truly represent the ones that struggle the most in their communities.

I want to see daring, bold and unapologetically provocative written stories again where the entire artistic vision survives the kinds of business decisions that are made to only prioritize generating the most profit possible. Wherever our society is heading, art NEEDS to survive and chasing profit, as evidenced by my life and the world around me, only leads to destruction and the robbing of the very soul of what our species most badly needs to express.

If my story may represent anything, let it represent persevering authentically, with an awareness for the kind of world we’re creating around us for everyone in it by enabling the institutions and culture in it. And most personally, I will say to anyone: how the world has reacted to the mystery of who you’re becoming is NO indication of what you’re destined for someday. People NEVER know how to understand “different” even if it’s bold and brilliant and society today is designed to smother it out like a virus. The misfits, the outcasts and the broken ones are ones that do what has never been done before…if they find their courage. As an “Actor”, all of this is my humanity speaking. As an “Activist”, all this is my thirst for truth, transparency, justice and returning to self-evident correct indigenous values about how all of us should live in balance. As an “Adventurer”, all this is my somehow still intact love for this existence that needs to be a gift and not a rat-race sentence.

Our industry has always had the power to shift and change perceptions of what is possible, to empower the powerless and present a more just world or truth about why so many suffer and why they have to fight. The city of Los Angeles and the industry that calls it home doesn’t have to exist as a cruel irony juxtaposed to the very thing our stories are supposed to represent.

And someday soon… Adventurer.

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