A community writing workshop in San Diego has just published the new collection “Reclaiming our Stories.” It features first-person narratives from 19 emerging writers, many of them current or former community college students who have struggled with homelessness, gangs or childhood trauma. The project grew out of an effort at Pillars of the Community, an organization dedicated to helping those affected by the criminal justice system. The California Report’s Sasha Khokha spoke with two of the book’s contributors, who also read from their work.
Beto Vasquez was once a high school dropout, and has overcome homelessness, incarceration and addiction, and managed to change the trajectory of his life. Beto recently graduated from UCSD, obtaining a master’s degree in biology. He ultimately plans to fulfill a doctoral degree and pursue a career as a community college administrator. He says his life has been a journey “from cells to cells,” that is, from living in them to studying them. He is an educational advocate for marginalized groups and a great proponent of diversity in STEM fields.
Wilnisha “Tru7h” Sutton was raised in San Diego and is currently focused on her music career and activism. She’s paid a high price for her past misdemeanor charges: She recently lost a job as a teacher’s aide because her background check didn’t clear within the three-day time frame.
Beto, you were one of the first to join the community storytelling workshops about a year and a half ago. What drew you to the idea of learning to write your own story?
Being a lifelong learner and trying so many things that didn’t work out, I’ve just been on this trend of challenging myself. Learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The writing group really provided me an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone, and ended up being really therapeutic for me.
You spent most of your life incarcerated, and now, you’ve pursued your master’s in biology at UC San Diego. The story you wrote explores how you turned your life around, and includes an encounter you had in the research lab. What does it mean to you to put this kind of story down on the page, to see it in print?
Being able to share such a minute instance in my life, such a small detail, with other folks, is huge. Sometimes it’s just our own insecurities, those few small moments that we’ve had that can make or break us. Overcoming the obstacles that I’ve overcome, being able to totally change the trajectory of my life, can hopefully serve as an example to people who already doubt themselves, who’ve been told they’re never going to be anything.
Tru7h, as a teenager in San Diego, you got caught up with a man who was a pimp. What was it like to revisit those painful moments and share them in a writing workshop with people you didn’t know?
It was very tough, to see my mistakes right in front of me. Actually, I’ve changed a lot, but at the same time, I guess I had to really deal with it head-on. To search myself, and to forgive myself, and that I love myself. It was tough, but at the same time, it was beautiful.
When I think of San Diego, I think beaches, SeaWorld, the U.S.-Mexico border. How do you think these ideas challenge the idea most Californians have of your city?
Tru7h: People think we’re just living the life out here because of our weather. But it’s a struggle. The cost of living is very high. In Southeast San Diego, a lot of us are struggling just to make ends meet.
Beto: For people who just have this image of San Diego as being 70 degrees all year round and everything’s perfect, we need to put a little more humanity into that. We have a large homeless population here because of that great weather, but they’re not being served. We have pockets of gentrification, where people are being displaced. But we also have our fair share of folks who care, who have the resilience and tenacity to take it a step forward to do something about it. This book is just the beginning.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned from listening to or reading the other stories in this book? There’s a big range, from a Muslim woman who was homeless as a child in San Diego, to a teen who watched his brother get arrested by a SWAT team.
Tru7h: For me, it was just the struggle for what a lot of people are dealing with in our community. Southeast San Diego, the area we live in, our people have been through a lot. But they’re survivors. They’re willing to put it on paper, and be free.
Beto: Growing up in a rough neighborhood, growing up as a male, growing up with privilege that you’re sometimes not aware of. It’s really tricky being able to step outside of that, taking in what the hardships are that other people that don’t look like you, or perhaps that even grew up in the same neighborhoods as you. That’s really what this book is doing: allowing us the opportunity to crack that open, normalizing situations, normalizing lifestyles, normalizing making mistakes.
Tru7h: It also brought us closer as a community. When we see each other now, it’s like, OK, now, it’s my brother, my sister. I know a little bit of your story, your struggle. I could trust these people with my story, my secrets, and yet you still love me, you’re still here for me.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.