One time when I was in high school, I heard someone pose the question, “If somebody shook you awake in the middle of the night and asked, ‘What are you?’ what would you say?” And I would probably say I’m a writer. That’s pretty all encompassing for me. I do other things. I do art. I’m a person, but at the end of the day, I’m a writer.
I went to a pretty rough high school. It had metal detectors. It had gang fights. It didn’t have enough textbooks. It didn’t have enough desks. The ceilings were falling apart. But it had a weirdly robust English department, of which my mom was a part. She was my freshman English teacher, actually. But we also had this teacher whom we called “Doc” because he had a PhD and that was extremely novel for us. Like, who has a PhD? That’s crazy.
If you were one of his favorite students, he would enter you into local, statewide, or national essay contests—or poetry or speech contests. And I started winning a lot of those. I saw it as, Oh, writing is a way for me to maybe get out of Oklahoma and maybe make some money. This is where my knack is. I should lean into it.
The first time my writing took me out of Oklahoma, I won an essay contest where the prize was a flight with a parent to Washington, D.C. They really pulled out all the stops. They put you in a hotel, they take you to all the monuments, they get you food, et cetera. I took my dad. It was crazy as a sophomore to be able to provide a flight for your father, especially for someone like me who lived in a really small town in a flyover state. That was my first taste of the idea that words can pick you up and take you somewhere else. I got addicted to that feeling and I chased it the rest of my life. It was all just writing that got me from Oklahoma to the “big city.”
I was in a place where if you expressed anything feminine and you weren’t a girl, it was very much taboo.
I think there is a time in your life when you are extremely impressionable, and when a tone gets set for a lot of things. For me, middle school was very much that time in my life. It’s a time when I think that, as an animal, your brain starts configuring things like: how do we behave? How do we survive? How do we deal with other people? How do we move through the world? What is smart? What is unwise?
I was in a place where if you expressed anything feminine and you weren’t a girl, it was very much taboo. I remember the sort of policing that took place about what you could and couldn’t wear, what you could and couldn’t say—literally the moves you made with your body. Things were highly surveilled, and they were cracked down on. This is something that I definitely carry with me today. I’m hyper aware of things in my environment. I’m always sort of looking for things to edit, because I know how sensitive people can be when they are looking for something to pounce on.
I think that I am a very highly tuned machine when it comes to emotions, expression, and language. Hypersensitivity has its drawbacks, but it also has its strengths. When I think about what I went through in middle school, which I would classify as abuse, I learned quite a few lessons, which is one of the few silver linings that life gives us.
Hypersensitivity has its drawbacks, but it also has its strengths.
For college I went to a state school, the University of Oklahoma, which was kind of a mistake. I can’t pick out a whole lot of defining memories from that time. I was just going with the flow, going to my classes, doing what I needed to do because in my family—my Mexican family—college wasn’t even a question. It was seen as utterly paramount.
After I graduated, I immediately went to work on getting out of there. I had recently come out, and I recognized that it’s not that gay people don’t exist in Oklahoma or in rural environments, it’s just that mine is an appetite that is very much geared towards a need for an abundance of things. I need a lot of options. I need more and more and more. So that meant I had to move to a big city. And not a big city in Oklahoma, but somewhere else.
I desperately started throwing myself at any writing opportunities that came up. I took a lot of odd jobs. I was tutoring. I was living at home with my parents. I had a good job at a bookstore in Oklahoma City. But all the while, I was just like, How do I get out of here?
I wrote a few unpaid articles for the Huffington Post, for their Latino and gay verticals. This happened to catch the attention of a startup in D.C., where I was able to get my first job. It was a really toxic, terrible mess, but it was my first taste of being in a place that wasn’t Oklahoma.
City life has this anonymizing energy to it where you’re constantly in this humming, buzzing thrum of people. You’re going from one place to another in a train, there are people all around you, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know their stories. You don’t know if they’re just passing through. It was my first time feeling truly anonymous. I was just a body among many bodies. And I really enjoyed it.
As a writer, it’s appealing because I like to be able to be invisible for a little bit, to just see things happen and watch people go about their days. And, of course, I was right about the options. I could try all these different foods, I could meet all these different people, I could get on dating apps and it wasn’t the same grid every single day like it was in Oklahoma. It was overwhelming.
To make up for the fact that I obviously had no qualifications to give anyone advice, I thought, What if I make it a parody of other advice columns?
My column came about at a time when I was in the freelancer’s mode of doing absolutely everything. I was reporting for NBC Out, and writing Teen Vogue articles on the train into work. I was trying to make ends meet so that I wouldn’t have to move back to Oklahoma.
My friend Mathew Rodriguez was an editor at INTO, which was Grindr’s new media outlet at the time. They were doing the whole Playboy thing of, “I’m just here for the articles.” Mathew asked if I wanted to pitch a column and I was like, “Yes, of course, I do.” I needed as many checks as possible.
I knew that I was overworked. I didn’t have a lot of time. And that’s how I fell into the advice column format, because I felt like I didn’t have the time to think of a new thing every single week to write about. I needed a prompt.
To make up for the fact that I obviously had no qualifications to give anyone advice, I thought, What if I make it a parody of other advice columns? It can be a satire and the joke can be what if “Dear Abby” was a gay Mexican man on Grindr? I can make my little joke-y jokes and I don’t have to actually give anyone advice.
Then I started receiving the letters. First of all, I received a flood of them, which didn’t expect. I think the column hit a niche that maybe hadn’t been hit before, because a lot of people on Grindr who are gay or queer or something already tend to feel alienated from a lot of people in their lives. They have a lot of struggles. They have a lot of obstacles. They have a lot of feelings. Also, if you’re on Grindr in the first place, you’re probably looking for some kind of connection. The advice column was perfect for that environment.
A lot of the messages and the letters I was getting were very heavy and emotional. I struggled to make it funny because I was like, I can’t just make fun of this person who lives in a country where homosexuality is punishable by law and they’re wondering if it’s safe for them to confess to their crush that they’re into them. This is not how this is going to work. So “¡Hola Papi!” came from me realizing I could make it funny, but heartfelt, too. I wanted to offer that meaningful connection that people were looking for, something a little bit more personal and a little bit more emotional than just cracking jokes.
If you’re on Grindr in the first place, you’re probably looking for some kind of connection.
I didn’t realize this then, but it turns out “¡Hola Papi!” as a brand is very sticky. The reason it’s called “¡Hola Papi!” is because I’m Latino, and something I always get on Grindr is “HolaPapi” from guys who aren’t Latino. It’s a fetishistic term that I thought would be really fun to turn on its head a little bit. But it’s also a very brandable one. It works on a shirt—who doesn’t want “¡Hola Papi!” on their shirt?
My voice was important, but I also think it was an unwittingly savvy business move to name it that. I started getting recognized, which was new to me. I’ve been an anonymous person my whole life. Suddenly I had people messaging me on Grindr, like, “I love your writing.” I had people who I just met out and about saying, “Oh my god, you write that column, blah, blah, blah.” That happens more and more and it’s still wild. It’s still something I haven’t wrapped my head around. On Twitter and Instagram, it’s been a very slow burn. I’ve had time to adjust to the idea that there are a lot of people just looking at me.
I’m at quite a crossroads with my work right now because the book feels like the ultimate expression of what the brand could be. It’s not a bunch of my columns stapled together. It’s a new thing. It really represents the final union between ¡Hola Papi! the character and me as a person. And for it to have been received the way it has been feels really validating.
One thing they really don’t tell you about making a big project and having it out there is that it’s often followed by this really big wave of depression. I’ve dealt with clinical depression most of my life, but this is a different thing. It really puts you in an existential place afterwards. What am I doing now? What is the purpose of my life? For me, someone who’s always bent the narrative arc of my entire life towards being an author one day, to then have that, it’s like, oh my god.
I’m trying to take on projects that are a little bit easier, a little bit more completable. I’m just trying to get things done. I‘m doing a kid’s book right now. I’m working on some screenplays. I’m really excited and looking forward to an era of my life where I’m not just grinding all the time.
I’m getting back into weed now. When I was in college, it was all I did. What’s weird about rural Oklahoma culture, the one I experienced anyway, is that weed is very prevalent and it’s very prominent. I was smoking weed before I ever took my first drink. It felt way more accessible.
For some reason or another, a lot of my strongest memories are of me with my best friend from high school driving in his car. In the rural area where we were, there’s the little town, of course, but then there’s truly the wilderness. We would drive down these back country roads, very gravelly, and park off to the side at night, turn the caroff, and just hotbox. That was every night for us, basically. Then we would go to Taco Bell or Whataburger or whatever was open at 2 AM, and just gorge ourselves.
Oklahoma’s a really weird state because cannabis used to be heavily penalized. People could get in a lot of trouble. But now if you go through Oklahoma, there are dispensaries everywhere. My hometown is basically one giant dispensary now. It’s always been such a big part of the culture there, and once it was sanctioned, it was like, okay, fine, you can do this. They just turned that whole place into a bunch of little CBD stores. It’s been really interesting to watch.
My hometown is basically one giant dispensary now.
Eventually my anxiety took over. I became a pretty paranoid person in general. I remember one time I got high when I was living in D.C. I was like, Oh, I can see rainbow waves. I think they’re coming from the government. And then I thought, okay, I should stop.
I think a lot of my paranoia and anxiety came from the fact that it was so heavily policed in general. It adds a lot of psychodrama to your brain before you do it. But now that it’s become this mainstream, sort of chill thing, more of my friends are doing it, and I’m excited to dip back in.
I do little CBD treats here and there because I find that it eases my anxiety. I haven’t smoked in a while, but I want to. Again, because I enjoyed it.
Substances hit me very hard. Alcohol is the same way. I want to feel a little something, but not a whole lot. And weed scientists are so serious. They are coming up with technologies for getting you high out of your mind that I never would have expected to see in my lifetime. Some of the best and brightest are on the case.
I’ve never done acid or anything, but I can always tell when someone has, because we have this immediate kinship. It does something to someone’s brain that is very analogous to mine. We can talk for a long time about things that are really out there, like psychedelic, cosmic type stuff. I think I just naturally exist there, but some people have to have that induced.
I’m also interested in mushrooms. I came so close to trying them last summer. My friends and I were on a little cabin trip. One friend took some and was not having a great time. He was like, “The ground is breathing.” And I thought, “Okay, I’m going to maybe not.” The problem is that I feel like my brain is so wired to be psychedelic in the first place, what if I take them and I just lose my mind? Real recognizes real. When someone’s insane, I feel kindred.