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Driving Through Butterflies

 May 6, 2020 at 10:09 AM PDT

Speaker 1 (00:00): Andrew Bracken (00:04): Growing up in the Imperial Valley East of San Diego, Fernando's Zweifich Lopez jJr had dreams of working on movies. Fernando Lopez (00:12): Working on scifi films. Specifically. Star Wars was my dream and that clearly did not happen, but that's what at least brought me to San Diego was the hope of education in an environment where I wasn't constantly being harassed and bullied. Andrew Bracken (00:31): Life in El Centro wasn't easy for Fernando as they struggled with a difficult home life an ill brother and the parents acrimonious divorce, but it was their sexuality that often caused the most pain and it was San Diego that they look to to escape it. Welcome to my first day telling stories of those who've come to San Diego from elsewhere and now call it home. My name is Andrew Bracken. Often people feel the need to travel to far away places to find where they belong, but for Fernando Lopez, it was short drive across the desert landscape at dusk would suffice. Andrew Bracken (01:12): Sometimes traveling a short distance can take you a whole world away. Andrew Bracken (01:17): Fernando's story after the break. Andrew Bracken (01:31): Here's Fernando Lopez with his story of Fernando Lopez (01:34): My first day. Yeah. Growing up in the eighties in the Imperial Valley. I guess I have some good memories. Before from before my brother got sick, our house was the last house in the city. And so we could walk out of the house and go like pet the sheep that were eating alfalfa in the grass. Fernando Lopez (01:58): That's sort of a weird thing maybe to think about here in San Diego. But we had a very big house and a big front yard and backyard and it was the sort of community where everyone could ride bikes everywhere and you know, you leave your bikes out and the kids are all over running around the town and everyone just sort of felt safe in that way. And yeah, no one locked their doors. I remember like walking down to my friend's house or biking to my friend's house and like you always just open the front door, you never knocked. And like that was just the culture there. And you know, I mean, it's weird to say, but I remember before we got us avant, and you know, I remember like when you had a local grocer and a local butcher and a barbershop and they were not like these corporate name brands, Fernando Lopez (02:46): you sort of think about a rural farming community in America. That's the Imperial Valley, except the labor. There is slutty, not labor. There's Mexican was my family Andrew Bracken (03:07): With a Jewish mother from the East coast and a father from Mexico. Fernando already felt a little different from other kids, but that difference was amplified by other personal discoveries. Fernando Lopez (03:18): I think my parents had prepared me to be this person who was already different, but they did not prepare me to grow up as a queer person in the Imperial Valley. I knew that I liked girl things or what, you know, quote unquote girl things, right? Like I knew that I liked pink and I knew that I liked dresses and I, you know, I thought women were beautiful, but not in a way that I was attracted to them. And I, um, you know, I was a smart kid and so that was early on and that was early on and that was, I mean, I remember in kindergarten like, you know, why can't I dress up like the fairy princess? Why do you know, why am I told no and why can't I play with Barbies? Like I wanted to play with Barbies and my little ponies and I wanted a rainbow bright doll. Fernando Lopez (04:00): And, um, I was told that I couldn't have one and you know, but my brother could have all the GI Joes that he wanted and you know, I was really into science and art. That's sort of the part of me that got nurtured and I got a chemistry set and I got like plastic dinosaurs that I could play with. Cause I love studying dinosaurs. Just, I was a nerd, I was a huge nerd. And so my parents really leaned into that. They were like, yeah, be a nerd, learn all the smart things, you know, but we're not going to give you a, my little pony. Um, I so grateful that I was a smart little kid. Um, because school was, school was never hard. I mean, the kids dealing with kids was hard, but learning was never hard. Like learning was always just came really easily to me. I remember just, you know, being terrified of recess, like thinking every kid is excited for recess. I was terrified of recess because it meant there was no adult supervision. And so in junior high I would go and find a Bush or a behind a trailer and take my lunch and hide. Fernando Lopez (05:06): Everyone knew I was different and didn't want to be my friend because you know, well, who wants to be friends with the gay kid? That's how stigmatized it was. And that's how lonely junior high felt. Fernando Lopez (05:27): You know, high school was, especially that first year. Um, it was like peak family drama and, um, I thought maybe it'll be different. And like someone outed me at school and at that point, like by the time I was 13, I had said to myself, Oh, that gay thing. Yeah. Super. That I am totally, that is the thing that I am dudes. Yes, I like dudes. Great. Got it. Um, and I sort of began to like UN hinge, that toxic sentiment that you place on yourself or the word that is placed on you. So I was like, Oh yeah, no, I am gay and I am also pretty amazing. So you all just have this wrong. What spurred that? Uh, I think it was the first time I kissed a boy and I was just like, Oh you are also gay and I am gay. And that is what this means. Sort of just uncovering that for myself. I mean like, no, this feels great. Like this is wonderful. You just sort of get it. You know, you, you are that or you're not that and you want to kiss boys or you want to kiss girls or you don't. And I kissed a boy and I was like, Oh, this is what everyone's talking about. Hokulea like this is great. Andrew Bracken (06:46): After coming out to their father, Fernando's home life went from bad to worse. And so Fernando decided to finish high school a year early and began to set their sights on a familiar place. Not far away. Fernando Lopez (06:58): So I just, I remember San Diego being so beautiful and being so stricken with how gorgeous mission Valley was before it was developed and just thinking like, I didn't want to be in this desert that was this like very real like actual desert, but also this desert of, I don't know, compassionate. Like there was nothing out there for me. Like there was no life out there, um, as a desert. And then there was just like no life or future for me there and San Diego with, it's like the river and these gorgeous trees all in the Valley like that. There was life in San Diego. I got into high school, I started hearing these rumors about kids who were gay but in the closet and would move out of the Imperial Valley, moved to San Diego because you know, there's gay people there. And so it was like, there's this like hidden Mecca of gay people that is close enough that if I, I go there, maybe I can find other gay people. You would sort of hear, Oh, well, you know, so and so's cousin is gay and moved to San Diego. Oh yeah. Well I also know that so and so's sister is gay and she moved to there and Oh, and they're living together and Oh great. And so you would hear these stories there and you're like, Oh well maybe I can also go to San Diego where the gay people are. Fernando Lopez (08:20): It was hopeful that I would find whatever that meant, whatever a gay community was because there certainly wasn't one out in the Imperial Valley. Andrew Bracken (08:30): When we come back. Fernando makes the trek. Fernando Lopez (08:42): Yeah, I didn't have a lot of things. Um, but I was really grateful that um, I had been given a car by my father and so I still had that. And um, I was my best friend, Amanda. And um, her house was where I had stayed a lot. And so I just packed up my stuff and I hugged her goodbye and just drove off. And I remember just being terrified cause as much as I'd been to San Diego, I didn't know what it was going to be like without a real support network up here. And yeah, you just don't, you don't know. You're like literally felt like you were driving into the unknown. Fernando Lopez (09:24): It was this summer day and you're driving to the desert and we get so many yellow butterflies and they just have this like really vivid memory of these butterflies in the wind in the middle of the desert and you're driving literally through butterflies so that your windshield's getting splattered with these yellow butterflies and you're seeing their dead bodies in the road and you're also watching how beautiful it is. And he's like clouds of yellow butterflies. And it was just this very bizarre, beautiful and traumatic thing. And I just remember really feeling connected to that moment in this moment of change in my life that I was like, God, how appropriate that I'm watching this really beautiful thing that is also really gross and devastating happen. And I, and it was literally driving off into the sunset towards San Diego. Fernando Lopez (10:23): I drove past the now leaving El Centro sign and I flipped it off on the way out and just feeling grateful that I had made it that far. I had met someone online who was about my age. I mean, maybe it was exactly my age and the gay kid who lived in San Diego and I had made arrangements like I am in San Diego, I will meet you and like you will show me these, this world. And so that was part of my first day and took me to my very first like gay party and it was all Latinos and all gay guys and I was just like, Oh my God, can you do exist? Andrew Bracken (11:15): I mean, at the end of that day it's like, okay, well this like I can do this. Fernando Lopez (11:22): This is hope Andrew Bracken (11:28): Today. Fernando Lopez is the executive director of San Diego pride and LGBTQ advocacy organization and organizer of the annual San Diego pride parade. Andrew Bracken (11:43): My first day is produced by me, Andrew Bracken, along with help from Melissa Diaz. Our email is my first day on Instagram. We're my first day stories, but also find me at Andrew Bracken music by Jason vegan theme music by Chris Curtis. Additional music by Annie Cordero for KPBS. Emily Jen Kowalski's, technical director, Kenzie Moreland's, podcast coordinator, Lisa Jane Morris sets operations manager, and John Decker is director of programming. This programming is made possible in part by the KPBS explore content fund. Thanks again for listening. We'll be back soon with more of my first day stories.

Fernando Zweifach López Jr. escaped a difficult childhood growing up in the Imperial Valley and discovered a new life a short drive—yet a whole new world—away. About the show: My First Day is a KPBS Explore series that explores these important days through people who came to San Diego from elsewhere, and now call it home. About the producer: Andrew Bracken is a documentary mediamaker working with audio, video, and interactive media. He is the creator, producer, and host of the KPBS podcast My First Day. Follow the show: Instagram: Contact: