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A battle with body and brain

From KPBS and PRX, this is “Port of Entry”…

Where we tell cross-border stories…

That connect us...

I’m Alan Lilienthal.

****

BEAT

So..there’s this drawing by Tijuana artist Victor Lebowksi that I really like.

It’s Luke Skywalker dressed up as a….Chicano vato…

He’s wearing a pachuco panama style hat….baggy shorts….and a button-up shirt with just the top button fastened so the white undershirt hangs out.

BEAT

Cholo Luke is riding a tricked-out lowrider bike with baby yoda kickin’ it in a basket in front…

And C-3PO in back.

BEAT

Victor’s drawings make me smile…

Actually, most of his artwork does…

But… Victor…

Hasn’t always used his pen to make people happy.

BEAT FADE

Tijuanauta Clip 18 Story Of Bully Revenge NEW

I was always the smallest of the class. So I've always been an easy target, so I was bullied in primary school a lot. So when I got to middle school, You know, making fun becomes more like a sport. And there was an incident when I got slapped in front of everybody by this big kid. I don't know, something snapped.

BEAT I went into the classroom and I grabbed a sheet of paper pens, and I made a ridiculous origin story of this person who slapped me, including his mother and how he came to be in this world. Very graphical. I'm not proud of it, but that’s, you know, what happened. So, somebody grabbed that drawing. It was like a comic strip. And they just went to the Xerox machine and they just made copies and copies and copies and they started posting them on the message boards. You know, every, every building in the school has like a message board and this guy got super upset. He was taking more time to take them down. Then people making copies and putting him up again. And this guy came around and then he gave me a couple of kicks, but I understood that he was way more upset with what I'd done with the pen than the slaps he gave me earlier.

BEAT

So the big kids wouldn't pick on me no more, because they knew that, you know, it would be ridiculed.

BEAT

So it kind of became like a survival mechanism..Yeah, I started drawing nonstop.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 17 Middle School Bullying, Used Art To Defend Himself I'm not advocating for bullying.

Alan: But using your strength. Your pen became your weapon. Yes.

Tijuanauta Clip 29 Became Like A Hit ManIt became like, like a reoccurring thing for me, because what happens is that people will start using me to make fun of others. If a friend of mine was being picked on or bullied, I would do what I do. I do. Uh, but also it happened that kids will come to me and say, Hey, you want a pizza? You want pizza and a soda? And I'm like, sure, okay. Make sure to draw Caesar's mom. You know, I became like a little hitman.

BEAT

You know, I would get free meals pretty much every day doing what I did. And, and, and sometimes I would do funny things, something, sometimes I would do nasty things. Sometimes it wasn't even bad at all. People will say, Hey, draw me. But during middle school, that was my, like modus operandi. That's how I would operate. BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 83 Powers for evil, now powers for good

I always say that's how super villains are created or heroes in my case, I, I wasn't no hero, but I went the other way.

Alan: But eventually you started using your powers for, for good.

I've been fortunate to be in a position to even help others with what I do.

So, yeah….

BEATToday in Port of Entry...

We continue our season on artists... and musicians….

Who’ve turned pain…....into superpowers…

More on Victor’s cross-border story.

After the break...

Nos vemos muy pronto.

BEAT bump to FADE

MIDROLL 1

Estamos de vuelta.

School ambi

So...when I was a kid, my family moved from Mexico to the U.S…

And...I remember walking into a classroom in San Diego for the first time… at this Jewish school in La Jolla...

And feeling really disconnected from my surroundings.

Like...I didn’t speak English yet and everything looked and sounded and felt super strange…

I just felt like I did not belong there.

School ambi distort then out

Victor...can totally relate to that feeling.

He says he’s felt that way most of his life.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 34 Social Skill Struggles When it comes to social skills, I was never very good at it. The world kind of didn't make sense to me when it comes to people. but I rather sometimes spending time by myself because, other kids just for me, they were like aliens. Tijuanauta Clip 35 Very Lonely Kid

So I was very lonely, lonely as a kid.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 33 Always Felt Off I've always felt off somehow. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been curious, more curious than what was good for me in a way.

BEAT

Kids are curious , you know, you want, you want to know why the world is how it is and you want to, you want to know why the sky is blue and you want to know why the grass is green and all of that. But I used to go deep. Like I would go, like, I remember being five or six and asking people questions and people going like, “who are your parents? Like, where do you come from? Why do you ask these questions? Like no kid, your age should be asking these questions.”

Victor says he was obsessed with questions that were dark and delved into existential topics like the meaning of life and death...and his precocious questions often made people a little uncomfortable...

So...instead of asking his questions out loud…. Victor started putting some of those thoughts and ideas on paper instead….

And his art…

Became his refuge from a world that didn’t seem to understand him.

Tijuanauta Clip 30 Art Became His Refuge I was completely disconnected from society in a way. I kind of went into my own head. It was a bit of a dark place for me. Drawing became like my oasis.

BEAT

More than fun, it became a place of rest for me. And I wouldn't show it to anybody. I was very protective of my work. I used to have a sketchbook that had a lock on it….like to that level. I used to go to the school and I would make sure that nobody would see my drawings, except those that I made for others to see. But I was very reclusive when it comes to what I did. It became, um, a reflection of who I was, you know?

Alan: Like a diary?

Pretty much, I've never been able to, to write, my feelings, my thoughts. I've never been good with that. So that became my way of connecting to the world in a way.BEAT fade

That feeling of being alone and disconnected from the world outside of is art...

It eventually led Victor to obsessing over things like Star Wars...and outer space….

BEAT

Plus…. growing up in an in-between space like the border town of Tijuana...it made him feel even more confused about how he fit in..

Tijuanauta Clip 63 Loves SpaceI love space. I love everything about space and astronomy and the universe and infinity and all of that. I remember watching the challenger video when I was a kid. Tijuanauta Follow Clip 3 I started drawing astronauts in space and in everything that has to do with being out of place, And I realized that, that was like a... it has always been like a common theme.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Follow Clip 4

In the back of my head it has always been brewing this idea of finding your own place. And being from the border resonates even more because life at the border is a place of its own, you know? Sometimes we get teased from other cities down south because we are very Americanized. But also we're not Americanized, but we are also not fully traditional Mexican in a way. So we kind of become our own thing.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 64 Learned English By Being Border I'm a product of my time in my place. For instance, I never went to school to learn English. It just happened because I live at the border.

BEAT Fade

Silence BEAT

As Victor got older...

That’s when the bullying began.

Tijuanauta Clip 84 Dark Time. It was a very dark time for me. The things that kids my age were interested in. I wasn't interested at all. So that kind of, kind of put me apart.

By high school, the bullying finally stopped.

But the drawing….kept going...and Victor withdrew even more into himself and his art.

Tijuanauta Clip 19 Work Changed In High School My work started to change you know, I went through the typical phases of a kid that is not well adjusted. I was never very social. I was always an introvert, so I kind of went inside my head and I became more of an expression of whatever was going on inside my head or my sanity. I had to work on some stuff and I would do it through the use of pen papers.

Tijuanauta Clip 36 Created His Own World I created my own world inside my head.

Tijuanauta Clip 37 He Has To Draw How He FeelsMy heart was somewhere else and no matter what job I held, no matter what I did, no matter where I, where I was at, if I was happy, if I was sad, if I was depressed, whatever, I always wanted to draw. Like, it's something that if I'm happy, I need to draw it. If I'm sad, I need to draw it. If I'm depressed, I need to draw it.

Tijuanauta Clip 78But it became a habit for me, I started to, uh...I've always enjoyed it, but it became a little bit more than that, if that makes sense.

Tijuanauta Clip 81 It became like a way of life for me.

Tijuanauta Clip 31 Drawings Were Only For HIm

It was only for me. And I would rather burn my drawings sometimes than risk somebody seeing them.

BEAT transition

After high school, Victor went to college and studied graphic design.

And..he was always at the top of his class…

Tijuanauta Clip 42 Was Good Graphic DesignerI was good at it. You know, whenever there was a project, I remember that if we require...to finish a project, if we require, I don't know, 10 hours on average, I would put in 50 because I loved it so much.

He graduated college, and immediately his 3D art professor offered him a good job doing special effects for movies.

And...he absolutely loved the work.

Tijuanauta Clip 45 Got A Job And Was Happy NEW

So I was happy doing what I was supposed to do. I was happy like a clam.

BEAT

Finally….

Victor felt like he had found his place in the real world…

He had a role he could play perfectly….

BEAT fade

But….

His happiness didn't last long...

Because...even though everything was going well on the outside…

On the inside, things had only...gotten worse.

It turns out that those weird thoughts and feelings he’d always struggled with as a kid?

That was actually pretty severe, undiagnosed anxiety.

BEAT

All throughout school and up to this major point in his life and career....

Victor had never told anyone about how he was feeling…

How his brain would so often get stuck in this loop of worry…

How he often felt this intense, overwhelming sense of impending doom.BEAT

Tijuanauta Follow Clip 6 on anxietyI've always had this kind of weird feeling like something very wrong was always going to happen.

BEAT

Like a very deep worry, like something is gonna, even if things are going great, there's something like a shadow behind you telling you something bad is going to happen because things can not be good forever.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Follow Clip 7The anxiety was just like through the roof and to the point where I wasn't even functioning correctly. I did have a couple of panic attacks. Like my heart was going to just jump out of my chest. And I felt like I'm too young for this. Like I thought I was going to die, you know, a couple of times.

BEAT

I started losing hair in places where you're not supposed to lose hair, like on the side of the head and things like that. It was just bad.BEATTijuanauta Follow Clip 11

It felt incredibly overwhelming.

Tijuanauta Follow Clip 9 I didn't have control of a hundred percent of my body all the time.

BEAT fade

Victor had been running away from his lifelong, untreated anxiety by disappearing into his own drawings…

But now… as an adult….with a new, high-intensity job…

He spiraled into this deep, dark, vortex of worrying and overthinking….BEAT

It got so bad...that his anxiety took control of his body.

During his worst moments of sheer panic....

Victor’s stress would make his blood vessels constrict…

BEAT

Then his heart would beat faster and faster and his blood pressure would shoot up.

And suddenly...Victor’s hands...the tools he’d relied on for his art and now his career…..would start to tingle…

Then...they’d go completely numb. BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 48 Hands Kept Going NumbEvery time there was a big project, I would get excited….And then I would get the numbness...

Tijuanauta Clip 41 Body Went Numb

It's called paratesia, when you get extreme numbness in your hands.

Tijuanauta Clip 73 Lose control of hands

And sometimes it would last an hour. Sometimes it would last two months.

Tijuanauta Clip 72 Couldn't Work I couldn't work for about seven or eight months. Physically, I couldn't do it.

Tijuanauta Clip 71 Numbness was a game changer When I lost the feeling in my hands, at the beginning, nobody knew what was going on.

Tijuanauta Clip 74 messed with his head So it kinda messed with my head.

Tijuanauta Clip 43 Changes His LifeWhen that happened, I lost the one thing that I was clinging to the most: certainty. Like I was certain that I was going to have a good job.

BEAT Bump to fade

Victor thought maybe he could make things work and he could hang onto his new job…

But…

That numbness in his hands….

Kept coming back…

Tijuanauta Clip 46 Lost Control Of Hands

And I just quit. I just stopped going to work and I stopped answering phone calls. My mind would go into panic mode. And I felt ashamed...for some reason. I don't know why.

BEAT

Up until this point, drawing was how Victor escaped his anxiety…

It made him feel calm...and safe.

But now that his hands were going haywire

He was afraid that he’d lose his ability to connect to that nice, peaceful inner world he’d created….

Left with no way to outrun his anxiety.

BEAT

After the break…

Victor finds a new hiding place…

Inside….a cubicle.

Regresamos pronto.

MIDROLL 2

Estamos de vuelta.

***

Call Center Sounds So...all across Tijuana…

There’s these call centers…

Call Center Sounds

Big-time companies from the U.S., Mexico and all across the world contract with these centers to field customer service calls…

Because A…. labor is cheaper in Mexico….

Call Center Sounds

And B... it’s easy to find people at the border who speak both English and Spanish …

Call Center Sounds

Tijuanauta Clip 56 Job Was EasyMy job was easy…..

After Victor’s hands gave out on him..

He landed in one of these Tijuana call centers…where his numb hands weren’t a problem.

Tijuanauta clip 82

Is not very difficult to work on a mouse.

Tijuanauta Clip 56 Job Was Easy

My work consisted of just listening to calls and make reports and sanction people and saying ‘good job’ to people who did it well and all of that.

Call Center Sounds

For 10 years…

Victor worked at that call center in Tijuana..doing tech support for a big Mexican company….

And..he eventually moved his way up to supervisor...

Tijuanauta Clip 55 It Was Comfort ZoneIt was incredibly easy. It was a very easy gig, right. Uh, just listen to some audios, make a report, transcribe what happened and then make your assessment and see what can be done better and areas of opportunity, all of that.

But, even though the work was super easy for Victor…

He says he still felt like his soul….was being sucked out…

I mean…picture buzzing fluorescent lights....

And cramped cubicle after cubicle after cubicle filled with people wearing headsets…

Fielding customer complaints all day every day...

Day….after day…. after day. Tijuanauta Clip 57 Wake up My friends and family members have always been like, “What are you doing in a cubicle? Dude, wake up!” [claps his hands]Call Center Sounds Bump to fade

BEAT

But Victor says that day job of his..

Tijuanauta Clip 58 Cubicle Safety Net My cubicle...

Felt...dependable…

Tijuanauta Clip 58 Cubicle Safety Net That became sort of a safety net for me.

Tijuanauta Clip 59 Used To Routine

I was used to the schedule. I was used to the routine.

And any change to that routine..felt kinda terrifying.

Tijuanauta Clip 60 Fear Kept Him There

So fear is what kept me there.

BEAT FADE

Silence

New BEAT

So...there’s a Korean place about a block away from that call center where Victor worked.

About once a week, he would go there for lunch.

And...while he waited for his food, he would start sketching on the big, crisp white paper placemats on the tables.

He found himself drawing scenes from the Tijuana he knows and loves...but remixed with the Star Wars characters he loves, too.

Like...picture yoda as a taquero or a storm trooper as a lucha libre wrestler.

Before Victor knew it...he had dozens of drawings on those paper placemats.

And -- since we have new tools these days to share private art…. Victor got the guts to start sharing more of his drawings on Instagram….where people responded with hearts and major praise.

He even started getting asked about how people could buy his work.

But he turned most of those potential customers away.

He wanted to keep art as a passtime...even though his friends and family kept pushing him to go for it…

BEAT fade

Tijuanauta Clip 65 Passion Was Personal So yeah. I mean, everybody wanted me to do something with what I do. But I was reluctant. Because it was personal. BEAT

So yeah...Victor was afraid to make the jump, in part, because art has always been more like his personal therapy…not something he wanted to share...

Plus… if he tried to be an artist, and his hands gave out…

What then?

BEAT

But last year….one of his best friends... got sick.

And Victor put aside his concerns and stepped up to help. BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 20 Now Uses Art For Good

She needed a surgery and she was, um, trying to raise funds for that medical procedure. And I was in a position to do something about it.

BEAT

For years, I've had a lot of people online that wanted to buy a piece of what I do. And I've always been reluctant to sell my work. So I organized a raffle and it went pretty well. And, uh, I was able to help her.

BEATAnd then about a week later, another friend had a need with his mother, she needed a medical procedure. So we did an auction at that time. And I have a friend who right now is going through breast cancer treatment. So we made a raffle for her as well. So I've been able to, I've been fortunate enough to use what I used to do for evil. And now I'm able to help, even if it's just in a small way.

BEAT

So his weapon … the thing he once used to fight back against his bullies….was suddenly being used for good…

And ultimately, it felt so good...and so right...that Victor finally got courage to start thinking about possibly letting go of his safety net.

Tijuanauta Clip 21 Ended Up Quitting His Job

I got tons of messages, people saying, okay, I want to support your friend. I want to get into the raffle. I want to help, but I also want to buy something from you.

Alan: Hmm.

BEATI'm not talking about not one or two or three or 10 people, I'm talking about 20 something people who, who actually said, once we get this done, I really want to have one of your pieces. Well, there's an idea. Like I could make a living out of it.

BEAT fade

But just as Victor started entertaining the idea of actually selling his art for a living….

...The pandemic hit and Victor...got sick...just a few months into it….in spring of 2020.

BEAT

Tijuanauta Clip 23 Covid Fog Brain Made Him Unable To Work

Something happened where I could no longer...my mind didn't work as well.

And the doctor said many people are getting neurological side effects.

Kinsee: Covid fog brain

Yeah, But it was bad. Like my dad and I got it that way or that couldn't concentrate. If I would read a report by the time I was in the middle, I couldn't remember what was at the beginning. So I kind of lose track. So that happened. And my ex boss….she was great. She was like, don't worry. Do what you can. I'll cover for you. Whatever happens. We understand that you're going through a process. But it got to a point where I was getting everybody. You know, because I would mess up work badly. the team and the company was, you know, being affected by my mistakes, right? And very basic mistakes.

BEAT fade out So...the same body that got in Victor’s way when he thought he’d found his dream-job for that movie effects studio?

It was now making his office job impossible, too....

And what happened next... with his father… was the nail... in his cubicle’s...coffin.

Tijuanauta Clip 24 Dad Got Covid Was What Made Him Leap When my dad got COVID, uh, a lot of blood blood work in, uh, exams and things like that test and something came up in those tests that we wouldn't have found out if it wasn't for COVID. And that really, for me, it was, it was like a turning point because I started to panic in a way. You know, it was, it was very hard. And for me, it was like a shock, you know, it was like something that pushed you over the edge.

BEAT

So I was already stressed. I was already in a bad place. And that kind of pushed me to make a decision. We were going to have to deal with this and my salary doesn't help much. I mean, fortunately I have brothers and sisters and we are all very close, but this was going to be difficult, right? And I already had the previous experiences of when I help others, we did really well. So I said, well, I need to do something.

Tijuanauta Clip 25 So He Quit

So I called my boss and I said, you know what? I'm really grateful for everything, but I can't do this job anymore. Like mentally I couldn't.

BEAT bump to fade

So… Victor jumped out of his cubicle-shaped nest.

And...for the first time ever

He began putting ALL his energy…. into making art.

BEAT

Alan saying helloComo estamos?

Bien.

Hablar in Espanol or Ingles?

Ingles.

It’s been nearly a year since Victor made that leap to being a full-time artist…

And...over the summer, he actually had his first-ever solo art show in Tijuana…

So... my producer Kinsee and I went to check it out…

It was a collection of those drawings he did at that Korean restaurant.

And..I gotta say….Victor’s drawings are…. incredible…

So detailed..and funny and so….so perfectly and precisely drawn….

Tijuanauta Clip 5 Only Sees Imperfections

Actually, all I can see is errors.

Alan: Wow

Kinsee: Typical artist.

No, no, I mean, it... I know it looks like, if you stare at it, you will probably...you won’t see an error. But the way I see it, every line on its own, it's imperfect. If you have you look at it...

Alan: too close.

Too close, yeah. But altogether you can't even notice it. And, but I mean, all I see are lines that are not aligned or a little bit longer than they should have been.

Victor’s work is very border centric...a really modern mashup of Mexican and American culture.

Tijuanauta Clip 9 Describes Drawings

So we have the Mandalorian characters posing in the classical Tijuana picture where you have the donkey and you have the chariot and everybody are holding like guns. We have the New Hope characters, you know, taco stand.

Alan: You got Luke cutting el trompo.

Yeah, cutting the trompo… And I was about to use the lightsaber, but I made another one. We have another, uh, taco piece with Yoda and he's the one cutting the trompo with the lightsaber, as you can see…

BEAT

Victor’s creative alter ego is Tijuanauta…

It’s a nickname he came up with, actually back in college…

Because, alongside his Star Wars characters, he’s always drawn a lot of astronauts immersed in traditionally Mexican scenes.

He says the concept is 100 percent a shoutout to how he feels growing up at the border...a place that’s neither the U.S., or Mexico….

Tijuanauta Clip 68 Origins of Tijuanauta NameBecause we live in a world between two worlds. Like we have, we are highly influenced...we have the greatest economy in the world next to us. Culturally, it's the most influential country in the world. So obviously we're going to pick up on that. You know, Tijuana is a different world.

BEAT

Tijuana is its own wonderfully weird world…

A beautiful living microcosm that makes Victor…

And me...and so many multicultural people…

Feel like we belong...

It’s interesting...because this thing...Victor’s art…

It used to be something he escaped and withdrew into...something he used to hide away from the world.

But now...it’s become this great connector for him….

Tijuanauta Clip 67 connecting is rewarding

Whenever what I do has a certain connection with others, it's probably my favorite thing. Like when I get messages of people saying, “I saw your work and this piece meant something to me,” and then they start telling you their life history and what they went through and how, what you did connects with them. It's insane. I mean, that alone is incredibly rewarding. Tijuanauta Clip 27 Crazy Ride I'm glad that I'm able to do something that has a certain resonance with people and that people want. That's just great by itself. So it's been a crazy ride.

Tijuanauta Clip 70 Taking Off

I've been doing this for just a couple of months and I've said a couple of times that I haven't even had like a liftoff. And I already feel like among the clouds.

Beat bump to fade

Silence

BEAT transition These days, Victor’s biggest battle...is...still...the invisible one happening inside his own head. But his newfound power of helping others with his drawings….

It’s really helped him recognize that he doesn’t have to fight his battle... alone.

Tijuanauta Follow Clip 10

The reason why it took a long time for me to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's because I had always been reluctant to seek help. You know, my work is a way to digest reality and experience into something that I could control. You know, like a language, like it's my own way of expressing life experiences. And in a very wrong way, I think that it was important for me to kind of try to handle it myself. Whether it's a cultural thing or like a male thing, like, you know, being proud or whatever. Obviously, I see that it was wrong of me not to reach out. Because when you reach out, there's a lot of people who are there to help.

BEAT

Recently... finally…..Victor got that help…

He started treating his anxiety….

Through a mix of therapy and CBD...

Tijuanauta Clip 50 Incredibly Rewarding

And I’ve been feeling great. I've been doing things that I was afraid of doing. And so far, you know, it has been great.

Alan: That’s amazing. You're flying.Tijuanauta Clip 38 Fly or Die TimeAnd it just, you know, the, the universe kind of self-corrects and I was not living in my, my gift. And all of the things that happened ultimately was in a way to push me to the right course. That's how I, I feel it right now. Like, you know how the Eagles, well, the, you know, they're, they're young liens. They will throw them off cliffs. Either you fly or you die. That's what I feel that happened. Like at some point it was my time, like to either make it or break it.

Alan: That’s amazing. You're flying.

And I jumped and, well, here I am.

Alan: flying

BEAT bump to fade

Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Emily and Alisa Barba edited this episode. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content. I’m your host, Alan Lilienthal. This program is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."

And hey, if you liked this episode, do me a favor and share it with three of your friends. Thanks for listening.

tijuanauta_main_insta.png
Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Victor Lebowski, better known as the artist Tijuanauta, poses in front of his first-ever art show in Tijuana in the summer of 2021.
Victor Lebowski, better known as the artist Tijuanauta, captures the beauty of the borderlands in his art.

His detailed ink drawings are often a mishmash of U.S.-Mexico icons, like Star Wars characters and taco carts, or astronauts eating carne asada.

But for a long time, Tijuanauta refused to sell his art or make art his day job. Instead, he hid behind the safety of his office job and stayed inside a cubicle for a decade.

But recently, Tijuanauta took the plunge. He became a full-time artist and had his first-ever art show in Tijuana over the summer.

The artist is gaining traction fast, but his biggest battle is inside his own brain. A mix of lifelong anxiety and self-doubt has long stopped Tijuanauta from being the artist he's destined to be. But he’s finally fighting back.