On Storytelling, Ancestors and Algorithms - A Conversation with Ernesto Reyes
Ernesto Reyes describes himself as “a spoken word artist, a socially conscious, social-justice-driven Latino male who seeks to create community through love, activism, and critical leadership.”
We’re sitting inside Cumaica Café on 10th and Mission, far later than we had planned because it just so happens that there are four Cumaicas in the city. Lesson learned: Google the address – not the name – to avoid the awkwardness of both being “here” at opposite ends of town.
For most of my interviews, I like to begin at the beginning. I ask Ernesto to tell me about his childhood.
“I was the biggest nerd for as long as I can remember.”
Power Rangers, Hey Arnold! and old-school Disney were his thing – and I mean Boy Meets World old school – not the sugary, shallow, tween-targeted entertainment that followed in the guise of Hannah Montana, The Suite Life, and, heaven forbid, Zeke and Luther. Quite frankly, if you can recall Boy Meets World, then you are a true Disney veteran. I digress.
Ernesto recalls how he used to sit with eyes glued to the TV screen every Saturday morning, sharing in the adventures of his favourite characters.
“Hey, Arnold! taught me so much as a kid. Before I even entered formal education, I had learned about loyalty, public schooling, and gentrification.”
We discuss the influence of television on our childhoods – how the narratives depicted on a screen, even in a cartoon character, can shape the way we see the world.
“I was bullied every day of first grade. Every. Single. Day,” he emphasizes. He reflects now on the irony that as a Latino child of two immigrant parents, and on top of that an obvious outsider having just moved to a new town, he identified more with the quirky, suburban white boy in Boy Meets World than with the concept of “the other” that was pushed onto him from a young age. That’s because he shared the values and struggles of a young man finding his place in the world, and disregarded the outward appearance – which was quite at odds with his own upbringing.
“By high school, though, I realized I was a social butterfly. I was cool with everyone, and who I was depended on where I was.”
I ask him whether he thinks he is a people-pleaser. It takes him a while to answer. “I don’t think I’m a people-pleaser anymore. I …” Pause. “I massage the energy.” He realizes now that this has always been a symptom of his service-oriented personality.
Then came college, a shock to the system.
“What you hold so dear in high school becomes minute in college,” he says. Suddenly, he found himself in a space where he was not as good as he thought he was. For most of the people around him, college was a natural step in growing up; he had no such assumptions, and hadn’t given it a thought until the end of his sophomore year in high school. Added to this was the realization that he was competing with people who, because of the colour of their skin, stood better chances at success than he ever would.
“By the end of my freshman year, I was done with that place. I was about to give up,” he recalls. But he pushed through to his second year and recalls how he finally began to find his place in the community. This was when he was introduced to language as a tool to speak truth to power. Terms like “institutionalized racism” and “racialization” suddenly made sense, because they described experiences he had lived through and had never been able to express.
The spoken word is a big part of who Ernesto Reyes is today. Every word that comes out of his mouth is intentional; he often pauses to choose his words carefully, and as a listener one senses that he means what he says.
“The moment we stop telling stories is the moment we’ve given up.” I first heard these words from Ernesto when he spoke during a Minerva “What I’ve Learned” interview. I’ve since reflected on the meaning of that statement. Storytelling is one of the most powerful and instinctive acts of being human. Stories allow us to see patterns where there is chaos and to discover meaning in the fragility of the unknown. Carving out a narrative from our experiences helps us to position ourselves strongly in the context of our own lives; to find grounding, purpose, and ultimately, a stronger sense of identity. In Ernesto’s words, stories reveal “the sacredness of where we come from.”
I ask him about the stories he sees forming around him now. How do narratives form in our minds, and how do they both reflect and shape our realities? We live in a Ted Talk culture, where everyone who has gone through a challenging experience is expected to emerge a transformed person, with a neat, inspiring 20-minute presentation to offer the world. How realistic is this expectation, this pattern that has been presented as the norm?
He sighs. “To be honest, I see a lot more pain than liberation. We don’t want to accept that not every story has a happy ending. Most of the stories I know are unfinished.”
"When the shit hits the ground, I can't even grow corn. I have no effing idea."
The danger, I point out, is that it seems we are losing the ability to tell our own stories and to recognize our own truths. Mostly, we passively receive the packaged, edited, and often biased story on our newsfeeds. We live in a world where the word “story” can mean anything from a traumatic experience shared by many, to the fake news that seeps into cyberspace every day. Where do we draw the line between what is real and what we’re led to believe is real?
“Without real stories told by real people, we lose an intergenerational transfer of knowledge. Look at me, I could get a degree, I could make it to the top of the corporate ladder, but when the shit hits the ground, I can’t even grow corn,” he says in exasperation. “I have no effing idea.” What he is saying leaves me with a strange feeling of absurdity and sadness at the same time. He continues, “My grandfather wasn’t schooled, but he was educated. At the age of 75, he was still working every day, he could pull 50 pounds of water out of the ground by rope, he knew exactly what to put in the ground, and that’s how he earned his living. He was self-sufficient. But I can’t survive a day without a cup of coffee, I’m dependent on my car, on gas, and on this system that I’m trying so hard to transform. My grandfather was more human than I am. We are the stories of our ancestors, and if we don’t tell those stories, we will never have that knowledge. In a sense, we will never know who we truly are.”
I ask him what he means by this.
“Our bodies, our minds, our existence, are a manifestation of oral tradition,” he replies. “For me, spoken word is half ghost stories, half dreaming. When I speak in a room, I am tapping into the energy of my grandfather, of my grandmother, of people’s traumas and their resistance. This is why I can never tell the same story the same way twice.”
The difference between the West and the rest, he says, is that Western culture has devoted itself to empirical knowledge – since the Enlightenment, we have been obsessed with experimenting, analyzing, proving, and recording. Today we have algorithms that do most of this for us, and will continue to take over that role. What remains for us, and of us?
“The world has tried so hard to distance itself from itself. Here in the West, we believe that the further we are from our humanity, the better off we’ll be.”
I can’t help reflecting on a conversation I had with a self-proclaimed “crypto economist” a few weeks ago. I was at a dinner meetup of blockchain enthusiasts, listening to a young man explain the future of this new technology, said to be on the revolutionary scale of the internet. “Blockchain technology is about looking into the past. Economics is about predicting the future. When you combine the two together, you have the ability to control money. When you control money, you control incentives. And when you control incentives, you can control people.”
Two worlds collide in me as I listen to Ernesto speak. He is right – the idea that we are engaged in “distancing ourselves from our own humanity” is not far-fetched – it is what we see around us right now. When you live in a city like San Francisco, you need look no further for daily instances of it. The rise of technology such as blockchain and digital currencies will change the way we transact, interact, and eventually, view trust – a fundamental component of all human relationships. The entire system is founded on the firm belief that the smaller the human input, the better.
The trouble is that while I and many others recognize what is happening around us, we struggle to do anything about it. I, too, find myself being swept into a world which runs on a System. I, too, wonder how I can possibly preserve the traditions of my forefathers and foremothers while navigating the often oppressive dynamics of a capitalist, consumer-driven, highly individualistic environment.
He shakes his head. “Everything is on stilts. When the stilts go, everything else goes. All you need is a shake and a rumble, and this whole Salesforce world collapses.” He asks me, “How many millions of dollars went into building the Salesforce Tower?” (In actual fact, it’s billions – 1.1, to be exact.) He points to the street outside, where a man in ragged clothes seeks food amongst the dumpsters. “Are you telling me all that money couldn’t have gone towards helping people like him?”
The world is the way it is because we have bought into, believed and disseminated a common story.
I grew up in South Africa, a rapidly changing country where every aspect of human endeavor – economic, cultural and spiritual - exists across a vast spectrum. Poverty, wealth, knowledge, ignorance, fiery Christianity, traditional African beliefs – all exist within my own family. I am accustomed to reconciling opposites. Here in San Francisco, I often feel I am living in a bubble – across the street are two of the world’s largest tech companies, my current interests are aligned with upcoming hackathons and startup demo days; I attend business cocktails and listen to people talk about the things that are going to change the world. Like Ernesto, I realize that there are sacrifices I have made to be a part of this system. I ask him if oral tradition and all it represents is so important, then what have we lost without it?
He pauses for a moment and says, simply and slowly, “It’s that feeling of sitting on the ground, around a fire, with other people, and being present.”
To be present is to hold the contradictions of life, and know that one’s good fortune is not of one’s own making. To be present is to have the grace of empathy; to feel and know one’s connectedness to others. Somehow, our ability to share and to listen heightens the powerful ability in us to be both present and empathetic.
“I am not going to see what I want to see in my lifetime,” says Ernesto. “I’ve accepted that. But I know that I am today’s ancestor for tomorrow’s child. So I have to ask myself, is what I am doing today going to be worth talking about tomorrow? Will my story become someone else’s spoken word? I don’t want the only mark I make to be the mark left on my own ego.”
As we end our conversation, he smiles and adds, “Yeah, so those are my thoughts. Just tidbits on a Wednesday morning.”
We say our goodbyes and I walk back in the weak November sunlight, the dark shadows of tall buildings guiding my path along the concrete. I begin to wonder how this place is shaping my own story, and how much of it I am ready to tell. One thing I do know is that my own story is shaped by the characters, the plots and the settings I’ve been exposed to; the stories of a million others, weaving in and out of my own.
And like all good stories, mine has conflict. How do we resolve the internal and the collective conflicts that continue to shape our world, other than through storytelling? The world is the way it is because we have bought into, believed and disseminated a common story. Perhaps if we change the storytelling – if we begin to tell this one differently, to pass on different characters and plots to the next generation – the narrative will begin to change. It’s a thought that gives me hope. We are not passive recipients; we are the authors of a story still being told.