My depressive experience took a textbook route. My predisposition was detectable when I was very young, even though no one really understood why I was so quiet. My teen years had a wealth of unexplained angst that worried my parents on multiple occasions. When my mid-twenties came, major depression announced that it was showtime, and the stockpile of misery I hadn’t previously attempted to explain was to take center stage for over two years. The most curious segment of this time is my childhood. While I was born in The Bronx, New York, much of my childhood was spent in Manchester, New Jersey, a sparse town within the extended reach of Toms River. I was one of a handful of Hispanic kids in my class, with the rest of the school being mostly white or black. Anytime I spoke to a therapist about my childhood, I frequently described it as feeling disconnected. I wasn’t white enough to be a skater like the white kids. I wasn’t black enough to justify my love of Nas to the black kids. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, so my appeal as a cultural anomaly wasn’t exotic enough to be interesting. Instead of feeling brown as my deep tan complexion would convey, I felt a translucent shade of grey. It wasn’t until over a year of therapy that I began to understand the effects of this sort of lack of belonging. Mental illness had plagued my family for generations. Loneliness was a catalyst. I was primed from childhood to be lonely when the humanity in me cried for connection. It became my generational task to understand how deep this pervasive pattern ran, and become a transitional figure for those that come after me.

My grandfather arrived to the United States sometime in the 1950’s. After working in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, he brought his 8th grade education to New York City. Our family slowly trickled there during the American ascension following the Second World War, and it was a perfect place to escape the economic travesty that became of the island. My little brother and I were the benefactors of the wealth of experiences he shared during our childhood. There were countless stories of drunken lunacy in the bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium while cheering on Mickey Mantle. At 80 years old, he wept at the photographs of the old stadium being demolished, and spoke of the new stadium with scorn until his death in 2011. While the new ballpark has grown on me, I never watch a game without wondering how closely I can mirror his experiences that he passed down to me through story, and shared with me viscerally during my first games with him in the old stadium as a kid. His love of baseball – an unwavering passion for the game – was more birthright than tradition.

It wasn’t until long after he passed that I understood what baseball meant to him in the ‘50’s when he arrived. The psychological tumult that was being brown in mid-century America left a pressing need to cope. Along with dramatic stories of epic battles on the baseball diamond, he never spared us the raw material of his character in broken English. Fiscally fickle, emotionally reactive, and neurotically cautious were just a few of the descriptors that fit him. In my experience with other Hispanics from my generation, it seems all of our grandparents shared similar dispositions. Such traits didn’t materialize from nothing. One story my brother and I could never forget would lay out the foundation for the kind of Hispanic-American he became. My grandfather – like many in his generation – was by modern standards, an alcoholic. During my lifetime, he never drove a car. He told us that he had to choose between drinking or driving. He chose drinking. The establishments in Puerto Rico didn’t adhere to most American customs of the time. Given the array of colors that Puerto Ricans come in, there was less reason to investigate the ethnicities of bar patrons. Bars in New York City, however, had a few more criteria to meet before being served. He didn’t receive any sort briefing at Idlewild Airport (now JFK), and went to a bar in a white area of The Bronx. He didn’t have a chance to reach the bar before the collective non-verbals in the room told him he was less welcome than the Spanish Flu. Frustrated and sober, he left, the latter likely affecting the former. A short while later, another bar on the black side of town gave him the same treatment to different music. As time went by, different ethnicities established their strongholds within the city’s boroughs. My grandfather would eventually find a bar with people like him. But a new and startling concept that would inform his view of the world for the rest of his life had made a home in him. It didn’t matter that his heritage was a blend of white Spaniards who brought black slaves to conquer an island of brown Taino natives. As a newcomer to the United States, my grandfather did not exist within the American consciousness.

This experience mirrored itself in my life against my will. I was excited to replicate his Yankee fandom for years to come. I was jarred by the cultural awkwardness that ran parallel to it. It became clear to me that Yankee Stadium may have been the one place in the city he truly felt free to be himself, with the fervor of baseball being the binding agent between him and the world he lived in. This cultural loneliness allowed me to adapt to many environments of people. Because of this, I had friends of many different backgrounds growing up. In contrast, it also provided a low ceiling on acceptance. I knew my white friends and their families loved and accepted me, but I could not make myself white enough to buy a skateboard without ridicule. My black friends and their families loved me too, but I couldn’t make myself black enough to wear a Sean John t-shirt without being told not to wear “black people clothes” by kids in school. My Hispanic friends and their families should have provided a reprieve and a sense of cultural safety. It is an unfortunate reality, however, that because I was not born in Puerto Rico, and did not grow up speaking Spanish, I was not a “real” Puerto Rican, and was ostracized by them the most no matter how many songs by Wisin & Yandel were on my iPod. I lend empathy to everyone mentioned above. None of them understood that generational trauma influenced so many of the reasons they gatekept their customs so tightly, the same way my grandfather viewed whites and blacks with the same suspicion after decades of living in America. Even less of them understood it wasn’t their fault. But the hard truth remains; those suffering from mental illness, like I did, have their problems exacerbated by our insistence on gatekeeping culture. By refusing to put character at the forefront, cycles of division disguised as culture are able to persist. The loneliness I felt when I was young, the angst I felt as a teen, the major depression I experienced as an adult, all had pseudo-hereditary roots.

It wasn’t until I joined the military in 2010 that I felt able to break away from the cages of culture. While camouflage clothing functioned to cloak appearances from enemy combatants, it also allowed me to subdue my origins. For the first time in my life, I started from scratch. Sure, people could notice that I was brown, but cared more if I could be part of a unit. Anyone could see my last name on my uniform, but the frequent confusion of whether it was Italian or Spanish was comforting; whichever they guessed, the right answer didn’t matter (Basque, Spain STAND UP) I was a part of the team. The unifying factors began in basic training and not a single moment before. Recruits from poor ghettoes and affluent oases worked and spoke like equals. It was character and work ethic that became the bedrock of human value. It wasn’t that anyone lost their heritage or dispensed with influences from their culture. Those attributes just became secondary. By the time we did explore the backgrounds of those we worked with, there was already genuine rapport established. Individual heritage became an avenue for enjoying the diversity that surrounded us instead of being criteria for acceptance. While the organization is not immune from issues of race and gender, the level playing field is inherent to its design.

With the military making up around 1% of the American population, is it possible to structure a general society in which cultures can be used to share instead of exclude? I don’t know. On the individual level, however, it seems care and consideration for this element of mental illness is crucial. With grim outlooks gleaned from some mental health data and rampant political hyper-polarization, cultural impacts of mental health, must be properly processed. It wasn’t until years into my adult life that I realized the need to process the hereditary awkwardness that came with being an Americanized Hispanic that found little sense of belonging. Our psyches are made up of memories. Our journeys are made up of stories. It seems natural to wonder what role the stories that preceded your arrival play in the construct of your personality. This perspective, however, seems to have it backward. Instead, we should be examining what role we play in our chapter of the story. Stories from past generations of mine were rife with mental illness, trauma, alcoholism, and abuse. Therapy helped me understand that I’m not doomed to carry on legacies of shame. Do the chapters before you include generational trauma? Can you make use of examples of ways not to behave from those before you? What can you take with you or leave within pages of the past? How much better of a man could be if you took charge of your generation’s story?