Interview with Baruch Porras-Hernandez
by Olga Rosales Salinas
*Tener ganas. What are ganas, and how do they work? Baruch Porras-Hernandez shares his struggle as an immigrant student and tells us how his art has helped him thrive.
Today, I got the opportunity to interview Baruch Porras Hernandez, about his immigrant experience coming from Mexico at the age of nine years old, and going to college straight from high school. I met Porras-Hernandez when we hosted a monthly showcase in San Francisco called Vetted Word. His talent blew me away then as it does now. My sisters and I are honored to have him share his story with us and the Rosales Sisters' Scholarship.
Baruch Porras Hernandez is the author of the poetry collections “I Miss You, Delicate” and “Lovers of the Deep Fried Circle” both with Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s toured with the legendary Sister Spit Queer poetry tour, is a two-time winner of Literary Death Match, and is a regular host of literary shows for KQED, LitQuake and many more. His solo show got a clapping man from the SF Chronicle, and his other solo shows have been performed to sold out houses all over the city. He’s performed comedy, poetry, and storytelling all over North America, he was born in Toluca, Mexico, and lives in San Francisco.
We’ve known each other for more than eleven years now, and because I know you, I know that your parents' experience was much like mine and my sisters'. They were immigrants finding their way in a strange country. Can you tell us what that was like for you? Do you feel that your parents managed their situation well?
My parents came here with no money, no support, no connections, but I was very fortunate to have the mom I have—she made it seem like an adventure. It was her wit, her smile, her charm, and her Mexicana smarts that got us by; she was very smart about a lot of things, and very positive. She said being poor doesn’t mean you have to suffer.
I once asked her if she felt bad walking up to the Berkeley hills where she had to clean houses, and she said, “Nope! Why would I feel bad? I get to exercise walking up that giant hill, and those houses are nice, in beautiful neighborhoods, and when I get to the top and I get to see that fantastic view of the entire Bay Area—of our new home that is welcoming us. And I am grateful to have a job.” She eventually decided she wanted to become a teacher, and then she just, did it! She started small and carved out her own career and her own life as a Spanish teacher.
What were some of the life lessons your parents taught you before you came to this country? Did they change once you got here?
Work ethic was big for them. They said, “Don’t do it for your boss or your coworkers or anyone that might be looking, do a good job for you.” This is funny to me because I’ve always been naturally lazy. Not lazy as in I will not do work—as an immigrant I am a super hard worker—but if I don’t have to, I don’t even get out of bed. My parents can’t sit still for two seconds. My father is 70 and he is still trying to find his next project. I keep saying “Dad, you’ve had a job since you were 5, don’t you think you deserve a break?” He says “No, I don’t like being bored.”
Tell us about the university you attended. What was the cultural makeup? Did you feel welcome?
Sonoma State University is a wonderful school, it was a perfect place for me to get away and just concentrate on my studies. I loved the campus, I loved how peaceful Sonoma County was.
At the time, when my friends and I saw another person of color across the quad, we would wave to them and say hi even if we didn’t know them, because that was how rare it was to see a person of color. I joined the queer alliance group at school—back then it was called BiGLASSQTS. But it was a small club; I think I could count on my fingers all the out gay students I met at Sonoma State. I know it is very different now. I got to perform poetry there a few years back, it was almost unrecognizable and seemed a lot more diverse.
Did I feel welcome? By the EOP program, by good professors, and by other POC students—yes. By the school? Yes, to be honest—I do feel Sonoma State genuinely tried its best to make me feel welcome. It was the other students—the rich white students—that didn’t just make me feel unwelcome, they told me to my face that I was not welcome., It’s hard to concentrate on your studies when every day some white kid tells you to go back to Mexico.
Even with that experience though, I was grateful for every day I was at Sonoma State—my parents taught to be in the moment, di le gracias a dios por cada dia, por cada momento, hay mucha gente como nosotros que no llegaron aqui, que ni pudieron terminar la highschool, you got there, make sure you take advantage of every moment.
Do you feel that experience contributes to your art? If so, how?
It most certainly does. As an immigrant kid, you grow up going into spaces that were not meant for you which work hard to make you feel unwelcome. eventually you just smile and say, “I’m here, get used to it!” When I started trying to get work as an actor, no one rolled out the red carpet for me, but I dove in and said “HI EVERYONE, MY NAME IS BARUCH, GET READY TO LOVE ME!” It’s that same ganas so many of us immigrants have that helped me find my fire on stage. I love life fiercely, I love people fiercely, and I love immigrants fiercely—so many of my shows have been love letters to immigrants of every background.
I am often surprised when I think back about how much I did alone—I did have help, but so much of it was taking deep breaths, talking myself out of punching racist professors or homophobic students, and just thinking of my goal to get my degree every day. I would not have survived my first year at that university without the guidance and emotional support of programs like Summer Bridge and Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
When I was first accepted, my mother and I took a bus to Sonoma State and took our own walking tour of the campus. When we were done, we had an hour to wait for the next bus to take us back to the Bay Area. She found the nicest hill and asked me to sit next to her under a tree. She said “Things might get very hard for you here—a lot of these kids will have a lot more money, a lot more support from their families. I know, you may feel at times alone, but know that every one of us, and our family back in Mexico are so proud that you are here, the first of our whole family go to an American University. No matter what happens, if things get difficult, just take a break from everyone around you and come sit on this hill, just look at this beautiful campus with all these grassy rolling hills and flowers. Take a deep breath and enjoy being young, being you, and being here, and think of me. No one can take this away from you—rich kids will get by faster and have an easier time, but when you sit on this hill and see this view, no one will enjoy these moments as much as you.”
It’s because of her that I even finished and graduated.
"To have an openly gay adult tell me that I was going to live a long happy life saved me. He saved me."
Who were the angels who helped you get to college from high school? Who was your advocate?
My mother and my dad. But aside from them, Robert Meyer. He often volunteered as an advisor for our Gay Straight Alliance at Albany High and I would not be here without him. He was probably the first openly gay adult I ever met. To see a gay man walking around not being afraid, with a house and job and a kid, blew my mind. He helped me out so much— filling out applications, driving me to tour different universities, telling me it was going to be okay when I came out to my parents and it did not go well. Coming out as young as I did, it was rough, it was very rough. To have an openly gay adult tell me that I was going to live a long happy life saved me. He saved me.
When the world was telling me to leave my parents behind, that if they didn’t like me being gay, they didn’t deserve me in their lives, Robert said “No, do not give up on your parents. Homophobia is learned, and they are just scared, give them time and they will come around.” They did: I’m very close to my parents now. During my senior year of high school, an organization hosted a gay prom. Bob drove me and my date and there, volunteered as a chaperone, and made sure to drop each of us off at home safely after the prom was over. He gave me so much advice, not just as a gay person, but like an uncle—he’s part of my chosen family, and I’m very grateful for him.
Did you receive scholarships?
I got small scholarships, here and there, but I did have to take out some student loans that I finally paid off in 2019, with my artist side hustle money. It’s funny how many people make fun of theatre majors, or people who choose the arts at a university, when I paid off my student loans with solo theatre, poetry, and stand-up comedy checks.
Your help means the world to us. I am grateful to everyone who has helped me since getting to this country and I remember every single one, and I carry them all in my heart to this day.
If you could say anything to the first-generation or immigrant students at Aptos High now, what would you say?
Whatever lies ahead of you—think of it as an adventure that is unique to you and you alone. Your creativity, intelligence, and immigrant drive will make for one amazing ride. You deserve everything, —you deserve happiness—and don’t work too hard or forget to have fun and cherish joy. Being an immigrant in this country does not mean you are a walking apology for crossing some imaginary border. It does not mean you have to work yourself to death just to excuse or validate your existence here. You are a citizen of the planet, of the world, so fall in love with your immigrant journey, meet all your goals, and find that grassy hill where you can sit back and enjoy it.
If you could address a potential RSS donor, what would you say?
Thank you. Your help means the world to us. I am grateful to everyone who has helped me and I remember every single one. I carry them all in my heart to this day. I try to give back every day by paying it forward. The good you do today will bring more joy and good to the world.
You can donate today and be part of our efforts! All proceeds will go to benefit first-generation or immigrant students on the central coast of California. Our Annual Online Auction will be closing in person on 4/29/22! Bid today! Tickets for the event are available on Eventbrite.