The Power of a Moment: An Interview with Carlos Andrés Gómez

by    /  February 18, 2020  / Comments Off on The Power of a Moment: An Interview with Carlos Andrés Gómez

Photo taken by Lovers and Friends Photography.


This series Latinx & Proud! is a look into the world of Latinx literature and the poets who use language to explore the boundaries of their communities and identities. By sharing these interviews and articles, we hope to elicit conversations that empower and amplify the Latinx community in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

New York City native Colombian-American poet, author, actor, and activist Carlos Andrés Gómez visited City of Asylum in January. Gómez is best known for his internet viral videos of “What Latino Looks Like” and “Where are You Really From?” and was a co-star in Spike Lee’s thriller Inside Man. He has done numerous projects, including Senior Orientation with John Legend and his memoir Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, which address toxic masculinity. Featured on TEDx, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and NPR and with a trek of performances in South Africa, Ireland, Spain, Cambodia, Australia, Canada, and the United States, Gómez is proud to share poetry through live performances to encourage conversations about compassion and issues in society. His poetry chapbook, Hijito, was released earlier this year by Platypus Press in the U.K. 

I. Moments That No One Can Take Away

What is your most memorable performance?

It was an after-hours performance in the basement of the Baxpax Hotel during the Berlin International Literature Festival. My younger sister, Maya, was there, and I performed the poem “Gifted.” The poem, which was written for her, reframes her dyslexia as a superpower. At the time, Maya didn’t know the poem existed, and she sat in the front row of this packed crowd of about 300 people. In Germany, when audience members are deeply moved by a performance, they throw roses onto the stage. At the end of the piece, there were about two or three inches of roses covering the entire stage, and I walked over and kissed my sister’s hand. We cried and hugged. 

At the time, she was 13 years old, which I think is a challenging time for most people. It was after years of being told she was stupid. Much of Europe, which is not that different from the United States, caters predominantly to a single learning style. If someone doesn’t fit within that, they’re cast to the side. With the poem, I wanted to refute and dismantle all that toxic and misinformed messaging she’d been receiving for years. 

That must’ve been really powerful to see her reaction and the crowd’s.

It was incredible. It was beautiful. I mean, the reason I’m an artist is because I have experienced other artists’ works and have had the feeling that something profound shifted inside of me. I have sat through numerous performances that made me someone different. That’s the power of a poem. That’s the power of two minutes. That’s the power of walking through that bed of roses to get to my sister and kissing her hand. These are moments that nothing and no one can ever take away. I’ve never really unpacked the moment with her, but I think neither of us needed to say anything else about it. I don’t know if her relationship with her dyslexia was ever the same since she heard that poem. I hope it wasn’t, because I know my life and my trajectory has changed course with a poem or a poet. 

When I was 17 years old, Martín Espada came to my high school and read from his poetry collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread. I was ready to be bored and to pretty much hate the assembly, to be honest with you. Instead, those 45 minutes forever changed the course of my life. I don’t know if I would’ve been a poet without attending his assembly. It suddenly felt like somebody could read all these scrawled hidden notes inside of my chest and was now reading them to the world. It was the first time I saw how a poem can live not only in my own body but in a room of people around me. 

That’s probably the best outcome possible, right? You walk into somewhere cold, not knowing anything, and then you leave transformed.

Absolutely. I had no expectations about Martín Espada. By the end, I was in tears. I walked up to Martín at the end of the performance and bought a copy of his book. All I was able to do was eek out my name. He looked at me, pointed at me, and said, “You’re a poet.” I was silent and in shock. It was as if he had a superpower and was able to see inside of me. Inside of the copy I purchased, he signed it and wrote “Para Carlos, poeta de futura. Martín Espada.” When Martín wrote the introduction for my poetry chapbook Hijito, it was a really beautiful full-circle moment 20 years later.

II. Transcending Boundaries 

You’ve traveled a lot during your career and have been to so many different countries. What is your most memorable experience that somehow changed you?

In 2007, I did a month-long run of a solo play called Man Up. It interrogated numerous relationships in my life, including my complicated relationship with my father. It reckoned with the restrictive, toxic ways I was taught to be a guy and tried to embrace the more tender, nurtured parts of myself, the emotionally sensitive parts of myself. 

Man Up was part of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, the biggest theater festival in the world. One night, a group of 35 Asian folks attended the performance. After the show, a woman approached me. She told me that the group was doing a show at another theater, a drum performance. 

She was with a man who was in tears and very emotional. I put out my hand to him and asked, “What’s your name?”

She said, “No, he doesn’t speak any English. He doesn’t speak a word of English.” 

I was genuinely confused and shocked because the play has a lot of dialogue and narration, all in English. “But you touched him here,” she told me, and she put her hand on her chest. Then he put his hand on his chest. The man and I hugged for two minutes. I’ve definitely been moved to tears from watching and hearing performances in languages I didn’t understand. I don’t know what made me forget about the possible impact of my own show, but it was a powerful reminder.

My incredible director Tamilla Woodard said to me, “This is a show not about comprehension. It’s not about what people intellectually understand. It’s about apprehension. It’s about how you move people and their bodies in ways that are inexplicable, in ways that they can’t even explain afterwards.”

I think, what a moment. To be in Scotland and watch a drummer from Japan, who doesn’t speak a word of English, be moved to tears by a solo Colombian-American New Yorker’s performance in English.

III. Holding the Mirror

I’ve noticed that your work deals a lot with issues such as immigration and toxic masculinity. Where does this interest in societal issues stem from? 

I moved 12 times before I graduated from high school. This gave me a lot of time to reflect, think, and watch. I know what it’s like to not have friends and be on the outside. I don’t know if someone can experience that sort of isolation for so many years and not at some point, as they mature intellectually and emotionally, start to think in a more sophisticated manner about the world. It became impossible to avoid thinking about equity and justice.

I think that my most important “training” for my creative career happened just by being left out for most of my childhood. I was forced to confront my own assumptions about people and sit longer with people who would’ve been much easier to cast aside. It’s easy to think, “Wow, that person seems stuck up.” Maybe they’re just shy. Maybe that person feels left out, like I do. Maybe that person, like me, doesn’t know the pop culture references and is wearing the wrong shoes.

Beyond that, the poets I’ve most admired seem to feel a responsibility to serve not just the communities they inhabit but the world as a global citizen, and this motivates me. I’ve never aspired for my poetry to be a self-indulgent, abstract exploration. I’ve always thought of my poetry as being “of the people, for the people” — part of a broader, democratic conversation across time and space.

You’ve already discussed this a bit, but what role do you think the arts play in activism and politics?

I think all of my artistic practice is an extension of the greater work I hope to do in the world and the greater work I hope to do on myself and within myself. When it comes to anything that somebody might categorize as activism, I’m always trying to hold a mirror to myself. I never want to be the person in a soapbox telling everyone how they can be better or what they’re doing wrong. I’d rather interrogate myself and find ways to communicate what I find, so others can join the conversation.

As an artist, I tell stories. I often say you can disagree with an opinion — you can’t disagree with a story. If I stand up in front of a room, and say, “Let’s talk about white supremacy” or “Let’s talk about toxic masculinity” or “Let’s talk about xenophobia,” at least two-thirds of most rooms will want to leave immediately. Instead, if I say, “Do you have an uncle? So I was at my uncle’s house last week,” everyone leans forward and starts to listen. In the story about my uncle, I can talk about the fraught politics of assimilation, white supremacy, and colonialism. I can check all these boxes without ever having to say any of these words. Sitting in a room with somebody and telling really vulnerable stories for an hour may forever reframe and recalibrate someone’s perspective on something really important. The most profound legacy I hope to leave, beyond being a parent to my two kids, is to transform someone’s opinion about something they never really considered before.

For forthcoming Latinx & Proud! events be sure to visit City of Asylum’s event calendar. 

Comments are closed.