Grow Up, Pedro

“Grow up, Pedro” is an excerpt from the opening essay of my forthcoming collection, Pedro’s Theory: Essays. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, much like the work of Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, I investigate the bodies and communities moving through the Americas, and how these migrations of loved ones and strangers alike impact my inner life and creative expression. Pedro’s Theory: Essays is a journey of self-discovery, an examination of what it means, or might not mean, to be American as a first-generation, gay man of color coming into his own in the United States of America. 

Colored blocks on the floor.

Childrens’ voices rising and falling. Alphabet posters on the walls. The boy is stimulated by all this newness. He marvels at Rebecca’s platinum blonde hair, the blue of David’s eyes, the pigmentation of Abigail’s skin. These are not the children of his neighborhood.

by Daniel Von Appen

by Daniel Von Appen

He contemplates but soon enough there is an interruption. The teacher looks at him from the chalkboard. Her face is pinched, her teeth gritted, her eyes blue sinister. The teacher descends upon him. Everyone watches. Do not speak that language here. Am I making myself clear? That language? Lang-uage. Lan-g-uage. He tries to say the word but trips over the syllables. He does not know what she means by that word. All he knows are the eyes upon his body, a shame and a guilt he cannot find the source of, the difference he now feels himself to be.

He does not speak again until sometime in the first grade.


Speaking both Spanish and English, I lived in a dual world, a world divided, a dizzying world.

There’s no better storyteller than a child. Broke one of the fancy plates in the kitchen? Cousin Juan did that when he was running through the house dribbling a basketball and blah blah blah. What did you do at school today? I made a book and wrote a whole story about a mermaid princess who blah blah blah. Every situation becomes an opportunity to prove one’s skills at imagining a world a bit larger, a bit more magical.

But I didn’t know how to tell such stories as a kid. I would be blamed for something and I would just say, no I didn’t do it, and the water works would ensue. I would come home from school and tell no one of my day. As a child, I didn’t feel myself as having a language in which to tell these stories. Speaking both Spanish and English, I lived in a dual world, a world divided, a dizzying world. Spanish is spoken with my grandmother and father, with my siblings it is English, with my mother English and Spanish, and in school it is only English. Words zigzag in my brain with no pattern to their movements. I speak and I don’t know exactly how these words are forming, how the meaning is coming across, if I am articulating myself at all.

As an adult I struggle to tell stories, to know what language I can tell these stories in. Who is the boy there in the photo smiling in front of his birthday cake? How can he smile with so much strife behind those brown eyes? The struggle is how to articulate that childhood Marcos, the matter of his history, his being in a small-town in the United States. His 1990s self is and is not a presence in this second decade of the 21st century. He is but the shadow on the wall, the sliver of light on the floorboard, the gnat in an ear. Awaiting the day his story, his many stories, can find a language in which to be told, in which to communicate. Waiting…and waiting…waiting as he has been doing for a lifetime…


The small room encloses him.

The boy cannot focus. The objects in the room steer him from Mr. S—, the man who takes the boy every day from his kindergarten classroom, the man who has many tools with which to quiz the boy on words, on syllables, on pronunciations, on language. A card with an image is raised and the boy states what it is.

No, it is not. What is this, Marcos?

The yellow fruit shaped like a crescent moon is what he said it is.

Guineo, it’s a

No, Marcos, tell me what this really is?

The boy thinks on this question but he is not sure he’s doing it right, he thinks and he thi—

Look at the picture and think hard about what it is?

The answer to the question is how the boy’s grandmother or father would answer, how those in his family and neighborhood would answer. After all, he is of them, their ways of speaking, their kin and kind. This man though is not like them. The answer the man is demanding, then, if the correct answer is to be given, is one of Mr. S—’s making, somewhere in this room, in the likeness of his being.

The difference between the man and the boy’s family is the answer.

A banana. It’s a banana.

Yes it is, Marcos. Very good. What about this? What do you call this?


I ask my grandmother what she remembers from her childhood and she just smiles, turning away from the TV for a second, then returning to it without having spoken.

My first memory might have been a dream. I am sitting between my mother and father in their bed. They are asleep and I am watching TV. Barney, my favorite show, is playing and the song “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” is being sung. Why am I here at this hour watching Barney? Does Barney even play at these hours?

The lines between fact and fiction are hard to discern for the child. Like a dream, moments are fragmentary and elliptical, a this or that happening to your body, snatches of memories drifting in and out on the tide, down and down the stream until they are no more. I ask my grandmother what she remembers from her childhood and she just smiles, turning away from the TV for a second, then returning to it without having spoken. Is this what happens when you have lived on the planet for eighty years? I want to believe my grandmother knows more than she is telling, more than the grim fact she may have simply forgotten them.

I want to be on my deathbed remembering my first memory—the one that might or might not be real. The darkness of the room, the TV’s light upon my face, the heavy breathing of my parents. The details at the final hour.


David laughs at the idea.

During these middle school and high school years, all these years mastering English, having no choice but to master English, the boy finds himself in precarious positions where his English skills are too good. He interprets, thinks and over-thinks on the meanings of their language, their syntax and their pronunciations and their words and their intonations all a part of a system the boy knows well. He is better at their language than they are themselves.

This fourteen-year-old David always begins his ideas with a rapturous smile, white teeth brimming, the whites of his eyes contrasted against blue irises, the pompousness of white hands in gesture, Like just imagine it, right, one of them is________________________________


There are several options as to how this sentence can finish:

  1. riding their bike and you scream from the car. I did it one time and Pedro fell straight on his ass. I was cracking up so hard I almost swerved off the road.
  2. delivering the pizza late, and just waits at the door for a tip. A tip? Get the fuck outaaaaaa here, Pedro. Don’t expect nothing delivering my pizza pie late.
  3. in your house, cleaning and shit. They shower like once a week so this Maria was bombing up my house. I couldn’t wait till she was gone.

This David, or Timothy, or Shane, or John, or whatever other name boys like him may have, ends their scenario with a hearty, and innocent, Dude, I love Mexicans.


There this video game where the story is centered around the player being a bully. Executing swirlies, throwing kids in garbage cans, and pelting rocks with a slingshot at passersby from a tree. What the player learns is the power of control, and the hunger for it, ultimately corrupts a young person. It’s what makes a bully a bully. To be in control of one’s image, to be in control of another’s image, to be in control of how good one feels about themselves—this is what is so tantalizing about bullying, and also why any decent gamer might want to try to be the best bully around.

Violence is a fact of life, some lives more than others.

Yet it must be kept in mind that playing the role of the bully is a different kind of experience than being one in real life. The video game gives us narrative, plots us within its folds. The player witnesses behind-the-scenes consequences of their actions: we see how a bullied student might feel. We hear the thwacking and bashing and thumping of fists and feet against the body of another. We hear the screams of a student stuffed into a trash can, or the pixels of a face scrunching up in pain. We see the aftermath of bullying, its consequences and its results, what it’s like to go home and what it’s like to return again the next day.

This is a video game, after all, so the player seeks pleasure. Bullying is made to be pleasurable and, like so many video games, violence is at the center. What about violence, about committing acts of violence against others, is so appealing? My father watches men on TV hopping around a ring getting barraged by fists and this is his pleasure, a pastime which brings him joy. I play video games where nameless characters—a sex worker on the street, a stormtrooper, a mutant, a gangster—are frequently killed. Violence is a fact of life, some lives more than others. Is there something in the human brain which makes us innately susceptible to the injury of another, to want it, to need it, to experience it?

All I know is video games are the first medium through which that darkest desire, that deepest need for violence is realized. The obligation of the video game (or what should be an obligation) is to mediate, to explore what violence does in the world, its consequences, its ramifications, all without the gamer having to experience it firsthand. There are do-overs in a video game, there are do never agains.


From the locker below, David says something to the boy under his breath.

One cannot be sure what the word is because it is the end of the day and the hallway is filled with 7th graders talking and yelling out their after-school plans with their friends. The boy has no such plans.

The word David says begins with an f based on the way his mouth scrunches up, air throttling saliva, the tightening of the syllable around the teeth to form the word _________________.

  1. faggot
  2. fatass
  3. fruit
  4. fucking spik
  5. fruitpicker

Something takes over the meekness of the boy, his let-them-get-away-with-everything attitude: he accidentally drops a history textbook onto David’s head.

The boy immediately slams his locker, and rushes into the classroom to await the bell for dismissal. David marches through the door, rushing towards him. He does not know what he says but David’s mouth moves. He’s trying to size the boy up so he puffs his chest, and raises his head for height, trying to intimidate, to terrorize. David feels his own smallness. The boy is taller than David, bigger than him, stronger than he is, yet their differences in proportion, David’s smallness in relation to the boy’s bigness, David’s ability to go undetected, to be untargeted, to not be a problem, makes the boy stand out for all to see, all to scrutinize, all to blame, all to accuse. He will be the villain of the story.

What happens next the boy cannot explain: he lurches up, embiggened, all of his body hardened, bringing his fist down on to David’s face. David falls back but does not fall down. No one else seems to be around, or no one seems to care. David trembles, David pants. Neither fear, nor anger, but something else he feels. It is something the boy cannot explain because it is something only David knows, only a David or a Timothy or a John can describe to you what it is.


I’m looking for words to explain what words can never dream of explaining.

I can’t think of my childhood in the first-person. It feels too remote, too distant, too far from me to be imagined in that way. Third-person, the hes and the hises and himself, feel closer to how I think of six-year-old Marcos, middle school Marcos, Marcos in his last year of high school.

Marcos—myself, mine, me, I—who are you?

All I get is the darkness, me and myself as this man, this forgetful self, asking the void how do you feel, little boy, when they said those things to you, how do you feel, little brown boy, when they touched your body in those ways, how do you feel, little thing there in the shadows, when they convinced you that you were nothing, a life not worth living.

I’m looking for words to explain what words can never dream of explaining.


The boy is terrified David will tell someone.

He does not sleep easy knowing consequences tend to not go in favor of boys like him, boys whose neighborhood is called the Mexican ghetto, boys who are immediately imagined to be violent and aggressive and mindless. He imagines David will be waiting with his friends outside the bus-stop, in the bad part of town the boy calls home, their blondes and alabaster forming a mob near his house. Their limbs ready to beat and flatten and squish and batter the boy on the road his family passes day to day, beating and battering him to a fleshy pulp like the bodies the boy sees on the Spanish news at five, image after image of Mexico and Los Angeles and Guatemala and New York City and Venezuela and the U.S.-Mexico border, all those unidentifiable bodies and bodies identifiably brown. He imagines this vividly because he has heard of stories of boys like David who have done this to boys like him in this town, in a neighboring town, in a town in another state, another country, boys like him who will be villainized, boys like him whose pain will not be taken seriously, boys like him who will have an entire justice system ready to pound the gavel against them. He knows David and his friends will do this in the name of some great vengeance. A vengeance they are allowed to have, one they cannot describe but they know very well this vengeance is their birthright and their inheritance and their duty to the land they identify as theirs.

The boy is terrified he will have to explain what he cannot, is unable to explain in English or in Spanish or in Spanglish. To tell the town David called him a _________ means to tell them who he is, who David is, who they are, and, above all else, who they do not want to be, who they do not want to be around, who they want to keep out.

The boy is afraid because he knows they will tell him violence is never the answer. They will convince him that his rage is unjustified. They will persuade him all violence and all rage is unjustifiable. They will have the boy believe Davids will just be Davids, unfortunate but inevitable, boys like David being boys like David convincing the boy that he is nothing, persuading him of his being nothing, nothing at all.


For the immigrant, the child is the American dream. Watch as they grow up, go to college, quadruple their parents’ income. At least, that’s the hope. My parents never told me anything along these lines. No one harassed me to attend college, no one begged me to get my act together, no one told me I had it better than they did. I pushed myself to pursue that most hyped up thing we call the American dream.

Son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, son of a poor Puerto Rican mother, I feel the burden of this American dream. I talk about this with my therapist all the time. That is a massive burden, she says to me, trying to lessen the stress I put on myself. But I do feel the pressure, and the pressure consumes.

When I announce I am a writer my family look at me like I have three heads. Their first instinct is to question how much that makes and I am reluctant to ever say. A writer? They want to hear I am a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. They want to hear money in their ears because I have opportunity and I have grown up in the United States. I tell them I will get my PhD and I will as well get the salary of a tenured professor and I will rid us of a condition five hundred years in the making. This they like to hear and this they believe will come to pass. I, their American dream, I, with fingers crossed, will try to prove to them as best as I can that indeed the American dream exists, that in fact it is real and that I am it.


Nothing happens the following day.

Some days I say to myself if I try hard enough, if I can rewire my memory synapses just right, I can recreate my childhood in a different image.

The woman who is the boy’s history teacher, who was his mother’s second grade teacher, who is the only teacher out of the six he sees daily who attended his brother’s funeral, returns the book to him the next day in class. She does not question why it was abandoned on the floor. You gotta be more careful, kid, she tells him. Her Jewish accent is thick, and comforting. He nods, ready to return to his seat, but she holds him there in her gaze for a moment. She has done this occasionally ever since his brother died earlier in the year. She senses something, something familiar, something all her own. Her husband passed away not too long before. Is it him she sees in the boy’s eyes? Her loss, her anguish, her love. Boy and teacher there in the hallway living as if living no more is all they desire.

Their exchange ends, and they return to the classroom. The boy takes his seat next to David, next to Mary, in front of John, and behind Abigail. Class is in session.


Some days I say to myself if I try hard enough, if I can rewire my memory synapses just right, I can recreate my childhood in a different image. Make it not mine anymore. No David, no kindergarten teacher. No speech pathologist. For a long time I did forget, these things mere hauntings buried in the attic of my mind. Yet try and try as I may to lose them, the memories remain too sharp, the details too well formed and distinct for any such forgetting. There’s Abigail and her laugh as I’m in the club dancing. David and his words hitting me my first time out of the country. Chad touching my body in the locker room as I’m getting ready for bed in my dorm room. Bethany telling me to grow up Pedro when it looks like I am about to cry on the day I graduate college. Those boys and girls of that small town, those boys and girls of yesterday, haunting memories of them materialize no matter how far I travel in the Americas, no matter how far into the world I go. When will it end? When I will be free? Somewhere a little Pedro is out there, a boy like me, a boy in the Americas, who is having the world bear down upon him, his world of struggle experienced in silence, alone. Grow up, Pedro, they will tell him, and he will do it because he doesn’t know what else to do, doesn’t know how else to get on in the world. Grow up, be a man, stop crying, Pedro, and he will think someday it must get better, someday it will all be alright. Little Pedro there all alone, hold on, little Pedro there in tears, someday will come soon enough, little Pedro there in the Americas, just wait and see.  


Who is that

The ruse is up.

The boy wonders why his father didn’t drop him off further down, out of sight, like normal? He guesses since they were running late his father wanted to drop him closer to the foyer doors. Now the boy must answer this other boy who he calls friend, a friend whose milky complexion and blue eyes project curiosity, genuine and non-threatening curiosity.

Tick tock tick tock. All the boy wants to do is almost disappear. His girth and rolls and chunks and flesh transformed into something so small, so insignificant so that he can try to belong with this pale boy he calls friend, with those who look and feel and behave like this pale boy he calls friend, belonging to theirs and their kind and their—

Who is that?—the question jeopardizes, it threatens—Who is that?—the question asks the boy to name and identify and choose and to—Who is that?—the friend is able to discern the boy’s father is dark skinned and the boy is light skinned, and this friend thinks on this difference, theorizes it in full to understand why the dark man is bringing the light-skinned boy to school, why it is the boy was in his truck, how it is possible that the man and the boy are even remotely fa—

Who is that?

What can be said? What story can be—

Who is that?

He’s my father’s worker.


The innocence of the child. Something to be cherished, idolized, revered. A child in the imagination of the United States is a thing to be protected, a thing our future depends on. There’s little Billy with sandy hair and green eyes eating his Cheerios, little Suzie with the adorable freckles combing the hair of her Barbie—these children with all that profitable innocence, all that inherent goodness, behind their white picket fences on Main Street and the doormen of their Upper West Side apartments.

But Tamir Rice playing outside in a park is gunned down by a police officer. Children brought over across the U.S.-Mexico border by their parents are considered criminals and leeches. Emmet Till is punched and kicked and beaten by grown men so badly his corpse in his casket is unrecognizable. Children watch police and immigration invade their homes to take their parents and are left abandoned across the United States while their parents are deported back to a country which might kill them, to a country that has nothing left for them.

My therapist tells me I am just a child when I try to use the lightness of my skin against my father. I counter her by saying I am fully aware of what I am doing and how I am using the English I have mastered so well. There is no innocence but complicity, a fantasy of proximity to that something we are globally told to desire, to value, to love, and our doing anything at whatever cost to have its validation, its acceptance.

I am just a child passing as something he is not.

I am just a child who will do whatever he must do to get by in these Americas.

Marcos Gonsalez is currently a PHD candidate in English and Literature, and teaches at City University of New York. His essays can be found at Electric Literature, Catapult, The Rumpus, The New Inquiry, Black Warrior Review, and Latino/a Rising: An Anthology of U.S. Latino/a Speculative Fiction, among others. He is currently seeking a publisher with his agent Lauren Abramo of the Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret agency for an essay collection on his experiences with racism, trauma, and coming of age as a gay man with an undocumented Mexican father and poor Puerto Rican mother in rural New Jersey. He lives in New York City.