08/27/2014 06:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Contain Multitudes: Brian Martinez

There was something in his face. I kept going back to it, over and over again. Was the sound off, or was he slurring? His words were unclear. It was out of sync. Wasn't it? Cut that bit. But no. The editor and I kept returning to it. And in the end, we used it for a short promo piece about Get Lit's annual teen poetry competition, the Classic Slam. Why? I'm not sure. He was a sophomore, and it was his first year competing in the Classic Slam, representing East Los Angeles Performing Arts High School (ELAPA). Their team didn't make the finals, or even the semifinals, but there was something about his performance, his intenseness, his citing Emily Dickinson with grit. The clip was so short, just a few words; no one would even know that he was performing Emily Dickinson...but I would know.

Brian's junior year he made ELAPA's Classic Slam team again, and this time they made the semifinals. Brian was a standout, and even though we only make a compilation DVD of the finalists' poems, we made an exception and put his rendition of Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" (along with his personal response) on it, too.

Brian's senior year, one Saturday morning in September, Brian walked into our Get Lit office and auditioned to be a Get Lit Player. He says he still doesn't know why. He lived in Boyle Heights, and it would take him 3 buses and over 2 hours traveling each way to get to our office in Hollywood each week to practice. But he made the team and committed. He spent the whole next year memorizing Neruda, Hafiz, Shakespeare and then performing classics and his own spoken words for over 15,000 youth in high schools throughout Los Angeles County. His scratchy-voiced renditions of Pablo Neruda's love poems, "I pace around hungry sniffing the twilight/hunting for you, for your hot heart/like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue," made girls climb the walls. Good God, I had to beat them off with a stick. And then at the end of the year, Brian did make the finals stage at the Classic Slam as an individual performing Hafiz's short poem, "The Great Secret." A few months later he made our Get Lit Player/BNV team and was one of 6 poets representing Los Angeles in the international teen spoken word competition "Brave New Voices." He'd have to take his first plane ride ever to get to Philadelphia to compete, where he would go toe to toe with the best poets in the world.

But I digress. Here are Brian's words. From Brian.

My story is very simple. Another broke kid in the hood. My mother came to the United States at a young age. From the stories I've heard all she knew how to do was work. So that's what she did. Most people come to this country with a vision. Her reasons were the civil war in El Salvador. If she had an option she would have probably stayed with her family, but the way things were going, there wasn't any family left to stay for. All her brothers were either dead, kidnapped, soldiers, or militia. She had a mother and a couple of aunts and uncles. I've never heard of her father; he died before she was born. My father? I don't know much about him either. I know my mother fell in love with him. It must have been love because they were married for 12 years and had three children. He left when I was 5.

Mom used to work in a factory. She worked the graveyard shift peeling vegetables and packaging them for groceries stores. One day they added a new worker to her assembly line. I remember hearing stories about how her husband would beat her and how her kid slept on the floor. My mom wanted to help her out so she offered her the extra room we had. No rent. She wanted to help her get back on her feet. A couple of months passed, and my dad starting acting different. He started coming home late and didn't answer the phone when we called. Those were the years I lost my father. The courthouse forced him to come around once every two weeks. That meant that twice a month I got to stand on my porch while the neighbors watched us wait for him.

We watched mommy go through depression. Things changed when he left. We all assumed responsibilities that kids shouldn't be dealing with, but independence kicked in as a sixth sense. I learned how to forge my mom's signature in elementary. When teachers would ask what was wrong I made up a story. One time I was even sent to the nurse's office to talk to a social worker. One of our neighbors reported my mom to child services. The only thing they found when they paid my mom a visit was a clean house and a fridge full of food, so they didn't stay around for too long.

My mom took care of us more than she took care of herself. She always worked the night shift. That way she got to pay bills, do laundry and clean the house while we were all at school. The only thing she didn't have time for was to raise us. So we had to raise ourselves. That's where the projects come into play. It was a bad neighborhood. All my friends spent more time in hospitals then they did at home. Which was the reason why my mom never let me play outside. I'm guessing she did it to protect me, and if I was her I would have probably done the same, but being the only boy in a house full of girls wasn't very fun. I didn't have anyone to talk to at home. At school everything was the same. I was bullied for being overweight so every day I spent lunch sitting alone by an old tree.

Theater saved my life. One day my sisters heard about a school named ArtShare Los Angeles. They were a non-profit organization who offered free art classes for students like me. Even though I was scared, I knew it would be better than staying home so I decided to give it a try. I took a theater class and fell in love. Theater was the only thing I could do to help me forget that the only thing waiting for me at home were the gunshots that put me to sleep at night. It opened my eyes. Poetry came in the later years. It was a similar experience. The first time I tried it I was hooked; nothing could compare. Theater became my hobby and poetry became my passion. As a kid I always wished I could fly. It was my dream, but throughout the years I learned that my dream was not to fly. My dream was to teach others how to fly. I plan to be a teacher. I want to give back what was given to me: inspiration, confidence and hope.


Kyland Turner, Brian Martinez, Walter Finnie. Photo by Daniel Schaefer

On the night we learned our team made the finals (top 4 of 55 teams) at Brave New Voices, we all huddled outside the theater in the dark, within a sea of people, holding each other and silent. Over 1,000 hours had gone into preparing. A whole year's worth of moments. Brian couldn't control his hands. They were shaking. Wildly. I put my hands on his, to steady them. Later he pulled me aside and told me how much this whole experience meant to him. I wanted to tell him, that on the inside I was shaking too. I'd run Get Lit for 9 years, and we'd been coming to BNV for 7, and in all those years we had made it to semifinals just 3 times. All those thousands of hours, they were mine too...which had come down to this moment...with this boy. We were each fulfilling our own destinies through the other. It's not that it's about winning, but it is about Moving, Progressing, Creating great works of art and Realizing. There was something in his face. I don't know if he was seeking us, or if we were seeking him. Or if somehow, we were with one another, all along.


Get Lit Players/Brave New Voices team: Coach: Mathew Hernandez, Co-Coach Alyesha Wise, Brian Hernandez, Walter Finnie, Kyland, Rhiannon McGavin, Zariya Allen, Belissa Escobedo. Photo by Daniel Schaefer.

Three weeks ago, Brian needed a coat, cash and bus or plane ticket to Humboldt State University, where he'd been accepted. Working odd jobs, and saving up stipends from poetry performances, he managed to put $4,000 down on a car, and as deposit for his sister and he to get an apartment near Humboldt, where they would both start school. That wiped him out, and he had nothing left. Humboldt was 12 hours away. His sister had driven their clunker car up to get the apartment, and so Brian was stuck in LA, with no way to get up there himself. A bus ticket was a few hundred dollars... He decided to postpone school for a while... save some more money. But we put the word out, and Nick Cannon's stylist provided a whole wardrobe of Nick's clothes for Brian (and his mother and sister). Additional donations provided Brian's plane ticket, and gave him $1,700 to spare... Classes start Monday.


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman

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