GROWING UP IN HELL

Richard Mendoza’s childhood and adolescence were packed with more pathos than a Dickens novel. Adulthood hasn’t been a laugh a minute, either.

At age five Richard’s mother, fed up with years of abuse from his alcoholic father, took her son and his older sister and brother to live with her first husband who had recently been released from prison.

Ms. Mendoza and the kids escaped her husband’s wrath by leaving their East Los Angeles duplex while Mr. Mendoza was at work. Enraged, he found out where they were, and against the wishes of his distraught wife, rounded up the kids and brought them to his mother’s house to live. It was, he promised, “a temporary arrangement” which, unfortunately for the children, lasted seven years.

Out of poverty

Richard, now 65, called it “a move up from poverty to lower middle class. That was the only good thing that came of it. We never felt welcome there. How could we when we were constantly reminded by my grandmother that she was doing us a huge favor by allowing us to live with her?”

“She ruled with rage,” he added. And being the youngest child, he scared the easiest. So grandma molded him into an errand boy, a perfect fit for a 300-pound woman who had difficulty walking.

Grandma taught Richard obedience. He also learned something no child should ever need to learn, which was: Showing affection toward each other is not part of family living. As he explained, “my grandmother’s angry, dictatorial manner turned us into three comrades-in-fear. That was our only bond.”

An unhappy home

“Our parents never showed affection to us or to each other. So there was no model to follow. As a result, no loving family ties were forged.”

Life can’t get more Dickensian than that.

In time, guilt and grandma’s frightful intimidation took their toll on Richard. He characterized himself in those years as “ naïve, reclusive and frightened of my own shadow.” And it all fed into a feeling of unworthiness.

Things became even more complicated in his sophomore year in high school when, at age 16, he realized that he was gay. His observation that “ I could not relate to gays and knew nothing about sex” sums up the problem.

Reaching out

At this point Richard was a certified outsider as far as gay and straight people were concerned. But through sheer willpower and some serious introspection, he eventually managed to breathe enough life into his crushed spirit to make some gay friends. Strictly social, nothing personal. But it was a start.

“Looking back, I see myself as a cautious observer with social connections to the gay community.” he said. Connections in which neither his mother, father, grandmother nor siblings had the slightest interest. The same goes for his education and a desire to some day attend art school and study painting.

But who cares? This part of the story has a happy ending. Richard graduated from high school with honors. Also, in his junior year at age 17, he was awarded a full year scholarship at Chouinard Art Institute, which he did not accept because he felt “unprepared.”That’s quite a record of accomplishment for a young man whose parents never offered encouragement or gave a damn about his future.

A declaration of independence

With budding self-confidence nourished by hope, Richard left his grandmother and moved in with his father after graduation. He also lived with his sister in East Los Angeles, following a decision to attend hairstyling school and work part time in the evenings.

As it turned out, hairstyling school offered more than one kind of education. He met his first lover there. “From this I learned that I knew nothing about relationships.” he confessed. Richard may have flunked relationships, but he certainly mastered the subject of hairstyling.

After landing his first client, he moved once more—into a shared apartment with a friend. His new home was in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson area, which was considerably more upscale than his previous addresses. The perfect place for an up and coming hairstylist. Sadly, the area provided an expanded view of predjudice, as well.

Bigotry times two

“I generally ran into more racial bigots than the anti-gay kind. Their attacks were verbal, often subtle but never violent. Still, they hurt, ” he recalled. And so this bright, young, hope-filled, gay Hispanic faced both the racists and the sexists undeterred but not untouched.

For the next five years Richard worked as a hairstylist and saved enough money to enter Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. The dream came true with a nightmare attached. As a freshman, the 28-year-old painting student did not feel welcome, and it went downhill from there.

“Most of the students were not necessarily racist,” he noted. But they were anything but gay-friendly. Again, there was no violence, but plenty of ridicule and hurtful insults. Plus a feeling that I was not good enough to even be at Art Center.”

A rocky road to self worth

Halfway into his fifth and final year he quit Art Center without graduating “because I could no longer stand the feeling of failure, shame and rejection I associated with the place.” The painter in him was deeply discouraged, but a different type of artist emerged.  As a hairstylist, he had developed a following. He would build on this.

He also joined the Gay Men’s Chorus. Life began to look better, even though feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness continued to plague him—as did fear that others would inevitably discover how he truly felt.

To beat back the demons, Richard devised a coping strategy:  “Don’t let anyone see how you feel or what you think about yourself. If they get an inkling of who the real Richard Mendoza is, get out of the relationship fast.”

An affair to remember

One fellow member of the Gay Men’s Chorus got more than an inkling. He saw the entire picture of the real Richard Mendoza, and fell in love with it. He was psychotherapy-oriented and experienced in long-term relationships. As for Richard, “I let myself care, yet always thought I was inferior and didn’t deserve his love.”

They had a rocky 10-year affair, ending in therapy for both of them. Though separated, they’re still good friends. The experience gave Richard new insights that help him continue to battle the old fears and inhibitions while, as he puts it, “building myself anew.”

That building process gained impetus when, at the ripe young age of 50, Richard enrolled in Antioch University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.

A “new” Richard is evolving, but not everything will change. His reputation as an excellent hairstylist remains. He still paints. And he’s also a helpful, understanding, therapy-oriented friend to many of his clients—at no extra charge.

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