Happy Friday! Only a few more days until Christmas! This week’s Feature Friday is one of the most inspiring we’ve ever featured. Diego talks about growing up with disabilities, coming out to his father (and what made it actually pretty funny), and how he overcame being bullied throughout the years. We loved getting to know Diego and his backstory, and we think you will, too. Take a look below to see what we mean…
Where are you from? I was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up there as well as Poughkeepsie, NY. Then spent my college and early adult years in Florida before moving back to NY. So I moved around quite a bit.
Where do you live? Port Jervis, NY
Instagram handle: nicest.squid.in.town
On connecting to a place: It’s actually funny I’m just getting picked for this right before I’m leaving to travel to Europe for the first time after New Years. But my favorite place I’ve travelled to was the Florida Keys. I travelled there a few times in my life actually. The reason why they’re my favorite place is because I feel they best represent me as a person. The Keys have such a rich, vibrant culture and eccentric history. Plus I’m a very big fan of all the wildlife found there. I’ve swam with dolphins, volunteered to help sea turtles, and explored the mangroves on a kayak.
On a difficult childhood: The biggest thing that made my childhood difficult was my disabilities. It was not so much having them, but more how people treated me with them. I have a profound hearing loss that I was born with and without hearing aids, I can barely hear anything. I also have hypotonia which is low muscle tone. As a child with hypotonia, it took longer for me to reach motor developmental milestones, such as sitting up, crawling, and walking. I was constantly in a walker as a toddler and then I moved to leg braces to help with my walking. I also had years of physical therapy in school which I disliked despite it helping me. I was often victim to people who would bully me for not being able to hear or understand what they’re saying as well as looking “funny” with my leg braces and hearing aids. To add to bullying, I was constantly rejected or picked last. People have always said to me, directly and indirectly, that I would never be good enough to do most things or be successful. When I was in middle school, I was finally off leg braces by then, but my hypotonia still made me very clumsy and prone to falling (which I still am today haha). And middle school was when I started questioning my sexuality. When I saw how people negatively thought of gay people around me, I immediately dismissed those thoughts. I was already being bullied for many things and I didn’t want to add more fuel to fire. Home was my safe space. My family nurtured and supported me in everything I did. But when I stepped outside to go to school, I felt extremely vulnerable.
On the importance of support from family: I think for me, I was extremely lucky to have the support I had from my family. They were always there to make sure that I had the strength to wake up the next day and face whatever came my way. Because of them, I was able to learn from myself that there was no changing who I was as a person. Everything that I had was what made me Diego. I constantly worked to defy the negative things people said about me and ultimately proved them wrong. My weaknesses became my strengths. I learned to work smarter in order to use all my skills to my advantage.
On his advice to today’s youth: It shouldn’t matter what people think or say about them, especially if it’s negative. Look for the people who support you, whether it’s in your family, teachers, guidance counselors, friends, etc. I would want them to know that they never should feel like they’re in this fight to figure themselves out alone. But to summarize it, I think Christopher Robin best said it when he said it to Pooh Bear: “You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
On coming out to his father: I think it was just honestly a spontaneous moment of bravery. We were on a road trip to visit some colleges for me to apply to, and one of my cousins was with us who happened to be gay. After we parted ways with him, we were on the conversation about it and it just came out of my mouth. And it was actually really funny because one of my dad’s first responses was that my mom owes him for a bet they made on me questioning my sexuality. He did make it clear though that nothing is going to be any different. I am still his son and he will always love me just the same.
On coming out: It was mostly exhilarating. After my dad, I started coming out to the people most important to me. I came out to my best friends when my senior year of high school started. Shortly after, I told my sister and some cousins. But the most difficult person for me to come out to was my mom which was strange for me. I always go to her for everything like she was my best friend, yet I was most scared to tell her. But I finally did and it all worked out for the best. Our bond is much stronger than ever. The last important person for me to come out to was my younger brother a few years later when he got old enough to understand.
On how coming out helped him “evolve” him as a person: It felt like I could breathe again and that I didn’t have to hold my breath whenever I was around people. I started evolving and becoming more of the person I was meant to be. I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘change’ to describe when someone becomes more seemingly different as they get older. They’re not becoming a completely different person. They’re adding on to who they are, becoming more complex than they were before. That’s why I prefer to use the word ‘evolve’ for my growth since my childhood and coming out.
On facing backlash since coming out: I lost many friends who didn’t agree with who I am. And I did have some more people bully me, but it wasn’t as bad as it was when I was younger about my disabilities.
On his life in five years: This is a question I usually have difficulty answering because I feel like it could change. If I was asked this question exactly a year ago from today, I would have said that I would still be working at Disney, hopefully in my dream job of working with the animals at Animal Kingdom and teaching guests about them and conservation. Things have changed a lot since then now that I’m back in New York. I would say right now that I see myself living in NYC, working with the education department of a zoo, museum, or science center. My passion is educating all ages, mostly youth, about our planet’s natural wonders, conservation, and sustainability.
On leaving a legacy: My biggest inspiration is Steve Irwin. He was a person who loved and challenged life. He saw the world for what it is and worked to make it better for humans, animals, and all other living things. He left behind a legacy that reached to many people and I aspire to do the same.