For two decades, Julián Esteban Torres López (he/him/his/el) has studied systems of oppression and has worked toward humanizing those who have been socially, politically, and geographically excluded from the hierarchies of power by centering, elevating, and amplifying their voices, experiences, and histories.
Julián is a bilingual, Colombia-born journalist, publisher, podcaster, author, researcher, educator, editor, and cultural worker with Afro-Euro-Indigenous roots. Before founding the social justice storytelling organization The Nasiona, he ran several cultural and arts organizations, edited journals and books, was a social justice and public history researcher, wrote a column for Colombia Reports, taught university courses, and managed a history museum.
Julián has created platforms and has built relationships and partnerships with similar social justice-focused individuals and communities to advocate for survivors of systems of oppression via print and digital publishing, podcasting, the stage, visual storytelling, research, education, and community building. He has also demonstrated success in holding leadership positions in production, people, and program management; program development; marketing; publishing; and business, research, and cultural institutions.
He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominee, a McNair fellow, a winner of the Rudy Dusek Essay Prize in Philosophy of Art, a finalist for the Trilogy Award in Short Fiction, and the author of two social justice books and a poetry collection. Julián has received recognition and awards for his community work and has founded, led, and/or been a guest speaker at dozens of initiatives on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. He has also been the recipient of numerous research grants and fellowships to conduct work on corporate social responsibility, human rights assessments, and conflict resolution, and has presented original research at conferences, such as the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association.
Julián has designed and taught university courses on comparative politics and political issues in Latin America at the University of British Columbia Okanagan; has led public workshops on issues ranging from student activism to armed conflict resolution to how memoir can be a political act; and has been a keynote speaker on events ranging from immigration and border crossing to the role of creative nonfiction in today’s divisive world. In 2008, he was inducted into the University of New Hampshire Diversity Hall of Fame. He’s also been a founder of or a key member in different corporate and university committees, such as Human Rights and Equity; Equity Enhancement Fund; Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and Leadership and Development.
Julián holds a bachelor’s in philosophy and in communication and a master’s in justice studies from the University of New Hampshire and was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, where he focused on political science and Latin American studies.
Julián is an introverted bibliophile who takes the stairs to avoid awkward elevator small talk. He has lived in five countries and has had over 80 roommates, which has made it difficult to call one place home. He does, however, have a special place in his heart for his natal home in the Aburrá Valley of Colombia, the seacoast of New Hampshire, Canada’s Okanagan Valley, and the hills of San Francisco. He has three front teeth, swam in the Amazon River, likes to play the French Defense and the Colle System as chess openings, was almost born in Queens New York, finds the taste of alcohol disgusting, his wife is his favorite painter, he secretly desires to be a stand-up comic or a classical music composer, and feels at ease near mountains.
Episode: “The Nasiona—Persuade with Julián Esteban Torres López.” Dedicated episode profile on Julián, where he discussed his social justice nonfiction storytelling organization The Nasiona, and how with it he is amplifying the voices and experiences of the marginalized. Lit Mag Love is a podcast hosted by Rachel Thompson for creative writers who want to publish and which answers the question: What do editors want? Interviewed in September, 2019; episode published in October, 2019
Imagine you’re a character in a story you’re writing. How would you introduce yourself?
The morning after my birth, the front page of The New York Times did not greet my parents as it normally would have if they had remained immigrants in Queens, New York. The newspaper would have showcased a photo of the Pope kissing the foreheads of African children, another photo of Atlanta residents mourning the killings of their own boys and girls, and a lead article about how the Soviet Defense Minister said the West was trying to reopen the Cold War. Instead, Colombian newspapers hailed my parents with headlines in Medellín that recounted hunger strikes and plastered photographs that would prove how some now-forgotten dissident was tortured. If I was born literate and read those front pages, I would not have had high hopes for my brown-skinned life.
What's your religion?
I am not religious. I don't practice any of the Abrahamic religions. I don't practice Shintoism, nor do I worship Satan, nor do I practice any of the other Asian or African or indigenous or Ancient Roman, Greek, or Egyptian monotheistic religions, polytheistic religions, or any of the non-theistic religions. I also do not subscribe to any of the hundreds of other gods and goddesses humans have chosen to believe in for thousands and thousands of years. And, which tends to be a shock to many people for some reason, I don't need a religion or a belief in a god to find meaning in life and to respect myself, others, my communities, our environment, and other living things.
What's your favorite holiday?
Don't have one. I haven't celebrated most holidays for decades. Here are some reasons why:
The history has been whitewashed
It’s marketing to sell more needless and useless things that stunt our personal and collective growth and harms our environment
It doesn’t represent me, include me, or others like me
I do my best to not support white supremacy and other systems of oppression
I’d much rather support ideas, policies, and actions than oppressors
I am neither religious nor culturally religious
I don’t like to support or to celebrate myths that decerebrate the masses, regardless of how catchy their jingles are.
When you work in media, entertainment, and the arts, rejection is par for the course. And yet, us creatives are usually sensitive people. How do you cope, or have coped in the past, with rejection?
I welcome it. Every rejection is an opportunity from which to improve and learn if you’re willing to look at it in the eyes without turning away.
I don’t like the sensation of rejection, but I embrace it.
I learned early the power of failure. I may be in the minority here because I really enjoy losing. Not because I like to lose, but because every time I lose, I proactively search for the cracks in my game, then fill them in so the next time around I’m more solid.
I think this attitude began when I was four years old, which was when my father taught me how to play chess. He never let me win a game, like most parents do when they play with their children. He wanted me to earn it. It took me twenty years to beat him. Failure made me stronger because I saw that putting myself in uncomfortable and difficult situations where I could get rejected or where I could fail would actually get me closer to where I wanted to be. I fail often, but I also probably take more risks, and, as a result, I tend to get closer to the kind of self I want to become than if I wasn’t disposed in such a manner.
What is The Nasiona’s submission criteria? What does a submission need for you to say yes?
In terms of submissions criteria, it should to be aligned with who we are, what we’re about, and with our submission guidelines.
Move us. Make me feel what it means to be human, which includes our blemishes and acne and perverted thoughts. For us to say yes usually means that you’ve placed us in a situation and dealt with a struggle. Inform us about an extraordinary experience or let us take a glimpse into an extraordinary world, but present this in a literary way. We aren’t looking for persuasive essays or positions papers. Tell us your story through your personal experience. We tend to prioritize personal stories.
It’s also always a good idea to read through at least one of our more recent issues to get a feel for what we publish.
And, please, follow the guidelines and proofread your work. Enough submissions we receive don’t that I’m getting to the point that I think I will start rejecting pieces solely based on people not following directions or taking the time to submit polished work.
What is your long-term vision for The Nasiona?
I want it to exist beyond me and independent from me, at some point. I want to build it as a grassroots community that functions independently and autonomously from the mainstream. There are many things I want to do with it, but I’m just the first mover. I’m setting things in motion. I want the community to help me decide where it should go. It’s my social justice, journalism, and art project, but it belongs to the community. It belongs to you, and I need your help. If you want to help, contact me.
I read or heard somewhere that you no longer call yourself Colombian, even though you were born in Colombia. Can you elaborate?
It's a call to action. For example, I ask Colombians to instead of getting enraged over others misspelling our country’s name with a U instead of an O (ColUmbia vs. ColOmbia), why not redirect that rage toward getting angry at the fact that our home is named after Christopher Columbus — history’s most infamous colonizer and the person who kickstarted the kidnapping and trafficking and enslavement of humans across the Atlantic Ocean?
Have you ever stopped to wonder why our country’s revolutionary leaders in the early 1800s renamed our people after THE European colonizer after liberating us from the yoke of colonial Spain? Doesn’t sound like they were against colonizing, but, instead, against having a European group of elites control the “Colombian” elites’ resources in our country, which included enslaved humans. Imagine a people renaming their nation Hitlerland after being liberated from Nazi Germany. How fucked up is that?!?! ... About as fucked up as getting more enraged over our country’s name being misspelled and not that Colombia is named after Christopher fucking Columbus himself. It’s about time we rename ourselves and claim ourselves.
How often do you dream?
Nightly. I can't remember a night when I didn't dream. There have been numerous times when I've even been able to lucid dream, which have been some of the most amazing experiences of my life. However, since the police brutality protests began to intensify,, most nights I've dreamt about being chased or hunted in one form of another. I wish I could activate my lucid dream powers then to more readily access safe spaces. It's hard enough not feeling safe in person, now I can't even retreat into my own mind without fear of death.
What's your mantra?
I have way too many, but I'll share five:
(1) I've adopted Seneca the Younger's view of time as it relates to one's life. Essentially, people waste much of their time in meaningless pursuits. According to Seneca, nature gives people enough time to do what is really important and the individual must allot it properly. In general, time is best used by living in the present moment in pursuit of the intentional, purposeful life. In short, daily confronting my own mortality and my life ambitions have helped me to intentionally create the life I want and to create the things I want to create. Fortunately, I've never been bored in my life, which I know makes me an outlier. This situation and disposition married to my desire to constantly give birth to myself over and over again, regardless of systemic restrictions, through creation and education have provided a soil that is always ready to invent, to build, and to cultivate new worlds;
(2) the former mantra leads me to the second I've adopted, which is a call to action by the writer, poet, and visual artist Khalil Gibran to rename ourselves to claim ourselves;
(3) the words of author and poet Audre Lorde have changed me. Her claim that your silence won't protect you was a wake-up call to action. She helped me see how silence is a form of violence, which is one reason why I focus so heavily on amplifying other people's voices through my work. I don't want us to be complicit in our own oppression. Our language is a form of resistance;
(4) the words of Ijeoma Oluo: “If your anti-racism work prioritizes the ‘growth’ and ‘enlightenment’ of white America over the safety, dignity, and humanity of people of color — it’s not anti-racism work. It’s white supremacy.” We won't dismantle institutional racism and white supremacy if we center the feelings and concerns of oppressors. Same goes for dismantling the patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, atheism-phobia, ageism, and so on. For any progress to take root, we must listen to and center the survivors of such oppressive systems, not those who benefit from and perpetuate them.; and
(5) Bruce Lee's "You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
You primarily amplify personal stories of survivors of oppressive systems in The Nasiona, but you also write memoir yourself. Why do you expose yourself in such a way?
For many reasons I think other memoirists do: so I can remember my life, because my story may help others, because it will help me become a better writer, to develop an authentic voice, to work through some of my own demons, because it can lead to self-discovery and transformation, it’s meditative. I’m currently working on a collection called Don’t Give Papaya .
What do you find to be most difficult thing about writing memoir, compared to other genres?
Authenticity and revealing uncomfortable truths that may negatively impact you, your friends, and your loves ones if read by them or by the public. Not to mention the risks and consequences that come by being honest, especially if your life, your behaviors, your rituals, your beliefs, and your very existence go against those of the dominant culture. I still don’t think I’ve been able to write about things as authentically as I could because I haven’t fully crossed the barrier where I am completely ready to deal with all of the consequences, but every day I work toward getting there. I think my work will get better once I do, and the world will be a better place if we stop biting our individual and collective tongues simply so we don't make bigots uncomfortable.
For a long time, I wrote under a pseudonym because it was only through the guise of anonymity that I felt I could fully become the writer I wanted to be. It’s a constant struggle. In other genres, I can play make-believe. I can hide myself in fiction. There’s no real courage in that. In traditional news reporting, you don’t need as much courage to report what happened to someone or something else versus sharing your own vulnerabilities and bones and blood. It’s when you include yourself as yourself in the writing that can create a moment of paralysis. It’s when something is at stake that writing becomes difficult. Memoir is the most difficult kind of writing I have ever done.
What advice would you give to anyone who writes memoir — whether it’s a book or essays? What are some common memoir writing mistakes that you see?
When you stop yourself from writing because you’re not sure if you want to take the risk of X, Y, or Z while writing a memoir, it is precisely this topic — whatever makes you hesitate — that you should dissect.
It takes real courage or not giving a shit to be an extraordinary memoirist. Having an interesting situation or story isn’t enough. You have to be able to engage with the internal conflict, as uncomfortable as it is, honestly. If you can’t do that, then it just won’t hit the high note.
Mireya S. Vela is this kind of writer. She hits all the notes: she has life experience, has a unique story and perspective, is a talented writer, has a voice, is compelling, and opens her veins on the page. In the words of maestro Rodrigo De Souza from Mozart in the Jungle, “She plays with the blood!” If you can’t spill your own blood, don’t bother.
If all you care about is looking good in your story, don’t waste my time. I don’t care for propaganda. Take your story to Twitter or Facebook or wherever people only present their best selves, if that’s what you care about.
Vivian Gornick put it well: “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void.” So, what is your main situation and main story? Help the reader get out of the void.
Also, Mary Karr really drives the point home and elaborates on why this is important.
“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line — some journey toward the self-overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together, either thematically or in the way a plot would keep a novel rolling forward. Often the inner enemy dovetails with the writer’s own emotional investment in the work at hand. Why is she driven to tell the tale? Usually it’s to go back and recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity.”
“Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any? A writer sets personal reasons for the text at hand, and her struggling psyche fuels the tale.”
“In almost every literary memoir I know, it’s the internal struggle providing the engine for the tale.”
Make it easy for me to invest in your story. Put your ego aside and show me your struggle. Raw honesty. Start there.
A good example is Stephen D. Gutierrez’s “I Saw It All.” No ego, all internal struggle. What a ride.
Are you an introvert or extrovert?
Introvert. I prefer to be alone. If I could, I'd spend most of my time in a sensory deprivation tank.
What's one word others tend to use to describe you?
Intense. I like to think it's because I care about my life, my work, others, and my world. I take things seriously.
Given that you're so intense, can you share with us an entertaining personal story that has nothing to do with systems of oppression?
Here's a fun personal story about being at the right place at the right time:
I was listening to a Colombian music playlist just now and the song "Champeta Rosa" by Adriana Lucía came on. You have to understand, I not only really like this song but love her music. She's one of the few female vallenato singers and she's amazing.
In 2009, I was living in Bogotá, Colombia. I had received a research fellowship and attended la Universidad de los Andes for a few months to conduct research for graduate school research papers I was writing. I lived alone downtown in La Candelaria neighborhood and worked from home when I wasn't at the library, so I had a lot of time to listen to the radio. I fell for Adriana Lucía's music that year. All I knew was her voice. I had never seen a photo of her, so I had no idea what she looked like.
One night, I went out with some friends to a restaurant owned by the brother of Carlos Vives (a Colombian music icon). The restaurant was special in that not only was the food great but at a certain time in the evening they would remove the tables and the entire place would turn into a dance floor. There was a stage in the front and the live vallenato music by the house band was always amazing.
Being at the capital and this being the type of restaurant it was, it wasn't unusual to have celebrities there. Carlos Vives's brother was the MC that night and he greeted a soap opera actress sitting in the balcony. Everyone was excited. Then, he greeted a Colombian singer and invited him to go on stage to sing a few songs, which he did. The crowd loved it.
At this point, dinner was over, the tables were cleared, and the dance floor was hopping. If you don't know, Colombia has a very rich dancing culture. It was wonderful to be back in this atmosphere. I love dancing. My group danced together and then we started dancing with the people who had earlier sat at the table next to us. It was so much fun. I danced with this one woman from the other table for a while, though we never exchanged names.
Then, the MC went back on stage and said that he was just notified that Adriana Lucía was also in attendance. I was so excited since I had been listening to her music nonstop during my time there and knew all the words to a few of her songs. The MC then asked if she would like to come up to sing a couple of songs, and everyone, including myself, looked around, over our shoulders, wondering where she was standing and if she would honor us with her voice and performance on stage.
I was getting even more excited as people started to cheer. I looked over my left shoulder wondering where she was walking from, as it sounded like she had accepted the invitation.
I turned to my right about to ask the woman I was dancing with if she could see where Adriana Lucía was. But, as I turned, I couldn't find her anymore. I thought, "What a horrible time for her to go to the restroom. She's going to miss Adriana Lucía!"
And just as I finished this thought, I see Adriana Lucía walk on stage. The crowd went crazy for her. Me included! I sang along to every song she sang.
I couldn't believe it. I just saw Adriana Lucía perform live!
When Adriana Lucía finished her impromptu set, the MC thanked her and so did the crowd. Then, she began to walk back to her group. As this was happening, my dance partner returned.
I said to her, "You have a really nice voice."
Adriana Lucía, "Thank you."
The house band began to play and Adriana Lucía and I continued to dance TOGETHER and with our respective groups, as we were doing earlier before the MC called her to the stage to serenade us all into a hypnotic, vallenato-induced trance.
I still regret never introducing myself.
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