By Jesús Sánchez Meleán | Translation by Eva Reinoso Tejada
Like “Un Buen Hijo de P …” (A Good Son of …) is how Ismael Cala, journalist and T.V show host, defines himself. And that is the title of his new book that will be published soon. “But the ‘P’ stands for the passion, patience and perseverance that defines me,” he said. Cala hosts the show with the biggest rating in CNN en Español. His first book “The power of listening,” has become in a bestseller in Latin America and the U.S; his opinion columns are published in numerous Spanish speaking newspapers. But he also tell us he struggled to overcome self-esteem issues. “I felt ashamed of having relatives with mental illnesses.” Now, Cala dedicates part of his time to help the mentally ill and their families understand the nature of these ailments.
A successful Latino
What do you recommend Latino youth should do to succeed in the United States?
Ismael Cala: I believe the most important thing is to keep our Hispanic identity; and be proud of where we come from. But we must look forward to the future; not longing for what we left behind. I had to insert myself in the place I chose to live; I had to learn new habits, adapt and assimilate.
What else did you have to get used to?
IC: It took me about four months to learn my way around. I learned that in this culture, you cannot show up at someone’s house without calling first and it is bad manners to call someone after 7pm. Once, I touched the hand of a classmate who was form the Middle East. I wanted to borrow her eraser. She told me “Only my husband can touch me.” I didn’t like it at the beginning, but later I learned she was from a totally different culture. You have to learn to deal with diversity.
What would you do different if you did it all over again?
IC: I would go faster at noticing cultural differences and the need to blend-in in my new environment. It took me four months to learn my way around. I think that the feeling of longing for what I left behind, could have been avoided by looking towards the future. I would tell myself over and over again: “The best is yet to come.”
Why are you supporting the mental health cause?
IC: This is my main cause. In my show, my book and my conferences, I speak openly about mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia. This is the diagnosis my father lived with, one of my two brothers lives with; and that what my grandfather possibly had, who committed suicide when I was 4 years old. My aunt Aracely, my father’s sister, took her own life when I was 19 years old. I lived and felt her suicide deeply because we were very close.
How did your family’s mental issues affect you?
IC: People can be cruel. I would be called “the son of the crazy man”, or my family was named “the hanged family.” That is how they referred to my relatives. Also, my father was missing an arm since he was 8 years old, so he was also called “manco” (one-handed). I grew up with a very fragile self-esteem. I had serious identity issues; and it took me a long time to solidify my inner strength.
How did you overcome those feelings?
IC: I was always concerned. That made me want to strengthen my mind. I also remember having a feeling of impotence. When you had close relative with the illness, you know you cannot get into their minds. You can’t help them see things in a different way.
Did you talk about I with your friends in Cuba?
IC: In Cuba, I only talked about it with a few trusted people; not everyone. When I lived in Canada I began to speak about it a bit more.
How did your view change since you live in the United States?
IC: It was just about 5 years ago that I liberated myself from those mental chains that imprisoned me for a long time and prevented me from chasing my dreams. I felt limited. I was afraid of inheriting the illness; or any other related ailment.
What are you doing to help the mentally ill?
IC: I learn about the topic, to be an activist who helps dissipate the myths. I believe the only way to defeat stigma is by making people understand the fact that millions of people suffer these conditions. People must know that these illnesses are not just mental, like their name says, they have a physiological base; due to problems with the chemistry in the brain. These illnesses are caused by brain biochemistry imbalances.
What is your recommendation to those who have a member of their family who is mentally ill?
IC: Many people are ashamed to say they have a bipolar sister; or a schizophrenic cousin; or that their mother suffers from severe depression. You have to talk about it, the same way you talk about the flu. People need to educate themselves and learn how to live the best way possible, given the circumstances.
The daily grind
What do you like to eat?
IC: I try to eat healthy. I love hummus, Mediterranean food and pasta. I also enjoy the Cuban food my mother prepares: black beans with rice, grilled chicken and “ropa vieja” (Cuban shredded beef).
What do you like to cook?
IC: I have to be honest: I don’t cook. I would love to learn.
What type of physical activity do you enjoy?
IC: I have a personal trainer that makes me work hard. I try to go to the gym every day or go outside and run.
What is your favorite music?
IC: I have a Snatam Kaur CD in my car. I listen to it to relax. But I like all kinds of music. From classical, to Celine Dion, Carlos Vives and Gente de Zona.
How is your love life?
IC: Wonderful. I’ve been happily in love for the past four years. This is the record on my relationships, and it will be for a long time. But I learned a wise phrase from Jose Martí: “There are things that need to remain hidden in order to succeed at them.” I apply that to my private life.