Sara Ramirez
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How Comedy Helped Harvey Guillén Find His Tribe

‘What We Do In the Shadows’s Harvey Guillén writes how an improv class as a child changed his life and helped him find his tribe.

When I was 6 years old, I lived in Santa Ana, California with my single-parent mother. While my mom worked two fulltime jobs so we could afford our small apartment and make ends meet, I found solace in television. But one moment in particular changed my life forever...

On the last day of Christmas break, Annie (the 1982 version) was playing on TV. I remember watching the children running around singing and dancing, having the time of their lives. It was in that moment where everything finally made sense. I looked over at my mother and said, “Mom, I want to be that. I want to be an orphan!”

She gave me a funny look and said in Spanish, “Que? Estas loco? (Are you crazy?)” before glancing at the TV and saying, “Oh, son actors! (They’re actors!)”

“Well, that’s what I want to be,” I replied. “I wanna be an actor.”

“No mijo, es para niños ricos,” she said, explaining, “That’s for rich kids.” Those kids had training — training we didn’t have the money for. I learned in that moment to place my dream on hold, but a couple weeks later something wonderful happened.

‘What We Do In the Shadows’s Harvey Guillén writes how an improv class as a child changed his life and helped him find his tribe.

A fellow thespian at school informed me the community center was doing a kids’ improv class for only $12.50. My friend, who may or may not have himself been a niño ricos, had asked her parents about it and they gave her a $20 bill. I went home and asked my mom for a $20 bill, but she shook her head, saying, “No mijo. No ay dinero para eso.”

I understood: There was no money for that. After all, that money could buy us food or launder our clothes. It hurt me knowing that she saw the disappointment on my face. I asked, “Well, if I can make the money myself, can I take the class?”

“Mijo,” she said, “if you can make your own way, you can do anything.”

For a brief moment, I felt optimistic. Then I realized: What kind of job would hire a 6-year-old? Later that week, my mom and I were walking home from school when I saw a man rummaging through a trash can. “What’s he doing?” I asked her.

She replied, “Oh, bende los botes.”

“Wait, he sells the bottles? You can make money from trash?” I asked. She nodded.

‘What We Do In the Shadows’s Harvey Guillén writes how an improv class as a child changed his life and helped him find his tribe.

That was all the confirmation I needed. When we arrived home, I ran straight into the closet and grabbed a wire hanger. I unhinged it to make it a long skinny metal finger. For nearly two weeks, I was unstoppable. It became my mission to collect as many bottles as I could, and I was totally fearless in doing it. I crashed quinceañeras and all sorts of gatherings. I was on fire!

Finally, I went to the local Food 4 Less dragging huge garbage bags of bottles behind me. They weighed all my bags of recyclables and gave me $6.42.

All that fucking work for $6.42? It was so disheartening. Still, I had my heart set on that improv class so I took to the parks and parties once more and in another two weeks, I earned the remaining balance — the exact amount I needed to register for the class.

The class changed my life. I remember like it was yesterday. The teacher would shout out an animal and the kids pretended to be a lion, a tiger, a bear — you know, all the cliché actor games and exercises. I could hear people enjoying my renditions of each animal, not laughing at me but laughing with me. I knew this was where I belonged. I had found my tribe.

‘What We Do In the Shadows’s Harvey Guillén writes how an improv class as a child changed his life and helped him find his tribe.

When the class was over, I had adrenaline I’d never experienced before. I spent nearly a month collecting recyclables to pay for this hour-and-a-half class. I asked myself right then and there, Do I want to do that again for another class? The answer was yes. Yes, I did.

I collected cans for years, using that money toward classes and training, all before I was 10 years old. I did it to find my community. In hindsight, I realize I was also searching for my own identity. This felt right, and if the only way of getting there was by fishing for bottles and cans, so be it.

I learned a big lesson. There’s no shame in getting a little dirty to make your dreams come true. It’s like my Ama said: “If you can make your own way, you can do anything.” @harveyguillen

This story is part of Out's 2021 Pride Issue, which is on newsstands on now! To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. 

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