Like many siblings, Juan Carlos and Antonio know each other well. Antonio can tell you that 29-year-old Juan Carlos loves to eat at Big Mouth on 24th Street, and Juan Carlos can easily name the horror films, such as “Paranormal Activity,” that captivate 15-year-old Antonio.
But Juan Carlos Lopez and Antonio Rivas are not blood siblings. Three years ago, they were paired up through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that provides role models to youth.
Antonio, who is Salvadoran-Mexican, and Juan Carlos, who is Ecuadoran, have been a success in their match, and the fact that both are Latino may have something to do with it.
The program has been searching for more matches like theirs because there is a great need for Latino volunteers — most especially male ones — to mentor Latino youth.
“Most of our [mentees] are Latinos partnered up with people from different ethnicities,” said Erica Argueta, the Hispanic Partnership Coordinator of the organization. While cross-cultural matches can be successful when based on similar interests, “It’s proven that [pairs] from the same background will last longer because the mentors can communicate with the family,” Argueta said.
Not speaking the same language can lead to short-lived matches or cause the child to serve as a translator, she said.
But a common language or simply being Latino cannot alone account for the strong bond between matches like Antonio and Juan Carlos.
“Skin color is often taken as a proxy for cultural similarity,” said Frank Worrell, a professor of cognition and development at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. “Having the same skin color does help, that’s sometimes true, but it’s not an absolute.”
As of November, 38 percent of the youth enrolled in the program were Latino, but only 13 percent of adult volunteers were Latino.
Latino mentors and mentees share certain cultural values, wrote Argueta in a statement to Mission Loc@l.
Such is the case with Juan Carlos and Antonio.
“My background helped,” said Juan Carlos. One of the things they both could relate to: “Latin moms that overfeed and are vigilant.”
Juan Carlos believes that the approval of Antonio’s family, in part due to his ethnicity, has also been a major factor.
“Antonio thought, ‘OK, my family approves of this guy. He’s OK.’”
An immigrant history helped strengthen the bond between Juan Carlos and Antonio’s mom. Like Antonio’s family, Juan Carlos immigrated when he was seven years old.
“I told her about the jobs my parents had. It paralleled her life, her struggles,” Juan Carlos said.
Worrell also noted the importance of cultural similarity when it comes to gaining trust from the young person’s family.
“For a family to let their kid go out with another person, there has to be a level of trust. A family might be more likely to trust a mentor from the same cultural background.”
“Their family is so welcoming and receptive. We only speak in Spanish to each other, and we share meals together,” said Juan Carlos.
Juan Carlos is a big fan of Antonio’s mom’s cooking.
“He gets recipes,” said Antonio.
“Tonio’s mom makes this amazing salsa. I asked her to teach me how to make it,” said Juan Carlos.
Shared culinary affinities aside, Juan Carlos has become part of Antonio’s family. He notices when Antonio’s niece loses weight. He goes to family parties, including quinceaneras, and to barbecues at Antonio’s sister’s house.
The relationship also works because the two have grown up in similar U.S. communities.
Juan Carlos grew up in East Los Angeles, a neighborhood much like the Mission District.
“Antonio’s in high school, around boys doing gang-related activity,” said Juan Carlos. “Having gone through that in L.A., with people arrested, shot, killed, [I know] it’s a difficult time.”
In the Mission, Big Brothers Big Sisters currently serves nine children. Seven are Latino, but not all are matched with Latino mentors.
Male Mentors Needed
While the lack of Latino mentors is stark, even more so is the need for male Latino mentors.
Out of all the Latino youth waiting to be matched, 174 are boys, but there are only nine Latino male mentors willing to volunteer.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters especially wants to recruit Hispanic men as ‘Bigs.’ Boys need everyday role models more than ever,” wrote Argueta. “They need the influence of men who are familiar with the challenges of growing up in today’s society, and with whom they share a heritage.”
Antonio originally joined the program because his grandmother — his primary caretaker, whom he calls “mom” — felt he didn’t have many positive male influences in his life.
Juan Carlos — who is in his last semester of a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2004 and spent four years working in clinical research — has filled that void.
For youth from minority groups, “not many [role models] are around to provide something to aspire to,” said Worrell. “To the extent that [the role model] has achieved and been successful, the [mentee] can say, ‘This person did that. So can I.’”
Friends and a Sunday Afternoon Outing
One of the ways Juan Carlos knows he’s been accepted into Antonio’s life is Antonio’s willingness to introduce him to his friends.
“When he asked me to hang out with his friends, I thought, ‘Cool.’ It broke down barriers,” said Juan Carlos.
On a Sunday afternoon outing, one of Antonio’s good friends, Miguel, joins them. In fact, Miguel Flores goes on nearly every outing with the two and has become Juan Carlos’ little brother as well, though not officially through the program.
Miguel, who is Mexican, lives in the same Mission apartment complex as Antonio. He is also 15.
The three skateboard and ride bikes along the closed roads inside Golden Gate Park against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset on a warm November day.
They pull each other along, wave at tour buses and stop to comment on the sky’s changing colors.
With long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail, Antonio explains why he gets along with Juan Carlos so well.
“He’s fun and active,” Antonio says as he turns a corner on his trick bike. Having Juan Carlos as his mentor inspires him to be a big brother volunteer when he gets older, he says.
As it gets dark, the three hop into Juan Carlos’ pickup truck to grab some food.
Miguel explains that he’s a big Giants fan. Wearing a black Giants baseball cap, black shorts and a black T-shirt that’s inside-out, he says he recently got Tim Lincecum’s autograph.
“You didn’t tell me that!” Juan Carlos says, excited for the boy but surprised he hadn’t heard the news earlier.
Then, like typical siblings, they argue over what to have for dinner.
“What do you guys want to eat?” asks Juan Carlos.
“I don’t know,” says Antonio.
“How are you going to ask me to eat and not know what you want?”
“What about hamburgers?”
“We had that last time.”
“I want you to try Thai food,” says Juan Carlos, explaining what Thai noodles are. “It’s spicy. I know you like spicy food.”
“Have you had Indian food?” he asks the boys. No. “I need to take you guys,” he says.
In the end, they agree on pizza from Deja Vu Pizza and Pasta on 16th Street.
Under the streetlight outside as they wait for their food, they talk about past outings.
They recall days at skate parks, visits to the Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium, movies at the Metreon and going on rides at theme parks. They chuckle at the mention of Miguel’s nickname, el vampiro, the vampire, given to him by one of his four brothers.
From Juan Carlos’ phone, they play We No Speak Americano, a techno song with the same beat and lyrics that play over again. As they make fun of the song’s simplicity, the three bop their heads from side to side.
At one point, when Juan Carlos goes inside the restaurant, Antonio admits that he tells Juan Carlos things he doesn’t tell other people.
“Twice this year he’s talked to me about personal things he’s been affected by. I feel privileged that he shares that with me,” Juan Carlos had said two weeks earlier. “For me, that’s worth three or four years of waiting, and then some.”
In a sense, Antonio and Juan Carlos each see their relationship as more than just mentor/mentee.
“I have two [biological] sisters and two [biological] brothers. But with JC, I have three brothers,” said Antonio.
Juan Carlos said he became a volunteer “partly for selfish reasons.” He has a big family in Los Angeles and missed having playmates around all the time.
He tries to see the boys once or twice a month. They have big plans for next spring — Juan Carlos wants to rent an RV and take the boys, along with Antonio’s family, to Los Angeles to meet his family.
His approach to his relationship with Antonio is “to just be there for him — be a friend.”
“I’m giving him things, knowledge. But I don’t have the world figured out,” he said, adding that he learns many life lessons from Antonio as well.
“The way I see it, we’re holding hands with each other while we walk for a little while.”
In the Bay Area, 311 Latino children are waiting to be matched — 48 from San Francisco, seven from the Mission District. Learn more about volunteer opportunities here.