Can you spot the Latino in this photograph?

by SALVADOR LITVAK on May 6, 2016 in Cultura

I began to sense that lawyering was also not for me. I was more interested in creative pursuits. I filled journals with my explorations, performed at poetry readings, got into crazed situations in after-hours New York.

I actually forgot that I had registered for a corporate tax class in my third year, and realized it on the day of the exam. My roommate Dave explained corporate tax to me over breakfast.

I looked at the exam and turned red. I didn’t know a single answer. I left the building, walked around the corner and bought a beer in a Korean deli. I returned to the exam room, and popped the top. Everyone looked at me like, WTF??

I wrote what I knew, principles gleaned from corporate law, contracts, and basic tax. I got a B-minus. My pals loved that there was one guy at school who just didn’t give a sh*t and got away with it.

I did care about creating something. The poetry readings turned into performance art. I got reviews of “interesting.” It seemed unlikely to pay the bills, so I started writing a novel and accepted a job in mergers and acquisitions at Skadden Arps, the biggest, richest firm in town.

Graduation approached, and I noticed a fancy envelope in the mail pile. It was from LALSA so I was about to throw it away when its weight and texture made me curious. I found an invitation to a black tie gala at a prominent hotel.

“Nice!” I thought. I hadn’t worn my tux since college, and I could bring a date. I invited Joanne Schwartz, and we had fun dressing up.

We took our seats in a magnificent ballroom, with big centerpieces on the tables, unlimited booze, and a five-course dinner. What a score!

Joanne and I were lost in our own little world when the speeches began. A Latino judge and NYU grad talked about his struggles during every step of his illustrious career. The current president of LALSA talked about what this moment meant to her, and thanked everyone who worked so hard on the gala.

Then she called up one of our classmates to receive a gift from LALSA. He gave a moving speech about being the first person in his family to graduate from college, let alone law school.

Another classmate was called up, and she gave a speech about her parents and the sacrifices they had made so that she could enter the world as an attorney. She pledged to fight for civil rights on behalf of her people.

I noticed that the last names of the people being called up were in alphabetical order. The blood drained from my face as I grabbed the program. I turned to the list of graduating LALSA students. They were in alphabetical order too. Nearly half had been called up. My name was two spots down on the list.

In about five minutes I would be called to receive my fountain pen, and make a speech.

My mind raced. Joanne realized what was happening and turned to me in horror, asking, “Do you want to leave?”

I shook my head, “No.”

I knew this public speaking nightmare was happening for a reason. I had been hiding in plain sight for too long.

The president of LALSA said something followed by, “…Salvador Alejandro Litvak!”

Polite applause as I stood up and walked to the front of the room. I received a nice ball point pen, a little different from the others.

“I’m sorry,” the president whispered, “I didn’t realize you were one of us until this morning.”

“I understand,” I whispered back and stepped to the microphone.

“Good evening!”

“Good evening!” the crowd answered, perking up. The speeches had all been heartfelt, but they had grown a bit familiar by the time I stepped up. Perhaps mine would be different. The performance artist in me enjoyed the expectancy, and I let it hang for a beat.

“Classmates, I have been sitting here, listening to you speak, and I’m profoundly moved by your accomplishments, as well as those of your families in helping you reach this moment.”

They liked that.

“My path here has been a bit different. I was born in Santiago de Chile.”

I said it with a proper accent.

“I came to this country when I was five, and I wanted to fit in. As a Chilean Jew, I realized could pass for a white bread American as soon as I could learn to speak English without an accent, so I learned fast.”

The room was now so quiet, you could hear a single glass being lowered to the table after someone took a drink. I realized the waiters and busboys were listening too.

“The only thing holding me back was my name, Salvador. When I moved to a new town in third grade, I told the teachers to call me Alex, the American version of my middle name Alejandro. I started feeling guilty about it almost as soon as I changed it. I knew I was a coward, but I wanted to fit in.”

People were nodding at me, getting it. A few had tears in their eyes. Joanne was in shock. She didn’t know any of this.

“Year after year, I meant to change my name back, and chickened out. It happened again in college, and again in law school. The folks who put this amazing event together didn’t even know I’d be here because I never went to a LALSA meeting or event before tonight. And I didn’t realize I’d be making this speech until five minutes ago.”

“Whoa,” someone said.

“My friends, I now make a solemn oath before you. As God is my witness, when I start this fall as a first year associate at Skadden Arps, the name on my door will be Salvador Litvak. That’s who I am, and that’s the name I’m going by from this moment on!”

The room erupted. The standing ovation continued during the whole walk back to Joanne’s side, and increased when she gave me a hug. I felt a little bad when the next speaker began by asking, “Oh man, how do you follow that?”

I’ve been Salvador ever since.

litvakh

Salvador Litvak shares a daily bit of Jewish wisdom on Facebook as the Accidental Talmudist. This essay original appeared in HEVRIA. Check out Livak’s Accidental Talmudist website for more.

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