Becoming a New Man
At 20, Walter Zeron is not just trying to be a man. Already a father of two, he is working hard at becoming a new man.
He is the first to admit he has made some big mistakes. He made his girlfriend Sarah Denton pregnant before they finished high school. He dropped out of school.
But now he is trying to do right.
He had worked until 10 p.m. the night before at Safeway, where he is a clerk.
Then he was up until 1 a.m. studying the Bible and preparing for a counseling session with his pastor today – a Friday. And he had the day off, at least until 11 p.m., when he would go back to work on the graveyard shift.
He would have liked to sleep late but he was up bleary-eyed at 8 a.m., helping Sarah get their two children ready to spend the morning with Sarah’s mom. Sarah had a trial exam at the Carson City Beauty Academy. She has been going there for a year studying for her state cosmetology license so she can work in her aunt’s beauty salon. In a week, she would take her final test for the license. This was her last chance to practice. Her sister would be her model for both the trial exam and her final test.
Sarah was already made up and coiffed. She looked sharp even as she nursed their 9e-week-old baby boy, Sebastian, in the living room of their small two-bedroom apartment. Sarah could not wait to start working. There were presents under the Christmas tree and cheerful family photos on the walls.
But the chair Sarah sat in came from her childhood room and they were still paying for some of the other furniture.
Olivia toddled into the living room looking even more dazed than Walter.
Although the baby slept through the night, Olivia, who turns 2 on Dec. 19, was up for a few hours last night.
“She needs to get dressed,” Sarah said to Walter. “And brush her hair.”
“Let’s go,” said Walter. He trundled off with baby wipes in one hand, his
other hand guiding Olivia’s curly head back down the hall to the kids’ room.
When Olivia came back she was dressed and munching on cereal from a plastic bag.
Then Sarah’s mom, Cathy, and her sister, Jaime, arrived. In a whirl, the kids were bundled up and out the door with their grandmother. And Sarah and Jaime went off to the beauty academy, leaving Walter at home to spend the morning getting ready to meet with his pastor.
The beauty academy is a large well-lit storefront filled with rows and rows of barber chairs, hair dryers, mirrors and young women working toward entry-level jobs, supplying one of life’s basic necessities, a little beauty to soften the rough edges. The smell of nail polish remover and other scents was dizzying.
Sarah worked quickly with a quiet competence. She brought out a plastic bag filled with clean combs and scissors and lined up her lotions. Then she gave her sister a manicure and a facial. If she seemed a bit removed and above it all, it was because she was that way in high school too, Sarah said about herself. And now she was a mom trying to keep her little world under control.
Still, she lip-synced along to a pop song on the radio as she applied coloring to her sister’s hair.
“Ow!” Jaime cried.
“It’s the gloves,” Sarah apologized.
“And you better not yell when I take the test,” she said as she swatted her sister’s head playfully.
An instructor came by and inspected Sarah’s work with a critical eye. She asked Sarah to explain what she had done. Then she nodded. Sarah would pass if she did this well in the real test.
Around noon Sarah stopped back by the apartment. She asked Walter for money for coffee. Then she went off Christmas shopping with her mom and the kids. Walter had showered and dressed in a gray turtleneck, baggy blue jeans and black sneakers. His short spiky hair, black with bleached blond ends, was neat, if a bit punky. His eyes are so dark brown they are almost black.
Walter sat at the kitchen table reading a Bible that his mother-in-law had given him, inscribed with his name, Walter Joseph Zeron. He was studying for his weekly counseling meeting at Grace Community Church in Gardnerville.
For a while Sarah and Walter had gone together, but Walter really needed it more so he went alone now. Walter hopes to be baptized in the new year and to marry Sarah in the church. But he knew that he had to get right with the Lord and her family and himself first. So he was studying how to become a new man.
“The rebirth of a man is not flesh by flesh like a natural birth,” he reflected. “Spirit gives birth to spirit. So the sinner’s need is not a new birth but rebirth, not the reformation of his old life but the formation of a new life. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Walter’s mother brought him to Carson City from Nicaragua when he was 4 years old. Nicaragua was torn by civil war. They came to join Walter’s father already here. There are photographs on the apartment walls of both Walter’s and Sarah’s families, of Nicaragua and Carson City, and happy carefree dates in high school, when Walter didn’t care about anything except cars and Sarah.
Walter met Sarah on the last day of his freshman year in high school. They have been together ever since except for temporary breakups in high school.
Then in their senior year, Sarah became pregnant with Olivia. She took night classes to finish high school. Walter dropped out to work full time. They both still lived with their parents until Sarah became pregnant again early this year with Sebastian. They moved in to the apartment together in the spring. Still, Walter had a hard time settling down.
“There were some times I wasn’t the best dad,” he said. “I was still going out with my friends. I loved Sarah. But I didn’t put her first. A year ago, I was like, I have two kids, I’ve got to marry her. I was thinking it was about money or child support. Then Sarah said she thought it was a drag for me. And I knew she was right. That was the way I was thinking. Now I think it’s the right thing to do because I want to.
“I love her,” he said, gazing up at the pictures of them together in high school. “But in a different way now. It’s forever. It’s so funny to look back at how serious we were in high school. This is serious now.
“I’m not thinking I could be out with my friends now,” he said. “I used to be thinking I was missing out. I’m not missing anything. I like being here and playing with Olivia.”
Walter wants to teach his children to speak Spanish and take them to visit Nicaragua some day. He wants them to grow up knowing they are Nicaraguan-American and being proud of it.
Walter has a naturally gentle demeanor. But he carries a lot of pain and anger inside. And it showed through when he talked about his family and how Latinos are sometimes treated.
“The worst is people who say what part of Mexico is Nicaragua,” he said. “That makes me mad. I’m proud to be Nicaraguan. I’m 100 percent. But I’m America too. I’m Nicaraguan-American.”
Some of that anger comes from his father, who moved back to Nicaragua. “It must have been hard for him,” said Walter. “He didn’t speak hardly any English.”
Walter said his dad taught him that he should respect only people who respect him. And like a lot of young Latinos, Walter too often doesn’t get the basic respect that he feels everybody deserves. “I don’t think I’m ever at peace because of what’s happened to me in my life,” he said.
But Carson City is home for Walter. And the small changes that he has seen growing up here make him smile. “There are a lot more Latinos here,” he said.
“You can tell by the little things, restaurants and things like that. But some people have a problem with that. They don’t want to see more of us.”
Walter has gotten used to overhearing racial slurs directed at Hispanics. He has become used to being pulled over by the police. He’s become used to being accused of being in a gang.
“We’re so used to it, it’s normal,” he said. “They don’t ask you. They tell you, ‘You’re in a gang.’ I won’t get pulled over if I’m with Sarah. But if I’m with my friends I’ve been pulled over so many times I got rid of my old car.”
The old car was a 1983 Cougar that he had customized low-rider style with special rims and tinted windows. His new car, a 1996 Honda Civic, “is more white,” he said, although it has been lowered too and has custom rims and the name of Walter’s car club, Intrigue, emblazoned on the windows front and back.
Like a lot of young men, Walter expresses his anger through the music he listens to. On the way to the church in Carson Valley, he listened to his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine. “They’re the teachers that taught me to fight me,” the lead singer sang.
“When your teachers are racist,” Walter said, “they teach you that you’re bad and to fight yourself.”
“I won’t do what you tell me,” the singer screamed on another song.
“That’s the way I feel sometimes,” said Walter. “You get so tired of it.”
Walter spent almost an hour talking with his pastor, Brian Borgman. Walter said it was the best meeting they had ever had. As usual, it wasn’t so much about worldly things as it was about his spiritual questions. But often the two were wound together tightly.
On the way back to Carson City, Walter didn’t put Rage Against the Machine back on the tape player. He drove in silence. He didn’t want to be seen as angry and complaining. He talked about the changes he is trying to make in his life.
“To be born again is something you pray to God about,” he said. “Have mercy on me. Change my heart. That is a moment. But as far as repentance and faith that’s something you go into. You repent for your sins and trust in God.”
The night before while studying the Bible, Walter had felt his heart change.
He had been working on it. So he was ready. Still, he wasn’t ready to jump up and proclaim himself changed.
“I have to prove myself,” he said.
He realized, for instance, that he still idolized cars. But he was quick to add that he wasn’t doing anything wrong by being in the car club, as long as it didn’t keep him from more important things. “My car club means something,” he said, “but it’s not that important. My family is. And my personal relationship with God is most important.”
On the way home, Walter saw his friend Rudy Castillo, the president of the Intrigue car club, stopped at a gas station. Walter pulled in beside Rudy’s truck. The club was supposed to be getting new sweatshirts today, embroidered with their names and the Intrigue logo.
“Whaddup?” Rudy said. “Hey, I got those sweatshirts.”
“Let’s go get ’em,” said Walter.
“I’ve got to drop off these groceries,” said Rudy.
Walter followed Rudy to his apartment.
Walter and Rudy have been friends since they met at Carson Middle School. In Rudy’s apartment a picture of their class taken in front of the school on a sunny day hangs across from a blown-up photo of Rudy’s prize truck – a ’60 Ford pickup painted burgundy with gold trim, custom rims, and hydraulics that can make the truck buck.
Below the picture is a table full of trophies and ribbons from car shows. The car club meets once a week. And in the summer they travel to shows around Northern Nevada and California.
“It’s something to keep us out of trouble,” said Rudy. “It’s not a gang.”
“We don’t want to be a gang,” said Walter. “We’re just a car club like the Karson Kruzers. Nobody talks bad about them.”
They drove together to a nearby shop to check on the sweatshirts. They spoke Spanish with the seamstress who was embroidering the club logo on the shirts.
Only a few were finished. The rest would be ready by closing time.
“What do you think?” asked Rudy.
“It’s perfect,” said Walter.
Rudy said he would pick up the sweatshirts and bring them by Walter’s apartment. They could call the others guys in the club and tell them to come over.
Sarah had planned a quiet dinner with their friends, Liz and Jon Zuniga. Now it was turning into a party and they had things to celebrate. Sarah had passed her exam. Walter was on the road to some important changes in his life. And he still had his friends. That was important.
Liz and Jon showed up early with their baby Elyssa, who was the first baby born in Carson City this year. They sat at the small kitchen table while Olivia ate yogurt with her fingers and ignored Sarah’s pleas to use a spoon.
Walter and Jon put their babies to bed. And the young parents talked about what most young parents talk about: their kids, how much they weighed when they were born, how much weight they had gained. Most of their friends had kids now. It wasn’t planned, they agreed. But you couldn’t call a child a mistake, either.
A Spanish episode of Sesame Street blared from the television. And soon Olivia was swaying to salsa music with Celia Cruz and Elmo.
A baby cried behind a closed door. “Who’s that?” asked Walter.
“That’s yours,” Jon said after putting his ear to the door.
Walter brought Sebastian back out. Like his father, he wasn’t quite ready for the party to end yet.
As other friends from the car club showed up they shook hands with a quick grasp of their fingers and then banged their fists together softly. Then the young men gravitated to the children. They cooed at Sebastian and asked Olivia if they could dance with her.
Rudy showed up with the sweatshirts and they all put them on. The guys talked about a meeting the next day with another car club. It was just going to be a friendly meeting, said Rudy. There were some rumors flying around that they wanted to clear up. And there would be no challenges, where the clubs bring cars to compete in showing off their paint jobs and custom work and jumping hydraulics.
It was winter anyway. They had their best cars in storage. Or they were working on them, getting ready for summer shows.
Then the club posed for a picture with their new sweatshirts.
“They’re always looking hard,” said Liz. “They should smile.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “Smile!” they said, and the young men did.
Around 8 p.m. Walter reminded his friends that he had to work that night. He gently ushered them to the door. Sarah locked the door behind them. She and Liz and Jon talked for a while.
Walter tried to get a little sleep. But he kept thinking about what it would take to become a new man. And before long it was time to go to work in the dark again.