I moved from Mexico City to Delft, the Netherlands in August 2016. With two suitcases full of weatherproof clothes, a heart heavy with the unknown, and a mind confused with expectations, dreams, and desires I moved ~9,200 Km away from home. To be very honest, I am not sure I was fully aware of the journey I was getting myself into at the time. I had convinced myself that this decision was purely driven by my professional ambition, but when I got onto that plane, a feeling of hope and freedom enveloped me. I felt like I had the chance to start over, to begin a new life in a place where nobody knew me, where nobody expected anything from me. I had no reputation to maintain, no records to keep up with, I could be whomever I wanted or even more, who I actually am. I did not have to be afraid or nervous every time somebody asked me something that I was used to hiding and lying about in the past. I could be Arturo, a physicist born in Mexico who happens to be bipolar and bisexual, two aspects of me that I have had a hard time accepting and a harder time communicating to others. I could just be me without any masks …but I did not.
I lived for two years in Delft, I got my MSc degree in Applied Physics and made myself another family with amazing people from all over the world for whom I will always be thankful. But for some reason I still did not feel fully free, open and happy with myself. The competitiveness and excellence of a Master program in a University such as TU Delft required a huge commitment. Working every day of the week from very early in the morning until very late in the evening, I saw students sleeping and sometimes crying in the University library. With little time to eat or sleep, coffee and cigarettes were the fuel for some of us.
I remember this one time preparing for an exam with a group of international friends. The lack of sleep and the pressure had made me very anxious. I saw them all studying and preparing as if everything was alright, but for me it was not. I told one of them that I could not take it anymore, there was just too much going on and I could not even focus on reading what I had in front of my eyes. Surprisingly, once I had shared others started to share their thoughts and feelings as well. I was not the only one feeling this way. We all talked for about an hour and it was such a relief. We all were struggling but nobody had said anything; for some reason, pretending to be okay was part of the game. That very day I realized that I was not going to be a part of it anymore. It is okay not to be okay, and it is also okay to express it.
I realized it is very common to pretend in this way. In a way it is a defense mechanism, as people do not like to feel exposed, especially with things that trigger our insecurities. We protect ourselves since experience has taught us that the response we get is often unhelpful and could even potentially cause some damage. That very day in TU Delft library, I committed myself to helping set the stage for other people to see that it only takes a little effort to break the status quo and change the dynamics and the mindset of your environment. An hour of acknowledging what we all knew was truly there was enough to help me clear my mind and address my overwhelming thoughts and emotions. It allowed me to feel more comfortable being honest with myself and helped me to see the bigger picture.
My time in Delft, spent off of the university campus where I lived, was not very different than the time I spent on campus. I was very used to making myself fit into what I thought was normal. Apparently, in those two suitcases I brought with me, I had also packed most of my fears and prejudices. I closed myself off to anything that might cause another struggle; I was only willing to deal with one at a time.
In September 2018 I moved to Barcelona to start my PhD studies at ICFO – The Institute of Photonic Sciences, the place that gave me my first trip to Europe in 2016 for a Summer School, and totally made me fall in love with the city, the atmosphere, and the culture. When starting over in Barcelona I felt very lucky in many senses, but one significant aspect was that after my experience in the Netherlands, I decided not to make the same mistakes twice. It took a short time for me to make a new group of friends with whom I tried to be honest from the start. I talked about my anxiety, my emotional ups and downs, and my frequent panic attacks; just in case anyone felt similarly and might find it useful to have someone to talk to. Being totally honest and upfront also prevented me from having to correct peoples’ assumptions regarding my sexual orientation. When I explicitly stated that I am bisexual, their reactions were surprisingly positive to me.
In 2019 I joined the student chapter at ICFO. Though we mainly organized activities with academic content in mind, with the goal of interacting with our fellow students from other research groups and cohorts, I thought that this was also a powerful opportunity to talk about other topics that we usually do not prioritize. Topics that affect both our performance and well being despite not being academic in nature. Mainly, I was interested in two particular things, mental health and LGBTQIA+ diversity and inclusion. Two topics that often are strongly related. We started making plans for activities like debates and open conversations, but all too soon the COVID pandemic changed most of our plans. After 8 weeks of strict confinement, talking about mental health started gaining more and more relevance.
In May 2020 I was allowed to go back to the lab and my office at ICFO and I noticed how the confinement had changed us. I saw people that I had not seen in a long time, and the fear and uncertainty of the situation did not let me approach them, hug them, or even talk to them. It made me think of all those new students who had joined ICFO recently, and of those for whom this was their first experience abroad. The ones who were taking this chance as an opportunity to start a new life, but due to external reasons it was almost impossible to do so. Something had to change.
Together with a friend and colleague, we put together an open conversation about diversity and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace. We started talking to colleagues, group leaders, and other people from the administration. Some of them showed a lot of interest, it being a very relevant topic that had never been openly addressed. While gathering information we found relevant studies that helped us to show some numbers to validate and make evident the importance of addressing this topic.
Although many people joined the event, some members of the community were not so convinced. Some people said that it is not a place to talk about those things, and that we have to separate professional life from personal life. I certainly do not agree since I myself have experienced the effects that rejection on a personal level have had in my professional life. It is common to hear people at work openly talking about very personal topics such as their families, their partners or their childhood; mostly experiences that tend to fit into what we unofficially defined as normal. However, others do not feel welcome to talk about themselves. Why would I, as a cisgender man, need to be brave to talk about my partner if they happen to be a man, whereas if I am dating a woman that is not only fine but also already expected and assumed?
The success and positive response of that event motivated us to keep going and partner up with more colleagues to organize a set of activities for pride month at ICFO this year. We managed to have two talks given by queer scientists. We screened a documentary followed by a panel discussion to make evident the importance of visibility of queer people in society by showing how difficult it is to talk about “non-normative” sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, we invited the ARTivist to give a workshop treating concepts and definitions to fight hate speech with education and knowledge.
For about two years I have been openly talking about those two concerns of mine, mental health and LGBTQIA+ representation in academia. During this time, I have had in mind the trade off between visibility and credibility. Though I fear my actions being misunderstood due to my personal interests and experience, I have also seen the impact that it has had, bringing awareness and helping others enjoying a safer and more comfortable place.
Be brave, be proud, and be honest to yourself.
-by Arturo Villegas