Meg caught me crying alone in the office today. She asked me if I was ok. I told her I’ve been having a difficult time with Hilesh leaving, that I had come to the office on a Sunday to do some work and be alone. Seeing Hilesh’s empty desk reminded me that he’ll be gone so soon.
I don’t want others to be worried about me. I wanted to be alone and just continue to try and make sense of this strange feeling of loss and sadness that makes me cry every time I remember that Hilesh will be gone.
I met Hilesh the Summer of 2017, when I applied for a job at Hyde Park Art Center. If I were to get the job, I would have to report directly to Hilesh. There were three rounds of interviews, the first one was a phone interview with Hilesh. The second one was an in-person interview with Hilesh and another staff member and the third and final round was a group interview where I was asked questions by Hilesh and 4 other staff members.
I remember the last interview vividly. I felt positive about my chances of getting the job until I was asked a final and rather curious question in that last interview. One of the staff members asked:
-Staff Member: “so…is English your first language?”
-Tracy: No, it is not. Spanish is my first language.
-Staff Member: “And how do you think you’ll do if you get this job, given the fact that English is not your first language?”
-Tracy: “Well I believe that bla bla bla because of my experience as a bla bla where I’ve used my bilingual skills and bla bla….”
When the interview was over, I went to the Chester Bennington Memorial gathering in Lincoln Park. Then I went home and cried. I kept thinking about that question, about English not being my first language, about my accent and about how unqualified I must be in comparison to other candidates who are native English speakers. Who am I trying to fool? why did I answer the question the way I did?!
My answer didn’t matter because the truth is, I don’t speak English as well as others. I am not going to get this job, I just wasted my time and Hilesh’s time in interviewing me. I just cried and cried about it until I realized that what was bothering me was not how I answered the question, but the question itself.
What was this person really interested in knowing? what inspired this person to ask if English was my first language?
I found out shortly after that questions like that in an interview/work environment are illegal. That’s when my sadness turned to anger. If questions like that are illegal, why did this person get to ask me such a thing? why did no one say anything to this person when they asked?
More than 9 days had passed since the final interview and I didn’t hear a word from Hyde Park Art Center. On the 10th day after the interview, I got a call from Hilesh. I was convinced he was calling to say “Thank you for coming but you didn’t get the job” It didn’t matter to me if he was calling me to say I was being rejected, I was more interested in telling him that I had found out the question about “English not being my first language” was illegal and he had to know! he had to know because I felt like shit after being asked such a thing and I didn’t want any other future candidates at Hyde Park Art Center to feel the way I did because of questions like that.
He asked how I felt during the interview and I told him that at first I was sad but then felt upset after finding out how innappropriate the question had been. How conflicted I felt because I was sincerely excited for the position. He said that he had noticed immediately what had happened in the interview, that he had talked to the person and that he was going to be there for me as a guide, to work through things like that because he was calling to offer me the job.
Oh man!! If I could tell you how I felt after that phone call… it was like how Tonya Harding must have felt when she landed the triple axel in the 1991 Nationals. (I’ve hyperlinked the video here)
As part of me joining the team at Hyde Park Art Center, I was required to go to a three-day “Undoing Racism” training. After the training I could join the ALANA staff (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) in a monthly caucus meeting at work. When the training ended, Hilesh asked me how I felt about it. I told him one of the things I realized in the training was that if he had been a white person, offering me the job, after what had happened at my final interview, I would have had to decline. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable being in a work environment were things like what happened at my interview would be allowed and not addressed or understood from my perspective as a person of color.
Because Hilesh was going to be my boss and because he is also a person of color, I decided to accept. I believed that he would be more likely to understand if something like what happened during my last interview were to ever happen again. I knew that Hlesh being a person of color was not a guarantee that he would understand or “have my back” but I did believe that he would be more likely to understand, if I were to ever encounter any sort of racist behavior while at work. So I took a risk, and accepted.
I know I was probably the candidate with the least amount of experience and I wanted to make the team proud. I wanted them to realize that Hilesh had made a good decision in hiring me. I wanted to make Hilesh proud, so I just worked as hard as I could during my first year at Hyde Park Art Center.
As I grieve the loss of Hilesh as a boss, I’ts tempting to be sad and have that lingering shadow of sadness overpower my feelings of gratitude for Hilesh.
Here’s a quote that reflects this sentiment. It’s from one of my favorite books, “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“So don't be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don't know what work they areaccomplishing within you?”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I have worked with Hilesh for a year and two months. During that time I learned as much as I could from him. I learned for example to be less afraid to ask for what I need, to be more conscious about how hard I am on myself, to stop saying “I’m sorry” and to ask for time off when I need it. To take a mental health day even if I feel guilty about it and to realize that I don’t have to do everything myself, that it’s ok to ask for help.
I came back from Seattle a few weeks ago after attending a conference. Hilesh told me he wanted to talk to me. My first thought was “oh my god…am I in trouble?”
But he said he was leaving and part of me was waiting for him to say “I’m joking” but he didn’t say anything. I was heartbroken and everything has been gray since then. I immediately went into grieving mode, only this time, the kind of grief I am experiencing is nothing like I’ve been through before. Hilesh is not dying, he is not leaving the city, he is not going to cut me off and never talk to me again (at least I hope not!). He is just not going to be my boss anymore. It should make sense then, to accept that he’s moving on, wish him well in his new job and to keep on with my work like normal.
Through every adversity I’ve been through, I’ve done my best to be graceful and kind. But grief can be so intense that it can feel too overwhelming to be graceful and kind. Right now all I want to do is honor how I feel. Cry if I want to cry, be alone if I want to be alone and do anything I can to heal as soon as possible. This is why I’m here sharing this with you. You have no idea how writing has helped me heal. I was talking to my friend Hayat earlier today- she said something about shifting the focus entirely on feeling grateful, and to think that not very many people get to know or work with a boss like Hilesh.
I don’t know how long it will be until I have a similar working relationship with another manager or boss. Someone who didn’t even behave like a stereotypical boss (tyrant, micro managing, evil, etc.) but more like a mentor. A mentor who can speak Spanish and who has read every book on the planet (or so it seems) and happens to know the music of one of my favorite Mexican bands. Someone who is also a person of color and an immigrant, like me. Hilesh has the ability to make anybody feel special and heard. I believe that when he told me that he was going to be there as a guide to work through things like undoing racism in the workplace, he meant it because he, like the rest of the staff, care about Hyde Park Art Center.
I was just not really prepared to lose a big support and role model I found in him so soon. So yeah, its tough becauseI feel like I will have to start from zero again. It’s a big loss for Hyde Park Art Center and for our ALANA staff. At work we divide into two groups (Caucasian + ALANA) to have our undoing racism caucus meetings. We talk about different issues pertaining to racial equity + undoing racism topics and oh man…these meetings are going to feel so different without Hilesh!
Right now, I have so many questions and concerns:
-what if my next boss is a tyrant?
-what if I don’t like them? what if they don’t like me?
-will they trust me the way Hilesh trusted me?
-Will they understand that my mom is the only family I have and that she will never be allowed to enter the U.S.? That this is why I need to travel to Mexico often to see her? will they hold that against me?
-Will they be willing to be patient as I grow in my role? or will they be more into pressuring me because I am not growing fast enough?
A year from now, I hope to look back at this time in my life and feel that it helped me grow more comfortable when dealing with grief. I hope it will have helped me turn this sadness into into a positive resolution.
Thank you Hilesh, for believing in me. I will always be grateful that you were my first boss, and that you were always someone I admired, looked up to and someone I respect highly.
Thank you for everything!