When high school senior Christian Young found out he would meet the author of Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear, he immediately started “fan-girling.”
Christian first read the book by San Antonio native and former Geekdom CEO Lorenzo Gomez as a freshman at The Centers for Applied Science & Technology’s (CAST) Science, Technology, Engineering and Math School, a Southwest Independent School District campus. He loved the book so much he read it multiple times and jumped at the chance to help adapt part of the book for the stage.
“There’s a really important message there about taking care of each other and being mindful of the stories that you tell yourself and how they affect you,” he said.
Christian, who portrays the adult Lorenzo, and other CAST Schools students performed their stage adaptation of Tafolla Toro for the first time Friday at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. They performed for ninth-graders at the five CAST Schools with the intention of advancing conversations about mental health, self-identity, and the challenges teenagers face. Gomez participated in a question-and-answer session with students after each of the three performances Friday.
Over the summer, Gomez collaborated with CAST students and theater teachers to transform a selection of the book into a play. The book tells the story of Gomez’s three years at Tafolla Middle School in West San Antonio, where he faced gang violence, bullying, and other conflicts. Each chapter ends with a letter Gomez wrote to his 12-year-old self in which he shares strategies he learned in therapy that tell young people how they can change patterns of negative thinking or “self-talk” that can prevent them from becoming successful.
For Christian, the book helped him reframe the negative stories he kept telling himself. He hopes the play resonates with other students and adults and encourages them to read Tafolla Toro — and maybe even attend therapy.
“One of the main things I took away from reading the book was the toolbox that Lorenzo mentioned a lot. His therapist gave him a lot of these tools to help deal with his anxiety and how he was feeling,” Christian said. “I was able to look at things more positively and take that negative self-talk away.”
The 17-year-old would often tell himself that he wasn’t good enough or that he was doing something wrong all the time, but Gomez’s book helped him change the narrative he was telling himself. Christian realized he was telling himself “this fictional story” about himself.
“It really helped me get a positive outlook on myself and other people,” he said.
CAST Tech junior Julian Perez, who portrays young Lorenzo in the play, said participating in the stage production helped him realize how important mental health is, especially now during the pandemic and for teenagers who have access to various social media platforms that can sometimes cause more harm than good.
“One thing I realized is that everyone is going through their own struggles, and they’re dealing with their own personal things,” Julian said. “It’s really important to be mindful of that and to treat [others] the way you would want to be treated.”
At the end of the play, some students read letters they wrote to themselves. Many wrote that they are good enough, that they shouldn’t worry what other people think, and that things do get easier.
“Dear Julian, it’s OK. You can do anything you put your mind to,” Julian said, reading his letter on stage. “You always do what you can, and that is enough. No one expects the world from you, and you shouldn’t keep believing that. Everything you will have done is enough. You are enough.”
Gomez said the first time he heard students read their letters out loud made him realize that Tafolla Toro was worth writing.
“Those letters actually are the reason I wrote it,” he said. Hearing students read their letters was “the best part of the whole performance, because that’s really when the principles cross over into the real world, and that was the intention.”
The fact that the book was published right before the pandemic, when the whole world was forced into isolation, was timely, Gomez said.
“I think it is really good for people, especially in isolation, to ask themselves ‘what are you telling yourself, and is it true?'” he said.