Answering Life’s Great Question with Walter Thompson-Hernández

Gabe Zaldivar

Walter Thompson-Hernández is a storyteller.

The funny thing about the great storytellers is before they write, before they open their mouth to take you to a distant location and meet its people, they listen.

The world’s greatest stories all began because someone was willing to do the simple but profound act of listening.

“I was like, this is it; this is exactly what I want to do,” Thompson-Hernández tells En Fuego. “I want to live in different places in the world and ask more questions about their lives.”

He is referring to the feeling he got from having his very first feature commissioned, a deep dive into the multiracial community in Ghent, Belgium.

Getting to Ghent was a winding road that started in Los Angeles.

Thompson-Hernández is in the midst of pivoting to a new form of storytelling, getting more into producing and directing, leaving behind the non-fiction world of journalism while continuing his passion for creating compelling narratives.

He’s written for the New York Times, launched a love-letter to Los Angeles in the form of a podcast series entitled “California Love” and authored “The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America's Urban Heartland,” which earned the 2019 distinction of the Whiting Creative Non-Fiction Award.

He has a wonderful way of bringing a voice to his stories. He’s an interested bystander discovering pelota mixteca, an indigenous ball game that has its origins in Oaxaca, Mexico, a curious Latino learning more about the people that make up the Chicano movement in Japan.

His questions make the subjects more accessible. His stories so often present heart and intrigue with what could so easily be replaced by insipid objectivity from another writer.

Ellie

Thompson-Hernández grew up around books. A fan of magical surrealism and fantasy, he earned not just an affection for books at a young age but also quickly discovered the literal power that comes from them.

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Photo Credit: Walter Thompson-Hernández

He was raised in Huntington Park by a single mother who immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico when she was 14 years old. After the Los Angeles riots, she moved the two of them to the westside of L.A., settling in Venice. While geographically close to family back in the eastside of the city, they were a world away.

“Everything for me begins and ends with my mom,” Thompson-Hernández said in the “California Love” episode “Ellie,” a wonderfully personal conversation he has with his mother about his upbringing. It’s a portrait of Eleuteria Hernández, a woman who set an example of hard work and perseverance.

As explained in the episode, she considered giving up her schooling while pregnant with her son, instead deciding to take on the immense task of raising a child and getting her degree.

“Writing really begins with my mom,” Thompson-Hernández recalled. “My mom was in a PhD program in literature at UCLA and, you know, a single mom raising me in a PhD program at twenty-five, twenty-six (years old), I was with her every single day.”

Through office hours, classes and study sessions in the library, her little boy was right there taking it all in. Getting a first-hand lesson in determination.

“For me, it's like my mom didn't have a lot to share with me in terms of resources, in terms of money. But she had her books.”

It was an education that stuck with an increasingly curious kid, even as the sports world came calling. It stuck there in his subconscious, despite the pull and allure of basketball.

Thompson-Hernández went to Venice High School and eventually matriculated to the University of Portland where he played basketball to acclaim, later graduating and playing professionally in Mexico.

“I'd be lying if I told you I had any ambitions of becoming a writer or ambition to become a journalist or reporter,” he recalled. “I think I was really focused on, like any sort of aspiring young basketball player, to make the NBA. And that's all I cared about.”

Basketball was a bridge for him, linking the curious kid who devoured books with his adult self, someone who rediscovered his affinity for the intricacies of cultures and the stories hiding within the world’s communities.

While playing in Mexico he carried with him a journal, jotting down his observations. He realized that he was very much passionate about his own culture but that of others and the inherent questions raised about ethnicity and deciphering the concept of identify on a much more specific level.

He came to a crossroads of sorts, deciding between a life pursuing basketball to its fullest or giving the literary world a go.

Back to Cali'

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Walter Thompson-Hernández

At 26, Thompson-Hernández was back in L.A., attempting to glean life’s next chapter. He soon enrolled in Stanford’s Latin American master’s program. He took his studies to Belgium on a grant from Stanford, learning about the nuances of the country’s multiracial community.

It’s there that he pitched the story to The Guardian, a publication that took him up on the story and set him off on another career path that saw him traversing the world and asking questions that so often get overlooked.

By 2018, Thompson-Hernández found himself at the New York Times, covering the exact kinds of stories that piqued his interest for so many years.

Three months in and he found himself back to a story that had a personal tie to home. It’s a profile of the Compton Cowboys, a group of friends who find solace from jumping on horses and rediscovering a culture that was otherwise buried in history.

“I think it is a really powerful, beautiful story because it was so personal to me,” said Thompson-Hernández whose father is African American. “As a child, I remember the first time I saw Black men on horses in Compton I was about six years old.”

A flood of emotions. A rush of belonging. He recalled having, “a feeling of pride and of joy, but also a feeling like I had been lied to, a feeling like this really powerful history was existing blocks away from my house, but I wasn't learning about it in school.”

Much of what is taught in school is representative of the myriad cultures that make up a place as diverse and ethnically rich as Los Angeles.

The Compton Cowboys is a story about taking back much of the narrative. Cowboy culture is far more varied an experience than is depicted in history books and across TV and movies.

Identity

And if Thompson-Hernández has made a career of asking others questions he is the first to tell you that he has an ongoing conversation with himself over his own duality.

“I'm someone who was obviously raised in a very Mexican way. I wasn't around my Black family at all until I was about 24,” he explained.

From his perspective Los Angeles is a city very much like himself. “This city is inherently a very Black and brown city. But also a city that has had a really complicated racial past.”

“It's even more complicated when you have essentially the world telling you that two fundamental pieces of who you are are constantly at odds with one another. It really sort of created a chasm within me that I really struggle with. I think now I'm still sort of dealing with these questions about identity, about race, my family, my community. But I feel like now I have more resources to make sense of it all.”

Thompson-Hernández will spend the rest of his life asking himself what it means to be biracial. And it’s a journey that shouldn’t have an end, because it’s in the process that we discover who we are; there is no finality to our own personal evolution.

“I'm still trying to figure it out, but I'm a little older now and I understand that, like, you know, race and identity is so complex and nuanced.”

Represent 

There’s a painting that hangs up just behind Thompson-Hernández that immediately catches my eye. It’s a piece called “Family” by Susu Attar, a friend who is doing art direction on a short film he is now writing and directing.

The painting is distinctly familiar, faces blurred to capture a moment that could be any group of loved ones sharing a wonderfully chaotic time at home.

You see yourself in another’s work and it garners more than empathy. Seeing your reflection in the world is a wholly empowering experience.

Representation is comforting but also uplifting. To see someone like Thompson-Hernández bring his worldview to publications like the N.Y. Times has ramifications that render the status quo obsolete. A young kid growing up in trying circumstances sees that it’s not only possible. It’s been done.

We talk a bit about representation, and what can be done to get more people of color into places where they can themselves share their own perspective on the highest of platforms.

“I think my experience was a bit different,” Thompson-Hernández explained. “Because although my mom and I lived in poverty—my mom worked three or four jobs sometimes, we didn’t have a lot of money—my mom was also in a PhD program.”

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Photo Credit: Walter Thompson-Hernández

He is quick to note that, yes. Growing up was hard from a financial standpoint but he considers himself one of the lucky ones. Or as he puts it, “I often feel like a unicorn.”

“It's all about exposure. If young black and brown kids in the hood don't know or don't see people who look like them doing things like writing, documenting, reporting, working in media, then it sort of becomes this abstraction.”

There are things that can be done like safety nets for those aspiring writers who might falter and resources for those who don’t have the means.

Then there is the work that comes on a daily basis. Writers like Thompson-Hernández, telling stories that have his byline, giving exposure not just to the subjects he is covering but to his own success.

We live in a cynical world that so often puts restrictions on self-worth rather than nurturing drive and curiosity. His mother was once told by a counselor that she should probably aim for a trade school, because the world just wasn’t suitable for someone like her reaching for a university let alone the unattainable prestige of a graduate school.

“Young brown children, young Black children are consuming these narratives every single day,” Thompson-Hernández said.

It is so dangerously easy for them to amble away in defeat, not knowing how far they could take their respective passions. But knowing that reaching for their dreams is attainable may be all they need to break free from self-doubt.

“When I see people like me, for example, someone who sounds like them, someone who looks like them, someone who dresses like them, what we do becomes less of an abstraction and it becomes something real and possible.” 

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