The word “believe.”
And a broken china bowl.
“Most of my tattoos represent something important to me.”
He points to the tiny bowl on his right hand, its cracks filled with gold.
“This is the principle of kintsugi.
Essentially, this vase is you.
The broken places are your scars – emotional or physical.
Kintsugi means, if you can accept your blemishes, then don’t hide them. Make them stand out instead.
So that’s the meaning of the bowl.
Every time it’s mended with gold, it becomes more and more beautiful.”
With a smile, Raphaël rolls up his sleeves and props himself in his chair. There’s an intelligence in his voice, his laughter a run of notes, like an arpeggio. He has a knack for instant friendship. It only takes a few words for you to feel like you know him.
He’s getting married soon. He has a dog, and a job as an electrician. He reads a lot, and works out. He seems at peace.
It’s hard to imagine that Raphaël has ever lived a life of wild excess and poor choices. Amazing what a difference straightening out your priorities makes.
“What it took was me laying down an ultimatum. ‘From now on, I only want to make good decisions… at least, I’ll do my very best!’”
“I was adopted at four years old, with my brother. You could say our parents got a two-for-one special!”
Raphaël came from Mexico. But he left his country of birth so young that all he has left are vague impressions. “When I was little, I used to dream a lot about the orphanage where I lived, and my biological mother.”
He was welcomed into a loving home he describes as “typically Québecois.” But from the beginning, he felt a need to work harder, to feel that his good luck was deserved.
“I was always trying to please my parents, to show them they’d made a good choice by adopting us. In daycare, I abandoned my native language and only spoke French. Subconsciously, I knew I was different, so I tried to conform. The worst thing was, my parents were trying their best to speak Spanish with me at home. But I always answered in French.”
Despite a welcoming environment and a family who supported him, he felt as if he’d lost part of himself.
“Have you seen the Disney film Hercules?
Hercules doesn’t know where he comes from, doesn’t know if he’s a god or a human.
I identified with that, on a deep level.
For a long time I was torn in two directions: my blood is Mexican, but my culture and values come from Quebec.
Those childhood struggles with identity would follow me for years.”
When he grew up, he made a trip to Mexico with his mother and brother in search of his origins. It was a shock. His own country was unintelligible to him. He couldn’t connect with people who, in another life, he would have spoken to every day.
“We’d be walking in the street, and people would say something to my brother and I, but my mother would be the one to answer.
My mother, you know, she’s blond and blue-eyed.
They couldn’t make sense of it.
So I’d try to explain in English, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.’”
Now, as an adult, Raphaël can understand the strength of the forces that were pulling him apart, but he embraces it with humour.
“You can take the Mexican out of Mexico, but you can’t take Mexico out of the Mexican!
I take afternoon siestas.
I’m super relaxed, typical Latino. Never serious about anything.
And maybe it’s over the top, but I love spicy food.
I might be Québecois by adoption, but the Latin way of life still speaks to me.”
“There’s always someone who expects me to know how to dance like a Latino, but nope… I dance like a Québecois!”
His laugh booms out, something between earthly and divine.
With his charming smile, his natural empathy, and a social circle centred on the kitchen – “My mother always had a restaurant to run, my brother can cook like a chef” – becoming a waiter was the most natural thing in the world.
“I studied. I was a career waiter. I’ve worked in some of the best restaurants in Quebec.”
He finds joy and accomplishment in his ability to form instant connections with people. But his interactions with strangers forced him to confront inner demons he would have preferred to leave in peace.
“Automatically, I’m perceived as being from somewhere else. Everyone expects me to have an accent.”
“It happens when I come up to a table – ‘Hello, I’m Raphaël’ – and customers start speaking Spanish to me. I have to really exaggerate my Sainte-Foy accent to get them to switch to French.”
What starts as a simple mistake based on appearances can quickly swerve into casual racism.
“I’ve definitely been asked whether I know some guy named Pablo who works at a resort somewhere.
Or some people even find it funny to call me Pedro, or Gonzales.
I find it really disrespectful.”
These kinds of micro-aggressions changed how Raphaël saw himself. As he looked at the social ecosystem that surrounded him, he began to wonder once again whether he truly belonged.
“The most striking moment for me was one time when I went to a restaurant with my father, his girlfriend, and their kids. I was holding the door for them – I’m chivalrous like that – and I saw my family walk past me.
And it hit me. Wow, they’re all white.”
His friends and family tried to reassure him.
“Once, I asked one of my cousins, ‘Do you see me as, like, a different colour from you?
Am I more white, or more brown?’
And he said, ‘No way, you’re just Raphaël.’”
But Raphaël’s unease never quite went away. And in the back hallways of the fashionable restaurants where he worked, he found a magic potion capable of killing both the god and the human in him.
“The restaurant world is pretty wild. ‘Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll!’”
Once the tables are wiped down, the till closed, and the floors mopped, it’s party time for the staff. Go out. Drink. Get high.
“Sometimes as a waiter I’d make really crazy tips.”
“When my pockets were full, I’d go on a bender.”
“It started with pot, but soon there were other drugs.
Speed, ecstasy, mushrooms.
I was hooked on cocaine for years.
I started when I was 17 or 18.
It helped me reach that feeling I’d always wanted:
Like I was invisible, like nothing could touch me.”
Raphaël understands why he plummeted into the underworld: to numb this feeling that he belonged nowhere.
“I took a lot of drugs because I had a lot of pain inside me. The pain of living, of not knowing where I was from or who I was.”
Until the day when he got caught.
“The police stopped me, driving under the influence.
I was in Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier.
We were on our way from the bar to an after-party.
When you’re high, you think that’s the best idea ever.
I was with my brother and another friend who was also Mexican.”
Even though Raphaël was driving carefully to conceal his intoxicated state, it was still his difference that attracted attention.
“They didn’t stop me because I was veering all over the road.
They stopped me because they saw three dark-skinned guys in a car at four in the morning, and figured it was suspicious.
Given my breathalyzer results, I guess they weren’t wrong.
My blood levels were twice what they should be.
But what got us stopped was definitely racial profiling.”
That, at any rate, was what his lawyer suggested he should argue. But it was risky: if it failed, he could lose his license for seven years, and pay a $15,000 fine. Instead, Raphaël pleaded guilty and got off with a smaller fine and a one-year suspension. But the episode shook him deeply.
“I said to myself, ‘Here you are, in the back seat of a police car. This isn’t how it should be. You’ve made some bad decisions.’
27 years old, and life comes to a screeching halt.
So you say to yourself, ‘You’ve got to change, because your career, the work you love, is also what’s destroying you.’”
From that moment on, Raphaël turned his back on the restaurant world. He went back to a private school to get his electrician certificate. It was a tough year. He had an interest in construction, but “zero talent” for working with his hands… And money was tight. “There were times the cats were eating better than I was.”
He’d taken a risky gamble, but he knew he was on the right track.
“I kept going because I was proud of myself.
For once in my life, I’d made smart choices.
I said to myself, ‘Listen, it’s tough now, but you’re going to have a good job, with more stability.’
The surprise was that at the end of my studies I got the ‘Most Improved award.’”
“To start at the bottom and work my way up to the top, well, that was better than any award.”
Today, Raphaël feels strong and in control of his life.
His dual heritage provides a solid foundation onto which he can build a bright future.
And soon, he’ll be pledging his love to a woman who accepts him with all his complexities.
“She’s a great listener.
She understands that all of us have had different experiences.
She’s the first person I’ve ever been totally honest with.
It was freeing to have a confidante.
And it was important for her too, to know what she was getting into.
She knows how far I’ve come.
She says, ‘Everything you've gone through brought you here with me now.
So I’m grateful to you that you’ve had those experiences, because now I get to have you!’”
Raphaël’s arpeggio of laughter.
“I’m getting married next summer, and the theme is going to be Mexican:
My girlfriends says she’ll find us a piñata!”