When asked about his arrival to the United States, Fernando Diaz responds by playing the opening scene from the 1983 Hollywood gangster film “Scarface.”
The movie opened with the Cuban refugee-turned-drug-lord Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, being questioned by U.S. border patrol agents. The aggressive and defiant Montana explained how he used classic Hollywood films to improve his English, railed against corruption in his hometown, and flaunted a scar on his face from an eventful childhood in Latin America.
“I know I’m not Tony Montana,” Diaz said, laughing. “I’m not a gangster or a drug lord. But I feel a certain kinship with him—I watched movies to learn English better, I have a pretty cool scar on my face, and one of my main missions in life is to fight against corruption back home.”
Diaz was born and raised in Chitre Herrera, a town located on a peninsula in Panama. The town’s sunny coasts boast classic Mediterranean architecture and bustling, energetic crowds of people. Diaz compares Chitre Herrera to the big cities of Panama — there’s always something for people to do, but with none of the frustrating traffic of Panama City. Everything and everyone is close to each other.
A strong sense of family was present in Diaz’s upbringing, and for good reason: he has two sisters, one brother, 30 cousins, and more than 20 aunts and uncles. However, many of his memories from his childhood are made unclear by a defining event in his life when he was eight years old. He recalls that it was a warm, happy day at a water park when he slipped off a slide and slammed his head on the concrete almost seven feet down below.
“Ever since that event until I was around 14, I had serious issues remembering things. So most of my memories before 14are really blurry,” Diaz said. “I also remember certain things differently from what people around me tell me. So what’s the truth? What I remember, or what people told me is true?”
Throughout his teenage years, Diaz was guided by a strong disbelief in the education system he found himself in. He was a responsible and successful student, but only because he was taught to be that way from a young age. He found little motivation to study as he did not see the value and relevance of the information being given to students. In addition, he found that most of his teachers lacked passion and were only recycling outdated, useless materials to students for a paycheck.
“I was arguing with teachers all the time,” Diaz said. “I was asking them why we were being taught what we were being taught. I kept asking them questions until some of them even hated me. It helped me gain the respect of my classmates, though.”
Diaz’s classmate and friend, Roberto Poveda, compared him to a Socrates-type figure, constantly asking questions and challenging authority.
“He wasn’t afraid of speaking out about issues that matter to him,” Poveda said. “He really cared about the quality of the education we got and whether it was useful or not.”
These arguments about what kind of education was truly helpful were what inspired Diaz to enter a new chapter in his life. Following a passionate discussion about the relevance of classroom materials, an English teacher angrily commented that maybe Diaz should learn English himself as she could not change the syllabus just for him. Rising to the challenge, Diaz participated in extracurricular courses to improve his English skills. In addition, he watched American movies and listened to English music, particularly hip-hop. He found rap music to be the most lyrical genre and made sure to closely read the lyrics while listening to songs in order to truly understand the message being communicated. Diaz’s favorite artists include some of the most lyrical hip-hop musicians: J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Mac Miller, among others.
In 2018, he enrolled in an English course at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, on a government scholarship. This was a formative period in his life. It was his first time by himself in an unknown place, which allowed him to discover his natural talents of communication and navigating new environments.
In 2019, finding himself stuck at home due to COVID-19, Diaz put himself to work. He moved alone to Playa Venao, a popular white-sand beach in southern Panama, where he worked at a local school as a teacher, translator and computer technician. He also played a role in local businesses, advising entrepreneurs about launching their own brands.
Jose Luis Carcamo, one of Diaz’s clients, operates a skateboard company in Panama.
“I turned to Diaz for help because he’s renowned for his business intuition, strategic thinking, and ability to communicate with people in such a charismatic way,” Carcamo said. “He really helped my brand take off. He’s kind of a local legend here.”
This year, Diaz had the opportunity to study at SUNY Plattsburgh as an exchange student on a full scholarship. He plans to use his one semester at SUNY Plattsburgh to the fullest, continuing his mission in Panama of empowering his community and helping those around him.
“I don’t consider myself a ‘community leader’,” Diaz said. “But I think I can empower people to understand their own decisions and give them a broader perspective. I’m definitely going to try to do that here as well.”
One of his primary goals here at SUNY Plattsburgh and throughout his life is to understand how to better approach mental health and help raise awareness about issues surrounding it. Diaz explained that in Panama, until recently there was absolutely no space to discuss mental health with confidentiality and without judgement. Suicide hotlines were non-existent.
“Two months before coming to Plattsburgh, I went to a mental health counseling service, but I knew that if people found out, they would assume I’m going crazy,” Diaz said. “So I pretended that going to counselling was a requirement for the scholarship program I’m in.”
However, the last five to six years have seen some progress in Panama. More professionals have become available to assist those who need it. It has also generally become more socially acceptable to seek help. Diaz seeks to better understand what social forces brought about such change and how those forces can be harnessed for further progress in the future.
Pointing out that much of the developing world still treats mental health issues as a stigma, Diaz hopes that it becomes more normal to discuss such topics in public and reduce the negative connotations attached with them.
“We tend to minimize our feelings due to the fear of what others may think,” Diaz said. “That keeps us from being true to ourselves. We swallow our feelings and bottle up our emotions, and that just makes everything worse.”
Furthermore, Diaz advises those who hope to be better friends and support systems for those struggling with mental health issues.
“Firstly, be there. Don’t minimize other people’s experiences and feelings. Telling someone they don’t have it that bad will accomplish nothing except making them regret telling you anything,” Diaz said. “Secondly, it’s free to be kind. It costs nothing to be nice to people and say uplifting things. Compliment someone’s outfit. It’ll change their whole day.”
He sums up his philosophy by saying, “If you want to change the world, you have to change yourself.”
Diaz hopes to use his career as a vehicle for manifesting his vision of what the future of mental health should be. He sees himself working as an ambassador serving in public affairs, and he is confident that mental health will be fundamental to his message to his community. Whether it be education regarding such issues or the availability of more resources for those who need help, Diaz hopes he will embody the changes he dreams of and be the person that he himself needed in his youth.