In light of the daily debates taking place on social media and beyond about crime, drug use/abuse, and protests about police in inner cities, it’s nice when you see someone actually walking the walk behind the talk.
I’ve known Febo (though, virtually, not in person!) since 2013 through my college sorority network. (My sorority, Mu Sigma Upsilon has a brother fraternity (Lambda Sigma Upsilon), which Febo is part of.)
He founded Guazabera Insights in 2010 as a health and educational services provider whose mission is to raise social consciousness and uplift communities. They do this through the dissemination of cultural and social consciousness education in communities of need, while addressing the social issues that affect communities through organizing and action.
Most of the work is done in Jersey City, a large and diverse city right outside of Manhattan in which 52% of its population speak another language other than English in the home, and, in some wards, citizens still struggles with crime. The organization also provides employment and internship opportunities in Jersey City and Paterson, N.J.
Each weekend, Febo and others from Guazabera Insights hit the streets to educate the public on healthier lifestyles. He explains why in this video, which was shot recently while engaging with the public in Jersey City’s Journal Square.
But the work doesn’t stop on the streets. How about helping the incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Center, which many wrongly assume are beyond change, with a reintegration program? Febo, a fantastic public speaker, does that, too, as illustrated in the video below.
You can watch a more comprehensive video of Guazabera Insights’ work at the Hudson County Correctional Center here.
A Brooklyn native, Febo graduated from the University at Buffalo with a master’s degree in Humanities Interdisciplinary: Caribbean Cultural Studies, studied in Havana, Cuba and Bahia, Brazil. His master’s thesis, “Sazón Batería y Soberanía: Puerto Rico in the Dance for Self-Determination,” is a documentary regarding Puerto Rican Sovereignty. He also attained a bachelor’s degree in Latino Studies, concentrating in history and politics.
I love milk and dairy products (cereal o’clock is one of my favorite late night habits), so I would be so upset if I were ever to become lactose intolerant. You can learn all about lactose intolerance, which basically forces some people to have to forgo most dairy here.
My mom suffers from this affliction and she has to spend close to $7 per gallon of Lactaid milk for her coffee. Well, now there’s a new product that claims to make your lactose intolerance a thing of the past.
Milk Sugar was invented by Brooklyn-based inventor Sam Dwyer. I talked to him about the product and what’s it’s like to invent a supplement! (You can buy Milk Sugar here.)
1) Why did you start Milk Sugar?
Lactose intolerance is something that for many people develops in early adulthood, after you’ve spent your whole life eating dairy. I am a young guy living in New York City — I love pizza! It was so frustrating to give up my favorite foods!
I eventually discovered that I could take Lactaid pills with dairy, but they never made me feel good, and my beloved jerk room mate would make fun of me for being “lactarded.” I wanted to understand more about my body, so I started researching what lactose intolerance is — and I learned that while 10% of people with Northern European ancestry have problems with dairy, as much as 60% of our diverse US population at large has problems. But all Americans love eating cheese; on average we eat 34 pounds of the stuff every year.
What I realized was that Lactaid medicalizes, and stigmatizes, a common condition. If you’re lactose intolerant, there’s actually nothing “wrong” with you: it’s normal. So with Milksugar I set out to do two things: create a normal lactase enzyme supplement pill for normal people, and then also to… let nature in.
What I mean by letting nature in, is that the psychology surrounding consumer products is tremendously important, because it effects how you understand yourself. The coolest thing, I think, about Milksugar is that the active lactase enzymes are derived from a cool Japanese fungus, koji, which in latin is called aspergillus oryzae. Koji is beloved in Japan, because it’s the secret ingredient for making sake and miso — it creates tons of enzymes, including the ones that break apart the dairy sugar, lactose, that gives us lactose intolerant people so much trouble!
I think that big corporations believe Americans are too wimpy to knowingly eat cool Japanese mushroom pills that help them digest dairy. I have a more optimistic view of my countrypeople: I think they will like to know! Because nature is really, really cool!!
2) What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
Well, I can sleep in and stuff. Also I can entertain myself with notions of earthly riches. I’m more inclined to think of myself as an entrepreneur than as a boss. It’s a distinction that makes a difference. I’m terribly impulsive; I don’t command myself, so much as I am drawn forward by curiosity and vision. In that way, I am a servant.
And that’s the best part — the freedom to pursue the dream!
3) What’s one of the hardest things?
Well, I’m not a rich kid, or in possession of vast savings, so there’s been some financially tight moments. How terrible — I have had to live off rice, and sometimes recycle my better-remunerated room mates cans for beer money. Oh, woe is me (I’m joking, although having money to go out is fun). It’s more seriously stressful to be late with the rent. Obviously, as a start up business with not too much sales volume yet I should worry about failure. But the truth is that I don’t.
In the back of my mind I have been preparing to do a project like this for awhile. I am very fortunate to have some truly amazing and inspiring friends, teachers, and investors who have walked similar paths. I wouldn’t be doing this without them.
The hardest task for me has been setting the correct expectations for myself, and remaining mindful. I can be very impatient, but changing the way an entire culture thinks about lactose intolerance won’t happen overnight.
As a person who very often shares news on her Facebook page with snarky commentary, I shared the news about Dylan Roof being found guilty of massacring nine church goers in North Carolina without any caption. It’s not that I disagree with the verdict on this self-proclaimed white supremacist, who probably will never see the error of his ways, I just hate that this will now turn into a death penalty debate, and then when it’s all said in done, for the most part, it’s over.
Sure, there will be memorials on the anniversary of their deaths, but mass shootings don’t really get remembered save for Sandy Hook for obvious reasons.
It doesn’t solve the heightened racial tension we find ourselves in at this point in time in a post-Obama era (I mean, just today: Motorist told schoolchildren ‘f–k black lives, they don’t matter’). It certainly doesn’t put an end to mass shootings (and neither will him getting executed by lethal injection for that matter). Roof’s eventual execution (I mean, it’s the South) won’t even convince folks on the fence about racism that it’s one of the main reason he chose his targets. They’ll just pony it up to mental illness and then not discuss any further. And that’s wrong!
We obviously need to drill down as to why we find ourselves in a super polarized state that obviously played a pretty big factor in the last election.
The Charleston massacre was a clear case of nine people who were killed because of the color of their skin. It’s almost as if this many years after slavery, we need to define what racism is again.
Maybe if looked at white supremacy as a mental illness and had deeper discussions about it, we can do more honor to the Charleston victims than the death penalty and forgetting about the case ever would.
Sometimes I come across stories on CNN en Español that I must share for those who don’t understand in Spanish. Such as this wonderful video about Isabella Springmuhl, a fashion designer who has down syndrome.
You can watch the Spanish-language interview on CNNe (it aired on Sept. 1, 2016).
Here’s another interview by Ruptly TV, conducted as she became the first designer with down syndrome to show at London Fashion Week. It is also in Spanish. In the interview, she says she wants others to know dreams can be achieved.
For as long as I can remember, my father always loved to make others smile. Armed with jokes, song lyrics with dance moves, imitations of characters, or funny greetings, he was fond of bringing a hearty laugh to friends and strangers alike. I like to think he’s still doing that. And, so, it is with a heavy heart *and* a big smile in his honor, that I announce his death:
Virgilio Vergel died on Monday, August 8, 2016, in Fair Lawn, N.J. He was 73.
Born in Ocaña, Colombia, Virgilio, or “Gillo (pronounced: Hee-yo)” as he was called, was the sixth of nine children in the Vergel family. They would move to Colombia’s port city of Barranquilla when he was three. He considered “la arenosa (the sandy city),” as it is known, his home.
As a boy, Virgilio was an energetic child with a wide smile today can be seen in his grandson, RJ, who bears a striking resemblance. He loved to play soccer with his brothers. As a teen he was known for cracking jokes, playing soccer, and his love of dancing to typical Colombian music. As a young adult, he worked as a bank teller, but still enjoyed going dancing, sneaking into outdoor movie theaters, and riding a 10-speed bicycle.
In 1969, he met the love of his life, Maria Socorro Diaz, when she walked onto a packed city bus and he offered her his seat. They would marry a year later and move to Paterson, N.J., where they would have three children — Richard, Gina, and David.
Maria & Virgilio
The early years in Paterson, NJ.
Virgilio instilled his love of hard work, Latin and contemporary American music (he would encourage David to become a DJ), futbol/soccer, cycling, dressing sharp, and socializing with a sense of humor to all of his children. He also impressed upon them the importance of continuing onto a higher education, something he could not complete as he and his wife worked several blue collar jobs to give them a better life.
Family of five.
The American dream: Disney World
Virgilio always made his kid’s friends laugh.
If there was a character, Virgilio was going to take a photo with it.
The Vergel kids.
No matter how tired he was from a long day’s work, Virgilio would do everything possible for them to have an “American” upbringing, complete with bicycling trips to local parks, pickup softball games, or day trips to New Jersey beaches, baseball stadiums, or amusement parks. Sometimes the weekend fun would consist of projects around the house with cookouts in the backyard, or a trip to the music store, where he would hum the latest popular music to salesmen so that he could buy a 45-inch for the children to play on the record player. No matter what, it was always fun.
Back in the Machine Shop days.
At the Wyckoff School district.
Part-time jobs, like this one at Home Depot, were the norm.
At the Teaneck Police Dept.
Virgilio worked a variety of jobs, as a machinist, maintenance person, and lastly, a custodian in schools and the Teaneck Police Department, where he retired early due to his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.
Parkinson’s is a tough neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in most people. Most people’s symptoms take years to develop, and they live for years with the disease. Virgilio lived for nearly 20 years with Parkinson’s, and he was predeceased by his brother, Raul, who died due to complications related to the same disease in 2011.
Dancing with daughter, Gina.
With son, Richard.
With niece, Lily.
Always a smile when family came to visit.
With sons Richard and David
If we could do one thing over, we would have had him start some type of an exercise regimen earlier, as opposed to telling him to rest more (something people tend to say to those who are ill) when the disease was “new” to us. Exercise has been shown to be very beneficial to those with the disease.
Virgilio was hopeful in medical advancements in the Parkinson’s world, as he underwent deep brain stimulation in the early 2000s, and while it took away the tremors, the one side-effect he had was the worsening of his speech. An ardent communicator (much like his daughter, Gina!), this often frustrated him.
Things he missed doing the most? Riding his bicycle and traveling to visit his family in Florida, Colombia, and others scattered throughout the world. He talked about them very often. He lives fondly in their memories.
There are many things he continued to enjoy up until he broke his hip in January 2015: watching the Colombian soccer teams, riding a recumbent bicycle, listening to music (while playing the maracas), and watching movies. Most of all, he was able to live many happy years in the home with the love of his life, Maria, and frequent visits from his grandson, RJ, and more recently, his granddaughter, Bella.
We ask that you remember Virgilio’s fondness for life and celebration every time you hear Colombian music or funny stories. We ask that you consider making a donation to either the Micheal J. Fox Foundation for Research, which is working to find a cure, or the National Parkinson Foundation, which strives to improve the lives of those living with Parkinson’s disease.
Virgilio is survived by his wife, Maria, his sons Richard and David, daughter Gina, as well as brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, and other extended family, in Florida, Canada, Colombia, Argentina, and Spain.