At 10, I didn’t speak English. I wore hand-me-downs. I was skinny and had unruly curly hair. I loved books and cartoons. I was determinedly awkward and naively blunt. All of that would have been disastrous for the average kid. But it was a toxic outer skin for a new kid from an old country in a city full of strangers. That’s why I decided, instead, to be Optimus Prime.
I first encountered Optimus while scanning afternoon cartoons on the four local channels on our television. It was the mid-1980s and cable was a luxury that few in my neighborhood could afford. I easily dismissed My Little Pony, Care Bears, and G.I. Joe—the standard menu for after-school programming then—once I came upon futuristic robots that shapeshifted on will. There was so much about the idea of being someone other than the person everyone saw that appealed to my nascent sense of wonder.
Optimus Prime—the formidable and honorable alien robot who’d landed in a new planet and was charged with ensuring the survival of his clan of Transformers and protecting planet Earth from the evil Decepticons—was the perfect alter ego for a slightly less alien but still-foreign girl eager to know her new country and discover her new self. Optimus reminded me that all of us have within us the basic elements for a meaningful life: intelligence, strength, courage, beauty, creativity, and love. At least, that’s what I’d like to think three decades later as I look back on the singular influence a Japanese animated robot had on my childhood and well beyond.
Optimus’s tactical intelligence rang true to me. He deftly avoided or countered attacks from Megatron, his nemesis. I, too, strategized how to avoid my enemies—namely the English-fluent, U.S.-born Puerto Rican girls on my block. On school days, I’d rarely make it around the corner as I headed toward our five-story walkup before hearing someone call out one of the odious nicknames they’d bestowed on me. That’s when I’d repeat in my head, “More than meets the eye,” one of the catchphrases from the credits reel in the Transformers cartoon. It was a solemn and simple incantation that helped me make the few yards between the mean girls and the building’s front door. It also reminded me that I was more than a skinny and decidedly unsophisticated pre-pubescent walking target.
The most memorable insult—and one which I took great pride in later in life—was, “You talk like a teacher!” That meant that I spoke in complete sentences, enunciated all my syllables, and didn’t use expletives as exclamation marks. But what my neighbors failed to hear in my speech were the overtones of Optimus Prime’s elegant and high-minded elocution, which was one of his most distinctive attributes. Yes, I wanted to sound like Optimus. I worked at it. I took great pride in it. This secret linguistic practice was probably most responsible for my early acquisition of the English language.
Then there was the All Spark. In the cartoon series, this was a tangible, touchable artifact and the source of the eternal life energy that powered Optimus Prime and his Autobots. For me, it was a metaphor, a symbol, a talisman for the potential I carried within me across the sea from my childhood home in the Dominican Republic to my new life in New York City. Like Optimus, I carried an All Spark encased in my ribcage. It glowed with potential when I did well in school. It faded to a glimmer when I was afraid. But it was always there, fortifying me when fear of the unknown held me still.
I imagined Optimus Prime reaching out to me, reminding me that I carried the All Spark inside me as I faced off against older junior-high-school boys who pressured me; when I sat through puzzling standardized tests that asked indecipherable questions; when a high-school guidance counselor told me I wasn’t good enough to attend a prestigious college after I’d been accepted. During those times, and countless more, believing I possessed some of the strength and power of Optimus helped me persevere when the odds seemed insurmountable.
At one point in my early 20s—when I felt cornered by life choices—I even ran away to Japan, the ancestral home of my childhood icon. I can’t say with certainty that my decision to cross the globe after discarding my childhood ambition of being a lawyer was fueled by my belief that I was Optimus Prime for most of my formative years. But I can see how clearly some of the foundational character elements I adopted from Optimus were essential in taking a running leap toward my future life as a writer. Moving to Japan was landing on a foreign planet and having to rediscover who I was and what my essential building elements were, a time for reclaiming and reigniting my All Spark.
Japan is where I established the primary tenets of my life. I decided how to love and be loved, what my purpose was, what path I would make for myself. The months I spent there as a complete stranger navigating the roles, rules, and mores of a nearly mythical land brought me back to the most essential parts of myself: my love of writing, my call to service, my belief in the impossible. All of those values were first revealed to me in the summary statements at the end of Transformers episodes when Optimus Prime would remind me of the greater purpose each of us serves, and the courage we must display in facing our individual challenges.
This month, I will joyfully celebrate living in the U.S. for 30 years. I am unspeakably thankful for the life I have built here, but cannot yet shake the feeling I shared decades ago with Optimus and the Autobots: “We live among these people now, hiding in plain sight.”