Dr. Teofista Viñas, My Mother, My Inspiration: Why I Build

Guest Blog by Patrick Diaz

There are an infinite number of answers to the question, "Why do you build?" Some answers are simple and brief, while others only hint at a deeper vein of personal narrative that a simple answer cannot fully encompass.

With each answer is a story. My Habitat story extends far beyond the past three years I have been traveling the country volunteering with Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the United States. It reaches all the way back to the first four years of my life, during the brief time that I knew my mother before she passed away at the age of 37.

Mother's Day is the stark, painful reminder every year that my life has been entirely shaped by the haunting, cosmic absence of a mother, the lifelong consequence of that singular childhood tragedy. It was a childhood painfully distinguished by its loneliness and by, above all, its fear, the most vivid emotion that ruled over all others, where before love was in its place. With fear came the crippling sense of powerlessness, and it is impossible to describe in a single article how these forces abruptly shaped how, at four years old, I viewed the world before me, now cruel and dangerous, and my future in it. It became a world in which life can be so violently and brutally wrenched away, and the life that was so fatally lost was the center of my universe, which I was only beginning to grasp.

My earliest memory in life was of my mother, and it took place when I was merely a few months old, at 126 Hopkins Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey, where we were living at the time before we moved a block away to Beacon Avenue. It was in the living room of the second floor, where I was bathed naked in both water and light, and in my mother's soothing words. I was awash in a tub of water and in the warm but harsh light that streamed generously through the large balcony windows, and while my consciousness was struggling with the vivid sensations of both elements, the most clear and lucid sensation was the tender stream of words from my mother. In my crude state of consciousness and my inability to speak, I still knew with utmost clarity what my mother's words meant, the structure of grammar and syntax, the shape of sentences and the intent of emotion, and they all meant one thing: love. It was the love and language of my mother that was feeding me my own consciousness and, through her words alone, shaping the world around me. Before impartial sight held precedence, it was the tender sound of my mother's words that was defining reality. In my first ever memory, I was surrounded by water, light, and love.

She was the intermediary between me and the shapeless world of light, matter, and time around me, the world of what I was not, and my mother was a timeless being, the most lucid shape in my narrow-ranged vision, who navigated me through this world over which she held mastery. Nothing I saw was important, and thus was not noticed, unless my mother pointed it out to me. My mother's words were gracefully shaped and sculpted, and they gracefully shaped and sculpted what was around me; in turn, her language shaped and sculpted my mind. She always spoke with tenderness and patience to my inquiries and observations; there was a soothing calmness in the movement of her words. It was a relationship of which I felt sure of its love, purity, and infinity, into which I fell without choice, in my stark vulnerability. I could be vulnerable, without fear, in her love. My mother was the perfect human expression of unconditional love that we seek (and often fail) to find in others as we part ways with our parents and grow into our own.

Among my handful of memories of my mother is of a moment shortly before she died. We passed through a store in Orlando, Florida with an aquarium display, of which I have a vivid memory of a diorama inside it that was animated by the gentle sway of water. It was of an old time scuba diver, with the fishbowl helmet, the oxygen hose attached to the top, and the clunky, unwieldy rubber suit, struggling to free himself from the tentacles of an octopus. The light of the overhead fluorescent tubes spread evenly throughout the tank with a clinical but oddly pleasing glow. To my four year old eyes, it was an image both horrifying and beautiful at the same time--in the static, eternal pose of life grappling with a hideous vision of death, and in their struggle gently charged with tranquil, soothing movement from the unseen tides of the clear, brightly lit water. Like the glass of water being half-full or half-empty, it was up to the viewer to decide the diver's ultimate fate in that aquatic drama. But with the combined paradox of their static, suspended state of violence and the collective gentle, hypnotic motions of their underwater ballet, and the scuba diver himself trapped both in his own protective yet cumbersome outfit and in the tentacles of his nemesis, it seemed that the diver and octopus were both alive and dead at the same time. Perhaps that image impresses itself deeply upon me because, in an eerie foreshadowing, it reflected the inherent paradox of life which I would struggle with after the death of my mother: how one can exist, but not be alive. One can float listlessly, battered to and fro by the tides of life, subject to its whims, from carefree to violent, feeling trapped in one's own physical shell, and treading hopelessly along the thread of breaths that at its most basic comprises life, without passion or spirit.

I was irreparably heartbroken and sinking, at only four years old, into a paradoxical life of insincere cheerful facades and inner inexpressible pain and anguish, and stretched thin and carved out hollow by an expanding distance from people, propelled by the sense of sheer impossibility of connecting to another for closeness. If the person you loved the most, and who loved you the most, can suddenly vanish, leaving you to fend for yourself at only four years old, how can you be sure that other people, who rank considerably less, and in whom you might consider wanting to invest your heart in, will not do the same?

At the start of every year in elementary school, we were asked by our teacher about our parents as she took survey of her new class; I would always have to say, in front of the class, that my mother died, and there would be the slight awkward pause and the brief apology for my loss.

At age eleven, I came to the conclusion that God must hate me for some unknowable reason, turned my back on God, and went on growing up.


In October 1980, U2 released their second single off their debut album Boy, titled "I Will Follow". It was a song in which Bono expresses his grief over the death of his mother when he was 14--she died of a brain aneurysm at her father's funeral. "I Will Follow" became their first certified hit and the first U2 classic; it is their most performed song in concert and the only one to have been performed in every U2 tour. It is of no little significance to me that Bono's song to his mother established U2 in rock music, that the month the song was released is the same month when my mother died, and that Bono carries that tribute to his mother all over the world when U2 goes on tour. It became a source of inspiration to see how one can transform a horrible traumatic event into a beautiful arrangement of sounds and words.

I made a list of great artists who lost their mothers at an early age but still succeeded in achieving artistic recognition, and I felt like I was in good company: Bono, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, James Dean, Walt Disney. In high school, in religion class, oddly enough, our teacher screened James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause and, upon hearing Dean's life story, I was truly stunned to discover that there was another male like me who lost a mother at an early age. Afterwards, I read biographies on James Dean and repeatedly watched Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, carefully studying Dean's stylized performances of heartache, longing, and grief; I memorized his urgently, desperately searching monologues. I felt, for the first time, that I wasn't alone in my loss, that through art I would be able to channel my fear, pain, loneliness, and anger, and hopefully create something beautiful.


I began volunteering after September 11, 2001 as a way of coping with all the destruction that took place just across the river, with the calculated and sustained expression of hate that allowed a small group of fanatics to inflict so much violence on other human beings. I volunteered to help with ongoing restoration work and ushering and concession duties during film screenings at the Loew's Jersey Theater in Jersey City (www.loewsjersey.org), a local 1920s movie palace that the city preserved and designated as a cultural arts center, screening classic films and showcasing musical and theatrical acts. Eventually my volunteer work expanded into painting large posters to promote upcoming classic film events; volunteering gave me the opportunity to take the first initial steps in creating a body of artwork.

The towers were always visible from where we lived in Jersey City. The collective outpouring of grief I saw in the world around me mirrored the deep well of grief I had inside with which I struggled all my life to express. In a grandly solipsistic and self-centered sentiment, it finally felt like the exterior world perfectly reflected the broken world of devastation and tragedy inside me.

While I was volunteering, I truly felt that the grain of each second I was giving was, even at only an imperceptible, microscopic level, smoothing the raw, broken surface of the world. There was one Saturday afternoon when I was alone in the labyrinthine basement corridors below the theater space, scraping layers of old paint from the walls so that it can be newly repainted. I scraped for a good number of hours and was so thoroughly convinced that, there in the dim corridors of an empty theater basement, it was making a difference in the world outside, as I infused my menial task with as pure and true a desire to help others as possible. I felt empowered by scraping paint and blinded in my zeal to the fact that it was so ridiculously inadequate compared to the countless selfless acts of love and heroism that occurred on September 11 against that one horrendous and vile act of hatred.

For the first time in my life, I was able to tap into the enormous grief I felt from losing my mother and turn it into an outward expression of compassion for others who were suffering; my deep well of grief became a resource. If the external world reflected my inner anguish, if I can see my pain in the pain of others, and if I can bring healing into that world, then perhaps it can, by reflection, bring healing into the world in me, and fix my brokenness.

At an unfairly early age I fell prey to fear, the fear that at any moment something terrible can happen, the fear of rejection and failure, the fear of being abused, the fear of opening your heart to someone you care about, the fear of being unloved. Despite my fear, the horrifying events of September 11 engulfed me with this overbearing, irresistible ache to help others, but I was haunted by my crippling sense of inadequacy that perhaps I wouldn't be able to give as much love to others since I didn't receive much of it growing up.

While I was consumed by fear, I saw people in New York put their lives on the line in an instant. There were reports of people leaping from the towers to their deaths embracing each other with love as they were about to meet a violent end in a matter of seconds; they showed bravely and tenderly that in the end, when death comes in such horrific fashion, love is all one can give to another. As an infinite act of love, they shared their brutal death together so they wouldn't face it horribly alone. I didn't believe I was ever capable of doing that, of giving so selflessly, of being so fearless, so I started out small by performing menial tasks like volunteering to scrape paint as part of restoring an ancient movie palace. I could hide in its otherworldly, cavernous, intricately detailed space and serve others by doing what were essentially household chores, cooped up within a dusty, architectural relic which kept at bay the frightening modern world outside and the lingering ripples of September 11. To this day, I still don't know if I can ever be as selfless as so many people were on that day.

From that meek entry into volunteer service in that ancient, dreamlike echo chamber, it took ten years for a personal narrative to evolve, to discover Habitat for Humanity, and to conceive the journey in which I would travel to help build 100 Habitat homes around the world. I've criss-crossed the country by train and bus fifteen times by now; I must have passed through 40 states. I was able to intertwine my artistic pursuits--illustration, sculpture, photography, journalism--into my humanitarian work for Habitat. It gave my life a straight and true path. Forever embedded in that ongoing narrative are the tragic events of September 11 and, further back from that, the death of my mother, a lifelong expression of grief transformed into an act of love for the world.


In my travels volunteering for Habitat, I see single mothers struggling to raise children all over the country, the type of family that Habitat mainly serves, and I think about my own mother, who achieved brilliant success in a career as a doctor, and who was never in want financially, but, from what others have told me, was always exceedingly generous and giving. She studied medicine in the Philippines, and, on her first try, passed the medical exam to earn the right to practice medicine in the United States; others have had to to take the exam several times before passing. I learned to see with immense gratitude how fortunate my mother was in her own upbringing, and how she passed down to me all the rewards of her fortune, both inherited and self-made. I express through my volunteer work that eternal gratitude for having a wonderful and perfect mother for four years; at times, I can see with a heart of gratitude that perhaps four years with my mother was plentiful enough.

I look at photos of my mother as she existed long before I was even a glimmer in her eye, and she stands out so vividly from the crowd; a relative told me my mother had a regal presence about her. My mother was very beautiful. There is an air of sophistication, style, and class about her, fully independent and free-spirited, and it is always difficult to reconcile that with the down-to-earth, modest and plain-demeanored, inscrutable and enigmatic, but unconditionally loving image I have of her. It seems like she sacrificed all those fashionable, prominent trappings of success to take on the humble and demanding role of a parent, to become my mother. She was so young, but she seemed so ancient in her wisdom and tenderness. To me, she was simply my mother.

I'd like to think I'll achieve my personal goals of becoming a Disney Imagineer, and of committing my entire life to serve others all over the world through Habitat, but there is one broken dream in my life that I would gladly trade all my other ones to get to realize: that I will never be able to fulfill the dream of seeing my mother grow up with me, and grow old, so that it would become my turn to become the parent, and she the child, and to care for her with all the unconditional love and compassion that she gave to me. She will always be frozen in time at the still youthful age of 37, as timeless in memory as her God-like presence was to me when she was alive, and it will be I who will gradually fade with age and fall victim to the inexorable ravages of time.

The first woman a man loves and protects, in order to become a man, is his mother, and it is my tragic misfortune that I never received the honor to joyfully and humbly care for her. I grew increasingly aware of the subtext that helping build homes for struggling mothers became a vicarious act of living out the honor of protecting my mother.

Somehow during the three years of my Habitat travels, I returned to God, and the crux of my faith, and my lifelong struggle with it, is in reconciling a crippling and painful personal tragedy--and tragedy and suffering in general--with the joyful belief that all is well, and that the universe is unfolding as it should in the hands of an unconditionally loving God. I, a broken, wounded, and damaged man, chose to become a humble servant of God.

As an act of remembrance, it is my wish to create an award in her name, Teofista, that Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles can present to its partner families. In each Habitat home, that award, as a meager representation of what she means to me, would have a place, just as my mother has a place in all the homes that I have helped build around the country, through the small amount of work I have contributed to each one. She has a place in the homes I have helped build in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans (three homes), Chicago, Minneapolis/St.Paul, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, and San Diego; 65 homes in total thus far.

In a considerably smaller way, I have carried my memory of her as Bono carries his memory of his mother in the song "I Will Follow" when U2 performs the song on tour around the world.

In the monthly Habitat Happenings newsletter, there is a list of major donors who have contributed substantial amounts of money to Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles. The largest donation tier is $50,000 and above, occupied solely by General Motors. It is my desire to raise $50,000 so that my mother's name, Dr. Teofista Viñas, can always appear in the Habitat Happenings newsletter in perpetuity.

Above all, I would want my mother to be remembered by what I can accomplish in my lifetime as a humanitarian first, and as an artist second.

One of the last memories I have of my mother was when the entire Viñas family took a road trip down to Florida to go to Walt Disney World, a few months before she died. There is a massive hotel lobby through which the monorails pass on either side, framing a giant vertical mural. Two of my cousins, my mother, and I sat on a bench directly below that abstract mural waiting, for what I cannot remember. I stared up for a long time at the high ceiling, transfixed, at a Mickey Mouse balloon floating up there by its lonesome. Perhaps that was the first time my eyes were gazing boldly out into the world on their own, independent of my mother's guidance, and the last time they could drift away and range freely knowing that she was wonderfully nearby to call me back.


Why do you build?

For those who can answer this question with their life's work, the simple answer is, "Love." For those who have committed their lives to service, it is the undeniable force of love that compels one to give time to serve others, whether a single day, or, in my case, three years and running.

I can say that I will commit the rest of my life to serve others with the infinite assurance in which I say that I will always love my mother.

A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by his hand
He stops to think, he starts to cry,
"Oh, why?"

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow.
-- U2, "I Will Follow"

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's where the light gets in
-- Leonard Cohen

Related Posts:
Three Years and 57 Habitat Homes Later
A Habitat Trip to Denver, CO
Patrick Diaz Builds to Remember

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