Jesse Leon’s debut book “I’m Not Broken” is a testament to human resilience amidst devastating life struggles.
On February 23, Leon spoke at the Berkeley High School Library, sharing his new memoir and the inspirational pathway he took in order to achieve so much.
Leon grew up in San Diego, where as a young boy he was the victim of sex trafficking. As a result, Leon fell into deep substance abuse and self-harm, and at only 18, his life felt shattered. “For so long I felt hopeless, I felt broken,” Leon said. “I was that troublemaker that a lot of people wanted to give up,” he continued.
Despite the despair in his life, Leon’s family came together. Today, standing in front of a room filled with students, Leon is a University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University graduate, and a published author.
The process of writing and publishing was nuanced for Leon. “Writing the book was extremely cathartic,” he shared. “A lot of emotions and at the same time a lot of healing.”
To see how Leon inspires youth in our community, it is necessary to explore his identity as a gay Chicano man. “My journey of self-acceptance wasn’t linear. It was a lot of ups and downs and a lot of pain,” Leon said.
“I wish (coming to terms with my queer identity) would have happened at a younger age,” he said. “Even now, sometimes I want to wear nail polish and it’s just nail polish. So what?” He said.
Help from others was also essential for turning his life around. “Oftentimes role models may show up in our lives that may not be who we’d like, or we’d expect,” said Leon. “I am the result of an entire community galvanizing around me when I wanted to give up.”
One of Leon’s biggest mentors continues contributing to Berkeley High. Adriana Betti is a former math teacher, the executive director of the Responsibility, Integrity, Strength Empowerment program and the founder of the Native Youth Group. “We were able to have (such) a strong bond that I consider her my sister,” Leon said.
Their enduring connection is what made the event happen. “(Jesse) was participating in our Native Youth Group in the 90s when he was at Cal,” Betti shared. “He was journeying from his troubled stage into a new life for himself.” When Betti heard Leon was coming back to UC Berkeley to give a presentation, she asked him out of solidarity, to speak to the kids she teaches.
The struggles Leon faced are the same ones many youth of color confront today. “Our kids often don’t have someone who looks like them, who has lived like them, (say) these things,” Betti emphasized. “Having someone who is completely in their lane impacts them in a different way,” she continued. “(Leon) wants them to know that the road only ends when you stop working.”
“I really admire how strong of a person (Leon) is,” said freshman Adriana Carlos. “It’s amazing to get so much accomplished with all that weight on your shoulders. “It’s remarkable and I really recognize him for being able to tell his story and to write a book about it,” Carlos said.
“We do go from living in trauma to being triumphant,” Leon said. “We do go from merely surviving to thriving.” He added.
Leon surviving and achieving so much has opened a pathway to help others. His struggle with drugs while being a survivor of sex-trafficking can connect with so many youth who feel trapped. “I would tell my little Jesse that it’s going to get better,” Leon said. “The candle of hope in all the darkness (became) a burning flame of hope and inspiration for me to change other people’s lives.”