The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. They join us in inviting you to take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist . . .
“When you’re a writer it’s easy, and it isn’t so easy, to find yourself. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to be a copywriter or a journalist.’ When you’ve broken out of these shells and you just want to be a writer, then it’s all there for you. It can be fiction. It can be non-fiction. It can be spoken storytelling. It can be television. It can be film. It can be anything really. It’s all in this creative world that involves writing. That’s been my evolution.”
For Paul Cuadros, “it” has been all of these things. More than anything else, Paul is a writer.
I’m reading this book titled Ikigai by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles. It’s about the phenomenon which the authors believe to be a secret to longevity in Japanese culture. The term Ikigai refers to one’s passion for his/her life’s work. The authors see it as a key ingredient to longevity and happiness in one’s life. Ikigai is“…a purpose that guides you …and pushes you to make things of beauty and utility for the community and yourself (99)”. I could not have come up with a more apt and fitting term to apply to the life of Paul Cuadros than someone who has found and nurtured his Ikigai.
To offer another, albeit paradoxical, comparison I conjure up the infamous Hunter S. Thompson. While there may not be a more opposite character out there, Paul is a shining example of the type of journalism that Thompson became famous for– Gonzo Journalism. Gonzo Journalism hinges on the idea that one cannot objectively report on events. A writer must acknowledge that he/she is a character in the story. This style relies on an immersion into the story. Paul Cuadros has done (is doing) this to a very profound level. His evolution has led him from a place of objectivity to one where he is the protagonist of his own beautiful story.
Paul didn’t start out that way. While his creative talents led him early on to find a lucrative copywriting position in Chicago, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t want to make his life about sales. He shifted to something more aligned with his values—he became an award-winning investigative journalist. Paul defines his writing at that time as data-driven. In short, he would look at data sets. The data pointed him to a story. He would then report on the story. Over the years, Paul wrote for Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and many other highly notable publications.
While working in Washington D.C., the data led him to research working conditions. This led him to chicken plants, which led him to immigration. This led him to a book idea. He then applied for and received a fellowship to document the experience of immigrant workers. Paul discovered that workers were being recruited at the southern border of the United States and being transported to processing plants across the country. Because they were permanent workers, they brought with them their families. At this time, the laws on immigration were changing. Many workers were forced to make a tough decision to permanently relocate their families or go back to their home country. As a result, the face of America was changing rapidly. Paul wanted to be on the front lines of this story and reflect these local communities back to his readers. He was given three geographical options for this work. Of those choices, he chose Chatham County. Chatham was the most rural option and the closest to DC. This choice catalyzed Paul’s work into the world of creative non-fiction. Paul was becoming a character in his own story.
“I want to create a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, that is real.”
Paul came to Chatham County in the late 1990s. He was working hard as a journalist and learning about the community. At that time, Siler City was being profoundly impacted by the emerging Latinx population. People were unsettled, confused, and distrustful. Newcomers were often greeted with fear. Paul came up with an idea. He wanted to give Latinx youth an outlet, an identity, a voice, and a home. Before long, Paul found himself as the coach of the Jets—a soccer team at Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City. The project was a huge success. Within three years, Paul took the fledgling team to the state finals, where they won! Instantly these young men, who had once been looked down upon and seen as troublemakers, were making news and bringing a ton of positivity to the strained community.
Paul, though, is not a soccer coach. Paul is a writer. Along the way, Paul was doing what he does— writing. His writing was changing. He had found a story, of which he was a part, to tell. Of course, the data was packed in too— but beyond that, Paul was blending all of his creative gifts into the project. This experience resulted in a book, A Home on the Field, that was published by Harper Collins in 2006. (Check out this article on Time Magazine’s website about that book.) Paul’s magnetic, creative voice pulled in readers. Since then, A Home on the Field has taken on a life of its own becoming a TV Docuseries Los Jets (produced in 2014 by Jennifer Lopez on NUVO); an exhibit at the NC Museum of Art; in a story that Paul, himself, told at a Monti Performance at Playmakers Theater; and, most recently, in a story of “Los Jets” in the Smithsonian’s exhibit and book on immigration that will likely find its way into the museum’s permanent exhibit covering the Latinx experience in the United States.
While Paul’s investigative journalism had gained him accolades and a promising career, it is this blend of his writing voice, his activist heart, and a creative form where he shines the brightest. Paul’s Ikigai has led him to a place where he has fulfilled his purpose and brought beauty and utility to his community and his self.
UNC, The Monti, and Beyond
One other byproduct of Paul’s writing is that he has found yet another avenue for expression—as an Associate Professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. If you’re ever in need of a humbling moment, just glance at his bio. While he will always define himself as a writer, he now adds teacher to the mix. While this article isn’t called to focus there, there is a lot to learn from that story, too.
Paul now sets his focus on his teaching, writing a companion piece to A Home on the Field (the original team is now in their 30’s!), and live storytelling. Hearing him speak about his experience on the Monti reveals a growing passion for the form. What is the same is that he is still telling a real story by crafting it into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and an end. What is different is that he has to perform it live and on stage! His first go around caught him off guard—he had, after all, given impassioned commencement speeches, rallied his players on the field, taught graduate level courses to student audiences, and even once was at the ready to confront a prominent member of the Anti-Immigration movement on a visit to Siler City in the local Golden Corral (you’ll have to ask him about that one). This history of speaking up and out led him to a place where he was not prepared for the butterflies that ensued while waiting in the wings to go on stage. That said, his talk was a success. It was, like all things he does seem to be, well received. The experience, nonetheless, lit a spark for him and he is now gathering ideas for his next Monti storytelling experience.
While Paul Cuadros doesn’t call himself an artist with ease, he is undoubtedly a writer of great depth, creativity, and purpose. Paul creates real stories from the random and often dark artifacts of life. With these beautiful stories, Paul seemingly manufactures happier endings while shedding light on subjects that tend to go unnoticed. He is the rare journalist who becomes one with his subject and makes the world a better place for all involved parties along the way. He’s a fighter. His active brand of activism is patient and, when teemed with his ability to tell stories, changes all of our lives for the better. Underneath all of the recognition and celebrity, Paul defines himself as a writer and a teacher. I would add activist and artist. Chatham County is so very lucky to have Paul Cuadros in our community.
● Full Name: Paul Cuadros
● Born: Ann Arbor, MI
● One of your favorite childhood memories: Playing soccer with my father and brothers inside Michigan Stadium.
● As a kid, my dream job was: Being a writer. And that’s what I am today.
● Three words that describe my art: Passionate. Driven. Narrative.
● I am inspired by: Stories.
● When I am not creating art, you’ll probably find me: Sitting on my porch looking at the sunset.
● Next on my bucket list is: Traveling to the Middle East!
● The most dangerous/craziest thing I ever did was: Report on some of the toughest neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South Sides.
● On my bedside table you’ll find: The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien inspires.
● Three Chatham County places I frequent are: Lomo Bonita in Siler City for the best tacos in the Triangle. Small Café in Pittsboro for a great breakfast and coffee. And House of Hops bar for the cold lagers. Chatham County is home.