Day of the Dad

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DiPaulo changed other, more intimate behavior patterns. For the longest time, he could never hug his boys. Perhaps it was the distant relationship he'd had with his own father, or maybe it was his own machismo, but he'd always been the type of guy who drove to the school, opened the door and that was that. One day, though, he parked his car and walked into Marco's class. When the boy saw him, he wrapped his arms around his father and squeezed.

Marco had tried that in the past, but diPaulo had always pushed him away. "Boys don't do that," he'd said. But this time, diPaulo reached down and hugged his son.

Every father has a journey, Trinidad Sanchez Jr. believes. As often as not, it begins in the footsteps of his own father.

"We all have our fathers inside of us," he says.

Sanchez is a poet, social worker and, at 59, the father of a nine-year-old stepdaughter. He's also coordinator of the Rocky Mountain SER Head Start fatherhood program, where he helps dads become better parents by becoming involved in their children's education early on.

"The earlier the better," he says.

Sanchez is from Michigan, the ninth of ten children. By the time he was born, his eldest brother had entered the Navy and his father was 45 years old. As a boy, Sanchez often wondered if his dad had "run out of hugs," because Trinidad Sr. never showed him much affection. He was either working twelve-hour days in his pool hall to pay the bills or crafting poems late into the night on a manual typewriter.

His father had emotion in him, Sanchez says. It came out in the poems about the women in his life, holidays and everyday observations. But he waited until Sanchez left home at nineteen before showing such feelings for the boy who shared his name. In a poem titled "To Trino," Sanchez's father wrote:

When you feel lonesome and blue,

Count all the stars in the sky.

It is the times, we think of you

Since the day you said, "Good-Bye."

When you see the moon so bright

Or feel the touch of the breeze,

Ask the moon every night

Or the wind, for our kiss

Don't fear the storm, in the brink

Or the high winds in the night.

It is Papa, who took a drink

And wanted to hug you tight.

Twenty years passed before Sanchez recognized what his father was trying to tell him. By then, Trinidad Sr. had been dead for nearly two decades and his namesake was becoming a poet himself, exploring his life as a Chicano. One night, after he was fired from a social-service job working with inmates and had engaged in a heavy session of boozing, Sanchez reread his dad's poem, particularly the last line: "And wanted to hug you tight."

His father was trying to apologize. To explain. To comfort his son in a way he never had. Inspired, Sanchez wrote his own poem, "For Papa."

"In it," he remembers, "for the first time, I told my dad, 'I love you.'"

Sanchez joined a men's support group and continued his work with young offenders and inmates, particularly in Latino and African-American communities. In workshops and prisons alike, a theme was emerging: Many men, especially incarcerated men, had troubled relationships with their fathers.

Working as a creative-writing teacher in San Antonio, Sanchez encouraged his high school students to write about their dads. One boy scrawled a single sentence, then bolted from the room. Sanchez picked up the paper and read: "God damn mother fucking child molester."

And he thought, "That's the poem."

In the late '90s, Sanchez moved to Denver and took a community-outreach job with Family Star's Montessori and early Head Start program. And there, after working more intensively with parents, he decided to use poetry to help men become better fathers.

At first the men bristled. But once they got going, the words flowed. They cut through layers and broke down barriers, helping "release anger held inside for so long," one wrote. "To open doors that had been closed," offered another.

"A man doesn't have to be afraid to write something to another man," observed a third.

"Today," a participant wrote, "I learned how to use the love word without being ashamed."

The poetry workshops can be painful at times, Sanchez says. But they are also liberating, healing and joyful. Combined with more traditional fatherhood lessons, which Sanchez also administers, the writing helps men connect with their families in a way that he did with his own dad.

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Harrison Fletcher