Humans of TCGMC: Carlos Saldaña

Humans of TCGMC: Carlos Saldaña

Carlos Saldaña, our current membership president, recently bought his first house. In one of the most inspirational stories Humans has ever done, he reminds us that love, not bricks and mortar, is the true foundation for a home.

Josh: I saw the Facebook post about you getting a new house. Congratulations! I avoided reading the post so I could hear the story in person. You told me today that having a home was very important to you. Could you tell me a bit more?

Carlos: I was born to two poor, lower-class, working parents from Puerto Rico. My dad was in the U.S. Army, so we moved around a lot. After he left the army, we still moved around a lot, and my parents still struggled financially. We lived in a two-bedroom house with my mom, my dad, my two siblings, my dad’s sister, her husband, and their four kids. My parents’ only attempt at owning a house ended in foreclosure, and that’s when their marriage ended in divorce. There was a lot of alcoholism and emotional and physical abuse from my mom, who was very violent with me. After my parents divorced, I wanted to live with my dad, but he was very financially unstable. We got evicted a lot. I remember sleeping in a car with him. It’s something we didn’t talk about, because he was so ashamed of it. My dad had a hard time supporting me, so I was shipped off to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I had feelings of abandonment, of being displaced, and being shipped away. 

Josh: What about the cultural shock? Did your parents teach you Spanish?

Carlos: I did not grow up in a household speaking Spanish. My parents used it against us, like when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. In secrecy, they spoke to each other in Spanish, but not to us. I didn’t speak fluently, so it was very hard to go to school in Puerto Rico, and to live with my grandparents.

Josh: It’s another way you felt abandoned.

Carlos: Yes. Fortunately, I learned Spanish through immersion. I had a wonderful relationship with my grandparents, and they were nurturing, gave me everything I needed. I learned to work hard with them, and it was a formative year for me.

After a year, though, I moved back to Florida with my dad, who was supposedly “on his feet.” I was starting high school in a new town, and I had no friends. My whole freshman year, I spent alone hiding in stairways and bathroom stalls. One day, though, I was riding the school bus home and listening to the radio and singing along to it, and someone turned to me and said, “You have a beautiful singing voice. You should audition for the school’s concert choir.” 

It really changed my life. I found belonging and a healthy relationship with a wonderful choir director, who really encouraged me to pursue voice lessons and go to college. On top of that, the year I auditioned, we’d been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, and my mother’s mom, who lives in New York City, got to see it.

Josh: Carnegie Hall as a high schooler? That’s insane! What happened after high school?

Carlos: My employer transferred me to Minneapolis in 2008. I had a hard time with it because I didn’t know how to help professionally, and I was drowning in my work. I resigned my position, but I thought I would find newer work – in 2008 – and I did not.

Eventually, I started using meth. I could say more to that, but I’m kind of simplifying. During my meth addiction, I experienced a lot of pain and suffering at my own addiction. I lost jobs, and hurt people, and I mostly hurt myself. I joined the chorus when I first got sober. I was at an NA meeting, I heard about auditions, and I ended up showing up the next day. I’d missed singing and I knew that singing had saved my life in the past. So I joined the chorus in 2013.

Of course, I found a place where I could connect to choral music, but also to people in the gay community in a way that I had not experienced. It didn’t involve meth and it didn’t involve sex. Instead, it involved friendship. It’s also where I was when I discovered I was HIV+, and I received incredible support from the people around me.

Josh: I’m so glad you got to be there as a safe haven. As a fellow addict in recovery, I have immense respect for your journey. And what I find even more impressive is how much you’ve given back. You were on the retreat planning committee, the Tenor 1 Section Admin for over 3 years, and now you’re the Membership President! Thank you for your service! What motivates you?

Carlos: I love that I get to be of service to our membership in a way that advocates for them, their needs, and for the organization as a whole. During “focus,” which we do right before a concert, we sing “Walk Hand in Hand” to the new members. It’s a very special moment for me, because I have so much gratitude for what this chorus has done for me, and I get overwhelmed with joy and excitement at what we can do for these new members, and what those new members mean for the longevity of our 41-year old organization. 

Josh: And, to bring it home (literally)… I believe you found your new house through a pretty extraordinary series of events, and it involved a chorus member!

Carlos: Yeah! I met Gavin Reeves when I joined the chorus, and we became close friends. He lived in this house in South Minneapolis with his friends, Taylor and Hannah. I became friends with them, and eventually, Taylor and Hannah moved back to California when they had a new child. They invited Gavin to stay in the house as a tenant, and they would keep the house as an income property, as long as he could invite someone to live with him to share the cost. It was a huge savings for me, since I was living in a new construction Minneapolis apartment. Taylor and Hannah knew the savings would help me buy a house of my own one day. 

One day, when they decided to sell the house, they told me they wanted to sell the house to me. They asked if I was interested in buying, but I assumed it was beyond my buying power. These really kind, generous people helped me make that happen by selling me a house well below market value. I secured the financing, but each of them gifted me money to help make my down payment. It felt like winning the lottery. And none of that would’ve happened without the connections you made in the chorus. I know that these connections we make can make dreams like home ownership come true. For someone who has a history like mine, I didn’t believe I would ever own a home. It was not the dream for a poor, Puerto Rican guy like me. The reality is, I’m a homeowner.

Josh: I’ve done over 30 interviews with Humans, and this is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve ever heard. I’m so honored to have you share this with me. Thank you. I do want to remind you of something, though. You say you won the lottery, but I also say that, in the end, you were the one who got off meth. You were the one who worked to audition and perfect your singing, who developed loving relationships with those around you and gave to them. The house, to me, is secondary, because you created a home for yourself long before you had a mortgage. And now you get to help others in the chorus create a home. For that, we thank you.

Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.

Check out the archive of previous interviews!