The Power of Presence

April 01, 2024

Oscar Lopez (He/Him/His)  is a recent Government and Canfield Business Honors graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2019, he was named a Google Public Policy Fellow where he worked on issues concerning broadband access, data privacy, and net neutrality. In 2020, Oscar worked as a Policy Fellow with Next Century Cities where he researched the effects of the digital divide on low-income and marginalized communities. During the spring of 2022, Oscar worked on federal climate policy as a White House Council on Environmental Quality intern.

As an artist, Oscar is currently developing a new photography project as an Artist in Residence at the Daphne Art Foundation. He is also working to alleviate food deserts in his hometown as a member of the Laredo Food Policy Council. A native of South Texas, Oscar is proud to be a fronterizo. 

This story took place in United States

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During the drive back to Austin from my hometown—a 3.5 hour trip that stretches through miles of open farmland; the urban San Antonio landscape; and a number of giant, animal-themed pit-stops that could only exist in a state with as grand an identity as Texas; my thoughts were not occupied with appreciation for the bluebonnets that line the open roads of cross-county travel; or images of my alma mater whose mascot, the longhorn, can be spotted in the many ranches that line the highway; but of an email I had forgotten to send before leaving. 

Just a few days earlier I had traveled home for a family birthday. As I’ve begun to venture away from my hometown, these trips back to my family have become sacred time. A practice in squeezing out every second from every hour of every day. At the birthday party; where my family typically makes a collection of the celebrant’s favorite foods, sings both “Happy Birthday” and “Las Mañanitias,” and attempt to push the celebrant’s face into the birthday cake for the traditional “mordida” or bite; my Abuela stared as I hunched over my laptop typing furiously through a task that absolutely could have waited for another time. But, the food had not yet been served, and in the spirit of productivity I was sure I could hammer out another item on my to-do list over the next few minutes. 

“Mijo,” she told me, “you’ve been working since you got into town, surely you can take a moment to rest.” “I’m almost done,” I replied half lying as I returned to the multi-colored pixels of my laptop screen. Typically, my drives to and from home are a forced opportunity to disconnect from my work and reflect. I often joke that I have some of my most profound revelations on these drives.

(Oscar’s family/Courtesy of Oscar)

As I zoomed past patches of wild grass and cacti, left with just my thoughts and a Spotify playlist that cut in and out due to the spotty service in rural parts of Texas, my mind hovered around the finiteness of my time with my loved ones. The more I established a life away from home, the more obvious it became that my time with my family was becoming more precious. No matter how much I could hold back the hour and minute hands on a clock, despite my greatest attempts at bending reality and making minutes last as long as hours, I could not change the fact that my siblings are getting older—as are my parents and grandparents. 

A few months back, I had a conversation with my best friend about a post we had both seen on social media. The post tallied the amount of times a person would have left to see their family if they were living hundreds of miles from home and only returned to visit for major holidays. Though I was still in Texas, and thus had easier access to seeing my loved ones, my friend—who had just left Texas for Connecticut—was still getting accustomed to this newfound distance created by professional opportunity. As we looked over the number of “home visits” we would have left according to the post, it was obvious that we both weren’t quite ready for this reality. Could we really live with the idea of only seeing our loved ones three times a year for the rest of our lives? Knowing that I, too, would likely be leaving Texas soon, I reflected on whether I had taken advantage of my current close proximity to family. I thought that by being present physically at my family’s gatherings, I was making the most of my time home. In reality, my inability to step away from my work and a need to be productive made it as though it were no different whether I was present or not. While current times are often defined by the valuing of expediency over quality, self-importance over connection, is it too much to dream for something different? For a reaffirmation that time together is best spent when full attention is given to the moment—recognizing the fragility and finitude of time. 

When I got back to Austin, I called the same friend that I had spoken to just a few months back and updated them on my trip thoughts, and my experiences back home. From our conversation, it was obvious that having grown up in a professional environment that demanded perfection and constant productivity, we had forgotten the value of true presence. I ended the call with the realization that though I could not bend the laws of space and time, and though there would always be an email in my inbox waiting for my reply, I could make the moments I had with my loved ones count, and that was enough. 

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