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‘Just don’t give up’: San Diego native Jesse Leon seeks to inspire hope in debut memoir ‘I’m Not Broken’

Author Jesse Leon poses for photos along Laurel Street by the Cabrillo Bridge on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022.
Author Jesse Leon, whose book is called “I’m Not Broken,” poses for photos along Laurel Street by the Cabrillo Bridge.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘I’m Not Broken’ is a no-holds-barred account of new author Jesse Leon’s life growing up as a “poor Chicano kid” in San Diego

Jesse Leon has been crying a lot lately.

That’s not to imply that the local consultant and debut author is necessarily sad. It’s just been an intense time.

“I read the audiobook myself, but I was really emotional,” says Leon at his home in Hillcrest. “I didn’t think Random House was going to let it go through, but they did.”

The book in question is Leon’s recently released memoir, “I’m Not Broken,” a no-holds-barred account of his life growing up a “poor Chicano kid” in San Diego, as well as his struggles with addiction, working as a sex worker, and, eventually, his success after getting sober. He says it was one thing to write the book, but speaking his own words out loud hit him just as hard.

“It was, the word would be ... ,” Leon says, pausing to try to find the right way to describe it. “Cathartic doesn’t even hit it. It was just extremely emotional, but it was also empowering. It was a lot of fun, but it was also very painful.”

Just a few minutes later, his emotions, again, get the best of him and he begins to tear up.

“I constantly have to come back to my intent of why I wanted to tell my story in the first place,” Leon says. “And the intent was always to inspire hope so that others don’t kill themselves; so that our family members, who are seeing us, as individuals, go through this—addiction, mental health issues, anxiety, depression, sex abuse, trauma, and identity issues—that even our family members can get a sense of hope. That we’re not broken. Just don’t give up.”

A dark place

Leon never intended on publishing “I’m Not Broken,” but he knew he had to write it. Since getting sober in 1993, and later beginning a career in the fields of philanthropy and public investment, he would often share parts of his story with people. Whether it was in a motivational speech to a group of businesspeople or as a cautionary tale to a group of boys in a juvenile detention facility, there was always something about Leon’s words that connected with people.

“Speaking at these conventions and in recovery, there were these moments of magic where people would come up to me, hug me and start crying,” Leon says. “They would thank me for telling my story, and they would always ask if I was writing a book.”

In a life seemingly filled with cathartic moments, Leon says it was two specific events that ultimately inspired him to begin writing his story. First, after recovery and a successful career that has taken him all over the U.S., he says he still felt a sense of isolation and even depression. It was his hope that sharing his story in an amplified way would help with these feelings.

“What really ultimately inspired me was that for too long, I felt alone. I felt hopeless, broken,” says Leon, adding that it was specifically people of color that he felt isolated from. “For a long time, I felt like the only young person of color who had gone through my types of painful experiences.”

The second event was the death of his father, Ricardo Leon, in 2013. Leon says his father’s death sent him to a “dark place.”

“My dad took a lot of the older generations’ stories of resilience with him,” Leon says. “I wanted to document these stories of resilience and survival to show the next generation that we come from a strong line of people who survive and thrive.”

These family stories are peppered throughout “I’m Not Broken.” They all serve to show that however strong the bond of family can be, there are also cycles of inherited trauma that Leon, through telling his story, was hoping to break.

‘Drug-addicted Chicano kid’

“I’m Not Broken” is, if anything else, a harrowing tale. The book is filled with heart-wrenching moments, traumatic events, and so many instances of tragic rock-bottoms that Leon himself agrees that it’s amazing he’s alive.

“People say, ‘You pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps,’ and I’m always like, ‘No, there were no boots to even pull myself up with,’” Leon says.

Leon spends the bulk of the memoir outlining how one tragic circumstance led to another. Born Jesus “Jesse” Leon, in 1974, he was raised in San Diego in a “fiercely Catholic” family, but would end up a “poor, sexually abused, drug-addicted Chicano kid” living in a run-down duplex in pre-gentrification downtown San Diego. Despite being a gifted student, he got into drinking and drugs as an adolescent and, shortly after, began working as a sex worker in the cruising spots around Balboa Park.

The book is practically bursting with tragic moments but is seasoned with sprinkles of hope that are dashed away a few pages later. But it’s Leon’s recollections of a storekeeper in his neighborhood that repeatedly raped him when he was 11 years old that are the most harrowing.

“It was extremely painful to recount,” Leon says. “No matter how much healing and working through the traumas I do, talking about that still generates so much pain. But I felt the need to tell the story so that others don’t feel so alone. I can turn my scars into hope for others.”

Back then, however, there was no hope for Leon, who says he would often contemplate suicide whenever he was standing on a bridge in Balboa Park. After years of abuse with almost every drug there was and working as an underage prostitute, Leon finally decided to get sober in 1993. He relapsed only a few weeks later and, around the same time, he was viciously gang-raped and beaten by a group of men before stumbling home. He says he’s been sober ever since.

Leon also discusses his struggles with his sexuality throughout the book. He never officially came out to his father, and one of the more understated aspects of “I’m Not Broken” is its exploration of the concepts of American fortitude and/or Mexican machismo.

“I believe the book touches on a lot of universal topics that each reader will pull something different from it,” says Leon, who finally accepted himself as a gay man around the same time he got sober, and he came out to his mother shortly after. “However, one of the topics that I think will particularly touch Latinos is the topic of machismo. I’m not generalizing machismo — that’s not my intent — but that hyper-masculinity materialized in a toxic manner and caused my family, myself and the ones I love a lot of pain.”

‘Always a nerd’

The original title of Leon’s memoir was, simply, “Nerd.” The book opens in 2001, when he is receiving his master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and his older brother still calls out to Leon by his childhood nickname.

“For me, growing up, I was always picked on. I was always an outcast,” he says. “‘Nerd’ was my nickname growing up. But the title was going to be an acronym for ‘never ending resilience and determination.’ I wanted to take the word and turn it around.”

Leon sees the book as speaking to the types of young people, specifically those of color, who simply don’t fit in and who struggle to find themselves while growing up in neglected communities.

“That was my whole purpose here, was to write to all those other nerds out there who feel like an outcast who want to be who they are, but can’t because of community and society pressures,” Leon says. “I’m trying to tell them it’s OK to be who they are.”

He’s extended this hopeful outreach in the work he’s done since graduating from Harvard. Over the past two decades, he’s worked all over the U.S. for a variety of companies, organizations and nonprofits with a particular emphasis on, as he puts it, “philanthropy at the intersections of affordable housing, substance abuse, mental health and education programs.”

Leon moved back to San Diego just before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to work within these fields while also dutifully taking care of his mother. He sees the publication of “I’m Not Broken” as not only an extension of his work to help others but another step in his journey to help himself.

“I never thought that coming home would have been so healing,” says Leon, pointing out that it was only a month after returning to San Diego that he got a meeting that resulted in him finding a book agent. “Things just started happening after I got here. It felt like I had to come full circle for the magic to happen and for the healing to continue.”

“I’m Not Broken” by Jesse Leon (Vintage, 2022; 336 pages)

Warwick’s presents Jesse Leon

When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24

Where: Virtual event through Warwick’s

Admission: Free

Online: warwicks.com

Combs is a freelance writer.


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