When Melanie Lopez found herself pregnant at the age of 17, she knew she was facing a difficult road.
“Being a teen mom was challenging,” Lopez exerts. “People think you’re stupid. They automatically look down on you.”
No doubt, the stigma against teen moms can be venomous. But a Latina teen giving birth to a black baby can sting even harder. Lopez felt an unfair shadow cast on her when she gave birth.
“The doctor told me to be quiet,” Lopez says. “I was yelling in pain. They had zero compassion for me at that hospital. They just saw a teen mom and assumed the stereotype.”
Lopez was no stranger to the issue of diversity and acceptance. Growing up in Milpitas, Calif., gave her a strong lesson in race politics.
“I grew up in a diverse area,” she says. “Milpitas was one-third Asian. We had one of everything.”
In addition to a multicultural environment, Lopez took an interest in reading books revolving around intense themes. Her grandmother was always quick to share opinions on the topic.
“I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 15, and it had an effect on me,” says Lopez. “My grandmother would sit me down and talk to me about race and identity. She warned me about not letting that get in the way of really seeing a person.”
Lopez came to her own conclusions at a young age. “Racism is implicit bias,” she insists.
And still today, these themes are at the forefront of her family values. The mother of two is drawn to educating others about the assorted social imbalances in the world. It’s no surprise the mission starts with her own children—Marcus, 17, and Tyla, 9.
“We have the hard talks in this household, about society and gender and race,” she says. “When Marcus was younger, he didn’t exactly fit into the typical boy model. He really liked the singer, Selena. He would imitate her singing and her style. I remember having talks with him about this stuff at 3 or 4 years old.”
Once her son was stopped by a bike cop downtown. The offense? Running across the street on a no-walk signal.
“They thought he stole something, they kept questioning him, wanting to search him,” she says.
The reality was Marcus was late for a church function where he was scheduled to volunteer.
Family values were rocked harder when the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin hit the media. Martin was the 17-year-old, African-American who was shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was not arrested for 44 days, and the shooting raised questions about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Lopez and Marcus attended a local rally together, both of them speaking out on the tough subject.
“My son looks like Trayvon,” Lopez states flatly.
She prepared a speech elaborating on the feelings she had on the subject, spanning from anger to sadness to hope.
“Michael Vick was arrested and imprisoned for torturing and killing dogs,” she wrote in her speech. “Is my son’s life worth less than a dog’s? Is Trayvon Martin’s life worth less than a dog’s? My heart goes out to Trayvon Martin’s family, and though I know they will probably never find peace in the senseless murder of their son, I hope they find justice.”
Marcus was on News Channel 8 later that evening providing his point of view on the subject. One of his mother’s proudest moments, she tells me.
When it comes to her daughter, Lopez expresses less comfort about the topic of safety.
“Being a girl is hard,” she says. “I worry for her more than my son. Tyla is definitely not shy about saying what is on her mind. She is who she is. She’s just like me.”
On Halloween, Tyla dressed up as hard-as-rocks Joan Jett, one of her idols.
“She looked great,” says Lopez. “I want her to be comfortable with who she is. I don’t want her to feel less because she’s a girl.”
When Tyla visited the Reno Roller Girls on her birthday, the girls made her a black poster with green glitter words sprawled across it. It read, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, girl.”
Protest speeches and girl-power feminism aside, what makes the family so unique is its no-nonsense approach to family issues. Lopez is the first to admit struggles in her life.
“I want them to know I’ve made mistakes too,” she says.
Lopez has struggled with ADHD, depression, and bipolar disorder her entire life. Her philosophy is to be open about it.
“When it’s bad, it’s really bad,” she says. “Marcus has helped me a lot with it. Tyla comforts me in bed.”
Lopez has done her fair share of activism in Reno, from feeding the homeless on Record Street every Thursday night to bringing anti-racism speaker and writer Tim Wise to her church. Lopez serves as a glowing example for her children, a statement to march to the beat of their own drum.
“I don’t want my kids to follow the status quo,” she says. “I want them to question things.”
And the rebellion runs true through the bloodline.