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Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' didn't just speak to me – it changed my life, and taught me English

As I listened to the release of 'Speak Now (Taylor's Version),' the new version of the album that had filled me with hope and joy in Nicaragua, I realized I've found the person I needed. It's me.

Jose Caballero
Opinion contributor

Growing up in Nicaragua felt like prison. I heard bombs from my porch window, saw people set fires, studied by candlelight, and went days without electricity or water. I lived in a culture of poverty and violence. Nothing seemed safe. I feared for my life. 

To support my younger sister and me, my mother made the difficult decision to emigrate to the United States by herself when I was 2. We moved in with my aunt in a nearby town because my father was incapable of fulfilling his parental obligations. No one ever read stories to me or kissed me on the forehead before going to sleep. No one liked hearing me cry because I missed my mother. I saw my neighbors teaching their kids how to ride bicycles. I longed for simple childhood experiences. 

I saw barricades, protests, shootings and violence daily. I also saw the persecution of those who were different.

I am gay. My older cousin was beaten for being gay, singled out because of who he was. This made me fearful of revealing my identity to anyone, and I faced mental health challenges from an early age: trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, loneliness and a crisis around my identity. 

I kept to myself and channeled my energy into becoming the scholar of my family. They were happy with my academic achievement but always asked, “When will you get a girlfriend?” When they heard me listening to Taylor Swift’s "Speak Now" album, they'd say, "You’re a man – only girls do that." 

Jose Caballero

Taylor Swift offered escape at my lowest moments

I taught myself to dream of acceptance, success and a better life. And, I had an escape in Swift’s music. Her otherworldly songs evoke feelings of safety, euphoria, hope, dreaminess and freedom all at once. Putting on my headphones, I’d momentarily forget I was in Nicaragua, imagining myself in New York City, like in a movie. 

When I was 14, my mother sent for me and my sister to live with her in Miami. I thought it would solve all my problems. It didn’t. I had food, power, water and even a laptop for homework, but I began to experience loneliness I had never felt before. The cultural shock, coupled with language and socioeconomic barriers, made me feel alienated. 

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Mom sent me off for my first day of high school with, “Good luck, go and change the world.” But I quickly realized I was late to the game. While my peers went on campus tours and got private SAT prep, I had extreme academic pressure and a language barrier to overcome. While they went on family vacations, I supported my family by translating legal and medical documents.

Throughout this constant pressure, my family would remind me: "We can’t afford college; get a scholarship." I was alone and vulnerable; it was excruciating pressure, and I just wanted it to end.

At my lowest, I knew I needed to find an escape to protect my mental health, and Taylor Swift offered it. Constantly listening to her music, she became my English instructor.

I also found joy and community when I joined my high school cheerleading team. It was critical for me to have these experiences. Dreams can be elusive, and no one teaches you how to keep pursuing them after you fail. I found a way to push forward despite depression and failure. That became my superpower. 

Finding community, my 'Wildest Dreams'

I also realized I needed to use it to advocate for myself. I critically reflected on my goals, offered self-compassion, sought professional help with therapy, and learned there is no perfect formula to achieve your dreams.

While searching for help for my depression, I found others who were experiencing what I was going through. This community of support in my high school led to the creation of a community group, In Touch, as a way to give students a place to connect and share their stories. I was honored when we were recognized by the Miami Herald and applauded by The Jed Foundation. This allowed me to share my story, advocate for mental health and help my peers gain acceptance.  

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I was successful in transferring from college in Miami to my dream school, Columbia University, where I began my new life in New York City (as I imagined when I was younger). This is not a new chapter in my life. It is a new book. Taylor might call it the start of my "1989"era. 

As I listened to the release of "Speak Now (Taylor's Version)," the new version of the album that once filled me with hope and joy in Nicaragua, I realized that I have finally found the person I needed when I was a boy. It’s me. 

I want my story to provide some hope, perspective and comfort for young people like me. I hope it gives those facing all or part of what I experienced the strength to push through disappointment and failure, and seek out the help they need. I want you to know you are not alone, and that with the right support you can, in the empowering words of my hero, Taylor Swift, realize your “Wildest Dreams.”

Jose Caballero

Jose Caballero is a sophomore at Columbia University pursuing a degree in psychology.

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