J.P. Brammer was a newly-out-of-the-closet junior in college exploring Grindr when, for the first time in the app, “some white guy greeted me by saying, 'Hola papi,'” Brammer writes in his memoir, ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons. “I’d never really considered myself any kind of 'papi.' I was a mixed-race Mexican American with noodle arms who couldn’t legally drink yet. But in the overwhelming influx of everything that came with coming out... I didn't think too much of it.”
Brammer has since reclaimed the pickup line—first (in a full-circle moment) as the title of his satirical advice column for Grindr's digital magazine Into, and now as the title of his Substack and memoir. The book version of ¡Hola Papi! is a series of essays told in advice columns; at turns hilarious and wrenching looks at Brammer's upbringing as one of the few gay Mexican-American boys in his rural Oklahoma hometown. "We weren’t just some of the only Mexicans around," Brammer writes. "We were some of the only people around, period."
One standout query—"¡Hola Papi! How do I overcome my imposter syndrome to live my life as an authentic Latino? Signed, Panicked Hispanic"—inspires a chapter on Brammer's biracial background, the son of a Mexican mom and a white dad who felt stuck in between identities. Brammer's maternal grandma grew up poor in a Texas barrio, dropping out of fourth grade to make money picking fruit. "She hadn’t wanted her kids to deal with the things she’d dealt with," Brammer writes. "The result, Panicked? We all lost Spanish. We lost Christmas tamales. We lost quinceañeras, and we lost the sense that we were from somewhere else, that immutable otherness that separated my abuelos from me—their accents; the way they dressed; the color of their skin; their burdens. My mom, my sister, and I, meanwhile, were Americans with a squeeze of lime."
Other appeals for advice bring Brammer back to the relentless bullying he faced in high school, the fleeting glory at having a girlfriend in a world that desperately wanted him to be straight, and the conundrum of encountering one of said bullies years later on—where else?—Grindr. Vogue spoke with Brammer this week about what qualifies an advice columnist, being called “papi,” and anointing himself the “Chicano Carrie Bradshaw.”
You initially pitched the Grindr column Hola Papi as “Latino Dear Abby huffing poppers.” You made me think about how advice columns like "Dear Abby" and "Dear Ann" were all written from the perspective of this proper, all-knowing person. Did you grow up reading those?
Narratively speaking, I think it would be really great if I had been this young gay Chicano in rural America who was just like, ‘God, I want to grow up and be an advice columnist one day.’ The reality is weirder. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I happened to be living in New York, let go from the company that moved me up there, and I was running low on money, about to have to move back to Oklahoma. That's when my friend Mathew Rodriguez who worked at Into was like, ‘Hey, do you want to pitch your column for this new site we're doing?’ I was like, ‘I really need to maximize the number of checks I'm getting out of this company because I need to pay rent.’ But I didn't trust my brain to come up with something new every week. It turns out there's this thing called the advice column, where they send you stuff to write about. I’ll name it ‘Hola Papi,’ because that’s what people say to me on the app all the time, and it'll be a spoof-y advice column. What if Dear Abby was on Grindr?
I just love the characterization of you as the “Chicano Carrie Bradshaw.” Where did that come from?
It came from my agent being like, “We have to put a book proposal together.” Young gay boy writers have this glamorous idea of being Carrie Bradshaw, someone who writes once a month and somehow was able to afford an apartment in Manhattan. There's just something funny about taking this 5’11 heavyset Mexican man—me—and putting it in those pumps.
You consider your qualifications to dispense advice upfront in chapter one. You write, “Who am I to tell other people how to live?” But is there an argument for people who are still figuring it out themselves being the best advice-givers of all?
One thing I recognized very quickly in writing this column is that my powers begin and end with me being your bestie at the bar. You can talk to me and I'll talk back, but I'm not like a doctor or a therapist. I went to a state school. The book really is about wrestling with the question of authority. What have I gone through in life? What have I overcome that would lend me the wisdom and experience to help someone else? Each chapter is a really important event. Remember when you overcame bullying? Remember when you were in love with your best friend? I did develop an interest in the advice column’s history and how it has historically been one of the few avenues for women and non-white people to actually make a name for themselves in writing because, people used to see it like, “This deals with emotions and domestic issues and etiquette—that's women's work.”
You got the line “Hola papi” on Grindr a lot. What did you make of people seeing you that way, when you say that you never really saw yourself as a “papi”?
One thing I've learned from being on Grindr is that people's standards for the word “papi” are pretty low. I mean, if you're calling me “papi” in my twink days, it clearly has nothing to do with me being the muscle-bound Latino that I am today. It's a narrative they want to apply to someone— “I am looking for a papi online. I have this weird fetish fantasy thing. I'm going to find the first Latino on this app and just apply it to them.” The papi comes before the horse. But I was really interested in this idea of being put in this position that I can't quite occupy. Like I'm not quite a papi. I'm not quite an advice columnist. I'm not quite a Mexican—the discomfort of sitting with identity. I find it very fruitful for literature, even if it's not the most comfortable thing in the world to experience.
I related so closely to the chapter about not feeling like an authentic Latino, or not feeling Latino enough. It’s such a nuanced and overlooked thing—feeling disconnected from your heritage. For those of us who come from mixed homes, or whose families assimilated in order to make it, who don't speak Spanish or all of the above, other people may see you as something that you don’t even feel connected to yourself. What made you want to dive into this?
The United States is so good at making you feel like you're other. I don't think that's just true for non-white people. I think a lot of people are clawing for something that will help them to find themselves. That can lead to identity crises, and I certainly had ones when I was growing up because I realized that my family didn't look like the families around me. I didn't exactly share a lot of the same customs and traditions as my classmates, but I also didn't share any with people I saw as authentic Latinos. This desire to be authentic, to bring the facts of our lives into more perfect alignment with some sort of script, is really painful. In the chapter where I worked at the tortilla factory, I immersed myself with Chicanos and Mexicans who spoke perfect Spanish, had tattoos all over their bodies and it really didn't teach me anything other than, you're actually quite different from these people. You have your own story and you shouldn't use them to validate who you are.
You write that your abuela dropped out of school in fourth grade and grew up poor, and so she raised your mother to assimilate—to not speak Spanish or really hold on to Mexican culture. I’ve always thought about that as a loss, but you've written about how the effort to assimilate is as Latino or Latinx as anything.
I think that people really underestimate loss as an element of their identity. By its nature, it's something you don't have. You can't turn it over in your hand. It can be a lot harder to look at it and be like, “Actually, the fact that I don't speak Spanish is a legacy.” It's not the only legacy for my community, but it's certainly mine, and it points to very material things. It points to discrimination in hiring practices. It points to racism and xenophobia. These are things that you encounter if you've been deemed some sort of other, and for my family who was very poor and had dark brown skin and who were navigating a very segregated Texas at the time, these were decisions they made out of survival.
Your abuela was a scene-stealer. She can sniff shame a mile away and she wants to kill all of the characters on her favorite telenovelas. She also seemed like your link to what you thought of as being an "authentic Latino."
In my book, she often serves as the ideal Mexican. At the same time, I feel a little bit disingenuous doing that because one thing I can't explain is that this woman is just crazy. It's not like it's the ethnicity thing. One thing I didn't get to include in the book was I tried coming out to her one time. I was like, “Abuelita, I'm gay.” And she turned to me and she was like, “Rachel Maddow. That's a handsome woman, mijo.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on Vogue