'Survivor 44' Winner Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho Breaks Down His Key Relationships and Historic Victory

Survivor 44 is here! Every week, Parade.com's Mike Bloom will bring you interviews with the castaway most recently voted off of the island.

“I’m doing this because, as a kid in Puerto Rico, it would have been impossible for me to be here. And these people have been this support group for me. I don’t know if I’ve said it. But this is my problem; I say everything. I’m so proud. I’ve been able to compete, I’ve been able to dig, I’ve been able to run, I’ve been able to push. I have blisters to show for it. I’m a badass. I can be a teddy bear, but I can be a badass. And that’s freaking awesome."

Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho spilled his heart out at Tribal Council on Day 14. It would turn out to be the most he would ever be in danger on Survivor 44, as he was outnumbered and one of only two targets, at the mercy of three people he only met two days ago. But, despite his vulnerability, his words spoke true. Yam Yam didn't find an idol or advantage this season, but his arsenal was filled with near-infinite charm, emotional intelligence, and an ability to make people laugh. Before entering final Tribal Council, he declared, "Words are my weapons." And, in a season themed around medieval weaponry, he had the perfect ammunition to win over his competition for the last, and most important, time, as the salon owner proved to be a cut above the rest.

Yam Yam hit the beaches of Fiji in a visceral fashion, declaring he was ready to hold puke bags for his tribe members and excitedly poop in the ocean. But the start of the game for the Tika tribe had them certainly feeling like an "aqua dump" byproduct. The purple group lost Bruce Perreault immediately, then lost three Immunity Challenges in the postmerge. But despite the winnowing numbers, Yam Yam's strength and social skills kept him in a comfortable position, as "double oh zero" proved to have both a golden eye and tongue. He made connections with everyone, but fostered an immediate bond with Carolyn Wiger, serving as a key force to keep her around. Unfortunately, as his closest ally's stock rose, Yam Yam's began to stagnate. After Carolyn left him out of Sarah Wade's blindside, he entered the merge with few relationships, as well as a personal conflict with Josh Wilder. What's more, he became a target of the next few votes for his lack of connections, making the Puerto Rican feel like he was truly out on an island.

But diamonds are created under pressure. And if Yam Yam has proven anything, it's that he's an absolute gem. His likability and sense of humor endeared himself to those in power, and he formed a pivotal relationship with the former Ratu members to avoid their line of fire. It put him in a position where the trio of him, Carolyn, and Carson Garrett were able to take control, absolutely dominating the end game by pitting the other factions against each other. The path certainly wasn't without its bumps, like when he gleefully pulled out a crucial Immunity Challenge win, or when he heavily debated cutting Carolyn for emerging as a major threat.

But the constant was that Yam Yam never seemed in any real danger, a testament to his tight bonds and endearing reputation to everyone in the endgame. And sitting in the final three, he turned those assets into capital, touting he was consistently in the know, using emotional reads for his gameplay, and minimizing his threat level the entire time. So, despite building an entire postmerge narrative about getting revenge on those who wrote his name down, Yam Yam was thrilled to see his name written seven times that night, making him the winner of the season.

The day after the finale, Yam Yam talks with Parade.com about how he viewed his Tribal Council performances, his most important relationships that we saw and didn't see, and how he looks back on some stats on his win.

Related: Read our Survivor 44 pre-game interview with Yam Yam Arocho

First off, a huge congratulations on your win! We have to start where things ended. How surprised were you when you not only took home the win, but nearly all the jury votes?
I am still surprised! Because I'm very grateful. And I love everybody that is around me. It's not a thing of like, "I don't think I don't deserve it." Because, hell, I went through it, and I played, and I played hard. They're just so many amazing people around me. I'm still very humbled by everything that happened. But after Heidi won that fire-making challenge, I couldn't sleep at night, I was just still thinking about everything that I've done. I was like, "If I'm gonna be able to show anything, it has to be about my game." So I was going through every single vote in my head, what I was going to do, who did I talk to, where I voted, why I voted the way I voted. So I made sure when I talked to them that everything I did had a purpose, and I was able to put it into words. So to win after being so nervous about it, I was relieved, surprised, happy, and grateful.

A lot of fans were assuming you would do well in final Tribal Council, given your gift of gab. Last night was the first time you got to see your own performance back. What did you make of it?
When I was answering the questions, I have this little radar of how I'm being perceived by people. And people like Brandon and Kane didn't give me a lot when I was answering the questions. They're very good at their job of being neutral. But Jaime, Lauren, Frannie, and Matt, they were giving me good reactions. And I was like, "Okay. I think they're getting what I'm saying. I think they are understanding everything that I did." So there was some kind of relief in terms of like, "Okay, good. Keep saying what you're saying. You're doing okay. It's not as bad as you thought. It's gonna keep working, keep answering the questions."

And I was also very perceptive of what Carolyn and Heidi were saying. And I would give them the space to answer. I would like, look at Carolyn and I was like, "Girl, if you want me to answer first, I'll do that so you have a little bit more time to think about it." Because it was a long day, and we were so exhausted. That Tribal Council lasted like three hours. It was very, very, very intense.

One of the highlights of last night for me was you talking about how you used people's emotions for your game. You mentioned seeing the "twinkle" in people's eyes when they talked about things they loved, and when that didn't know, you knew they were lying to you. Was this a tactic you had prepared before you came into the game?
It is something that I've always been able to do, because this is what I do. In my job, I have to meet people and, in five minutes, understand what they want, how they want, and how to be successful about it. And in a way that is going to benefit me on my team. I've never put it into words. So the first time I said that it was actually the first time I talked about this thing I always thought about. I always have been very perceptive about how people how my words land on people's faces. Like right now, you're like, "What is this guy talking about?"

(Laughs.) Absolutely not! That twinkle hasn't gone away.
(Laughs.) I'm kidding.

So let's talk about the relationships you made that led to your win. We have to, of course, start with Carolyn. She said last night that she was so surprised you two were on the same tribe, since you thought so similarly. And, even if you bickered and your paths diverged sometimes, you made it to the end together. What was it like to work and live with Carolyn for the entire season?
The thing with Carolyn, the way why we work together so well, was because we understood each other on another level. There were many people I would have worked strategically with, and I could see they were being able to do what I wanted. But Carolyn and I understood each other deeper than maybe other people could. Even before we landed on that beach and Carolyn was puking on the boat. I was like, holding her hair back as the boat went into the beach. And this is why I said, "I'll hold your puke bag."

Oh! So the thing you said on Day 1 wasn't out of thin air. It came from something you just did for Carolyn.
That's why everybody laughed when I said it! Because that was happening. There was something so magical and magnetic about Carolyn that drew me in. And I think it was mutual. I always wanted to play the game with somebody that understands how I see life. It's just about having fun! You can be all business, and you can do what you want. But you've got to have fun! What's the whole point of being alive, you know?

(Laughs.) I agree! Let's talk about the third part of the Three Stooges. We didn't see a ton of you interacting with Carson in the beginning of the game. But by the end, you're working together on the Frannie vote, you're teaching him how to make fire. And he calls you his "number number one." Talk to me about your relationship.
Carson and I connected before I did with Carolyn about strategy. The first day, we went to look for the big flag that says Tika on it. We went to the mailbox, and we started talking about strategy together. At that point, he had many options, but I did feel very strongly about our relationship. So it was very early on that we connected. And he said he has a chaotic sigh and a calm side. And I also have many sides of myself. Carolyn was one thing and Carson was the other. So I think that's where the magic of our relationship was, this is how we all connected. He's amazing. He's the most amazing young man. He's so impressive.

You were arguably the most in trouble during the merge, when you end up getting five votes and people are throwing your name out there. Did your gameplay change at all when you saw how vulnerable you were?
My game at the non-merge was put into turbo. We just had come from being in danger for like three Tribal Councils in a row. I was playing when nobody else was playing. Josh and I came into that camp at a level where people were not at, and that's where we wentso hard for it. I knew I was gonna be in danger because everybody was saying my name in front of me. But I had such a good relationship with Carson and Carolyn. They went to the lunch, and when they come back, Matt and Frannie looked at me. And their look, in a way, said I was gonna be okay. It made me go harder. It gave me power in terms of like, "Okay, I can do this. I just have to keep strong. I just have to pay attention. I have to see what's going to work where." Everybody was chilling, and I wasn't chilling. I had this little fire. I could not stop working the votes.

Obviously, you built your game upon making relationships with everyone. What would you say was the most important bond that we didn't see from the edit?
My relationship with Jaime is so important for me in the game, and so important for me in life. Jaime is so amazing. Jaime is a ball of energy, the best human being you could ever imagine. So intelligent. The only thing that happened to Jaime was that she wasn't connecting with the right people at the right time in terms of numbers. But it was not because she was the bad player. She was a great player, and that's why she was able to get as far as she did. She connected with me, she connected with Carson; she connected with Lauren; she connected with Heidi. We were all there at the end because she was actively doing it.

The first day of the non-merge, we're sitting at sunset. And I'm sitting with Lauren and Jaime at the end. And I look at everybody and I was like, "Wow, this is such an amazing group." And I'm sitting here in the corner with Lauren and Jaime, who I don't know, because it's just the way we sat down. And I made sure that point that we were able to talk about our lives in a little moment. And from that moment on, it gave me the way into other people's alliances. I knew Carson was working the other people, and I knew everybody was doing a lot kind of stuff. But Jaime and Lauren were crucial in terms of making me be able to work with everyone. Because I needed a little in with each of the alliances, and Jaime was in my in into this bigger group of enemies, which was Ratu at that point. She's amazing. She's freaking amazing.

You were definitely willing to play the game full-out. But what was interesting is the difficulty you had at the end of the game in turning on your fellow Tikas. You debate voting for Carolyn several times, but never do. You teach Carson how to make fire, even though you say it may be a bad move. How tough was it to balance that heart and head during the last few days?
Fast answer: Super hard. Second part, this is how I live my life. I'm constantly weighing what's better for me. I'm always weighing what's best in my head or best in my heart. And I always want to be as even as possible. Because I lead my life with my heart, you know? I'm constantly thinking about stuff that benefits me. But if it doesn't feel good in my heart, I'm not gonna do it. I'm not gonna do it! I'm a very emotional person. And, to me, emotional bonds and my relationship with people are what's most important in my life.

I want to finish with some stats. You were one of the first Puerto-Ricans on Survivor, and the first player from an American territory to win. You're also the first openly LGBTQ+ player to win since Todd Herzog back in season 15. How does it feel to represent so many different communities with your victory?
I love that you are saying that. Of course, I am so proud. I am so proud to be able to represent and do everything that I was able to do. I was given such a big opportunity, and I just want everybody that looks like me, sounds like me, or is anything like me to see it's possible.

Next, check out our interview with Jaime Lynn Ruiz, who was voted out in Survivor 44 Episode 12.