This is another in our continuing series of staff profiles which feature the people who make up the Lighthouse.
“My trip to Nicaragua completed a circle. It was spectacular. It was life,” LightHouse afternoon Receptionist Gilberto Melendez responded when asked about a recent visit to Nicaragua to visit family. Gilberto [pronounced: Hill-bear-toe] regularly interjects metaphors and allusions into his everyday conversations, turning a potentially pedestrian cordiality into an intimate, genuine, welcoming connection.
Born and raised in Nicaragua, Gilberto was always enraptured by the silver screen and theater. “In my first acting role, at age 10 in Nicaragua, I played Christopher Columbus. I forgot my lines, but remembered I had hidden them on a slip of paper in my pocket. I read them on stage in such a way that the audience thought it was a part of the show. It was at that moment that I knew I was born for the stage.” In the 1980’s he decided to risk it all; to leave his loving family in Nicaragua and move to Los Angeles, the entertainment capital. He acted, sang and danced on stage and on film. And it was also here that he was introduced to the blindness community. “In Los Angeles I worked with a blindness organization to record textbooks. I became intensely curious about other ways the blind adapt to their surroundings.”
Eventually, after hearing about the beauty of the Bay Area and its vibrant theater scene, he made the move north. “All I kept hearing about was how mystical and pristine Northern California is all year long. In 2001, I packed my bags and headed to San Francisco.”
While pursuing acting and dance in the Bay Area, Gilberto decided to continue his passion for supporting blind folks as they increase their confidence and independence. “Shortly after moving to San Francisco, I saw an opening at the LightHouse. I was persistent in my interview, stressing that I really wanted to work as a receptionist at the LightHouse, that this job would truly be the realization of a dream.” Seven years later, and Gilberto continues to welcome students and visitors to LightHouse San Francisco Headquarters each afternoon.
Since joining our team, Gilberto has magnified his impact, working as a Spanish interpreter for our Rehabilitation Services Department, including our Orientation and Mobility (white cane travel) program, our Cooking program, and at Enchanted Hills Camp. Because of Gilberto and our other staff who are versed in foreign languages, we are able to bring our services to isolated communities and ensure that every blind person can receive the instruction that will help them live independently.
Coming from Nicaragua, Gilberto has an insider’s view of the unique cultural aspects of many of the Latin American communities. He understands that for many Latinas and Latinos, treating an individual’s blindness also means extensive training for the family. “The Spanish include their family in everything. Family is number one. If someone in the family is struggling, dozens of people step in to help. Often the family members go too far, preventing someone newly blind from learning independence. It is the LightHouse’s job, and my job as an interpreter, to be aware of these deeply loving, yet slightly misplaced conceptions of care “for” the blind. We teach family members, and our blind Spanish students, that independence is possible, and that someone who is blind does not require extra care or overbearing support.”
We are fortunate to have Gilberto here welcoming students every day; in addition to his work with LightHouse he maintains his impressive stage presence all over the Bay Area. Flamenco dancing, minvit French-step, Baroque opera, and Jewish folk theater are only a smattering of the breadth of Gilberto’s theatrical reach. Next time you’re at the LightHouse, be sure to ask Gilberto about what he’s currently working on. You can see him in early and mid-March in the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay’s production of the Yiddish Purim musical with English subtitles, “Di Megileh of Itzik Manger”.
If you are a Spanish speaker and would like to talk with someone who can set you up with the assistance you need, contact Gilberto 415-431-1481.