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Soccer, God, and Design Portfolios
A few weeks ago, I redesigned my personal website. That’s not remarkable, there are many websites on the internet (about 1.13 billion, in fact) and they’re changing all the time. My website alone has changed a lot over the years as I’ve redesigned it about twice a year for the last 15 years. What’s worth remarking on is why I (and people like me) insist in creating personal websites.
My website, as a digital manifestation of the self, is a great snapshot of who I am (or who I want to be) told, in my case, from a professional lens. Luckily, as someone who’s always deeply entangled who I am with what I do, it remains fairly accurate and functions as a journal entry of sorts. And so I’ve maintained a personal website for a long time to shout into the void who I am at any given time.
My name is Gabriel Valdivia and so I own gabrielvaldivia.com - or rather I “rent it” from somebody else or some corporation that actually owns it. My son, born just a couple months ago, also has a name with a matching web address dedicated to him. What he’ll do with it is yet to be seen but having it, in some way, means that he exists, not merely as a physical person but also as a digital concept: a destination and an entirely malleable representation of whatever he wants to be.
I think that’s wonderful. Perhaps because my relationship with identity (online or otherwise) is quite complex and has changed a lot over time (although I bet that’s not at all unique). In the past, I’ve explored what identity can look like in virtual reality and even hosted a conference about how identity influences creative work. I’ve created a lot of “content” to express who I am, whether is trying to build a sense of self with strangers tweet-by-tweet, hosting a podcast with a friend, or writing this very Substack. Above all, my identity (or rather, my relationship with identity) has been shaped by my upbringing as an immigrant.
*cue the violins*
As a child I moved from the hyper-communist Cuba, to the hyper-religious Costa Rica, to the hyper-agnostic United States of America. Like it’s the case for many other immigrants, that amount of movement stripped away my sense of identity: I’m neither Cuban, Costa Rican (tico, for short), nor American. And that’s a shame, because nationalism is such an easy shortcut to belong. If nothing else, my ability to navigate those different environments is my identity. I’m neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly, I’m the goo in between the metamorphosis.
This became clear when our small family unit emigrated for the first time, from Cuba to Costa Rica. In my time there, I learned that Costa Rican people love two things very deeply: soccer and God (which is a real tragedy because they’re terrible at soccer and God doesn’t exist).
Our family was never into sports, let alone soccer. The closest thing to a sport I ever played in Cuba was wrapping rocks in a sock while using sticks we found on the ground as bats and calling that “baseball.” But we quickly learned that, in Costa Rica, soccer is very important.
There are two main rival Costa Rican soccer teams: La Liga and Saprissa. Their uniforms are red and purple respectively and their fans are very aware of this. Like many other soccer-fueled people, their love for the sport often turns into riots and gangs (is there a better word for this?) that feverishly defend one team versus the other.
When we moved to our first Costa Rican home (we had many during our time there), my mom sat me down and solemnly said “you like Saprissa now and you wear purple, never red.” A few years later, we moved to the opposite part of town and she sat me down once again, but this time she said “you like La Liga now and you wear red, never purple.” And so I did! I proudly rooted for the team that my zip code dictated in an attempt to earn my right to live there.
Over time I noticed people’s identity tied to the team they supported. Like a legacy passed along generations, people took pride in representing a team. When the team won a game they said “we” won and when they lost they said “we” lost.
Learning which team someone backed was akin to learning which company someone worked for in a tech networking event in San Francisco. It described you and the choices you’ve made up until that point in your life. It placed you in a group among others and their properties transferred onto you. It was a magical spell that described someone and my relationship to them. “You like Saprissa? Oh, so do I. We’re on the same team.”
People defended their team even after they played poorly, a concept quite foreign to me. I’ve always had a hard time committing to my choices. For example:
When my big brother and I played with action figures, I would be quick to pick a hallmark character like Batman. My brother, who’s always been much more imaginative than I have, would settle for a D-level superhero like Aquaman. Surely enough, as he used his imagination to give Aquaman unprecedented appeal, I would get jealous and demand we trade superheroes mid-scene. My brother always shrugged and swapped toys with me and continue to play until I’d inevitably ask to swap back.
Picking toys, or teams, was a means to reap the benefits attached to them. As if they’d magically tell me (and others around me) who I am.
Back in Cuba, I remember being about six or seven years old (another casualty of immigration is that childhood memories are reduced down to vignettes so small that could be attached to almost any age) and walking into a church for the first time. I think I was following a friend whose family was evidently religious.
My next memory was arriving at home and confronting my (very loving but also) very communist father who scolded and warned me of the brainwashing that I would endure if I were to step foot into a church again. I remember how stern and irreversible the danger appeared to be.
Just a couple years later, after my father’s devotion to communism fell along with the Berlin Wall and the monthly rations that kept Cuba above the poverty line, we decided to move to Costa Rica. To “exist” in Costa Rica, one must believe in God. And so my parents, who suddenly had a communism-sized hole in their belief system, baptized me at 9 years old and enrolled me in catholic school - with nuns and everything!
My exposure to God was bittersweet: on one hand I was confronted with disturbing imagery that evoked violence, guilt, and shame several times a day, but on the other hand I learned about Christmas (in Costa Rica, Christmas isn’t subsidized by Santa Claus, instead it’s “baby Jesus and the three kings” who are to thank for the unbridled consumerist gluttony that is December.)
My devotion to God was short lived as the unstoppable force of my curiosity quickly encountered the immovable object that is faith. But other immigrants warned us that public schools were unsafe, so my parents insisted that we enrolled in private schools and nod along when they brought up matters of religion.
Believing in a God was another mask we tried on to navigate our experience as outsiders. I’d put it on when convenient, mostly to reduce the number of questions I didn’t yet have the answers to or the confidence to say “I don’t know.” And so I’ve wore many masks since then (some fit better than others) and in the process, I’ve gotten very familiar with recognizing the masks that we all like to wear to be accepted within our tribes.
There’s something really magical about these masks. They all somehow feel unique and familiar all at once. Whether you’re an “American” or a “Designer”, the magic is in walking a tight rope where you can be just like the rest of them while also totally unique.
A personal website, or rather the act of codifying (a part of) one’s identity into an online destination, leads to introspection. It pushes us closer to answering the question: who are you?
A portfolio is where you get to tell the world who you are and showcase your work and sprinkle some personality. This is particularly difficult for designers: the creative few that mustn’t express themselves through their work.
Whether you’re a “designer that works at [X] living in [Y]” or a first-person wielding multi-hyphenate that listens to music and takes photos, your website tells the online world who you are, or more importantly: how you want to be seen.
Maybe you’re a design leader and your work can’t be represented in pixels so you don’t show it at all or you choose to write about your work instead. You might pick the best projects that highlight what you can do, or simply show a list of logos that you can associate your experience (and self worth) with.
The act of claiming a spot on the seemingly infinite internet and then dedicating it to something that represents you —in the designer’s case: their work— satisfies man’s desire to conquer, to spread his seed, without any of the casualties that usually come along with it. Anyone can plant a flag and claim a bit of digital soil as their own without usurping anyone else’s.
A personal website contains parts of you, including but not limited to, your soccer team and god of choice. It then showcases the work you’ve done, influenced by who you are. The work (and the presentation of the work) is inescapably touched by who you are and therefore the portfolio says something about you.
I can’t think of a better way to define yourself than by collecting artifacts of what you’ve done and placing them with some intention in a corner of the internet that can only be discovered if you choose to visit it.
We need more personal websites.