Interview: Identity's Executive Director Diego Uriburu

The Buenos Aires native talks about challenges facing Latino youths post-election



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Photo by Liz Lynch

Diego Uriburu had a privileged childhood as one of four sons of a prominent, wealthy landowner in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But rebellion brought on by the stress of dealing with a chronic illness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage nearly derailed him and his education—until a school principal learned of his chaotic home life and offered him a second chance.

Diego Uriburu had a privileged childhood as one of four sons of a prominent, wealthy landowner in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But rebellion brought on by the stress of dealing with a chronic illness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage nearly derailed him and his education—until a school principal learned of his chaotic home life and offered him a second chance.

Uriburu, now the father of three, never forgot that act of kindness. Years later, the notion that everyone deserves another chance guided him as he co-founded Identity, a nonprofit that provides academic support and social services to more than 3,000 Latino youths and their families in Montgomery County.

A fixture in the local nonprofit world, Uriburu has developed a reputation as a seasoned advocate who knows how to build coalitions with county agencies and other nonprofits. Calling Latino youths an “invisible population,” Uriburu warns that the growing community could be either a great asset or a burden on society, depending on the county’s response to its needs. In 2016, for the first time, Hispanics attending Montgomery County public schools outnumber students of all other individual racial and ethnic groups, driving a growing focus on such issues as the achievement gap, lagging graduation rates among minorities, and the lack of Hispanic teachers and school staff. 

Uriburu, 48, came to the United States in 1995 for an independent studies graduate program in death and dying at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. He’d spent his childhood consumed by thoughts of death after being diagnosed at age 10 with Henoch-Schonlein purpura, a blood disorder that led to serious kidney damage. His fears finally eased at about 19, when he received a kidney from his mother.

In 1998, Uriburu co-founded Identity with Candace Kattar, a colleague at the Whitman-Walker clinic in Washington, D.C., to promote the health of the District’s Latino population. Many of Identity’s young clients actually came from Gaithersburg, so the pair conducted the first-ever needs assessment of Montgomery County’s Latino youths and, in 2003, moved Identity’s headquarters from D.C. into a two-story pink clapboard house on East Diamond Avenue in downtown Gaithersburg.  

Today, the nonprofit with a $5.3 million budget runs wellness centers at three county high schools, along with other programs, including a countywide soccer program and two youth opportunity centers. Identity also offers mental health services and a family support and engagement program, and its re-entry and rehabilitation support program provides services to young inmates at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

Uriburu, who again needs a new kidney, spoke to Bethesda Magazine about the personal journey that led him to found Identity, as well as his hopes and fears about the county’s Latino community. 

How did your illness open your eyes to society’s inequities?

My family was quite wealthy and they lived in a big bubble. I was full of stupidity, actually, and what saved me was this illness because it forced me at a very young age to confront things that could not be bought by money and privilege. I was living in Buenos Aires, which is the capital, so people from the entire country would come to get services there. I shared a [hospital] room with all of these other folks and I saw what privilege was because I was treated differently than other people were. Particularly, the doctors had tremendous power, and these folks that came from the interior parts of the country felt scared of asking the questions or challenging, and I saw those dynamics were not happening with me because they felt my mother was going to give a fat donation to the hospital.

We had death as the great equalizer, and there was nothing you [could] do about that. At the same time, in those situations, people are treated differently based on their social and economic and educational backgrounds, and somehow I always found myself yearning and wanting to spend time with this population and not with my family. I found them a lot more warm and a lot more understanding and a lot more generous compared to what I perceived was the coolness that came with the society I lived in.

Your illness and family situation greatly affected your childhood.

I was in dialysis when I was 19. When I was a kid, I knew that was going to be my destiny and I was just so scared. I misbehaved a lot. I got kicked out of schools. My parents went through a horrible divorce. There was not much dialogue at home, and I was dealing with this issue of [being] afraid of dying, and at the same time assuming responsibilities that really weren’t mine because my older brother left the house and I was trying to somehow be a bridge between my father and mother. I needed a place to explode, and that was school, and I just did horrible things. I remember I would bring ketchup and mayonnaise to school in the summer, and there were fans there. In the morning, I would put them on the blades of the fans, and 15 minutes into the class I would say to the teachers, ‘Please turn on the fans. We’re all hot.’ And they would turn them on and the ketchup would just fly everywhere. We would bring eggs and have an egg fight in the middle of the school.

We had no boundaries. Our father was and continues to be a playboy that was not much at home. Our mother was so overwhelmed and depressed that she would take Valium and close the door. We were brought up by nannies. My eldest brother and I were the worst, and we were pushing and pushing boundaries until someone would come and say ‘enough’—and that didn’t happen. And again it was the illness that did it for me. I think I was the first one that became the responsible one, and it was because of that. At the same time, I needed to explode somewhere and I did.

When you were in high school, you were lucky enough to have a school principal who realized why you were acting out and gave you a second chance after deciding to expel you.

That evening, he called me and he asked me to please go back to school to speak with him, and we had a coffee outside of the school and I apologized, and he said, ‘I understand.’ He began to tell me how his father was an alcoholic. At 9 o’clock at night, we left that café and he told me to be back at school the next day, so everything that happened afterwards was perceived in a different light. They understood that I was not an aggressive child, but there were things that happened that triggered these reactions.

I did finish school. I was not the best student. I couldn’t study, but I could do very well when I wanted to. And I went to the university and I began to study business. In Argentina, it’s not like here, where you study and you get credits. You choose a career and you take all courses related to that career from the very beginning.

What if you make a mistake in your career choice?

I did make a mistake. I did not want to study business—I wanted to be a psychologist or a social worker. But my father did not want me to and told me he wanted me to be a businessman and make money. But then I went into dialysis and it was difficult for me to be there because I was staked to a machine. And I decided if I had the opportunity to continue to live, I would only do in life the things I really wanted to. So I finished my fourth year of business and then I dropped out. And I began to study psychology, and I had to start again, but that’s what I really wanted to do. It was also coping with this illness that somehow gave me an internal compass of what was important in life and what wasn’t.

I’ve always been very, very much aware of time. I was so aware of death, and I thought it was normal, that everyone else was, [too]. A friend invited me to do something for the weekend, and I would ask God not to kill me until Monday. Before going to sleep, every night was the same images—that I was in a coffin, that I would be buried alive every day. I was scared, and I had the same thoughts every single day until after I had a kidney transplant. I was trying to comprehend what death was. That’s why I studied psychology, and particularly this issue of death and dying.

Did your experiences influence how you run Identity?

When I look at the young people that we work with, they make mistakes that are sometimes equal to the ones I made—and I was given tremendous chances, a lot more than one chance. I went to university, I got great grades, and now I think I contribute to society quite a bit. And the same thing happens with these young people. We have a few values at Identity that we abide by. One is that people deserve more than one chance. Another one is that to serve others is a privilege and it requires excellence. If you’re going to do something for someone, then let’s do the best we can. The other piece that’s important that relates to me is that like me, many of these young people see life in a very raw way. They don’t have the time or the capacity to dream or fantasize. They have to work. They have experienced tremendous loss, trauma, so I identify with them that way, too, and I see them as warriors.

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