War veteran finds therapy in art, community

MILFORD — After serving as a medic in the United States Army, Juan Cantu came home slightly different than when he left. PTSD became an everyday struggle and he thought he tried everything to cope, until a year ago when he came across an article on art therapy for veterans.

“I thought I would give it a try,” he said. His art therapy journey would take a self-fulfilled turn, however, when resources available to him at the time didn’t offer such therapeutic options.

Now, he has his own art studio in downtown Milford that he hopes to turn into a resource for fellow veterans and an art supply thrift store for others to visit and enjoy working with art.

“I asked my doctor at the time if they have that program [art therapy], and they said no. And I thought I was just going to try it. It felt to me like a wow. I expressed myself without it being negative. I knew immediately this is what I should be doing,” he said.

“So, I started and went to look for art supplies, and I realized how stuff was so expensive. I realized I was always artistic, but my parents didn’t have much money, and that’s really not fair to the kids today. The ultimate goal is to have an arts thrift store. But, for now, I’m completely happy doing stuff on my own and having people use it. I’m not in a hurry to do anything. I’m lucky to be here. Being here is already icing on the cake. I just don’t have any pressure on me. Everything is working itself out.”

Growing up Hispanic

The local artist grew up in Texas. His father was a migrant worker and teacher from Mexico, despite dropping out of school at an early age to help care for his family. When he got married and had a family of his own, he returned to migrant work and eventually worked in Milford.

Mr. Cantu’s father, Ricardo Cantu, became the first Hispanic in Delaware to receive his GED and worked hard to finally move the whole family to Milford.

Despite the Milford School District integrating African-American students into the schools in the 1960s, life was tough for Mr. Cantu as a Hispanic student in the late 1980s.

“When I went to school, it was basically segregated. I always felt like it was the 1960s or something. It didn’t feel right. I was one of the only Hispanic people in the school, and I played football. I never saw other Hispanic people playing football,” he said.

Although he enjoyed playing football, coaches pressured Mr. Cantu to play soccer like his brothers, or baseball.

“But, I didn’t want to be stereotypical. I wanted to be different,” he added.

He ended up taking an eleventh-grade and college preparatory courses while in ninth grade in Texas. He returned to Milford the next year where his schooling troubles would continue in tenth grade after he was approached by a counselor with a surprising question.

“The counselor took me out and he had asked me whether English was my first language or Spanish. I said, ‘English, but we are Mexican-Americans.’ So, the counselor said, ‘No, but did they speak to you in Spanish first?’ ‘Well, probably,’” Mr. Cantu said.

He was then placed in an English as a Second Language, or ESL, class.

“It was embarrassing,” he admitted. “I had to go to the outdoor trailers. I went from being in a normal environment to being out there. I don’t even know why. The counselor told me the school received extra funding for special needs kids and all. That didn’t help.”

He would learn to help lead about ten other kids in his new classroom, most of whom were in the process of learning English as their second language.

“A few were Haitian, like they had just gotten there. I ended up teaching the kids. Everyday was a struggle. I really thought I was beyond this. Eventually, I started thinking, ‘I’m sure I can get myself kicked out.’ And that’s what I did. I went from a normal kid who paid attention to one who would be defiant. I would go to the pencil sharpener as long as I could just to annoy everyone and get kicked out. And I did,” he explained.

“I really felt Milford set me up to fail. For whatever reason, they did not want to deal with Hispanic kids. That was an issue. I felt like a guinea pig wherever I went. I was the oldest, the first kid in my family to go to high school, college, the military… I hope today that it’s a little more integrated. It certainly seems to be better now.”

He graduated from Milford High School in 1990 and moved back to Texas hoping things would get better.

“It still felt like home somehow, but it really wasn’t. I didn’t like it anymore I guess,” he said.

Another move in the mid-1990s would land him back in Milford where he would reside while attending Delaware Tech and the University of Delaware.

“I was after a criminal justice degree, then I was a sociology and English major. I wanted to write like my dad liked to write; he wrote poetry,” he said. “As an English major with a concentration in creative writing, I saw art in the writing and I thought, ‘I actually don’t need a degree in this.’ Then, 9/11 happened. And, actually, if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have joined the military.”

Serving as a medic

Mr. Cantu was moved by the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001 that took the lives of nearly 3,000 victims. Nineteen terrorists took control of four airplanes. Two of which crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centers in New York City, another into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and the last in a field in Pennsylvania.

“That was the first time I felt like I was an American,” he recalled. “I joined the military after 9/11, ten days after the Iraqi invasion. I kind of knew what I was getting into, but there’s just no way to prepare for anything like that.”

Mr. Cantu joined the Army hoping to become an interpreter as he was fluent in English, Spanish and then Arabic. He was unable to work as an interpreter because his father was a legal resident of the United States, rather than a citizen.

“My background check came back as not able to get a security clearance because was dad was a national of another country,” he explained. “I never lived in Mexico. I never wanted to live in Mexico. I’m an American. I was born in Texas. But, that was something that keeps you from advancing. It’s not racist. It’s something else.”

Unable to follow the path he found, Mr. Cantu became a medic and was sent on a 15-month tour to Iraq spending time in both Baghdad and Mosul.

“I worked in emergency rooms and hospitals that were already set up there. I had thought that we were just going to deal with American issues and causalities. But, it ended up being everybody that was involved: prisoners, citizens, soldiers, it was everybody. And that’s I think what was overwhelming. Babies, people, and for us, you really got to see that war has lots of weapons that are being used and its effects on the human body. There’s no way to prepare to see that.”

Mr. Cantu returned home from deployment to a divorce and a new perspective on life.

“They had warned us about PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], so I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. Eventually, addiction took over. For five years, it was a complete mess. Some of the stuff I can think of, to me, in that state, it seemed to me it would have been easier if I hadn’t made it home. It was harder than I thought,” he explained. “But, eventually, I got a lot of help.”

Art, community as therapy

Mr. Cantu continued to struggle through PTSD as he hoped to find something, anything that would ease the memories of working in a war zone. Medications, programs and even an inpatient stay wouldn’t help him much, he contends.

“Even today, in the morning, everything comes back when I wake up and go to the bathroom. But, I’m getting there,” he said. “I’m not in a hurry to do anything now. I’m just lucky to be here and thankful I have found a bit of relief through art. Being here is already icing on the cake. I just don’t have any pressure on me. Everything is working itself out: my kids, my ex-wife and I co-parent well, my son is realizing that everything is working out and I have a beautiful wife. I’m getting there.”

When the opportunity to work with art and even open his own studio came his way, Mr. Cantu says he jumped to reach the possibility. He even finds many of his own supplies free or low cost at local auctions or thrift stores, allowing him to upcycle as well as create anew.

With no distractions or pressures to meet the expectations of others, he is free to collect discarded items and create art as he sees fit.

“When I was addicted to anything, I would say I don’t want to feel high. I was just taking the edge off somehow. It was just completely that I don’t want to think about it or feel it. But, it didn’t work. So, to come in here and be able to do stuff, I always have projects that are half put together to sidetrack me. It relieves my stress. To me, this seems easy. I’m just glad to be here and that I found something that works, and we have a community that celebrates people,” he said.

A thriving and accepting community may have been what Mr. Cantu was searching for all along.

“From 2004 all the way up until the time Lifecycle opened, I thought I did not want to be here. I needed a place I could connect and create. I started seeing a change when the art and different things took off. All of a sudden, there was pride. I saw this inclusive group of people who didn’t see me as an outsider. I started paying attention to them. To me, it’s not the same Milford it was while I was growing up,” he said.

“I remember the bus stop; we’d get off over by the Carlisle Fire Department and walk from there. The buildings all looked old. There was nothing there. I really thought it was a place caught in time. I experienced racist things and caught it from both sides. White kids would call us something; black kids would call us something. Then this Hispanic food started to be offered in the grocery stores. There was an evolution.”

For Mr. Cantu, the evolution meant inclusion, diversity — and art.

“I realized this town could be known for art. Delaware is a small state. We can only fit so many people. There should be some kind of draw, and I think art should be it,” he said. “I’ve never taken a class. I’ve YouTube’d some stuff, but it comes naturally. Apparently, some people have noticed it, and it’s encouraged me to continue. I’m not going to stop healing and doing art. I’m going to keep creating stuff. I’m not going to hold myself back.”

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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