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On the concrete of downtown Tampa, a 99-percenter finds purpose

At age 24, Keith Cuesta of Tampa moved back in with his parents after struggling to make ends meet with two part-time jobs and other odd jobs he can find.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

At age 24, Keith Cuesta of Tampa moved back in with his parents after struggling to make ends meet with two part-time jobs and other odd jobs he can find.

TAMPA — Keith Cuesta is 24 and can't find a full-time job. His parents instilled the work ethic in him from birth. After two years of college, he still lives with them.

That sort of sums up how he joined Occupy Tampa.

"The biggest false promise is the American Dream," he says.

The media tend to apply a legitimacy test to protests like this: How many people are out there, how strong is their leadership, how clear is their message. Occupy Tampa is leaderless. The message is whatever anyone with a sign defines it to be.

But, for Cuesta and many others, the legitimacy test is this: Does joining this movement answer my fear that I'll never attain what my parents have — a home and good jobs? Does it make me count for something? Does it give voice to my anger?

He shouts out lyrics from a song by Defiance Ohio:

We live in the unhappy shadows of skyscrapers, freight trains and malls to a sound track of nuclear warheads and bombs. Addicted to power, addicted to authority, money and success … So far gone, without our addictions, do we even know how to live?

Cuesta had never been part of a public protest before this weekend, when he gravitated to gatherings at the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday and Lykes Gaslight Square Park on Sunday. In the evening, when the park closed, he and a few others wandered to Curtis Hixon Park on the riverfront. A cop told them, "There's a very nice wide sidewalk here. Stay on that, you're fine."

They spent the night in a heap of ponchos, water bottles and sleeping bags. Homeless folks showed them the ropes, directed them to the portable toilets. Cuesta said he felt their solidarity. They're "99 percenters" like him.

There, among them, he felt like he was part of something that mattered.

He has a cousin who's a "1 percenter" — one who has it all. "He has a big property in the Catskills." They see each other at annual family reunions. At the last one, the two had a heart-to-heart.

"I gave him my spiel: All our resources are a big river. There's a dam at the top that grabs 60 percent. Then the middle class grabs another 20 percent. The rest of us are left with the scraps. The problem begins so far upstream that anything we do is ineffectual."

Cuesta said his cousin looked surprised. "He said, 'You think so?'

"I felt like I got him, I put a chink in his beliefs."

Cuesta's beliefs have chinks of their own. He has been left, he has been right, he has been round the bend. Ron Paul is as close as any leader has come to speaking for him. "He sticks out," Cuesta said. "He was the only one who wanted to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan."

Cuesta once thought the tea party had the answer. Its message was similar to that of the Occupy protesters — "before the tea party was hijacked."

His father is a Cuban carpenter who wanted his son to have a profession rather than a trade. His mother worked her way up at Liberty Mutual. He's tight with them. His mother is a Facebook friend.

They sent him to Jesuit High School, then to Gaither. He studied journalism for two years at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. At school he explored different ideologies and ended up disillusioned by all of them. The last was anarchism. "I struggled with self-awareness," he said. "I looked at everything from radical to middle of the road and tried to make it my own."

He even considered the military, "but I couldn't figure out how to do that without hurting someone."

On Facebook, he posted photos of himself holding a 9-foot gator captive and raising a beer while wearing a stuffed fox on his head at a Burning Man event in Lakeland.

"I was disillusioned. I figured, 'Why should I care? No one else does.' "

Cuesta ended up back home, unable to find full-time work. He advertises his pickup truck and strong back on Craigslist. He has two part-time jobs, teaching music to children after school.

The jobs haven't gotten him his own place, but they have at least given him direction: He loves teaching.

He said his dad is not an Occupier, but "he's glad to see me focus on something besides myself."

Cuesta would like to open his own guitar school for kids. He's putting together a business plan to show to someone in the family who could help:

His cousin.

The 1-percenter.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

On the concrete of downtown Tampa, a 99-percenter finds purpose 10/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 10:09pm]

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