Raving is often seen as a way to escape the harsh realities of daily life, but for one Los Angeles teenager, the culture offers a totally different kind of freedom. Matthew Fernandez is a 17-year-old from east LA. He loves Deadmau5, hanging with his 28-year old brother Michael and his 21-year old sister Nana, and is totally enamored with dance music culture. He's just like any other teenager, except he was born with cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that inhibits him from walking, has weakened his muscles, and makes speaking an arduous task.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, and the only treatment is an endless barrage of physical and mental therapy. But Matthew has come up with a totally new way to treat his condition: rave gloving, the art of using LED-fingered gloves to perform light shows. And it's working in a way that nobody ever thought possible.
Sitting next to Matthew and Nana in between slices of pizza at my apartment in Los Angeles, older brother Michael explains that the path that led to this miracle in neon back in 1997. "We got the good news that my mom was gonna have twins. We were all excited about that," he begins. "My mom was six months pregnant and, one day, she was rushed to the hospital. The umbilical cord was wrapped around Matthew's twin, Johnny, so they had to perform an emergency C-section." Doctors hurried to save the lives of Michael and Johnny, but were unsuccessful. Both brothers were pronounced dead at birth.
Within hours, though, the doctors were able to resuscitate Matthew. It was a miracle, for sure, but one that came at a heavy cost. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy caused by a lack of oxygen reaching his brain during the birthing process. Still, he was alive.
"We lived in the hospital, Sunset Kaiser, for about three months," says Michael. "He was half the size of the other babies, and they kept him in an incubator for a long time." After many months, Matthew was able to come home, albeit with a supply of oxygen tanks that filled up a whole room in the Fernandez home.
The effects on the rest of the family were immediate. "I felt like I grew up a lot quicker," says Nana. "Even though I was four, I had to understand how to put the oxygen in and make sure Matt was okay. When he was little, I would take out the oxygen because I thought it bothered him, but then he would turn purple and the alarms would go off! My mom had to explain to me that he needed it. Our parents were so involved with him that I had to grow up based on my brother and sister's teachings and be mature and strong for Matt. It was interesting to see how our family came together."
Michael responded in a different way. "My dad was a priest," he says. "We grew up in the Christian religion. I remember looking up, trying to talk to God, asking, 'Why do we have to go through this?'I straight turned into a rebel. I was big into graffiti. That was my escape: painting the streets. From ages 15 to 19, I was just out causing mayhem. Now that I look back, I know that was just my way of escaping things I couldn't deal with at the time."
Matthew quickly began to show signs of an indomitable spirit. "After about a year, he started developing really well, and got off the oxygen," Michael explains. "He started crawling, what we call 'combat crawling': throwing [elbows] with his little legs dragging behind. He started doing early childhood development classes. They taught him how to walk with braces, and he learned sign language."
Over the years, Matthew continued developing in small steps. It wasn't until 2008 that the relentless thump of dance music worked its way into the Fernandez story. "One day, my cousin told me about this rave called Monster Massive," Michael explains. "At the time, I thought raves were just about drugs and didn't want to go, but he got me a ticket. I remember we were the first in line. I wasn't excited; I just wanted to get it over with. I remember walking to the main stage and Swedish Egil was playing, and the bass was just...I was looking around the stadium, like, 'Where have you been all my life?'"
As the story goes for so many, one taste and Michael was hooked. "I threw myself into the world of electronic music," he says. "Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I would be at a rave, underground, mainstream, whatever. From there, I met this guy named Oscar and came up with the idea to start a light show crew. We threw on these gloves, iNovas, and started practicing every day and night." Named Puppet Masters, or PM for short, the crew began as a trio of friends who would perform intricate displays with gloves with neon LED lights in the fingertips. If you've been to a rave, you've seen the mind-bending displays put on by the quick-fingered types that make up crews like PM, and Michael and his friends became some of the best around. The squad now boasts a membership of 65, and Michael is confident in his claim that they're the number-one crew in the world.
Members of the Puppet Masters perform their of gloving in 2010.
For the most part, gloving was an endeavor Michael undertook outside of the family sphere. "My parents, they knew," he says. "But we never discussed it deeply." By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Michael had hung up his gloves to focus on business and traveling. He thought his days of gloving had come to an end, but a chance interaction with Matthew was about to change everything.
"After I stopped gloving and partying all the time, I remember passing Matthew's room one day, and he's with his iPad doing finger rolls," says Michael, who had no idea that his little brother had any interest in rave culture at all. Curious, he asked, "Who are your favorite glovers?" Matthew rattled off the names Ice Cream Teddy, J-Bake, Gummy, Cypher—all members of the Puppet Masters crew. Michael's jaw hit the floor. "Those are my brothers!" he exclaimed. "You're PM?!" his younger brother responded. Matthew had not only picked up his older brother's pastime in secret, but was gaining inspiration from the crew he started—completely unaware of his brother's involvement. It was a coincidence of monumental proportions, bordering on the divine, and it changed the Fernandez family forever.
While Michael tells the story, Matthew's fingers come to life as he listens from his wheelchair and works up the courage to speak. His words come out slowly, and he looks to his brother for support. "I didn't know Michael was gloving," says Matthew. "I had no idea. I just searched for videos on YouTube and then from there, I just started." For Matthew's sixteenth birthday, Michael bought him his first pair of gloves, and took him to the headquarters of gloving retailer eMazing Lights, where he was decked out with all the gear he could ever dream of. It was a moment neither brother ever thought they would share, and it brought the whole family even closer after years of collective struggle.
Matthew showing off his skills on Instagram.
The very real benefits of gloving on Matthew's condition soon became clear. "We've been sitting down and we've been teaching him new moves and evolving his hand movements," says Michael. "Matthew has gained a wider movement of his hands than from just physical therapy alone. Even more than that, he's developed a sense of confidence and belief that comes from expressing himself creatively and immersing himself in a culture."
Nowadays, Matthew is a bonafide raver. "I like house, dubstep, techno, trance...All of it," he says. "My favorite artists are Deadmau5, Tchami, and Skrillex." He's even started an Instagram with the handle eMazingMatthew, where he shows off his new skills. At the International Gloving Championships earlier this year, Michael and Matthew went together. "They had Matthew on stage," explains his older brother. "He already had built this network in the gloving community. People were coming up to me, and I thought it was because I was a founder of Puppet Masters, but they were like, 'Are you Matthew's brother? Can I meet him?'"
The Fernandez family.
The past two decades have been a long and often arduous journey for the Fernandez family, but now it's all starting to make sense. As much as this is a story of one kid overcoming the odds, it's the story of a family that, despite moments of difference, has always stuck together. "After we saw his progress with light shows, I realized that it was probably why I started doing this in the first place," says Michael. "As a brother, seeing him happy and seeing him come out of his shell—be more social—is amazing."
As part of eMazing Lights' Glove4Glove campaign, Matthew has emerged as a leader in promoting gloving as a way for youths with movement disorders to learn to express themselves while building up their motor functions. "Therapy is boring!" says Michael. "It's work. But if you make work play, they're gonna want to be involved. And it's a different way of him expressing [himself]. He can dance with his hands!"
There's only one more step for this tale to come full circle: Michael, Nana, and Matthew have never been to a rave together. A chance to perform on stage during a Kygo performance recently fell to the wayside when the show was cancelled, but Matthew doesn't sweat it. When asked about his goals with gloving, his answer was simple: "I just want to make my parents proud and go to different countries and teach other kids how to glove."