By Jim Harris
The inside of James Villarreal’s beautiful East Mt. Airy home is a sea of books, plants, papers, photographs, and paintings from Greek mythology.
Everywhere there are artistic representations of mythical characters like Bacchus, Atlas, Jason, Pandora, Medusa and Joseph the dream teller. As I walked in the door, he handed me his business card. On the back was a quote from George Bernard Shaw; “There is always danger for those who are afraid of it.”
“Some people feel like they’re in danger all the time,” he said. “Have a seat.”
He asked me how my day had been, adding, “Something that occurred with you today will open a little door in your dreams tonight regarding unfinished business. We are the sand and dreams are the ocean that washes over us. Sixty percent of what we do every day is not by choice. So what HAVE you done so far today?” I knew that I was there to interview HIM, so I had to fight the urge to talk about myself, so sincere and empathetic was his demeanor. That’s probably one of the reasons why he is so good at what he does.
Villarreal, 67, has been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He also did nine years of post-masters studies in “Senoi” dream therapy. The Senoi are a Malaysian hunting and gathering people who make extensive use of lucid dreams (in which one is aware that one is dreaming) to increase happiness and mental health. He uses the Senoi tool to guide his students and clients to successful relationships and careers.
His areas of special interest are sexual abuse, grief, loss and bipolar disorders. He speaks all over the word as an expert on dreams. He is a strong believer in affordability of services and education for all. He counseled workers at Ground Zero after 9-11 and has led a Senoi dream group for homeless people in Philadelphia. He occasionally gives courses in dream interpretation at Mt. Airy Learning Tree, and he sees clients in his home, where he estimates he has given away or lent out over 6,000 books from his sprawling library.
The work of the mystical Sufi poet Rumi has also had a profound effect on his work, and he has added Sufism — “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine” — to his practice. He’s also writing a Rumi-inspired book of original prose and poetry, which is presently in the editing stage. “It’s about the sacredness in all things,” he says, “and surviving suffering.” You can hear Villarreal reciting one of his inspirational poems on YouTube by Googling “Dreams Final Edit.” In 1971, he wrote a children’s book, “Look for the Latin Word,” which has had seven printings.
Villarreal was one of seven children. He lives alone now but says, “I’m never really alone.” He was born and raised at 57th and Chester in Southwest Philadelphia. His parents were both from Mexico and were part European, part Native Indian. He attended Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Southwest Philly (“4,200 kids, 98% of them Irish”), and at age 14, he entered “Mother of the Savior” seminary in Bradford, New Jersey, where he trained to be a priest for nine years. During his time in the seminary he studied Latin, philosophy and meditative and spiritual practices, skills that have served him well.
Villarreal also spent 33 years teaching Latin to 5th graders in the Philadelphia public school system (Houston, Henry and Emlen Schools). He has been retired from teaching for nine years now. He began in February 1969, and estimates that he taught over 18,000 kids. Over the years “Mister V,” as he came to be known, was loved by students and parents alike for his engaging style of teaching and ebullient personality.
During his teaching career, he produced a children’s TV show for the Philadelphia School District TV network called “Latin Lives Forever in Philadelphia.” The show involved students performing songs, plays, and acting out Greek myths. He says that learning Latin increased the students’ vocabulary and language skills. They produced 640 episodes of the show, and it’s still running on Comcast Channel 52 Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2, 6, and 8 p.m. His teaching exploits have been covered in publications like Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and many others.
In his spare time (whenever that is), he’s a guide at the University of Pennsylvania Anthropology Museum. He also roller skates, ice skates, and plays full-court basketball. In addition, he grows orchids, is an avid gardener, and for 40 years has been a long-distance ocean swimmer. “I go out past the breakers and look for a current.” he said. “Sometimes dolphins come up and chatter … I don’t recommend this for everyone.”
“Mr. V” says that one of his favorite quotes is from Emile Zola: “I came to live out loud,” and it suits him well. He is a person who delves deep into the world of dreams, speaks in parables and faces fears head-on, truly a man of mythological proportions and a vibrant and valued member of our community.
You can contact Villarreal at HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com.