Six years ago, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz says, he met the young boy he now calls his son.
Nestor Galban was 12 and had just arrived from Cuba, where he’d grown up and where his mother had recently died of breast cancer, Gaetz says. Then a state legislator, Gaetz was dating Nestor’s older sister.
And so Nestor moved in with them — “a modern family,” Gaetz says now.
He says that, except for an interruption during Nestor’s junior year after Gaetz and Nestor’s sister broke up, Nestor has basically lived with him since moving from Cuba.
“He is a part of my family story,” Gaetz, 38, tells PEOPLE, adding: “My work with Nestor, our family, no element of my public service could compare to the joy that our family has brought me.”
Geatz did not formally adopt Nestor (and he declines to discuss Nestor’s relationship with his biological family now). He re-frames the matter, saying, “Our relationship as a family is defined by our love for each other, not by any paperwork.”
Nestor, he says, “is my son in every conceivable way, and I can’t imagine loving him any more if he was my own flesh and blood.” Recalling those early days with Nestor — including a scene he paints of the two playing catch not long after the boy arrived to the U.S. — Gaetz warns that he might start to choke up.
“I just think that it’s been the greatest thing in my life that this young man has been a part of my family,” he says, “and going forward I look forward to being his biggest cheerleader.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is that this is the first time any of it has been shared publicly.
On Thursday, Gaetz tweeted a photo of himself and Nestor, announcing that he’d been parenting the 19-year-old for years.
"I am so proud of him and raising him has been the best, most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life," he wrote before biting back at a Democratic congressman he had argued with at a hearing the day before over policing and raising kids of color.
“As you can imagine, I was triggered when (to make an absurd debate point) a fellow congressman diminished the contributions of Republicans because we don’t raise non-white kids,” he wrote. “Well, I have."
The second-term Republican congressman from Florida's Panhandle had not publicly identified himself as a father before this week and his office has said that he did not have kids.
His announcement drew widespread surprise and, in many left-leaning circles, much criticism. (It was also rapidly meme'd.)
Detractors said Gaetz had turned the teenager into a prop; others called it a dismissive sleight-of-hand — like shrugging off accusations of prejudice by pointing to personal friendships with people of color. Many pointed to his views on immigration more broadly. In a characteristic slam, one user tweeted: “Matt Gaetz using Nestor to score political points or to show he is not racist is disgusting.”
In other corners of social media, conspiratorial theories began tangling together about Nestor’s biography and his biological relatives.
None of that fazes Gaetz.
“I haven’t responded to it there and feel no need to respond to it now,” he says of the social media discussion about Nestor. “My son and I owe no explanation about our family to the blue-checkmark brigade.”
“I don’t really live in the minds of others,” says the lawmaker who earlier this year made headlines for wearing a gas mask on the floor of the House of Representatives, in the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “I live for the values and principles that matter to my constituents and that I’ve been raised with.”
He says he was motivated to speak out about Nestor because, in his view, he was being unfairly maligned after his viral argument with Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Richmond had been discussing the need for police reform and the "imminent threat" of police to black men. “People are dying as we talk. I am not interested in moving at a snail's pace. I’m not interested in a watered-down bill that mandates nothing,” he said.
Afterward, Gaetz said that he "appreciate[d] your passion" but then asked Richmond if he was saying none of the other representatives had non-white kids. (Richmond had referred to his own son.)
Richmond snapped back that he wouldn't be "sidetracked about the color of our children .... It is about black males, black people in the streets that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid, I'm concerned about him, too. And clearly I'm more concerned about him than you are."
"Excuse me, you're claiming you're more concerned for my family than I do?" Gaetz replied, voice rising to a yell. "Who in the hell do you think you are?"
Richmond later shot back: "Was that a nerve?"
The exchange, Gaetz says now, “made me want to get up and rip his head off.”
For years, Gaetz says he maintained Nestor’s privacy. But that, he insists, “is very different than suggesting I was hiding him.”
“Just imagine: You’re 12 years old, your mom has just died, you’re learning English as you’re trying to get your footing in school. It just wasn’t the right time in middle school and high school to subject him to politics,” Gaetz says now.
Of the incredulous responses he’s received from users who point back to a March 2016 photo in which Gaetz refers to Nestor as a “local student” or a 2017 Facebook video Gaetz recorded for constituents with Nestor sitting in the background in which he calls Nestor his “helper” (seeming almost to catch himself on an S-sounding word first), Gaetz says:
“I felt like coming to the country, dealing with the death of a mother, learning English and enduring the normal trials and tribulations of high school and middle school were enough on the young man’s plate.”
Now, however, Gaetz says that Nestor is ready: “He’s very eager to be identified as my son as publicly as people will accept it.”
Gaetz says his bond with Nestor has been known in his Florida community and among his social circle, including on Capitol Hill: “My friends know I have a son. The people who go to church with me know I have a son, my fellow soccer parents know I have a son.” (He says Nestor was his “best door-knocker” during his 2016 congressional campaign: “Nestor was very persuasive at getting people to accept Matt Gaetz yard signs.”)
On Twitter, former California Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat, spoke out in defense of Gaetz’s revelation that he’s been secretly parenting a teenager.
"Many of you know @mattgaetz & I have an unlikely friendship. I can’t stand a lot of his beliefs but he’s been there for me when others haven’t," she wrote. "He talks about Nestor more than anything, has done so much for his son & is truly a proud dad."
Detailing the timeline, Gaetz tells PEOPLE Nestor lived with him for around four years after first arriving in Cuba before going to Miami for his junior year and living with his biological father: “Then he turned 18 [and] it was easier for him to just move back with me.” (Gaetz declines to specify when exactly he and Nestor's older sister broke up.)
Elsewhere in the interview, he describes the sequence of events this way: “There was a time period at the beginning of my service in Congress where, based on his age and other circumstances, it was not tenable for him to live with me."
With his own Twitter account, Nestor has been wading into the reaction online. He tweeted back at another user on Thursday: "I wanted as a secret before because I wanted to have a normal life without any of y’all getting in it. But now I’m 19 and I old enough to handle it."
Briefly speaking with PEOPLE while on the phone with Gaetz, Nestor says: “Matt is not my biological father, but he raised me as his own son when I came from Cuba after my mother’s death.”
“He’s always been a role model in my life,” Nestor says, rattling off a quick list of lessons learned: baseball, cooking, English. (“I taught him some Spanish, too.”)
Nestor, Gaetz says, has taught him patience — the kind any parent learns.
"Of course," he also says, "my views on race are informed by the fact that I have been raising a non-white child."
"I’ve had ‘the talk’ with Nestor about how to interact with law enforcement," he says. "It’s probably a different talk than I would have had if I had a white son."
Gaetz's sister, Erin, tweeted on Thursday as well. She shared family photos of Nestor through the years, including of his high school graduation earlier this year, him on Christmas Eve in 2013 and him with Gaetz and his grandmother and grandfather. (Nestor posted the same photo on Instagram in 2018 with the caption “Grandma’s Boys.”)
In the fall, Nestor will start at Troy University in Alabama, where he plans to study nursing. The distance, Gaetz says, is “far enough away and still close enough.”
Their first parent-student visit to the campus is in three weeks, Gaetz says.
“I want to study nursing because I like helping people and I think every day being able to save people’s lives and being able to heal people and take care of them makes me happy,” Nestor says. Also: He really likes science.
“We’ve talked about the fact that college is the time in your life when you have the most free time but you can have some of the most daring consequences if you don’t manage it well,” Gaetz says.
He describes Nestor as a “star soccer player,” a jokester and a charmer — a “ham” — with a love of sports and, in his telling, a kind of amiable wryness. A teenager, in other words.
“And as I’ve talked to him throughout the day,” Gaetz says, “he’s very taken by the fact that he has a lot more followers on social media now.”