Most babies are born immediately able to communicate with the world around them in one way: by crying.
The second signal babies send out is a smile.
Newborns can smile spontaneously — as a reflex — which new parents misinterpret. It’s not until six to eight weeks of age that babies (even blind babies) smile in a social way. The smile resonates across the entire arc of human history, from the grinning Greek kouros sculptures of 2,500 years ago right up to emoji, those little images that pepper our online communications.
Kevin Portillo practices smiling every day at home. He hooks an index finger into each side of his mouth and pulls gently upward. He puckers his face into a kiss, then opens wide into an O, trying to limber up his facial muscles. He practices both the Mona Lisa — slight, closed-lip — and a wide, toothy smile. “I need to stretch my cheeks,” he says. “I do it for a couple minutes. I have to do it every single day.”
He exercises so much that his jaw sometimes hurts.
Kevin was born in New Jersey with a rare malignant kaposiform hemangioendothelioma vascular tumor that covered the left side of his face, squeezing shut his left eye and pushing his nose to the right. The doctor told Kevin’s parents that the chance of him surviving was slim. Survive, he did — but the large tumor and the damage from its treatment whithered Kevin’s seventh cranial nerve.
Once Kevin was able to eat food, go to school and enjoy soccer and playing the drums, “I couldn’t smile on my left, I only smiled on my right,” he says. “My smile was weird — people kept asking what happened to me, why I’m like this. I keep telling them I was like this when I was born.”
He was doing well: “Even with that scar on his face, has always been popular at school,” says his mother Sylvia. “He’s always been a happy kid.” But there were kids that made fun of him. When he was about nine, “I said, ‘What happened to you?’ He said, ‘Some kids, they’re not my friends. They laugh at me because I look funny.’ It was really hard for us as parents.”
At age ten, Kevin told his parents that he wanted to do what most people do without giving it a second thought. He knew it would be a long, painful, difficult procedure, but it was one he wanted to undergo.