Translated by Marvin Najarro
My written expression was born out of my lack of verbal expression. I have never been able to communicate with humans; worlds and erupting volcanoes inhabit inside me, but on the outside I am an iceberg; coldness in itself. It is hard for me to approach people, I am not shy, on the contrary, I am bold, fluent with words thanks to my Alma Mater; the marketplace where I grew up selling ice creams. That experience taught me to go out and make a living at a fast pace; shyness does not help to survive. So, thanks to those years of hawking the delicious ice creams I was selling and trying to persuade the eaters by practically doing pirouettes, I can speak out without any problem, introduce myself, talk about different topics. But when it comes to feelings and emotions, my world is out of reach, isolated and uninhabitable. I am an unfathomable void.
I began writing poetry at the age of 13, when I lived in Ciudad Peronia, the arrabal where I grew up in Guatemala. But the everyday workload was too much that there was no time left to eat, let alone leisure, which was regarded as laziness. But in the arrabal there are not lazy persons because necessity compels to race against time, so those 10 or 15 minutes I used to take to write every day meant I’d stop cleaning the chicken coop and the pigsty at the right time, or feeding the animals and milk de goats on time; a delay of 5 minutes cause a disruption for those of us who have lived at a fast pace; the arrabal knows it. Any dream or desire was crushed by hunger, cold and poverty.
In the layers that cloak the purity of the soul; in de deepest one, was my love for painting, but it was brutally blocked when it collided against the harsh reality. Blocking poetry and art helped me to survive during those years, because why I should wish something that was impossible; watercolors were a luxury that children in Peronia could not afford. I write these words with honesty, with no desire for unnecessary dramas, but with the responsibility that compels me to relate the essence of the arrabal … because I am sure that I am not de only one that blocked and beat her head against a wall, boiling with anger for being unable to dream with a reality different than the one you had to live with.
A few years later I emigrated; young, at 23. I arrived with all the stamina to leave what was left of my strength toiling on the mansions floors where I worked as a handmaid in the United States. I am still here working as a “mil oficios” with which I grew up, also making a living at a fast pace, but undocumented, without status whatsoever or as a human being. The reasons for the anguish and fear of the undocumented are different from those of the country of origin, but in the end it is anguish anyway. Here my lack of expression became a choke, a dull ache, a salt lump in my throat; provoked by homesickness, the post-border depression, the stigma and the huge block of ice, like a wall, that was the English language, which I did not know at all. After six years of having emigrated, tired of all those years without being able to sleep for a single night because of the nightmares provoked by the memories of my experience at the border, one morning I began to write a poem that I finished when the sun rose.
And it was a total catharsis because I cried every word. I cried because of my frustration, unhappiness, and the pain of feeling worthless. That poem, which I titled Nostalgia, was the dawn of a new day in my life, a small crack in a window; I would say it was like the morning dew. It was a dawn that lasted for many years because my process was slow, but I endured it, first, by writing poems, and then, stories and opinion pieces. Gradually the unhealed wounds were reappearing, they were still open, but I faced them; I tried to heal them by removing scabs an rotten blood to ventilate them and let them heal on their own in due time. And that has been writing for me; a cure. A potion that has allowed my spirit to heal its pain. The pain of exclusion and overwork since my childhood; of the cruel mistreatment, racism and poverty. And of course, we workers have been forced to endure de severity of poverty and exclusion.
Painting came along many years after that childhood longing, it was in the diaspora, after several years of writing; I believe it emerged from the depths of my soul when, thanks to writing, I had already removed several thorns from my being. Because writing has been my therapy. It came unexpectedly and has been a joy for my spirit, absolute pleasure, and peace. My paintings are a reflection of the peace of my spirit. It is the opposite of writing. With writing I can express my anger, my frustration, my dissatisfaction with myself and with the system, whereas with painting is peace solely that sprout up from my soul and I become a child again, I cannot see myself as an adult woman in painting; in it I am a child. And I am a happy child, as should be the childhood of all children in the world.
I don’t know about techniques, I ignore the basics of art, and of the school of art; I can’t afford painting classes, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent; because here I am also a worker and I live hand to mouth. I have had to save money to buy my paints, my brushes and my canvases; I made it my priority, adjusting and giving up buying other necessities. Because for me it is very important to caress this love, to feed it, to shelter it; this love of a little girl who needs my shelter or rather, I am the one who needs the love and the shelter of that little girl who suddenly appeared with her bright colors to reconcile me with my childhood. With painting I have learned to defend who I am, what I am; to defend my essence, to be very clear that my style is my style, and that doing things in my own way has always been my path, that is to say; to be authentic, even if the world shut the doors in my face.
And I have also learned that there is no need or room for frustration and anger, because it is clear that I have limitations as my hands are not familiar with brushes and techniques, but like everything in life, it takes time and practice to learn. But to take a brush and put the colors on the canvas is already for me a realization. It is my personal realization. The rest; doesn’t really matter. And I have always liked simple things, I myself am very simple, I don’t write with fancy words, and I don’t look for excesses in painting.
I have several series, one of my favorites is the Mamá África series, which I revere and love for being the root: my root, and the root of all continents, and from where I have inherited my hair and my skin color. Then there is the Raíses series, and the last one I have been working on is the Mi Familia series, which is about the goats I grew up with, the loves of my life; the only ones which I can be myself; the only ones I can express myself with. The My Family series is pure love for the goats.
Writing is the expression of my soul, but painting is the realization of my spirit. Whoever wants to know me only has to see my paintings, he or she would know me better than talking to me in person. And since everything we do or don’t do in life is a political act, I continue writing and painting out of stubbornness and resistance. My essence has always been to be stubborn, for which I took terrible beatings and was excluded; and out of stubbornness I raise my voice in writing and my spirit in painting.
Someday when I am no longer in this world, and if a girl from the arrabal feels alone, rejected, abused, excluded and feels like a burden, I want her to know that in other times, another girl from the arrabal who grew up in poverty like her, who was assaulted and rejected, felt like her, and that after hitting her head against the wall and drowning herself in alcohol, she began to write and paint and both things gave meaning to her existence. I want that girl to know that it is worthwhile and joyful to resist.
It will be my embrace, my sisterly shelter for those girls, and I am sure that time will allow me to meet them again, even if I am no longer physically there, because all souls that are destined to coincide meet at the right time. As I have found other souls of ancestors who have embraced and sheltered me as sisters from different parts of the world and history.
My legacy for them, the girls from the arrabal, is resistance through writing an art.
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Ilka Oliva Corado @ilkaolivacorado