Sometimes it is hard to keep all the families and the relationships straight.
The kids come in groups of 3, 4, 5...This also makes it really hard when ONE kid leaves the studio and I have a family of 4 waiting outside to come in.
Lupe, Angeles, and Samari. The youngest is so tiny I’m doubtful she is the minimum age of 4 to come to the studio. I don’t deny them entry into the studio. To do that would deny them respite from ... their life? The older ones (as young as 8 or 9) are always in charge of the younger ones. Each day I need to ask the older to help with the younger-go to the bathroom, or take her home. Each day they point at the other, or give an exasperated sigh and nod to the other, according to who is in charge THAT day. I call them my first family. They are the first to come into the studio before we are open. They pick up boxes and ask to help me get ready. They feel special because they have an “in” to the materials at the studio. They come every day we are open until they move away.
Most of the kids live within 4 or 5 blocks from the studio. Out our front door I can throw a rock at the homes of 6 families who come to the center. I don’t though, that would be mean.
Citlali, Naila, Angie, Susanna, Emily, Javier, and Zoe. Cousins, sisters, nieces.... and one is an aunt to the others. This family alone pretty much fills the studio, leaving room for only a handful more. They are all under 11. They live at the edge of the jungle. They come as a group and they know who can walk home alone, and who needs to go together. I have accompanied Susanna home when she was alone and it was dark. I accompany her home out of her desire for company, not a parental requirement, she seems to have free reign. I don’t have an extra helmet for her to wear, so she can’t ride the moto. So we go—her walking fast, me driving slow.
Daniel, Dafne, Enrique, Cristian and Diego. I don’t know if they are all one family, but they arrive together so I assume they are. I often have to encourage the older to let the younger TRY the best they can. The older often wants to do the tasks for the younger. They quickly learn they can leave the responsibility at the door of the studio. Enrique calls my name like a husband calling to a wife. He pleads with me, the accent heavy on the second syllable, the last drawn out to a slow fade. “Ah-NI-taaah” as if to say -- Ah-NI-taaah, It’s only a couple of beers with my buddies!
Izamari, Lenna, and Alizee; cousins and sisters. The oldest is quietly productive. The middle one so easily distracted. Even when I’m talking to her one to one, her attention wanders and she is somewhere else. She is tagged in my phone to remind me to make sure she cleans up when she’s done working. The youngest is full of chiles and spice. When given limits she threatens to leave and go home. Some days I hope she does.
Ana, Camila, Amariany, Renata, and Estile. The newest family comes from the farthest away. The eldest is 11 and is in charge of leading the others on the 1/2 a mile walk to the studio; across a busy road with no cross walk or crossing lights. Sometimes the 10 year old is the leader. They are a quiet group, they follow the rules, they clean up, and they call my name with all the familiarity of the kids I’ve known for months. They leave when it is dusk. The long walk is sporadically lit, the main road as busy with zipping motos, giant delivery trucks, bike carts, cars and various stray street dogs. All I can do is bid them con cuidado- go carefully and A Diós - to God.
The other day I held up a container of 4 Sharpies in front of the kids at the studio. I said in my best Spanish “A few days ago I put out a brand new pack of Sharpies. Together with the old ones we had over 14 in this container. Where did they all go?” Most of the kids glanced up while I was talking and continued to work. Two of them quietly and almost regretfully named Selena. They said she had a bag of them at home. I asked 8 year old Selena if she knew where they were and she denied it. Another child piped in and named Selena. Selena! I pleaded with her —The plumones live here in the studio, this is their home! Selena flashed me her adorable cheeky grin and laughed at the thought Sharpies living somewhere. Without reprimand, I tell her to bring them back, and her older sister offers to go with to make sure she brings them all.
When they return I am shocked at the the gallon size zipper bag full of gel pens and Sharpies that were clearly from the studio. Selena had even written her name on each Sharpie cap....with a Sharpie.
How did I not see the materials leaving the studio?
Selena is 8 years old and apparently very sly.
I tell her “All the materials are here for you, but they live here in the studio. If I let everybody take materials home, what will be left here for you to use to make art?”
I wonder if I need to check their bags, their shorts, their pockets when they leave.
I wonder if I need to take a more punitive approach.
For now, this works.
Most of these kids have almost nothing. I want to teach ownership and responsibility in a compassionate way.
I don’t want to shame them or punish them for wanting, but I do want it to be clear that it is wrong to take things that aren’t theirs; to be clear about stealing.
How do I deal with a sticky fingered child who comes from nothing and only wants a little something?
Cuando deseas algo, todo el universo conspira para que realices tus sueños. When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make your wish come true
Cuando deseas also, todo el universo conspira para que realices tus sueños. (a Mexican saying)
When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make your wish come true.
This is a story about how everything went right. And this is part of the story I feel I have to tell in the right order .
I promise I have a lot of stories where everything has gone wrong.
I have never done this before, yet often I feel like I’ve done this many times.
As a decorative painter of 25+ years, we often joked (but not really) that when a client would ask us “have you ever done this before?” We enthusiastically say yes and forge ahead, fake it til we make it, until we get it just perfect.
I had my paper work complete and I had a plan, sort of.
In 2017, the big move to Mexico was a 5 year plan. We had lots of time. Time to make a plan for the newborn charity, raise money, create a budget, plan our location, plan how we were going to operate, and plan how it was going to go so smoothly. I’m a planner. I love to plan and have time to make it happen on my terms.
We made a short trip to Cozumel sometime that summer and I started to really pay attention to real estate and neighborhoods. I checked out rent prices for locations. I visualized our space and “tried on” lots of ideas. I was in no hurry, we had lots of time.
In November of that year, back in Colorado, David got a call. “We want to meet you, come visit the blacksmith shop”, they said. “We live in Colorado, and have a place in Cozumel too”, they explained. In the middle of his meeting with them, David calls me and tells me I should come right away. J and T have a house in Cozumel and they just brought another property. They asked David if he want to move his shop to Cozumel, but this is not in HIS plan; a 2000 degree forge mixed with the heat and humidity of Cozumel? No Thank You. From their description of their place my mind forms an image of war torn property all ramshackeled and beat up. Forgive my hesitation, forgive my lack of excitement. We agree to rendezvous in early January in Cozumel.
Under the shade of the concrete canopy at the Mercado Municipal in Cozumel, we share a meal of Halabós na Hipon and Nasi Goreng (Garlic Butter Shrimp and Fried Rice) at our favorite Filipino cookery on the island. T and J are excited as they talk about their all ideas for their space; a gallery, a coffee shop, maybe a cooking school? They want to do something for the community but they don’t know what. I start to get quietly excited because I had a “what”, but I had no “where”. It is David who jumps on the opportunity—Let’s go look, today. We scrape the last grains of rice from our plates and lick our buttery, shrimp-y fingers clean, and head to the property. (Actually I washed my hands with soap and water, but that’s not quite as fun of an image to share).
The space was 3 attached rooms on 3 properties on a corner of the south-most residential neighborhood of town. Blue collar, working class neighborhood. Peptol Bismol pink rooms. Dark. Dank. Old. Ironically, this place was 2 blocks from a location my Mexican landlord (of our apartment) offered me the use of but I rejected gently— solely by not taking action. (I wasn’t ungrateful, I was just not certain that a carport that I could only use during the week would serve the purposes of Art Power). It was not in the central area I had planned. It was not on a major street that I was sure we needed to be on. But I paid attention to the fact that this was the second time I was led to this neighborhood. Sometimes you stop planning and you go with the flow.
Hours later we had an agreement: We could use the space for Art Power! for 2 years with a trade for some work that David would do for the property.
T and J would do the major renovations and clock will start ticking for us in June.
The excitement came as they asked us what we wanted in the space.... a sink, a counter, a bigger door? Lights, windows?
Another bathroom? Was this really happening? Can I really choose? This was an unforeseen opportunity to create the best possible space for Art Power.
This was the universe conspiring for me.
The panic came as I realized we had 5 months to figure everything out.
We were given a beautiful blessing for 2 years, and I wasn’t going to let the space sit empty while I planned.
Five months to increase Art Power’s bank account past 3 digits.
Five months to neatly pack away our life in Colorado.
Five months to do everything I thought I had 5 years to do.
What happened to my plan?
Was it excitement I was feeling or panic?
It was hard to tell the difference.
Forever ago I spent a year as an art therapist at Jose de Diego Elementary School in Chicago, in a Spanish speaking neighborhood with Spanish speaking kids. This was a neighborhood that was colorful and lively, with people from all over Central America and Mexico; their language bonded them. Most of the kids spoke English, but it was their second language; Accents were strong, Spanish was frequently sprinkled into the mix, and some kids, recent immigrants, spoke no English at all. I spoke no Spanish, and I learned only 2 words that year: cacahuates (peanuts) and tijeras (scissors). I was grateful the process of art didn’t need a lot of words, and I wasn’t convinced I needed to learn Spanish.
My mentor and advisor, also an art therapist, was fluent in Spanish as her second language. She had been at the school for a long time, she knew the culture well, and was respected by staff, teachers, and students. She taught me to slow down and do my work without words; how to look and observe. The kids will tell you all kinds of things with their bodies she said. They will tell you all you need to know through their posture, their breathing, their glance and gaze. She made the quiet time meaningful.
I remember the hours spent with all the dark haired, brown skinned kids in that tiny art therapy room. Sometimes they worked in silence, absorbed in their projects. Sometimes there was laughter and chatter.
I remember teachers being doubtful of the time I spent with the kids, with found objects, glue, crayons, and tijeras.
How could art possibly “fix” the problems the teachers encountered in classes—behavior problems, attention deficits, poor grades and social anxieties.
I remember one tiny young boy who didn’t speak English at all, he was in kinder or primaria at most. Each week he worked in silence and communicated what he wanted with actions and meaningful looks. One day he guided me out into the hall where I kept random supplies they could select from in lockers. He picked a towering roll of paper and some markers and crayons. He chose to work in the hall, the only space that would accommodate that enormous roll of white that swallowed him when he sat in the middle of it and began to draw. I quietly sat and watched with anticipation as he scratched out a building, then a car with more people drawn in it than I knew would be legal. The empty space he filled with a single line that zigged, and zagged and rolled this way and swerved that way. The formerly blank white surface was now a maze of pathways and tangles in all the colors of the rainbow. He declared it complete by rolling up the drawing and stuffing it into one of the empty lockers. He grabbed me by hand and indicated it was time to head back to class. That was the last time I saw him.
His absence was later explained a couple of weeks later by my mentor; the entire family had abruptly moved back to Mexico. The image finally made sense and story became clear as I realized so much was expressed in that silent hour. Chaos, distance, time, apprehension and anxiety. I often thought of that young boy and his journey back to Mexico.
If I drew a picture of my journey to Mexico, I might draw it just like he did— Big. Colorful. A little chaotic, and a little confusing... I would top it all off with all the colors of an arcoíris With roads and paths that are at times totally uncertain, but amidst it all there are parts that emerge from the confusion with clarity and directness, and there the path is completely defined.
Where did all of this begin? Beginnings can be hard to discern; where does a beach begin, where does the ocean begin? It feels like an ocean. It feels THAT BIG. I just dove right in.
One clear beginning was in February 2017. After a meeting with the orphanage where we had been volunteering for the past 5 years for gave us some news that created uncertainty about our future there, I woke up one day and declared to David that we should take what we were doing at the orphanage out into the community where we were staying. We had noticed actually that the kids at the orphanage were well taken care of—sponsor families from the US financially support the kids, lots of donations, structure and care... It was the kids in the neighborhoods who were without resources, without shoes, without screens on their ever-open windows.
How does one start a non-profit? Could I do it myself, or did I need to hire a lawyer? Back in the USA my lawyer friend and mentor through this process assured me I could do it myself. But it could take 9, 12, or even 18 months she warned me. “Don’t get frustrated. Be patient” (these words will come back again and again-spoken to me, spoken by me.)
Frustration, exasperation, tense moments as I clicked away on my keyboard, navigating websites, filling out forms....by March I had a Colorado corporation formed, a tax number, and access to a lot more websites and passwords than I ever wanted.
Multiple checklists later, paper work and a big check sent off, fingers crossed, and I resolved to wait for however long it would take. And I could breathe.
We went back to Cozumel at the end of April to celebrate our anniversary.
We returned 10 days later to find a letter from the IRS. I opened the intimidatingly thin envelope expecting a request or a demand, but instead found an approval.
March 18, April 20, May 6.
Numbers and letters, letters and numbers.
It had only been 3 weeks since I mailed my application.
We celebrated our 8th anniversary, and recieved a letter with a 501c3.
When did it all begin? Probably a long time ago.
Did I ever expect this path? Not in a million years.
Who are all these kids? And how in the world did I end up in Mexico?
I am an artist and art therapist with a passion to change the the lives of kids in Cozumel, Mexico through the power of creating art.
If you are love art and kids join me on this exciting journey. I’m sharing it all here; every hope, every uncertain moment, every sweaty step, and each small victory. —anita yeh norrie