What first drew me to Mireya S. Vela was what initially attracted me to the work of Frida Kahlo. Vela’s art and creative nonfiction consider an important question: What is Woman? Vela outwardly displays her pain and frustration, and steps toward making sense of such experiences. Her voice is personal, honest, and penetrates the self in a courageous way.
On the page and the canvas, Vela explores the conflict of abuse and resiliency. Born into a dysfunctional environment, Vela uses painting and writing to express doubts and maintain stability in her life. She believes that all life begins with a woman and often ends in the care of a woman.
Women are pillars in the lives of children. They teach culture, language, religion, and aesthetics. They also teach us what it means to be a woman. But what happens when these pillars are as unhealthy as the situations and environments that created them? What does it mean to be a beautiful woman? What does it mean to be okay despite experiencing trauma?
Vela is a mother of two, does research consulting, and blogs for La Comadre, whose missions is to help all children succeed in school. In her work, she addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the (ongoing) injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse.
She lives in Los Angeles and likes cats. Her dream, however, wasn’t always to reside in LA with felines. She wanted to live secluded on a hill.
I had a mountain picked out in Mexico called El Kuuchamaa. I didn’t want to learn to drive. So, I was going to have a donkey to ride into town with for supplies. And as people in the town saw me, they would yell, “Oh my God, there she is: La Loca Del Kuuchamaa!” I would also have a patch to grow my own vegetables.
She had to give up that dream, though.
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Julián Esteban Torres López: Do you consider your art self-portraits?
Mireya S. Vela: [Vela laughs] Aren’t all our pieces self-portraits? I mean everything: poems, fiction, creative nonfiction.
JETL: I felt silly even asking. But in the slight chance you didn’t recognize them as such, I didn’t want to assume and put my foot in my mouth. Elaborate on that, though. Why do you deem all our creations self-portraits?
MV: They are all the women I want to be or am. I’m a creator, a nurturer, a person through which nature occurs.
But I’m also very sad that a lot of what I wanted to become only happened after my son was “raised.” I waited for 42 years to do anything significant artistically. My creative life was on hold. Everything that I could channel into parenting him, I did. I took crap jobs, I held back my ambitions, I held back my power. So, in large part, I’m sad that I’m just now sinking into a creative space. Maybe those portraits represent all the lives I wanted.
We are all given one life and this one isn’t enough for me.
JETL: In what respect do you think motherhood or the absence of this impacts female identity?
MV: There’s this movie called Who Does She Think She Is? which discusses that tension of women wanting to have children but also wanting to be artists. They are both creative, nurturing jobs. I think most women feel they need to pick one or the other. I have a lot of friends who chose to be artists and not mothers. It’s sad that this is a choice women have to make. It’s certainly not a choice men have to make.
I’m greedy. I want all of it. I understand that my family, my culture, my country doesn’t believe I am equal to men. But I reject that.
In the past, women were exalted based on who they married: a lawyer, a doctor. I have a friend who calls this “borrowed glory.” That’s fine if that’s what fulfills you. I’ve got my own glory based on who I am and what I’ve worked towards. I want to be the hero I needed as a child.
JETL: Did you have any heroes as a child? Or role models? Who did you look up to?
MV: My maternal grandmother. She was tiny but fierce. She did whatever she had to do to succeed. When her business in Mexico failed, she came legally to United States to work in a canning factory. She worked during the day and took ESL classes at night. She lived alone here for about 12 years, always sending money back to support her family. I love that she was unconventional. It was my grandfather who stayed home with the children, while she worked hard to support them all. She was definitely our matriarch and understood the power of being a woman. She was thrifty, no nonsense, courageous, and single minded.
I like how she loved me. She was fierce and unapologetic. She was always on my side.
My grandmother is the reason I love stories so much. She used to ask me to tell her stories.
Oh, I got to listen to Jane Goodall speak. It was amazing. It was definitely a dream come true.
JETL: What kinds of stories did you create for your grandmother?
Gosh. I would tell her about wanting to live on that mountain. She loved that story. And, I would make up stories about why all the kids in the neighborhood called each other “guey.” I would go deeply into a philosophical cultural analysis.
JETL: What drives you to create today?
MV: Defiance. I think defiance drives most of what I do. It’s why I am the kind of woman I am. It’s why I do the work that I do. I had very traditional female role models. Mom taught me that women were supposed to be submissive, quiet, and obedient. I was taught to suppress my needs, feelings, and desires because other people were worth more than me. My mom was a rule follower and expected me to be the same way. This didn’t feel honest to me. I had ideas about fairness and justice even at an early age—and this didn’t match what felt right. I couldn’t live that way and live an honest life. I couldn’t live that way and like myself. Also, most of the women in my family suffered from depression. Some weekends, they would all gather at our home and talk about dying—and suicide. They were so unhappy. I didn’t want a life where I didn’t matter.
JETL: Can you share a few stories or anecdotes about yourself that may give us a good picture/sense of who you are and how you became you?
MV: I grew up in El Monte [California]. My family were immigrants from Mexico. They struggled to adjust to American culture. I learned English a lot later than other kids. I was a good student and was the first person in my family to attend a 4-year college—against my family’s wishes. They didn’t think a woman was worth educating. They thought it was a waste of time and money. At 21, I became a mom. My son has autism. I completed my B.A. [in English from Whitter College], but I wasn’t able to continue my education. My son is now in his 20s. He still struggles but is more self-reliant. I took this time to go back to school to get an MFA in creative writing [from Antioch University]. It was a dream come true for me.
JETL: Which writers have influenced your work?
MV: Writers: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Eula Biss, Primo Levi, Margaret Atwood.
JETL: Did you also study art?
MV: It was something I really wanted. I took the occasional art class, but I didn’t study art. Both writing and art were a luxury in my mind. I couldn’t afford to do either one while I was raising a special needs person.
It’s very challenging to give up what you want for the benefit of another person. I didn’t get to do many of the things I really wanted to do with my life. What I studied was primarily practical and my jobs were practical. I found joy in them because it’s what I’m like—not because I was doing my dream job or having fun. Some of the jobs I took were kind of awful. But they worked because I had the flexibility I needed to care for my son the way I had imagined. I wanted to be an isolated person who lived on a hill. I had to give up that dream.
JETL: Which artists have influenced your work?
MV: The first artist who really moved me was Michelangelo. I loved the way he imagined the shapes of women. The women he painted weren’t thin and lean or scrawny. His women made me think that a woman with curves, a woman that looked like me, could be beautiful. I like photographer Graciela Iturbide. I like painters Katarina Vavrova, Eduardo Kingman. Oh! And Oswaldo Guayasamin.
JETL: Do you have a process fror creating, whether it be on the page or on the canvas?
MV: I use a mantra when I paint. I wasn’t taught to trust my instincts. So, painting can be very difficult because I know what I might be seeing in my head, but that image in my head doesn’t really have anything to do with what will be on the paper or canvass. I was raised by a perfectionist to be a perfectionist. The creative process is tricky that way. It will always be an expression of you. Not what you want or what’s in your head or what you imagine. And if you believe that art is a manifestation of the self in words or on canvas, then it doesn’t matter what you produce. It only matters that it’s honest—that there is an honest self on the canvas.
In the past, I have found painting paralyzing. That’s where the mantra comes in. It’s basically me saying over and over again under my breath, “You can do this. You’ve got this.” It helps to soothe my doubts. I’ve also learned to trust my body more. I’ve always been logical. I don’t need that to paint. I only need to follow my instincts and what my body is telling me is right. My brain doesn’t always know what to do but my body knows. I just have to listen and quiet my thoughts. The writing process is similar for me.
JETL: How do you think your art informs your writing? How does your writing inform your art? Do you write stories to caption your artwork? Do you create visual art for the pieces you write?
MV: I learned bookbinding a while back. I once created a book about domestic violence with illustrations. I love the way it came out. I don’t usually pair my writing and art together, but when I do it’s fun.
JETL: At what age did you start writing and creating art? Do you remember what those early pieces were?
MV: I started drawing very early. I won an art award from a contest in kindergarten. I started journaling regularly when I was 13 years old or so. A relative was kind enough to gift me a diary. Both art and writing have been wonderful for me when I need to pull away from the world and process what I’m feeling or experiencing. They are both sanctuaries.
JETL: What struggles have you had to overcome?
MV: My family of origin was chaotic and toxic. There was a lot of abuse—emotional, physical, and sexual. And my mom had undiagnosed, untreated mental illness, which affected her boundaries and the way she parented. My childhood taught me to accept physical violence from my intimate partners as an adult. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that everything happens for a reason. I believe that bad things happen, and it’s important to have good coping skills, healthy habits, and a good support system. I don’t speak to my family anymore. I parted ways with my mom earlier this year. She was the last person in the family I was still speaking to. At some point, I realized I was speaking to her because she needed it, but it made me miserable. I decided I needed to make room in my head for a voice that was kinder. Like the women in my family, I have depression. I’ve had it since I was five years old. I’m in a healthy place right now, but in the past, it was very challenging. I still have weeks where I have nightmares every day. But when I’m awake, I’m exactly where I want to be. I love the life I’ve built with my husband.
JETL: If you were to identify as five things, what would those be?
MV: Caregiver, artist, abuse survivor, advocate, writer.
JETL: You write about the difficulties you and your son have had to overcome, especially because of labels or being told to just accept limitations. What labels bother you? Are there any you’ve tried to shed or felt like were misattributed? Are there any that hold you back?
MV: I have a son with autism, so I’m speaking from that point of view. I completely understand that not all disabilities are the same. I fought a lot with my family to combat labels and assumptions they made about my son. Most felt sorry for him. Their pity worked against us. My mom would essentially do his homework, clothe him, hand feed him. Nathan didn’t need that. In fact, her help really made it difficult for the schools to understand his limitations and for him to understand his own capacity for independence, personal resilience, and autonomy.
In the family and culture I grew up in, disabilities/special needs were a failure. People thought you were born disadvantaged and that it was a life sentence. The truth is that at the beginning, parents don’t have enough information to know that. The beginning can feel really hard and difficult. But parents need to set aside their self-pity or pity towards the child to allow their special needs kids to grow. Often parent egos are a stumbling block.
I worked on a study recently that was working towards equity in funding from regional centers. One of the biggest takeaways I got from that was listening to the moms talk about what they had to do to get services and support for their kids. They were not only fighting stigma from their own family and schools and society, many of them were fighting stigma from their partners. Some of them were taking their children to services behind their partners’ backs. The majority of our special needs kids are boys. Dads often feel ashamed, unmanned, and unwilling to accept the diagnosis. They often forbade their wives/partners from getting support from the schools and the regional center.
The divorce rate for special needs families is very high. There isn’t enough support for our families or enough public understanding of what it takes to raise a child with special needs.
I also need to point out that I had an advantage over a lot of special needs parents. I was a single mom living in poverty, but I was trained to be a teacher—and through trial and error, I learned how to work the school system. Even for a teacher this was very difficult. But I’ve always felt that was unfair and it made me angry that I was educated and was still limping around the system. Because of that, I provide free advocacy for parents of special needs kids.
JETL: What recommendations would you give others for interaction with, teaching, or raising special needs children?
MV: I think people have a very fixed understanding about what it means to be intelligent and functional for this society. I think the conversation needs to change. We should instead be wondering how we can adjust society to make room for all people. As a people, we have a very limited understanding of what success and achievement looks like—and that standard is very fixed. The truth is that the current standard only meets the needs of the average heterosexual white male in America.
JETL: You write about how it is difficult for a person with special needs to navigate a world that has already decided they are not enough; a world that constantly measures them as failures, again and again; a world that constantly tells them what they’re doing wrong, writes them off; a world that deems them different and undervalues them. How does the system fail them? How do we? What can we do differently?
MV: We need to destigmatize what it means to have special needs. We need to provide training for moms and dads so they understand their own children better and know how to support them. We need to do the same for schools. Then, we need to get off our high horse and consider carefully how we ALL have limitations. We are all human. We all need empathy. We all need love and support and encouragement.
A lot of the times, kids with autism don’t speak. Many times, they have no affect—their language intonation or their facial expressions don’t register changes in emotion. People assume that it means that they don’t have emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids with autism are acutely sensitive. They just don’t process the world like most people do. That doesn’t mean they lack humanity. It just means you have to work harder to understand and connect.
JETL: You write about linguistic isolation, can you unpack that for us? What is it? What’s it like?
MV: In El Monte and in many parts of Los Angeles, English isn’t necessary. The communities are pretty insulated, and you can actually get by with little to no English. A lot of the times, schools are working hard to teach kids how to be proficient in English, but they don’t understand that kids’ daily lives don’t integrate English. The only time children are speaking English is in the classrooms. They don’t need it on the playground or lunchtime or at home. In LA schools, kids often leave high school without being literate in either English or Spanish.
My family didn’t speak English. Many of them never learned it. That’s in part because they never felt integrated into the United States. So, for a while, my English was choppy. I was born in the United States. But aside from school, I didn’t need to speak English. And I was very shy, so I could get by all day at school without ever saying a thing and the teachers would not have noticed I wasn’t practicing my English skills. They simply thought I was well behaved. My English got better in high school. I became a voracious reader—mostly in defiance. My family hated that I read, and I revealed in doing this one act that was considered naughty. Now, I use English all the time and I have to work to practice my Spanish.
JETL: You write about growing up being a bridge between your family and the U.S. Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean by “bridge,” and how has that experience shaped you?
MV: My parents were immigrants. Their understanding of the world, society, educations, systems, whatever, was based on their upbringing and their cultural references. My mom and dad didn’t speak English when they came into the United States. As their oldest child, I was their cultural and language broker. So, if, for example, the phone bill came back too high, I would help them figure out why. I did this for our family and my father’s family of origin (his mom, dad, brothers, etc.). My cousins were all boys and they had figured out how to get out of doing this job. So, I did it. I’ve translated information from doctors during doctor appointments. I’ve called the phone company to complain that no one in the house had made that many phone sex calls. (I was wrong that time, by the way.) I’ve translated for the police. I’ve taken phone calls from prisons and had to interpret.
So, I hated doing this. I wasn’t equipped to do this job for my family. This started when I was six years old or so. I didn’t understand systems better than they did. Also, a lot of these issues were adult issues that I didn’t want to be involved in. I was once in the middle of a domestic dispute between my uncle and aunt. It got violent and the police were called. It was tough because I could have been a deciding factor in one of them going to prison. I’ve also had to interpret to ambulance drivers. That was a unique experience. I had to ride in the ambulance with the paramedics and my aunt. I had to translate our illnesses to Americans. It’s tough. How do you explain to another group, “Hey, we aren’t American, so our illnesses are different”?
This taught me how to advocate for others. I was a very shy kid. Truth is, I was so shy my aspiration was to be a hermit that lived on a mountain and came down once a month into the city to get groceries. Advocacy really messed that up for me.
I’ve had to change my trajectory. I’ve come to understand systems pretty well. So, I help others navigate them, too.
JETL: You’re now working as an advocate and are doing some great volunteer work helping people who were previously homeless tell their stories. Can you tell me more about this?
MV: I do a couple of different volunteer projects. I volunteer for parents needing a special needs advocate. Mostly, I provide advice and listen to what they are going through.
I’m also volunteering for a project with CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing) with people who were previously homeless. I’m working as a coach for a homeless advocate (a person who was previously homeless) who is getting support to be a leader in their community. I’m helping my advocate to tell their story so they can speak to elected officials about their lived experience. The work is amazing. But I also think it says a lot about storytelling, and how the stories we tell about ourselves help to shape and change who we are.
JETL: What do you think we and elected officials can learn from their stories? From their experiences?
MV: Humanity. Empathy. As a people, we need to listen better. We need to listen to learn and reflect.
JETL: What do you think the homeless would like us to learn?
MV: I don’t feel comfortable speaking for them. But I will speak from a family perspective, instead. I don’t see myself as separate from people who are homeless. I have people in my family who are homeless and friends who have gone through homelessness. Homelessness is systemic. In fact, it really doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you have a home. I don’t believe homelessness is a choice. I think it’s a system of a much larger disease of inequity. It’s what happens when you are money poor, resource poor, and don’t have human capital (friends and social connections). Homelessness is what happens when there are no other better choices.
I have a cousin who is homeless. His father was horribly abusive. No one helped or intervened. He grew up to be an abusive adult. He spent time in prison. And when he came out, no family members would take him in. He was too scary—volatile and unpredictable.
He never received the support he needed. Heck, if he were a white man of privilege, he could be a judge right now.
JETL: What drives you to be a volunteer for so many projects?
MV: I like to help. I like to stand up for people who can’t, or people who don’t know how yet. I’m a rabble-rouser.
Volunteering is exciting. You get to meet new people. I’ve also done some volunteer speaking engagements and presentations. That’s always cool.
JETL: How do you now define your relationship with the U.S., especially now that you have parted ways with your family? Do you still feel like a bridge? If so, how does it manifest itself?
MV: My relationship with the United States is very complex right now. I’ve always felt like I’m at an in-between place in the United States. I fit in because I’m in Los Angeles. I don’t think I would fit it in all parts of the country. I’ve traveled a lot for work, and not all the cities in the United States feel safe or accepting.
Right now, we are dealing with a lot of discrimination and racism in the United States. Los Angeles doesn’t manifest that discrimination the same way as other places. But it does happen here.
JETL: What’s your relationship like with Mexico, Mexican culture, and Spanish?
MV: I haven’t been to Mexico in a while. I feel an affinity with the Mexican culture. I don’t always agree with the way things are done. But I think women are changing the culture. My Spanish is fluent but clumsy from disuse. My Mexican family is the community of El Monte that has supported my growth as a community researcher. These include my girls Elvy and Tracy. We aren’t blood relatives, but we are still sisters. We understand what it’s like to live through poverty and abuse and make a conscious decision to not be abusers. My women in El Monte are activists. They’ve protested in Sacramento for the rights of children. El Monte has a high child abuse rate. They are fighting to combat that and teach parents how to parent with compassion and empathy. Elvy is also in my pipeline. She connects special needs families to me. They go through her and she sends them to me.
JETL: You write about your experience and your family—immediate and extended—honestly, folding and unfolding the good and the bad. Do they know you write about them? If so, what has been their reaction? Do they care? Do you care if they care?
MV: My family doesn’t know that I write. They don’t know that I write about them. My family doesn’t really know that I paint, either.
JETL: Switchblades appear more than once in your writing, what’s the significance of switchblades for you?
MV: My grandmother gave me my first switchblade. She gave it to me to protect myself. Most if not all the women I know experienced sexual violence. I think she gave me my first blade around the time I was 10 years old.
JETL: You, like the women in your family, have suffered from depression, how do you manage it? What do you do to avoid triggers? Do writing and painting help?
MV: All of the women in my family had depression or a combination of depression and anxiety. All of their depression and anxiety is untreated. I’ve had depression since I was five years old. It got worse and worse as I got older. My family has experienced abuse for many generations. So many of the women [in my family] had PTSD from sexual abuse or domestic violence. I guess what I’m saying is that the two are inexplicably entwined for us. When a family is like that and has been like that for generations, you learn to accept it and it becomes the fabric that makes up who you are as a unit. You don’t question things. But it’s also really difficult to figure out whether the abuse came first or the mental illness.
I manage my own depression with a combination of exercise, medication, yoga, and a fantastic support system. I eat well and I avoid toxic behaviors. There are a bunch of behaviors I avoid in order to stay healthy. I’ve had to work on my boundaries. I avoid abusive people and I don’t work with assholes. When I’ve had to work with unkind people in the past, I defuse situations with humor. And I call them out on their behavior. Of course, first I try to listen carefully. I’ve had situations when people have been unpleasant because they are having personal issues. I consciously decide which issues belong to me and which don’t. For example, a friend not liking my artwork or writing is their issue. That’s not for me to fix or help with and it doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.
I take care of myself because I want to be the type of person my daughter needs. I don’t want her to remember me as physically present but mentally absent. I have a very supportive spouse and amazing friends.
Despite this, I had a horrible relapse more than a year ago. The medication I was on stopped working. I saw all the red flags, but I ignored them. I quit my job. I needed to spend some time recovering and figuring out what had gone wrong. My friend Barbara pulled some strings. She called me up one day and just said, “You are attending this peer class on Tuesday.” And I showed up and kept attending for 10 weeks. I’m very grateful to her. The class reminded me how to care for myself and how to allow support from others.
Also, if I’m deeply grieving, I make dolls out of fabric. I call them grieving dolls. I’ll post on Facebook that I’m making grieving dolls. My friends will ask when they want one. The movement and process of creating is comforting and healing for me, and at the end I have these dolls I send to my friends. The dolls come from sadness, but they make others happy. I like that.
JETL: How do you choose between the written word and the visual arts to express yourself?
MV: I don’t feel like I write about beautiful things. I feel like I write about really hard things and use art to explore softer yearnings. In my writing, I discuss abuse, trauma, and violence and mental health issues. These are really difficult things to talk about because I need to dig deep into things I’d rather not be excavating. But I need to tell these stories because they aren’t just my stories, they are the stories of women collectively. I’m not special or unique. I’m just another expression of what it means to be female. All of our stories are important. Especially right now, as we change the collective understanding of our experiences and our personal value.
The instinct to write is different for me than the instinct to paint. I don’t write very much about beautiful things, but that need still lives inside me. Because I come from a background of abuse, being able to write my truth is very powerful. I wasn’t taught to embrace the truth.
A couple of months ago, I wanted to explore what it felt like to tell your story on stage. I’m an introvert but the idea was rather thrilling. When I finally got up on stage and told my story, it was amazingly relieving. It was such a powerful experience to tell an audience a story and not be questioned and called a liar or told that my reality wasn’t matching what the family culture had decided.
Art is a different way of telling the truth. I’m not comfortable being soft and sensitive. I’m uncomfortable with words like pretty and beautiful because I don’t feel like they apply to me. Art is a way for me to explore that and express who I am through color and line. But I don’t think my art is beautiful. I’m really simply trying to express myself as honestly as possible on paper.
JETL: Would you ever share your stories on stage again?
MV: Yes. I like to connect with others and make them laugh. I love to laugh. If the situation for laughter isn’t available, I’ll create it. One of my favorite jobs was working with my friends/coworkers Arturo and Jesse. We would prank each other. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I think it’s so important to have friends who are there for you and love you. But I also think it’s very important for there to be play in life. Play is great for creativity. Arturo and Jesse were great playmates. And, quite frankly, Arturo often didn’t know he was involved in a playdate. That made it extra fun. Arturo was very dedicated to his job and the work. I was too, but I was a fast worker and often had extra time on my hands. It got so ridiculous that my husband asked if we could set a budget for my pranks.
JETL: When you’re not being an advocate or excavating difficult memories or trying to make people laugh, what do you enjoy doing?
MV: I jog. And I stress bake. I jog mostly because I stress bake. I also love gardening. I read a lot. My fantasy day involves an empty house, a stack of books, a pile of cats, and a mountain of cookies nearby.
Read her creative nonfiction:
Julián Esteban Torres López is a Colombian-born journalist, researcher, writer, and editor. Before founding The Nasiona, he ran several cultural and arts organizations, edited journals and books, was a social justice and public history researcher, wrote a column for Colombia Reports, taught university courses, and managed a history museum. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and 1st place winner of the Rudy Dusek Essay Prize in Philosophy of Art. His book Marx’s Humanism and Its Limits was BookAuthority’s Best New Socialism Book of 2018. His micro-poetry collection Ninety-Two Surgically Enhanced Mannequins is not as serious in tone as his forthcoming book Reporting on Colombia: Essays on Colombia’s History, Culture, Peoples, and Armed Conflict.
Featured image: Mireya S. Vela, “At Rest in the Moss.”