The story of Inocente
reviews a compelling portrait of a young immigrant artist.
"DEAR PEOPLE of the world, I'm not just a girl. I'm a girl who likes to jump in puddles and likes flowers."
This is how Inocente introduces the documentary of her life, which earlier this year won the Oscar for best documentary short. This is the first impression Inocente wants to give you of herself. This is her hanging on to her humanity.
Inocente is a 15-year-old immigrant artist who has lived the majority of her young life homeless in San Diego. "I've never really had something to call home," she says. "Being homeless doesn't mean that you wake up on the street everyday; it means always moving between shelters, friends' houses and apartments that you get evicted from."
One in 45 children are homeless in the U.S., yet there are also six vacant homes for every homeless person. This is the reality for nearly three-quarters of a million people in the richest country in the world. This is criminal. This is capitalism.
"Just because I'm homeless doesn't mean I don't have a life because I do have a life," Inocente goes on to say, and the documentary illustrates how right she is. Inocente is not just a homeless youth. She's a vibrant teenager with dreams and aspirations. She's brave. She's resilient. She's a young woman of color living in a world that's stacked against her.
"If people knew my story, they'd probably think I should be painting dark things," she says. But her talent and strength are immeasurable and irrepressible.
Inocente, her mother Carmela and her two younger brothers have been homeless since she was six when they were forced to flee for their lives after a particularly brutal attack by her abusive father. With nowhere to go, the family ended up on the streets of San Diego.
"Being homeless, everything is hard," explains Carmela, holding back her tears. "But I don't make excuses." A corrosive mix of shame, guilt and self-blame haunt Carmela. She doesn't make excuses, so she blames herself for her family's condition.
This internalization is common among people suffering from homelessness and dire poverty, and particularly among immigrants who come to the U.S. in search of something better and then find themselves on the receiving end of extreme exploitation, oppression, discrimination, hate and scapegoating.
And though it isn't these individuals' faults that their lives are fraught with such desperation, people want to feel that they have some sort of control over their lives, and so a complex process of internalization begins to take place. People want to believe that they aren't just victims, that they have the power to create something better for themselves.
"What I have dreamt about the most is having a stable home," says Carmela. "To this day, I am still hoping, and I know that one day I will have a house. One that not only I but my children will call home."
CIRCUMSTANCES ARE, however, so bleak that death sometimes seems a viable option to end the pain. When Inocente was 11, her mother made the decision to commit suicide and take her children with her. She led her children to San Diego's Coronado Bridge where they planned to jump into the sea and end their suffering.
But a young Inocente pulled her mother away from the edge and begged her not to do it. That day, Inocente saved her life and that of her entire family.
It's hard to imagine what it takes to drive a mother to the point of suicide not only for herself but for her children as well. It's even harder to imagine what it must have been like for a child of 11.
The anguish that Carmela still feels is written all over her face when she says:
I would like to get close to my daughter and ask for her forgiveness. I would like to tell her how much I love her...that I will never leave. I will never harm her. I would like to tell her lots of beautiful things. I want to hug her and give her all the kisses I stopped giving her when she was 6 years old."
I've never met Inocente or Carmela, and I likely never will, but the emotional pain that I experienced watching their story unfold will stay with me for a very long time. As hard as it may be to understand what it must have been like for Inocente and her mother, it isn't hard to understand the conditions that led them to those circumstances.
Under capitalism, profits come before people. Everything--from the work we do to the things we see--forces people to become estranged from themselves and each other for the sake of survival, survival which in turn becomes so heavy a burden that it crushes people's sprits and distorts their humanity.
"MY MOM pays rent, but we're illegal so it's just a matter of time before she can't make enough money and we get kicked out again," says Inocente. It's hard to describe the sadness in her voice when she says this. It is a vivid example of the extent to which we've internalized our hardships as personal failures.
For most people, it is incredibly hard--if not impossible--to see the cruelties of capitalism as anything but personal failures. In fact, our society constantly churns out the message that those who are successful "earned" it, and those who aren't just haven't tried hard enough.
And we've never directly experienced any alternative type of society. A kinder, more human society. A society where meeting the needs of people takes precedence over anything else. Where there is genuine democracy in every institution we participate in, from our workplaces to our schools to our homes. A world that recognizes no borders and where no human being is illegal. A world where no 15-year-old girl ever has to say, "I can't blame my mom for us being homeless. I blame myself."
The film goes on to follow Inocente on her three-month journey to create 30 original works of art for her first art show at A.R.T.S. (A Reason To Survive) art collective, where she has developed her talents as an artist since she was 12.
The art show turns out to be a total success, and she is able to raise $12,000 for A.R.T.S. through the sale of her work. But despite the success of the show and the tremendous support she receives from the community, she still feels isolated and lost. "I'm still waiting for that one day that will change my life," she says deep in thought. Her journey has been hard, fraught with challenges most adults couldn't handle, but the amount of bravery and talent that Inocente possesses always shines through.
"My life depends on me being an artist," she declares with such matter-of-factness that you just know that she is going to be amazing. She's got a great sense of humor and couldn't be more genuine if she tried. She speaks straight from the heart and gives to life everything she's got.
I've said it before but it's worth saying again: her resilience and strength are awe-inspiring, and they give me the motivation to keep fighting for a better world. A world where Inocente can create art and make life more beautiful without having to worry about where she's going to sleep, or where her next meal is going to come from. A world where her talent is celebrated and nurtured for the good of humanity. A world where beauty and dignity are the rule not the exception.
A girl can dream right? Yes, she most certainly can. We all can and should, because "if you can't dream, there's nothing to live for."
Postscript: Since the making of the documentary, Inocente, with the help of A.R.T.S., was awarded legal status in 2011. She has gone on to have a solo art show in New York City and has since moved into her own apartment in San Diego where she lives with her new pet bunny, Luna.
An earlier version of this article first appeared at Red Wedge