Home is Where Your Voice is Heard - Isabel Cisterna
In this second post from the ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ Blog Series, Clara meets with Isabel Cisterna
Author: Clara Bird
Neruda Production located in The Button Factory, 25 Regina St. S., Waterloo
Outsider: finding your voice, fighting for your place
Isabel and I meet at Café 1842, on the corner of Princess Street and King Street North. We arranged for the interview to be quite early, and I am a little bleary eyed and thankful for the coffee when I arrive. Even at this early hour the café is busy. People sit alone or with others, reading the newspaper or chatting. I have been here several times before and find that I am beginning to recognize the kind of crowd this place appeals to: professionals, creative types and art students seem to be its mainstays. Perhaps this is not surprising given its location: the corner of King and Princess is home to a record store, a vegetarian eatery, a comic book store and two independent cinemas. It shares a space with a hotel and a popular pub and seems to be a centre of local culture in Uptown Waterloo.
I sit down at a corner table and find myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the adjoining table while waiting for Isabel to arrive. Two women and three men are having breakfast before work. They seem to know each other quite well and, from what I can discern, they are professionals in some capacity. There is talk of their jobs, their country homes and yoga. I notice that they are all quite young and wonder to myself, my conversation with Sunshine coming to mind, whether they are from here or somewhere else, and what keeps them in this town.
The sight of Isabel, smiling broadly, looking a little flustered, interrupts my musings. She apologizes for being late, and rushes off to get some food and a drink. I also get something to nibble on and we return to our seats. She begins by excusing herself for being late, recounting her troubles this morning; a back ache, the problem of having children at home during the summer months and trying to get some work done. Somehow, I can’t recall why, we get onto the topic of fashion in Waterloo. We agree that there is something lacking, but Isabel tells me this is a relief to her. She is glad there is no special emphasis on appearances; it’s a nice change after growing up in Chile. Isabel tells me a story about a particular summer in Chile, when the newest fad was to wear thigh-high, high-heeled leather boots with a mini skirt. Apparently, Chile is a fairly homogenous culture and the “‘in” outfit is worn by everyone. She describes to me how uncomfortable those thigh-high leather boots were in the heat of summer and I can see why she finds Waterloo’s more relaxed attitude towards fashion a relief.
Searching: lonely to laudable
I ask Isabel why she left Chile and how she ended up in Waterloo. She tells me her story, beginning with her departure from Chile and covering her life right up to the present day. Isabel speaks with honesty and intensity about herself and her experiences. As with so many artists, I feel her story is full of implications about the world around her.
Isabel explains that her parents didn’t have a lot of money; they could only afford to send one child, her brother, to university and it would not have been possible for her to work and go to school. Further, she was involved in street performance, and because of the repressive government, she knew she would not be able to practice her art safely at home.
She went to Toronto with the intention of staying for a year or so, long enough to make the necessary money to put herself through school back in Chile. She quickly became involved in two Spanish theatre productions, but was frustrated by their limited exposure to the general public. At some point, Isabel visited a friend who was attending the University of Waterloo. She felt Waterloo presented the possibility of a better life: less expensive, good wages, more visibility, resources close at hand and everything within walking distance. She decided to give the region a try.
Isabel tells me that at first she had a hard time; she had been expecting a very different kind of reception. In Chile, people fall all over foreigners and marvel at them. Her instinct on arriving was to say, “Hi my name is Isabel and I am from Chile” and then await applause. She soon discovered there was nothing special about being foreign; in fact, it was a disadvantage. With limited English language skills and no work experience, finding employment was challenging. She accepted anything she could get, and spent years working at jobs that required little capacity for communication. It was lonely and isolating.
To illustrate this for me, Isabel describes the inhospitable environment of a factory where she was employed as a stock keeper. Most of her co-workers were women from developing countries and the lunch tables were clearly divided along ethnicity and language lines. Her expectation, based on previous jobs in Chile, was of a more social, interactive work place. This was her first experience of much-praised Canadian multiculturalism and she summarizes it succinctly: “to each their own playground.”
Isabel’s depiction of her early years in Waterloo is evocative and speaks of the difficulty of being a newcomer. Despite its small size, Isabel was unable to easily connect with others and feel part of this community. She lacked the necessary tools and relationships to grant her membership. In close-knit communities and long established cultures, this is often the case. A subtle and deeply embedded social order makes integration a drawn out process. I have experienced this myself when living in other countries. Hearing about the same phenomenon here was surprising, as I consider Canada, on the whole, to be relatively open. I suspect that this may be the flip side of a community “where everything gets done on a handshake.”
As Isabel goes on with her story, I can see that she is determined to fight against this kind of exclusion; in fact, it has become her central focus. I think she is motivated by her own experience but also by a desire to see this community transformed. Perhaps this is because she has experienced relative success here, or perhaps because, more generally, she sees this Region as a place with great potential.
Voice: artistic expression as a venue for communication
Isabel tells me that starting in 1997, she began performing monologue pieces around the city.
“I needed to know that I still had a voice. I felt invisible and needed to be heard.”
For years she put on shows sporadically, with limited exposure but some underground success. Eventually, Henry from Theatre & Company saw her perform and invited her to participate in Writer’s Block, a group for new and up-and-coming writers. The group organized to present a play, and again she did a monologue, only this time she received critical acclaim. She says this event, and connecting finally with those who believed in her, gave her enough confidence to consider taking on more and bigger community projects.
Receiving recognition led to an important realization: “I recognized a need to connect artists coming to Waterloo from all over the world with a Canadian audience, and to offer them a chance to perform with dignity in established and professional contexts. I could see that this was a path to integration and understanding between cultures.”
Within months of her performance with Theatre & Company, Isabel had launched the first Café Cabaret. The notion of Café Cabaret is based on a Chilean tradition, wherein all types of performers come together for an evening of entertainment, usually over the course of a meal. These events were immediately successful. Newcomers and artists, perhaps similar in their feelings of isolation, were given a venue to communicate, share, and become visible.
Social transformation: Neruda Productions
The Café Cabarets reinforced Isabel’s belief that art has the capacity to bring people together and break down boundaries. It also inspired her to do more. She created Neruda Productions, a not-for-profit, community arts organization, as an arena for ongoing and expanded newcomer involvement and artistic expression.
Isabel tells me that Neruda Productions continues to host Café Cabarets, and now offers other events and workshops, including Arpillera: Tapestry of Life, collages that tell life stories, created over many weeks by groups of women. Another important project has been Art Through Children’s Eyes, a mentorship and exploration of Canadian identity through children’s art. She explains that newly arrived women and children are the focus of her work because they are the most isolated and vulnerable. Men can engage with others in the workplace, whereas women and children are often at home. This means they are less likely to learn English language skills and are thus more disconnected, less rooted, and less part of society. Isabel has been convinced that when women come together they discover that they are not alone in their experience, and this is both comforting and empowering.
So, using her own experience as a guide, Isabel through Neruda Productions helps newcomers share their stories and histories and navigate the process of settling and living in the Waterloo Region. As Isabel elaborates, her organization may have started off focusing on art, but now art is the vehicle for social transformation:
Here she reminds me of Sunshine, perhaps not surprising as they work together. Isabel talks about enabling different kinds of community, where art and culture play a more central role and where newcomers are equally engaged, and engaging, citizens. She is convinced that art has transformative powers, and is deliberately provocative in this assertion:
Paradoxes: Waterloo and the arts
In her tone, I hear an impatience and frustration with culture here and also with the ways things are done. I ask her to tell me more and she explains:
This makes me laugh. Since arriving here, I have on several occasions overheard people talking about a “cultural plan” to make Waterloo a vibrant cultural centre. I ask Isabel why she thinks this community views culture in these terms. Isabel’s answer suggests that power structures and conflicts for control contribute to the idea of culture here, as does the view of culture as a commodity:
I suggest that maybe the cultural workers themselves need to be in decision- making positions, but Isabel rightly points out that wider support and recognition needs to come from other players in the community. Otherwise, as she puts it: “it would be a very lonely performance.”
This brings to mind Lynn’s remarks about the emphasis on grassroots participation in this community. If, as Lynn suggests, decisions largely come from the community, then what Isabel is inferring about the lack of direct contact and accountability seems out of place. On the other hand, Lynn also mentioned long-standing leadership as a contributing factor to innovative action and thinking. And then, Isabel’s story of receiving acclaim and recognition evokes the role of connections and “powerful friends.” I wonder, can a community be simultaneously closed and open, capable of support and assistance yet exclusive and limited? And what impact does this have on its capacity for change and innovation?
Reinforcing this paradox for me, Isabel tells me that,
"...on the other hand, Waterloo is unique at giving people chances and, as a community, it is very open to new experiences, even thirsty for new experiences.”
Isabel says that this is exemplified by the kind of shows that can get funded here and the audiences who are willing to attend them. A predominantly English audience will attend a show that is primarily in Spanish. In other cities, that same show would probably only bring in Spanish viewers. As she sees it, this curiosity and openness can create new synergies and connections.
Similarly, Isabel tells me that Waterloo is definitely open and welcoming of newcomers in principle, even if they do not seem entirely sure what to do with people once they get here. She suggests this openness may come from their unique history: the tradition of the Mennonites who managed to co-exit, but remain slightly apart. They have preserved their culture but are equal partners. She notes: “We should learn from this.”
I find myself questioning this. Doesn’t an us-and-them mentality contribute to the isolation Isabel experienced herself and is fighting so hard to change for others? Isn’t it also part of what continues to frustrate her, as she attempts to transform this community: that the small circle of leadership insiders in this community is so inaccessible to most people? Does she think this community can, or should, change as the context alters, making room for new and different relationships? Not easy questions; and no easy answers.
New voices: making change happen, making it last
According to Isabel, the context is rapidly shifting. As she sees it, the challenge right now is that Waterloo Region is changing very fast, faster than municipalities can keep up with and accommodate. Many immigrants are arriving and need to be invited to belong, not simply to assimilate. Municipalities say that they support multiculturalism, but again, it is very hard to get anywhere when the people they are trying to reach are in the shadows and are unfamiliar to them.
The kind of support that the municipalities provide people may also change to reflect this evolving context. The tolerance and openness that this community prides itself on may not be enough. Isabel’s own story and the longevity of Neruda Productions exemplify this. Isabel attributes much of her success to being in the Waterloo Region. Once she was granted recognition, she was able to pursue her dreams in a way she does not feel would have been possible elsewhere. Yet, as we speak, she questions her ability to maintain and grow Neruda Productions: “We do not have [enough] capacity; we would need a lot more resources.”
Like a Waterlooian, Isabel is looking for inventive solutions to keep Neruda Productions going. She is hoping to get corporate sponsorship and eventually become self sufficient, but recognizes that she will need continued community assistance: “We are hoping that the community will see the value of what we do.” The fear of course, is that Isabel will burn out, and with no one else to pick up the slack, her unique organization will cease to exist. She tells me that she and Sunshine work constantly, too much in fact:
As a social innovator, Isabel is inventive, charismatic and a leader. She is a force to be reckoned with. But, like all of us, she is defined to some extent by her context, and can benefit or be held back by it. Through her stories and insights, I can see she has experienced life in both unlikely and unsought ways. Her years spent in the shadows clearly limited her capacity to change and create, but also seem to have strengthened her resolve. Once included in this community, she has benefited from the bonds and connections that make things happen in this town. She is resolved to grant this experience to other people and believes that artistic practice is a catalyst for this. She clearly envisions a Waterloo that is more diverse, creative and innovative, and is doing her part to make this a reality. Still, she will need continued and augmented support. In order to move Neruda Productions, and perhaps this community, along a trajectory of greater innovation, she will need additional resources and greater inclusion.
Social innovation theory might say she needs to move her project from the generation stage (creative, explosive idea generation) to the exploitation phase (focused resourcing and implementation of that which is most relevant to goals), where great ideas become imbedded in culture and policy.
This reflects my conversation with both Sunshine and Lynn. I am beginning to recognize a limited capacity to move between these two important phases in the adaptive cycle. As Isabel noted, this community is great at welcoming, and I would say, creating, inventing and stimulating. But it seems to be challenged by precisely what to do with, and how to support the potential of, new people, ideas, creations, and actions after they arrive on the scene.
If you are interested in obtaining a hardcopy of the book, please contact the SiG office at 1-519-888-4567, Ext. 32525 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About ‘Notes of a Newcomer’: The ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ project began in late 2008 and is both an investigation into social innovation at the local level and an exploration of Waterloo Region specifically. Told through the experiences of Clara Bird, a young person newly arrived in the region, it was also an opportunity for SiG@Waterloo to build, and build upon, its relationships in the local community. As a result of the exploration, a book was published consisting of a series of interviews with community members. Through the ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ Blog Series, we hope to share these stories with you.