A Home in Somebody’s Garden
A reflection on family history, poverty, and the concept of beauty in art.
By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” – John 12:24 (KJV)
When I was young, sitting at the dinner table and awaiting to be excused, I remember that my mother would get up to take my plate, and upon seeing that I had left some food, she would exclaim:
“How obvious it is that you’ve never been poor!”
Evidently, my parents had grown up poor. In Mexico, at the time when my parents were born, things were much more difficult compared to my time growing up in Canada.
When my mother was young, her family raised pigeons for food. When she would go to school, her own mother would sit on the porch with her prayer beads all day until her return.
My father told me that one day, his mother, having no food and no other recourse, made dresses from the kitchen drapes to sell them at the market. Certainly, the less pleasant things, they kept from me. Though they did tell me the moment they decided to leave their home country.
One day, my father and mother were out, walking in broad daylight in Mexico city, near the market, when they were mugged at gunpoint. A man put a knife to my father’s back, while another pointed his gun toward them. My father put my mother behind him, throwing his wallet on the ground. Fortunately, the muggers took the wallet, and they were spared.
Surely, this is not the entire story. It is difficult to imagine the hardship that one has to go through to decide to leave their home behind. But as Warsan Shire, the contemporary British-Somali poet, once said:
“no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark”
Of course, life was never easy for them, but perhaps because of their struggle, which began from the time of their childhoods, they had found in themselves the resilience to persevere, to start anew, and to attempt to create a better life for their children.
However, the life of immigrants and their children is not so simple. It was always a strange and uncomfortable thing to grow up feeling like an outsider. There was no community. There were language barriers and cultural differences. Stuck between the values my parents were trying to instil at home in my upbringing and the outside cultural norm, I felt as if I had no real place to belong. Certainly, life was better here. We didn’t have to live in fear. But the sense of otherness made it feel as if we were trying to make a home in somebody’s garden.
This otherness, this struggle to find my place in the world, was not all bad. As it often happens in life, what you lack and what you long for can bring you to greater gratitude. It can give you an incentive, a sense of direction.
I remember in my childhood that sometimes, my mother would sing Mexican songs. My father would accompany her on the piano. I remember that our library was filled with books of Mexican poetry, but also of works of world literature. The shelves and the walls held figurines, masks, and artworks from Mexico. Both my parents had been musicians, and they had introduced me and my sister to the arts, to music, and to literature from all over the world.
This upbringing, this family history, and this longing for home is what drove me to study arts. In the art of the world, I finally felt at home. It is a passion I inherited from my family and which I cannot separate from our struggles.
In Plato’s Symposium, love is described as the child of poverty and plenty—the idea being that lack can bring you to greater understanding and gratitude, that having felt great pain and loss, one can feel greater depths of longing inherent in love’s passion. As Khalil Gibran, the 20th-century Lebanese poet puts it:
“Is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
And it is the same way with the beauty in art which becomes more ardent, more piercing, and more meaningful when it acknowledges the pain of life. For who could find more gratitude in a meal than the hungry; or in health, the sick; or to see, the blind?
It is for this reason that my parents felt the need to leave their home: to fill their lives with art, despite everything, and to pass this passion unto their children. At times when there is no other recourse than to endure the hardship of life, it is perhaps then that art finds its deepest resonance and beauty by filling some ineffable longing in the soul.
As Basho, the 17th-century Japanese poet, most aptly expressed it:
For a lovely bowl
Let us arrange these flowers
For there is no rice