Who says we are defined by our life circumstances? Certainly not fifteen-year old artist Inocente. Despite living homeless and undocumented in San Diego since the age of six, Inocente faces the world with bright spirals painted on the corners of her eyes and large flowers adorning the crown of her head. She paints on whatever canvas she can get her hands on—jeans, tennis shoes, sweatshirt, face.
“Out there in the world, usually things aren’t very colorful, so maybe if they were a little bit more colorful, they’d make people just a little bit more happy,” Says Inocente in the recently released documentary of the same name.
Yet despite her relentless effort to make the world just a little bit brighter for all of us, homelessness and lack of legal documentation have pushed her to the darkest margins of society. Thanks to filmmakers Sean and Andrea Nix Fine, whose documentary, Inocente, follows the journey of this young artist, we can enjoy Inocente’s vivid colors and unique shapes. Their documentary paints a portrait of the challenges faced by homeless and undocumented youth living in the U.S., a portrait as vivid, but not nearly so bright, as Inocente’s paintings.
According to the Inocente documentary website, there are 1.5 million homeless youths and 1.8 million undocumented youths living in the U.S. today. Twenty-five percent of homeless youths witness violence within in their families, a statistical category from which Inocente is not exempt.
Although Inocente’s home life has been bleak, her paintings are anything but. The colors she paints reflect her passion for life despite the obstacles that come with waking each day. Her optimism comes from a determination to start the day with what makes her most happy, painting. Each morning she applies her makeup with a paintbrush. Black and red triangles, spirals, or dots accentuate her eyes. Her makeup is a totem of her relentless commitment to pursuing her dreams.
Inocente credits her untamed imagination with the uncanny vibrancy of her art. “I like to look out the window and imagine, what if the trees could talk, or the people had super powers… I have a lot of impossible dreams, but I still dream them.”
Some would have considered Inocente’s appearance on stage at the Oscars last Sunday an impossible dream. Nevertheless, the film her art inspired won the Academy Award for best Documentary Short of 2013. Dressed in an elegant white dress, Inocente entered the stage along with filmmakers Sean and Andrea Nix Fine to receive their Oscar.
While Inocente’s optimism and imagination have prevailed, her success still remains exceptional. Inocente was fortunate enough to belong to A.R.T.S., a program designed to give homeless youths access to the arts. A.R.T.S—an acronym for A Reason To Survive—gave her a place that felt like home and allowed her to fill an otherwise grey world with color. Still, millions of youths endure struggles similar to Inocente’s, and without access to such programs. Funding for public arts education, which gave Inocente a life when she felt she had no other, is often an early target for budget cuts. Even private, non-profit arts programs struggle to find funding needed to provide their services to youths. For Inocente, arts education allowed the beautiful world she dreamed of survive in her imagination when it could not manifest in her life.
My personal favorite of Inocente’s paintings is entitled “The Lost Planet.” In this piece, multicolored stars glimmer behind mountains garnished with glitter. The Lost Planet is meant to represent a land where children’s dreams reside after they are forsaken. When I see this painting I imagine how many dreams wind up there, dreams abandoned by children whose life circumstances forced them to give up dreaming far too early. Most of all I imagine how so many simple dreams, dreams like having a home, could be prevented from ending up on the lost planet in the first place.