Answering Her Call
(A Spoken Word Text)*
Published as a chapter in Women Art Educators V: Conversations Across Time
Enid Zimmerman, Kit Grauer and Rita Irwin, Editors.
Reston, VA: National Art Education Association Publisher, 2003.
From her corner of the Norton Simon Museum of Art, the twelve-year-old Oaxocan girl in Diego Rivera’s painting, The Flower Vendor (1941), calls out – and some of us are able to hear her voice. Though we are outside the picture plane, standing some six feet behind this working girl, she speaks directly to us. Even as she kneels to gather her billowing calla lilies, she speaks powerfully of humility and hubris, poverty and nobility, earthiness and spiritualism, oppression and liberation. Though she is represented as a faceless, solitary figure alone with her pristine flowers, she reminds us of our humanity; our need to connect, to listen, to be in relationship, to build community. My students and I are inspired by the eloquence of this barefoot girl, even as we are drawn to the sweet purple ribbon around her braids and pink sash around her slender waist, we are taken with her hand-embroidered blouse and the soles of her amber feet,
Once, we were merely viewers, strangers, peering over her muslin shoulder at the impossibly huge bundle of lilies she is preparing to sell in the village square. But then, the quiet struggle of this anonymous peasant, one of Mexico’s ten million Indians, captured us. As she embraces the glorious callas, she also embraces us. Now, we are in her world and she in ours. We are awed by her steadfast dedication to her own calling as a flower vendor; who labors so nobly to lift the lilies, and to lift her family out of poverty. Sacrificing herself, this humble Indian is unrelenting in the fight for dignity and freedom from long-lingering cultural and economic oppression. She will not give up, we are convinced, nor will she give in or give out. Serving a mission larger than herself, she answers her call, not because she wants to, but because she must.
And so, we, too, are called, driven forward, to choose the patient flower vendor as a metaphor that helps us understand our own struggles. She is no one in particular, yet she is someone special, empowering, as she gives us voice to tell our own stories. Many of the Mexican-American students enrolled in the preservice art courses I teach find the intricate details of their stories to be rooted deeply in hers. During my years of teaching these art methods courses, their stories have become intertwined with my own. Their metaphors have transported me to the Oaxocan village where I, a middle-aged Anglo woman, could listen to the young girl’s wisdom. She helped reveal to me a story I had not dared to understand and was afraid to share. If this painted girl is no one in particular, she also is all of us in spirit; she tells our stories of becoming, connecting, and becoming again. They are the stories of our passages into womanhood and our struggles for identity, knowledge, and meaning in these times of transition and transformation.
Clutching their reproductions of The Flower Vendor like talismans, the Mexican-American students come to class and speak proudly of their cultural heritage, their homeland, family, and religious faith. These students say that the indigenous girl, with her long braided hair, reminds them of their youth when their own braids hung down their backs. Pointing to the ribbon that holds the girl’s black braids together, my students smile broadly, tenderly, telling how their mothers or grandmothers also tied bright ribbons around their braids.
When I ask about the callas, glowing white even in their reproductions, they become more reflective, reverent. “You see them at weddings and funerals,” they say. “And at Easter time. They are Easter lilies.” The students remember mounds and mounds of calla lilies growing wild, lighting up the countryside like they light up the altars during Easter mass, These flowers seem to bloom, like holy trumpets, to celebrate rebirth and resurrection. To my students, they also are icons, trumpeting glorious news of an indigenous culture, an Aztec past when the flowers represented fertility and femininity. A unique hybrid of Spanish Catholicism and Indian culture, the calla is Mexican-pure.
Experiencing themselves as hybrids, my students cling to the Mexican calla, even as they begin to bloom as new teachers, proud to be entering the American system of public education. They are California’s next generation of teachers, yet they are citizens of the border. And so, they must cling, like the young flower vendor, to a calla bouquet, seeking affirmation deep within its blooms. For these students who are finding their places in El Norte, the girl and her flowers give them the strength to explore, to openly honor their Aztec roots now flourishing in American soil. They move forward to negotiate their bi-cultural identities, while creating a garden between the past and the future, between Mexico and the U.S.
Just as the metaphorical girl helps my students to center themselves in their in-between place, so, too, she calls me out to tell of my own place between. I am an art educator who must hover somewhere between the sighted and unsighted worlds. When I was twelve years old, I suddenly found myself in a struggle with a mysterious and most unwelcome disease that sought to destroy my vision. Diagnosed as uveitis, this ocular inflammation had no cause and no cure. Despite the countless medical tests and procedures I underwent, and the many courses of prescription drugs and eye drops administered to me, the defiant inflammation raged on. As it progressed, permanently scarring my retinas and clouding my lenses, this insidious pathology also sought to divert the course of my development as a middle-class teenager growing up in a suburban community. My parents, teachers, and doctors scurried around me, helpless, desperate to know what the future would hold for me.
I would not give in to the disease, not then, not now. Nor would I give up on my dreams and the chance to shape my own destiny. At fourteen years of age, I was called to teach art and seven years later, I became a high school art teacher. Though I have never been able to drive a car; though I cannot read without the aid of a high-powered magnifying glass, I have been teaching art now for twenty years. I teach because I must; I can because of my students. Working together, we connect, we listen, and they become my eyes. Through them, I see my own hubris; I am both humbled and liberated.
Over the years, the students have helped me to see my so-called disability not as a heavy load to carry, but rather like the Indian girl’s gossamer lilies, as an uplifting cloud that carries me; that allows me to gain new perspectives on what it means to teach art in my in-between place – a meaningful place where I always remember that art involves ideas, cultures, and connections more so than visual perception. In relationship with my students, I am able to transcend the limits of a legally-blind world, while accepting it as my reality. I see beauty in this place and in the students who share it with me. My in-between space is radiant, vital, and filled with companions and co-explorers. Our project is to connect to learn, to connect to understand. The students and I are working toward a new understanding of the world, one comprised of human relationships, rather than of isolated, unruly individuals – that is, “a world that coheres through human connection rather than through systems of rules” (Gilligan, 1982, p. 29).
In our border garden, there are no rules to guide or restrict us, nothing that determines how we must speak, what we will produce, or how it will be shared. There are only connections to be made, dialogues to be had, and knowledge to be constructed. Forming a dialogical community, we are able to create a “latticework of thoughts and points of view that interweave and complement each other” (Gablik, 1995, p. 35). Our lattice defines the epistemological space where we construct and contextualize personal (private) knowledge and public knowledge. This knowledge is the product of our garden discourse. For us, knowing and learning are not conceived of as “individual acts of discovery,” but as “communal acts of creation” (Iliu, 1995, p. 14).
Our latticed garden both gives support to and is supported by a functional relationship among knowledge, discourse, and community, such that “knowing and learning are not possible without discourse and discourse is not possible without community” (Liu, 1995, p. 14). In our learning community, listening is perhaps more important than seeing. To construct knowledge of art, self, and others, we engage not only in speaking and sharing, but also in critical and empathic listening. We are a listening community, able to hear and to welcome the different voices in our artful dialogues. One of them is the voice of the quiet flower vendor; we listen, and she calls us into being. And she listens to us as we come to understand ourselves and our community in the border garden. We answer her call, not because we want to, but because we must.
Gablik, S. (1995). Conversations before the end of time. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Liu, G. (1995). Knowledge, foundations, and discourse: Philosophical support for service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning 2, 5-18.
*This piece is meant to be read aloud, to be heard. My hope is that readers, in speaking the words, will imagine hearing the voices and seeing the images, including that of The Flower Vendor (Rivera, 1941).
© 2015 Carol Jeffers