At the end of January when the rain was pouring in Oakland with a vengeance that defied its absence in years prior, a white van rolled into the deep east, every spare inch of its metallic outside covered by art and words of resistance.
It was less than a week after reports had come from Venezuela that at least 40 people had been killed and over 850 people detained in anti-government demonstrations against the election of President Nicolás Maduro. Movement leader, Juan Guaidó, appointed himself as interim President and urged hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to take to the streets to demand a restoration of constitutional order and the removal of Nicolás Maduro from the presidency.
Using the best means that she had for protest, Alix created wooden signs that she displayed on top of her van, voicing her opinion. A native of Venezuela from Lagunillas, she told me that she had been forced to move several times in her life due to Venezuela’s poor economics, lack of opportunity, and political strife.
She then supplemented the revolutionary art she had already drawn on her van with hand-written essays in sharpie black ink which she posted all over her van. For several weeks, I’d seen her hovering several times around her van, posting up her writings, painting slogans and messages, and covering the van with art. I mostly saw her in the mornings on my way to work when it wasn’t feasible to stop and examine her van more closely. But one Saturday when the sun was shinning bright, I saw her cleaning the large back tire of her van. Pulling over, I asked her what all the messages on her van were all about.
“Your artwork is amazing,” I said to her in Spanish, “Can I ask you about the stories on your van?”
She started our conversation by profusely apologizing and pulling out all manner of paperwork to show to me – believing me to be someone come to cause her trouble, possibly arrest her.
She was overjoyed to tears when I reassured her that I was only intrigued by her messages and her art and I asked her, once again, in Spanish, what her signs meant. Finally understanding me, she erupted into a story about her life and how she came to live on the streets of Oakland in her van. A Venezuelan native, Alix Maria told me that she had faced economic struggles, poverty, and violence in her lifetime. We talked about the persecution she had faced in her home country as well as in other countries that she had traveled to: Nicaragua, Mexico and then onward to different states – Florida, Atlanta, New York and finally California. A nomadic artist, her van is her home and her artwork is her bread and butter. Resistance, she told me, was not a choice – it was the only way she knew how to survive.
Homeless and persecuted by multiple forces, Alix told me that she felt like the world had ignored her and that the only way she could share her struggles was through the artwork on her van. She told me that her van was her “hero” – not only was it her home, it was salvation and a venue for resistance.
The bold beauty of her artwork struck me. Not only that, by January, Oakland had seen two full months of rain, and yet her artwork, most of which was drawn or written on regular paper using paints and pens that she stored in her van, had somehow remained unblemished even under the harshness of daily rain. Clearly, there were skills that she had as an artist that were beyond my understanding.
Surviving off the streets, selling her art, and tuned into homeless support networks, Alix, who smelled like a combination of the morning’s dew, apples, and acrylics, smiled and teared up as she shared her life story with me. When I asked her why she felt moved to do what she does everyday and what gave her courage, she had this to say:
It is something that I must do – to demand and fight for justice.
When we parted, Alix handed me a pile of documents upon which she had journaled struggles in her life in bold black letters in English and Spanish. Turning the paper over, I saw that she had recycled old legal documents to create her art. These too, told a sordid tale about the painful nomadic pathway that laid at the foundation of all her troubles.
She also gifted me with a painting she had done on a reclaimed piece of wood. It was a haunting painting of her sister whom she had spent the last few decades searching for. “Where is my sister?” the painting asks. It demands for “Justice.” It made me pause. I asked myself what horrors and demons had haunted her in her past? And where they responsible for where she was today? I asked her if I could share her story and pictures of her and her artwork on my blog and she replied enthusiastically, “Yes, people need to know.” Once published, I visited her to drop off a printed and translated version of my blog. Try as I might, although the van was in plain sight, I could not find her despite several weeks of trying. Eventually her van disappeared too.
Speaking to Alix reminded me of a brief time when I was homeless as well. I was raising a child by myself and we were living on the streets out of a car that was not mine that was in bad need of repair. One scene stands out in my mind: trying to feed my daughter with soup from a can – but having no can opener. In the past two years, the number of homeless residents in Alameda County has grown by 43%. Right now, in the year 2019, there are over 8,022 people sleeping outside or in shelters — up from 5,629 in 2017.
There are so many misconceptions and assumptions that we make about folks who are homeless. But I know far too well that so many things can divert a person from a pathway of security.
When I was homeless, living at the mercy of fate, I remember the moment when a pathway of hope opened up for me. It started as something so simple – someone, my first foster mother asked me, “What’s going on?” It was the first time in my life anyone had ever asked me what was going on with me. And that single simple act has made all the difference in the world.
Sometimes we don’t have a dollar to spare. But we do have something priceless and precious: a moment in time to just listen and empathize.