Mercedes Calcano

Artist

Location: Caracas, Venezuela

"I believe in people. And I believe in myself."

I could hear people screaming and the sound of shots. I ran like never before and took cover behind a tree. A bullet whizzed by so close to my ear that I could feel the wind whistling.

I was in the middle of a huge civic protest against Venezuela's repressive government. The ruling party had not only allowed their followers to shoot at the opposition​, but had encouraged it. So as soon as we reached the closing road to the Voting Center, the center of our meet-up, we heard the sound of gunfire. We were trapped on an avenue that is completely open and visible, so even when we ran, there was no place to hide.

I kneeled in the driveway of a building nearby, my ears still ringing with the sound. I prayed for my life and promised myself I would find a way to overcome my fears and start a new life in freedom.

I made it through that day and made good on my promise. I sold what I had and left for the USA. I started to read everything in English, studied as much as I could to learn the language, and jumped on that plane, the vast unknown before me.

At first, I found myself homeless, with no money or place to live. But I began volunteering to help an American family and was able to live with them as I cleaned houses for friends to get a little money. I could not find full-time work because my of visa. I was discouraged and about to give up on getting an education -- but then I got a scholarship to study the Arts, and change swept into my life.

The first semester I cried and doubted myself; even though I did well, I thought every day might be my last. But then I started to see that I had things to say. My eagerness to learn and to take advantage of the opportunity soon worked to my advantage and I began to take flight. Having the right to use my voice and not be punished made me stronger and event defiant. I started to drink it all in. Libraries! We didn't have libraries back home.

I worked really hard (and then harder!) until I got a Masters degree and graduated with Honors. Just as importantly, I realized that expressing myself through the Arts was the way that I could live the free life that I had always hoped for. No regime can overpower art and emotion. No one can silence music. At the end of my studies, I was asked what made me who I was and how, during everything I had gone through, I kept dreaming, hoping, and forging ahead. I told them: because I look for beauty and poetry in life. In spite of all the things I have seen, I believe in people. And I believe in myself.

I returned home to Venezuela and now am working to share that vision. My time in the US showed me how resourceful I can be and I want to pass that on to others. I teach art, lead workshops, write articles, and do whatever I can to express myself. I don't look for talent in my students -- I look for wonder and for an appreciation of life. Those are the qualities that got me where I am today.

I realized that I am always who I am no matter the environment. I expect great things of myself, and I know I will deliver.