PCN and Enedina Vasquez: an interview

On Friday, December 11, Dani Scoville, communications associate at the Episcopal Diocese of California sat down with Enedina Vasquez, an artist from San Antonio who has engaged Christians at all levels of faith commitment in using art to be in touch with God. Vasquez was presenting a workshop on folk art at St. James’, Oakland and made time to sit and chat with Scoville. Below is the transcript of their interview, and the MP3 audio — approximately 35 minutes — is available here.

PCN: Good morning this is Dani Scoville with the diocese of California.

We are sitting here with the great San Antonio artist Enedina Vasquez, and we’re going to have a little conversation about spirituality, and art, and life, and we’ll see where we go with this.

To start off, Enedina, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

EV: Well, I was born and raised in San Antonio, TX, for a time, my family was migrant, then we settled in San Antonio. I haven’t moved from the same neighborhood my entire life.

PCN: Is there district names or neighborhood names; are you in a specific neighborhood?

EV: Prospect Hill.

PCN: Prospect Hill.

EV: You know, it’s on the west side of San Antonio.

PCN: What’s the west side of San Antonio like? I haven’t explored there too much.

EV: It’s one of the poorest ZIP codes in America.

PCN: Wow…and you stayed there your whole life.

EV: Yes. Because I grew up there, went to school with kids who are either deceased, gunned down, or in prison, and I like to be sort of like a role model for the children that are growing up there now because they see someone who has several college degrees and stays in the neighborhood and is of service to them.

PCN: Wow. Do you have the kids come over to your house?

EV: Yes, a lot of times. I do a lot of work in different boards in San Antonio to help not only children but battered women.

PCN: So you’re really invested in your community.

EV: Yes, I am.

PCN: And part of that work in your community is your own art making, and also encouraging others to make art.

EV: Yes…well, to express themselves in any way that pleases them and sets their spirit free. I think that one of the problems of the youth today is that they are not into the arts because the arts are the first things that get thrown out of school as too expensive or not needed. To me that that is one of the things that helped me to survive — the ability to be able to draw and write poetry and things like that.

PCN: So those are your main forms of medium is drawing, and poetry, and also –

EV: Drawing, painting, writing plays, short stories, poems.

PCN: Ah! So basically everything!

EV: Yeah, a little bit of everything.

PCN: When did you first know you were an artist?

EV: I think I was born with a paintbrush. (both laugh) A paintbrush, and a pencil, and a pad, and things like that. But no, I’ve always dialogued with God by writing it down.

PCN: I saw in one of your interviews that you kept journals…

EV: Yes, and I still do; I bring them everywhere.

PCN: Do you journal daily, or, is there a regular practice of that?

EV: Yes. Through drawing…I draw and reflect. I walked into [a] house. It’s got these paintings: Ethiopian faces — almost cartoonish — and so when I settled down in my room, I took out my journal, and I drew these faces, and I thought, “This is what happened when you walk into a home and it’s a culture that greets you.”

To him it was the paintings that he has from Ethiopian. To me it was that culture looking back at me and saying, “Look at my colors. What do you find in my colors that are your colors?” I just had to reflect on that. It was a different culture talking without words.

PCN: That’s really interesting, and it leads into my next question. How does your family history and cultural identity show up in your specific way of artistic expression?

EV: I think the color, but of course it’s different at the different stages of my life because the art changes as I change. When I was young it was all…I wanted to be Egyptian because I was studying the pyramids. I never thought of being Mexican because everybody didn’t like being Mexican, so that reflected on that.

But as the years changed and I became more educated, then my art changed. I had an episode with cancer where all my paintings started to get dark, and I left painting for a while. Art is always in everybody’s life — whether it’s music, prayer, or poetry or prayer or just talking, we need to pay attention to those things.

PCN: So everyone has the artistic capacity?

EV: That’s how you quiet yourself down! In order to allow God to speak to you and for you to listen.

PCN: Yeah…it’s so fascinating that currently there is a rise in the sales of adult coloring books online. I think some people really do long to have that quieting of self.

EV: Mmhmm. I think that they’re finding that, but it has been around for a long time. The movement of the hand, whether you’re painting or writing or washing dishes, strumming on a guitar — it’s the movement that allows your brain to let everything go.

You find yourself thinking about yesterday’s problems and “Oh yeah, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that,” and by the time your work is finished, you’ve settled down and know what to do. It’s finding the next step…through the creative process.

PCN: It sounds like a very embodied physical expression, but also very spiritual; it kind of connects the two it sounds like.

EV: It’s like putting a painting on the wall. It’s like that’s me! Everybody looks at it, but it’s saying something back. Then we bring things to the painting, like me bringing my culture when I walked into that home; all the art there is Ethiopian. It’s alien to me! But then you look at the colors, and that’s how they speak, which is how I speak: through color and line.

PCN: I enjoyed looking at your art; it’s very colorful, and lots of different patterns—

EV: I’m not quiet about it. If I say “red” it’s going to be “RED.” Not some wishy-washy little red over here, no I’m going to say “RED.” And blues and all the other colors. It’s just the way I am, I think.

PCN: Yeah…I love that. You’ve talked about this a bit, but I’d like to press more on the question on how the art you make connects to your spirituality.

EV: I think because I grew up being very religious —when I was growing up, very little, maybe like six and seven, we were migrant workers. My brothers were teenagers already, and we were packed into this truck and we would go to the northern states to pick pickles or whatever it was we were going to work, and I thought it was the best time — looking at the little farm houses, and the sheep, and the grass in the fields, and my brothers hated it. If you asked my brothers it was the worst time of their life because they were older.

I…in my journals, in fact in my first book, I wrote about how they took us to Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay to buy groceries and things like that, and you could hear the Anglo people saying things about you. I always felt like, “They don’t know I know English. They don’t know that I know what they’re calling us,” but my brothers took it like anger, and reflected on that. They reflected on that and got angrier as they grew up. I remember going to the museum in the fourth grade and still I had to choose between the colored and the white — what happens if you’re a brown girl like me? You don’t know. You become lost.

A lot of that happened to a lot of people, like myself; each one of us handled it differently, but for a brown person like myself, Mexican-American, the black bathrooms and the white, but there’s not one for you. That does something to a people, where you’re totally dismissed, and you’re just in between, so you stay in-between and then you don’t develop.

PCN: So, in art, there was that place for you. In that artistic expression you were able to —

EV: Because I could say things. I could say a lot of things through the art.

PCN: And in that artistic space, was also a spiritual space.

EV: I was very close to God. I grew up wanting to serve. I always tell the story about being nine years old, I had a friend — my best friend Tony. He’d walk to my house and we’d walk to the school, but we’d stop at the church. Then after school we’d come from school, we’d stop at the church, go to catechism or whatever, and then go home. Then one Sunday he doesn’t come, so I go to church, and I’m sitting there, and the service starts, and I look up, and there’s Tony! He was coming with the priest dressed in his little red altar boy outfit, and I said, “Whoa! That would look great on me! I could do that!”

So he’s going up and then he’s helping Father ring the bells, and I’m like “I’m going to do that too,” so I walk up to Sister Frances Cabrini, and I say, “I want to be like Tony; I want to help God. I want to help the priest.”

She says, “Oh, you can’t.”

I say, “Why not?”

She says, “You’re a girl,” and I think “But that dress would look great on me.”

I think at that time my mouth got zipped, and I began to have problems talking to God. I felt “You can’t pray because you’re a girl; you can’t go to church because you’re a girl.” So that is something that is detrimental to a child like myself. Not all children, I guess, but I really wanted to serve God; I wanted to help, and I was told no, so I always felt no. In my heart I knew that I wanted to do it, so when I turned 17, I got on the bus with a suitcase and I went to the convent and told the sisters “I’m here. I’m going to stay at the convent and be part of the church.” She said, “Oh no no. You can’t because we have to call your dad.”

So they called my dad, and he came, picked me up, beat me to a pulp just about, and so you stop. You stop. And the rest of my life was get an education, do all kinds of things, get married, but still there was that nagging “You’ve got to do something; you’ve got to be part of the life that God gave you, you’ve got to serve God.”

One day — I mean, I’m a playwright, and I had written this play that was done in New York by Joseph Papp, but at this time they were opening a cultural center in Arlington, TX. They invited me to come down there so the audience could meet me. So my husband and I go, and I’m sitting there showing our artwork, and then at the end this man walks up to me with a collar, and says, “I’m Richard Aguilar, I’m so glad to meet you. Oh my goodness, I’m from your neighborhood, you know I grew up there. This is my wife and my baby,” and the baby was a little…

I said, “You’re a priest?”

He said, “Yes, I’m an Episcopal priest.”

Right then and there he evangelized The Episcopal Church to me. I saw this big door open, “That’s where I’m going. This man is married, knows the problems of every day life.” I instantly began to hound him to death about more explanation about The Episcopal Church, how it works. He started introducing me around, so I started doing work, something in The Episcopal Church. I didn’t get confirmed in The Episcopal Church until my husband passed.

PCN: So you found a home in The Episcopal Church?

EV: Immediately. I just saw this door open to me and thought, “This is where I can serve.” And he was telling me “We have women priests,” and I’m going “What?!” Then I went to the ordination of a woman priest and I thought, “I’ve got to do this! I can do something, I can participate 100% if I want 100%, if I prepare myself. That’s one of the reasons I went to the seminary — not to be ordained, but to be able to communicate better The Episcopal Church, and the doctrine, dogma, and theology, church history.

PCN: You have a program called “Women platicas”? Tell us about the program and its mission.

EV: I think it stemmed from the same needs I had as a Latina woman growing up in a Catholic home where the father couldn’t care less if you were Catholic or whatever, but you weren’t going to be a nun, which was embarrassing. You were going to get married and have 12 children. I became sort of like the black sheep because I wanted to go to high school then I wanted to go to college, and it was like “Why? You can get married and have kids?”

I just thought, “No, there’s something better.” One of the things that was important to me was to grow in my faith and my understanding and knowing why I was Episcopalian, since I was born, I just didn’t know it. Having been a teenager in the 60s, and having no support and no money, we ganged up with the militant Chicano power people, marched in the streets along with our contemporaries in the black community, demanding help to go to college, demanding some kind of scholarships or loans or grants so that we could go to college. We had no money. We were able to go to college, educate ourselves. It was a lot of women in San Antonio that were just like me. We wanted to get somewhere because there’s another world out there. We went out and became doctors, lawyers, educators, everything.

Then we turned around, we’re in our forties, our kids are grown, we’ve got grandkids, and we didn’t go to church because we didn’t have one. Our kids didn’t go to church because we never took them. Our grandchildren are unbaptized because nobody had a church to do that in. When I graduated seminary, a friend of mine who is a nun was worried that there were no more nuns in her convent. They’re all old. She said, “You know, the convent is empty!” — This is the convent I had run away to — “The convent is empty! There’s nobody there. Help me bring women.”

I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to bring them to the Catholic Church…not the Roman Catholic Church.”

She says, “No, no, no, we’re going to do it ecumenical. We’re going to find them, the ones that don’t come to church, we’re going to bring them here, going to talk to them,” and we planned it all out, talked about it, “We’re going to bring them back to Christ first, get them comfortable in their spirituality: they are worthy, they are beloved of God, and God has loved them all along; it’s the church that done ‘em wrong.”

The thing is we use women that do go to church. We don’t ask what religion are you, if you do go to church — we don’t ask. We just invite to come. If they are Episcopal or Lutheran and they are there, they can evangelize. They can say, “This is what’s comfortable in my church.” But the women come just so that they can know there are women like themselves who were told, “You can’t come to church because your child is gay” or “You can’t come because you’re divorced” or “You can’t receive.”

We’re going like “Okay…” Until we get together and we talk and we tell our stories about what happened to us, then we understand that what we lost was our identity with Christ because we equated it to — in my case, and in a lot of the cases with my friends — the Roman Catholic Church, which was in fact battering us because we were not toeing the line, as they say. We were bad women, we couldn’t go to church, so we didn’t go. That is platicas.

We break bread, we eat, we have a subject or a theme. We study that, and then we sit at tables and talk about how it’s related in our familias. “How do you honor your father and mother? How do you honor your community?” Christ walked this way in community, let’s see how you can. You have been walking all this way all along. You just thought it was bad or wasn’t worthy because you have been told you don’t qualify.

So it’s been really good. I think we’re doing really well and bringing more and more women in to this. I have been on the path with Christ — I just didn’t know it because I equated it with that building over there, and that building said no. So we’re shifting the paradigms to feeling “Oh my goodness, I’ve got to get my grandchild baptized. How do we do this? What can we do?” Let’s talk.

PCN: A safe space where their spiritual journey’s honored.

EV: We want them to come back, to come back to Christ because they had equated Christ with a building or a dogma, and that’s not it. Christ is within you. Christ is who speaks to you when you’re just told you have to have these earphones only, these earphones or you can’t. So we shift those paradigms.

PCN: That’s good work. I’m glad you’re doing that. I’m curious about your image of God and Christ, and the connection with God and Christ being artists. Do you see them as creative figures?

EV: I think it’s the creative process. It’s like “How can I make the world better every single day?” and God does that. He unfolds. This is one of the things I tell the women:

“You have to look out for God’s nuances in your life every day. God appears to you every day; you have to be open to it. You can’t say, ‘I don’t qualify to see it so I don’t look for it.’”

To me, I have always felt the presence of God and that I could speak to God. At one time I got made to feel like you don’t qualify to be of service to God, much less to be a part of God’s life. But it took a lifetime to redirect myself and to learn to understand it. That’s why I understand why some of the women feel so downtrodden sometimes — that their prayers aren’t answered because they have to be in a building, kneeling down, on some rope, to suffer. And that’s not it. You can be alone in a chair to converse with God.

PCN: It’s so much more open.

EV: To me God is everywhere; he’s always speaking to you. The thing is that you need to listen. It’s a beautiful world. We see the homeless or poor person — all of the millions that there are — we cannot help them all, but we can certainly say, “God I see them, God help them,” because that’s what God wants you to do. He wants you to be present in their existence, to know that it is a tragedy but also to try to help every day indirectly or directly.

PCN: So it sounds like you encourage these women to waken up to the moment…

EV: and to know that they have been kind and generous all their lives.

PCN: To call out the Christ already in them.

EV: I think it’s to a lot of them to know because they haven’t allowed themselves to know. They got a divorce or you know, I’m so bad or I’m cursed, condemned or going to hell, and I tell them “God wouldn’t do that to you. No. He wouldn’t do that.”  Or the pain of a mom saying, “Geez, my son’s going to hell because he’s gay” or “I’m going to hell because I have a gay son, and it’s my fault,” and I’m like, “God would sit and embrace your son. Love him, hold him. God doesn’t make a mistake.”

PCN: You’ve talked about the fused glass are you make as an analogy for life, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to share a little bit about that.

EV: Well, my husband and I met when we were 19, and we got married. We had been married like 40 years, and we were artists. We knew that we had grown up feeling inferior because we were Mexican-American. The thing was that we did not know our culture and the importance of our culture. When you go to college you open your eyes and say, “Whoa! Wait a minute! History has been wrong about my people.”

So that’s what the renaissance was for Latinos. We went out and said, “You’re not going to tell me my history anymore because I know it, I can document it, and I can show you.” One of the things that my husband I decided to do was to use art to educate about our culture. What happened to us as the equal spiritual that inhabited this country, this continent, and what happened when Christianity came in and everything exploded because we were seeing new things and new ways of being, and it affected our religion. It affected our culture, our people, so we got really educated in that, and we decided to use the art of niches.

That was from when the Christians came; they brought saints’ statues. They would give them to Native Americans and say, “Here’s the Mother of God. Here’s Christ on the Cross.” The natives go like, “Whoa. We don’t understand that.” So in order to be respectful, they would accept and place the little statue outside the city proper. They’d build a little hut for it to kind of protect it. And as they became Christians, indoctrinated, and changed, they brought the little statutes to the outside of the house, or the place where they lived — hermitas they were called — and protected it there from the elements.

Then as Catholicism came into Texas, they brought the saints inside and put them in little huts, niches, and frames. That became very important to us — to look at how religion is used to change your religiosity, your items you use in your daily rituals are used by someone else to change you. We began looking at how it affected Latinos living in my neighborhood in the 40s and 50s, who were our parents.

The Jewish businessmen in downtown San Antonio began to want to do business with the Mexican people on the West Side of San Antonio. They wonder “What do we do? What do we do? Ah! We’re going to take the saints and we’re going to put them on calendars and you can lift the picture of the saint and write addresses and phone numbers and there’s the business we own, and there’s the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

You send your salesman to the barrio, you say, “I’m so and so and I’m selling for Bell Furniture downtown, and here’s my card.” It’s got a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of course I’m going to like you! That’s what happened to the people of San Antonio. Their religion was used. What my family did was my mother and my aunts and everybody collected all those pictures of the saint and put them in books and decorated them with glitter and make little boxes. I thought it was the worst kind of thing — glitter and glue with the saint? I’m sorry. My aunt would actually cut out material and put clothing on the saints! That gave me an idea of talking to people about what happens at the intersection. What do we take, how do we use it?

My husband and I, when my son in 1987 graduated from high school with one of the finest scholarships available, we said, “Okay, I want you to quit working. I will stay teaching and support the family because we’re going to be poor from now on, but we’re going to change the world. We’re going to try to educate people to make them feel better about their religiosity, their spirituality, their cultura.” Along comes The Episcopal Church, and says, “Hello! Come over here to Sewanee and talk to us; come over here and talk to us.” That’s how it started.

Of course, along there, the ABC national program TV company heard about us and they were putting together a film called Spirituality: Touching the divine, so they selected seven artists from throughout the United States: Madeline L’Engle, the man who did the Vietnam memorial statues — it was seven of us. They put it in the film, and that introduced us to a lot of museums. That’s when we started to travel, and we did an interactive cultural diversity interaction exhibit for the Smithsonian that traveled for seven years to every museum in this country. It was about what happens to a people at the intersection of two religions, two cultures, two peoples.

That’s the journey, and the journey was, “It’s not going to be about making money, it’s going to be about educating. If we can make a little money to survive and pay the bills, we’re going to be fine. He’s got a scholarship and we don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

PCN: That must have been a load off.

EV: It was going to be, “Let’s just be real poor, but we’re going to do this.” It was important because I think it changed the idea of people when they first come at you. I’ve been invited to colleges and universities to speak and they always think I’m the cleaning lady.

It’s always “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I’m like “Well, I’m your speaker.” “What?!” Those kinds of things change because now Latina women are seen as having something to say that’s important, and we can say it because we don’t need anybody’s permission because we have gone and done the work.

For me, my work started when I found The Episcopal Church, and I knew that every Latina woman should be an Episcopalian to be set free, to be able to participate in the church, to be a human being that is accepted and beloved and be told that they are beloved. Not, “Now, there’s this rule that says I can’t love you, so you don’t qualify” or “No, you can’t come to our table.” No. Those kinds of things that I have been able to talk to women and say, “I’m an Episcopalian! Ask me! Ask me about my religion, why I’m so happy, why I know that I can love Christ as Christ loves me because I am totally free to be anything I want to in The Episcopal Church – and other women can too.”

I’m always using examples, you know. I have several Latina women that are priests, around the country, which is pretty good. I just wish there were more!

PCN: There’s still work to be done.

EV: And the reason, the first woman I ever saw to be ordained was a black lady at St. Mark’s. I remember, I mean, I was kind of like going, “Oh my God, I don’t believe it. Look at her! She’s up there! Look at her, she’s on the altar. Oh my God! She’s giving me the bread!” and I’m going “That is what church is. I could see it in Lynn’s hands, handing it for the first time to a person as an ordained woman priest.” There was like a light and I could see her. It was the most beautiful thing. So yeah, I’m an Episcopalian.

PCN: And proud of it!

EV: Yes!

PCN: Well, I believe we’re getting to the end of our time, but is there anything else you’d like to share with the Diocese of California? Any last words?

EV: I think that one of the things that needs to be done in The Episcopal Church is to recognize the religiosity of multiculturalism. The gifts that I can bring as a Latina to your church, the things that Lynn can bring because of her African roots to The Episcopal Church are important. They are viable. They need to be reflected. I think we need to see ourselves in service. We can rise to be any part of the church, but the church needs to reflect us, including in the liturgy. I was talking to Sam and I said, “You know Sam, we need to have more art. More art in the churches. More color.”

I belong to St. Mark’s downtown in San Antonio and people will say, “That’s such an ugly church! It looks like a castle! Nobody goes in there.” Only a certain people goes in there. We need to open the doors and say, “Come on in, we don’t care. You add a little color to a church, it’s great. Come on in.”

Not just come in, sit on the bench, and go home. No, we want to be part of the life of the church. The way that we can be is by being accepted for the colorful people that we are. We can’t help it because we live what is in our hearts. It’s like I say in the video, if we’re going to do graffiti, it’s going to be loud! It’s going to be available. To me graffiti is art because it is the soul of a child or a man or a woman screaming these things to these walls, saying, “Look at me! You pass me by and say ‘Oh that’s ugly,’ the same way you pass a homeless person by and say ‘Oh that’s ugly.’”

That’s what graffiti is — it’s the heart and soul of someone who has something to say and the only way they’re going to be heard is incorrectly because we can only accept walls that are brick or marble or white or brown, not colorful with statements on them.

PCN: Amen. Here’s to more color in The Episcopal Church. More colorful walls, more colorful people.

EV: More singing. Bach is okay, and the old songs are okay, but jeez. Our kids! Our kids! We need to get them into church and show them stuff because they are a “show me” generation. We can’t sit there and say “We’re going to pray now, and we’re going to look down, and we’re going to sing the song that was sung a bajillion years ago because we just don’t want to change.” No no.

We have to go out and grab those kids, and how do you do that? Through color and sound. I taught for 22 years. I could sing and dance in order to get something across! Those are the kids you have nowadays. These are not quiet kids. These are kids who have grown up with technology that I can’t even understand, so we have to do that back at them if we want to hold them if we want to see the goodness of God. Computers are God’s creation because man was created by God, and they need to know that. Programs are written for computers because man wrote them, and God created man. That’s where God is. Anything that has man’s touch on it is God, and we have to present God to the kids in technology and color and song.

PCN: Amen. Thank you so much for coming by the DioHouse and letting me ask you all these questions!