Mexican artist with disability hopes to be independent after being homeless

  • People
  • Sunday, 16 Apr 2023

Mixed media artist Moran working with nylon thread to crochet a floral art piece at a family friend's home in Chicago's Pilsen neighbourhood. Photos: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

There was a time, in her younger years, when Monserrat Moran lived for her dreams, just like any other kid. She wanted to be an artist, fall in love, have her own family and buy a home.

But as she grew older, she was constantly reminded that she was different from everyone else at her Chicago high school in the United States, and that perhaps those dreams would never come true.Monse, as her mother calls her, is now 35.

She was born with phocomelia syndrome, a birth defect characterised by severe malformation of the extremities.

In her case, Moran’s arms and legs are severely shortened and she does not have hands. Against all odds, she learned to draw and paint, and even crochet. And although she has her mother’s support, the rest of her family does not believe she could ever be independent, she said.

She lived with relatives who she said would not let her pursue her art. She wasn’t allowed to meet with other artists, or sell her artwork.

So, sometime around early March, with her mother by her side, Moran fled.

Moran preparing a tuna casserole at a family friend's home. Moran preparing a tuna casserole at a family friend's home.

“I was depressed and felt useless. I couldn’t keep living that way. I think I can make my dreams come true,” she said. “But I just need some help finding those resources.”

Now, even though homeless, Moran remains positive. She has found a group of community activists who have provided her and her mother with a temporary home, begun a campaign to raise money to help her start a new life, connected her to other artists in the city to uplift her work and are looking for resources provided to other disabled individuals in the city that can help them live independently.

On March 23, Moran showcased her art and told her story during a conference at the General Consulate of Mexico, which highlighted the challenges of immigrants with disabilities and older adults in the Chicago area before Mexican diplomats.

“I just wish there were more opportunities for me to work,” she said. “I’ve applied and asked for jobs all my life and I never get a call back.”

But time is against Moran as she attempts to find a job and an affordable place to live. Her Daca – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which provides her with a work permit – is set to expire in June and she does not have the money to pay the fee to renew it.

Unlike those individuals with disabilities who are permanent residents or citizens of the country, immigrants living in the country under Daca or who are undocumented, do not have access to state or federally funded programmes that may provide relief or resources for those in need.

A worker arranging art pieces next to paintings depicting Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, created by Moran, on display during a panel discussion about living as an immigrant with disabilities at the General Consulate of Mexico.A worker arranging art pieces next to paintings depicting Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, created by Moran, on display during a panel discussion about living as an immigrant with disabilities at the General Consulate of Mexico.

According to a recent Urban Institute study on immigrants with disabilities, immigration status and language barriers are added burdens to the already serious challenges that impact the lives of people with disabilities.

Paola Echave, one of the study’s authors and researcher for the Income and Benefit Policy Center said that people like Moran face increased discrimination when applying for jobs compared to people without disabilities.

Moran said that despite applying for countless of jobs since she turned 18, she rarely has gotten a call back. And the times that she did, they would rescind the offer once they saw her, Moran recalled.

So she said she has learned to live without any help and instead found refuge in learning to draw. Then she learned to use the phone and computer. When she was older, her mum taught her how to cook.

“I’ve always loved her just the way she is,” Jovita Gutierrez, her mother, said in Spanish. “And I want to protect her and support her.”

During her early childhood, Moran had been unable to attend school because her mother could not afford to send her to a special needs school in Mexico. So fearing bullying, her mother and some of her sisters taught her how to read and write.

Moran holding a crocheted flower that will become an earring decoration.Moran holding a crocheted flower that will become an earring decoration.

In 2001, when Moran was 14, her mother brought her to live in Chicago from Mexico with hopes of finding her better health care and more education opportunities. The two settled in Little Village with Moran’s only brother, who initially helped support them.

There, she attended Kanoon Elementary School, where teachers discovered her artistic talent and referred her to Curie High School to further her drawing skills.

Hilda Burgos, a community activist who initially encouraged Moran to showcase her art in 2016 after meeting her in Little Village, said that Moran has been discouraged from living independently, “but Monse, just like any other human being, deserves dignity and an opportunity to live a rich life and embrace her talents”.

Because of Moran’s disability, the artist has been unable to participate in art shows or community art markets in the city because she and her mother could not find transportation that could accommodate them. For a few months, a woman in the neighbourhood gave her a part-time job answering calls, but the business shut down, so once again she was unemployed.

While stuck at home, Moran thought to herself, “there’s gotta be more to life”, she said.

After overcoming the trauma of bullying while growing up and withstanding countless stares from strangers, “there’s not much to lose”.

The last few years under Daca, she has been saving money to pay for the renewal fee by making paintings and selling them at La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant.

But right now, Moran does not have canvases, paint, or yarn to make the art that has helped her survive and make the world a little lighter for her.

“We need to stop talking and focusing on the things that people with disabilities cannot do and instead talk about their abilities, their talents and embrace those,” said Ana Vera, an author and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in the Chicago area.

In Chicago, there are over 520,000 residents, approximately 10% of the population, who reported having a disability, according to city statistics.

There are many people like Moran, Vera said, who can contribute to society and be embraced by society through their unique talent.

Moran said she and her mother are inseparable. Despite her lack of mobility, she helps take care of her mother. She translates during her mother’s doctor visits, and helps her follow up with doctors.

Moran said she wants a job to help support her mother and to buy a wheelchair for herself to increase her mobility. For now, she will keep drawing.

She sketches flowers and trees, using old worn pencils to carefully draw the only world she knows. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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