I met Mara in 2016 during one of her visits to VIRCS, the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society. She was there on behalf of the Women in Need (WIN) Co-op, where she used to work as a regional manager. Mara instantly drew me in with her happy, warm, and vibrant approach, and we shared with each other our personal stories of struggling as new immigrants to Canada. Several months ago we reconnected via Facebook, and to my surprise I found out she was an amazing artist. I thought she should share her talents with the world, so here we are.
I visited Mara in her apartment and improvised art studio in the Victoria B.C. neighbourhood of James Bay, where she lives with her boyfriend, Eric, and her therapy dog, Diya, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Mara is celebrating her thirteenth anniversary of coming to Canada. Originally born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mara moved to Victoria in 2005.
The name Mara comes from the Spanish word for the sea, mare. It is evident that Mara has a strong connection to the ocean: her home is full of shells, rocks, and beach wood; her favorite colour is turquoise; and the focus of her art is the ocean and its waves.
The close proximity to the ocean and the beach is what Mara loves the most about her apartment. It gives her the opportunity to walk along the beach with her dog and provides her with the daily therapy of sounds, images, and the smell of the ocean. Mara has always loved animals, dogs in particular. After getting sick and not being able to work, she decided to adopt a dog—a big but anxious one in need of love and care as much as Mara was.
Mara describes her life in Canada as bittersweet, as do many of us. She feels happy and grateful to have been able to establish her new life here, but is also sad and misses her family and friends back in her homeland.
Her impression of Canada as a “very nice, amazing, but a hard place to make friends” sounds so familiar to many newcomers, and we both agreed that the depth of relationships here is different than what many of us are used to. Friendships here in Canada, according to Mara, seem a bit loose, almost superficial— especially when compared to ties that exist among friends in cultures like Argentina’s—and subject to circumstances. She says, “I know a lot of people, but it is hard to click with them, and just because you meet people doesn’t mean you become friends.”
Mara’s Canadian story goes back to late nineties, when she met her ex-husband through an online app (the now-defunct ICQ chat room). They fell in love and maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years, meeting occasionally in Argentina and the U.S. Once Mara received her Canadian Permanent Resident status and came to Canada, she moved to Victoria and they got married.
Unfortunately, the relationship did not last. As is the case for many intercultural couples, the challenges are many, and figuring out how to navigate a new life can take years. Being a new immigrant and in a relationship with a person from a different culture is demanding, as the other person suddenly replaces an entire network of people, including family and friends.
Mara believes that they were not really prepared for what this kind of relationship and her moving to a new country and new culture would bring. The whole process, she explains, was exhausting, both emotionally and financially, and by the time they finally were living together, they were already different people.
After her marriage ended, Mara was on her own, still a new immigrant with limited resources and networks. Like many immigrants, one of the biggest challenges she had was to find a place to live, which is not easy without references and steady employment. She contacted twenty-seven landlords before one of them gave her a chance.
A few years after settling in Victoria, Mara decided to start her own small business, a pet store in the downtown Victoria area, which she ran for several years. Eventually she closed her store and shifted her focus to finding work that reflected her passion for supporting marginalized women.
That is how she landed her job at WIN, where she was regional manager for a few years. She talks about her WIN days with sadness. She had hoped to work at WIN until retirement.
Life often develops in strange and unexpected ways, and that was certainly the case for Mara. After being diagnosed with and treated for renal cancer, she was no longer able to work and was forced to reevaluate her life and the future. Losing her job was very painful; she lost not only her job but also friends and the sense of community and value gained by doing something she loved and believed in.
When I asked Mara how she started to paint, she explained that she was always artistic and a good sketcher, always drawing and doodling, but did not paint very much or see herself as an artist. She thought she was nothing special and is still very critical of her own work and reluctant to share it with others.
About a year ago, with the onset of depression, Mara started looking for ways to keep positive and have something meaningful to do, so she started to draw, sketch, and paint—this time for real. She spends her nights, when she can’t sleep, painting. This is now a part of her healing process.
Luckily, Mara also has good support from Eric, who encouraged her to start painting. It opened her eyes to the idea that her identity goes beyond her former role of managing retail stores, and that despite the difficulties she has experienced, she has more to offer to the world and herself.
Mara started to post her work online through Facebook and Instagram, and the reactions from people were so positive, she was encouraged to share more. Soon she had her first custom order painting. Now she is figuring out how to sustain her new passion. She has created a webpage for her art, spends a lot of time on social media, and is working on illustrations for a children’s book that touches on issues of race, diversity, and culture.
Before I left Mara’s studio, we exchanged thoughts on how difficult it is to break into an art scene, to get yourself out there, and to approach galleries, coffee shops, and other places that feature art—and to try to promote yourself and your work, let alone make a living out of it. It was an emotional visit with a woman with whom I share more than a few significant experiences. I can’t wait to see what she will produce in the future.