Between playing a large part in the NUEVOlution exhibit at Levine Museum of the New South, working on her second large mural along Central Avenue and beginning work on a culinary project with Heritage owner and chef Paul Verica based on her art, it's safe to say Rosalia Torres-Weiner has had a lot on her plate recently.
Soon, the self-proclaimed "artivist" will celebrate the culmination of years of work around deportations and family separation with the premiere of The Magic Kite, a play based on a set of 22 illustrations Torres-Weiner painted on wood panels in 2011 to tell the story of a fictional character named Tito.
Renowned playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez worked with Torres-Weiner to adapt the story for the stage, and the play will premiere at Children's Theatre of Charlotte on April 22.
Creative Loafing visited Torres-Weiner at her west Charlotte studio to discuss how the play came about and why she left her successful career as a commercial artist to focus on activism.
Creative Loafing: How was the original idea for The Magic Kite born?
Rosalia Torres-Weiner: In 2011, I was a very successful muralist and I hired other artists to work with me. I was making good money and providing jobs to other artists. Then I saw that deportations were happening here in Charlotte and how families were getting separated and I thought, 'How can I tell this story and at the same time educate our community?'
I went back to my Mexican culture. The kite is a big icon culturally. I started to think of a little boy who has a magic kite and he goes to the sky in search of his dad after he gets deported. On the way he finds coyotes. He flies over the coyotes and he says, "Coyote, please help me find my dad. Have you seen my dad?"
Then I said, 'Who's going to write about deportations? Nobody is going to publish it, nobody knows me, it's going to be hard.' I am a muralist. I cannot paint small. I said, 'I'm just going to paint on wood and bring it to schools and libraries and educate teachers and kids,' because I figure that maybe other non-Latino kids would see Latinos with a different set of eyes and think, 'Maybe he's a Tito. He's like him, who lost his dad.' I brought my illustrations to libraries and schools and said, "Can I tell you a story?"
Before it was ever discussed as a play, it led to you founding the Papalote Project, in which kids who have lost a parent to deportation build their own magic kites. How did that progress?
The purpose of the workshop was to teach kids to tell a story through art just like I do. I remember I said, 'Where can I find these kids?' I knew a few from friends, but I wanted to reach out to a lot. Another friend connected me with Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the biggest Catholic churches in Charlotte. I went there and I found families. I went through three masses, and after the last one people finally came to my table.
There was a lot of kids who were angry. They were upset and they didn't want to talk. Especially one kid named Emmanuel, he was socially withdrawn. He was not drawing, so I pulled him aside and said, "Hey Emmanuel, do you miss your dad?" because his dad was deported and he said, "No." And I'm like, "How about your mom?" And he said, "My mom cries a lot, because she misses him a lot. She's in the kitchen cooking or ironing and she's always crying." I said, "When I paint, I put those feelings on my painting and then I feel better. Why don't we draw your mom in the kitchen." And he did. He was six and this was 2012. And now, still, he is my best friend. He is coming to The Magic Kite premiere.
So how did you connect with Children's Theatre of Charlotte and turn your story into a play?
My friend introduced me to Mark Sutton, associate artistic director at Children's Theatre of Charlotte. He introduced me to Adam Burke, artistic director at Children's Theatre of Charlotte. Adam was just coming in. My husband heard him on the radio because he was the new director (in March 2013), and my husband called me and said, "Your guy is on the phone!" I listened to the interview and I heard his background and where he has worked and I was thinking, 'He is my guy. He's going to listen to me.' I brought my illustrations and he said, "Tell me your story." He has the perfect poker face. Just nothing. I'm going, "So there is a boy who has a little kite, his dad taught him how to fly his kite, and the culture, and da da da," and at the end he is just looking at me and I'm very nervous and he goes, "I love it! We're going to adapt it as a play. And I am going to commission the best playwright out of Los Angeles, Jose Gonzalez." I didn't know him at the time but I'm like, [gasps] "This is real?"
What has it been like to transition from a commercial artist to an artist who focuses on activism?
The funny thing is that every time I finish a workshop, I always ask the kids, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" All these kids, they say, "I want to become an immigration lawyer, I want to be a judge, I want to change the law." I don't think people realize that what they're doing to these kids; kids don't forget. These kids are going to grow up, go to school and make a change and be in charge. That's why I thought, "I need to record this part of American history with my art."
This is why I changed from painting murals. You know how many Tuscany scenes I've painted? Wine cellars, kitchens, bathrooms, etc. And I was making a lot of money and doing good. Now, I'm painting that mural on Central Avenue with the skyline of Charlotte. I'm doing that for free. I got a little grant to cover the materials. I'm not getting paid anything for this. But somebody came to me and said, "God bless you for making this area beautiful by telling a story through us," and that was more for me than any money I could make. That's what I do my job for. I went from the hotel business to flight attendant to commercial artist to activist — an "artivist" is what I'm calling it now — and this is it. This is why I wake up every morning and I come to this studio or I go to the street and paint.
When people come to my studio and they see the art that I do, one lady said, "I live in a bubble, thank you for educating me." When it's her turn to vote, she's going to think, how is her vote going to make a difference?
Have you seen similar effects on families with the recent deportation raids targeting teenage refugees from Central America?
It's the same thing. I'm going to speak about that at an "Education not Deportation" rally in Marshall Park on April 20. These kids that they're targeting who are going to school, that's wrong. Who's thinking to go after students? This could have been a doctor, this could have been a teacher, but no, you stopped them from going to school.
I feel for those parents. I know as a mom, you'd rather be deported than your son or daughter. That's for sure. That's a double fear with not knowing what is going to happen to your kids. Politics is like a big circus right now and I don't know where we're going. Other countries probably are laughing at us.
What do you hope people take away when they come to see The Magic Kite?
For the non-Latinos, it's to know what is going on in the Latino community. For the Latinos, which is more important because the play doesn't have a happy ending, I want them to know that there is hope. Even if they build the highest wall, even if they deport us and separate us, there's the love that will keep us together forever and we're going to be OK.