by Erica Ciccarone
“I used to look at the spots on my mom’s hands and dread the thought of my own hands one day looking like hers. Now I see those spots as a symbol of her strength and endurance.”
— Karla Chavez
As Nashville gains value as a cultural space, we must not overlook the city’s rich cultural pluralism in immigrant communities. Nearly 12 percent of Nashville’s population was born outside of the United States; many of these people are refugees and asylum seekers who fled violence and war. With a Thrive grant from Metro Nashville Arts Commission, Tayla Burns and Scott Lyon began 1st Person Nashville, a project that brings a few of these narratives into focus. The two presented the first leg of their project at Red Arrow Gallery on June 7. With 1st Person Nashville, or 1PN, Burns and Lyon act as amanuenses, collaborating with 1PN participants in the creation of text and visual narratives that relate their stories.
Khalid, 19, fled Damascus for the U.S. alone in 2013. In the text he composed with Lyon and Burns, he writes that he is studying for the GED but that it’s hard to remain motivated. He had to leave Syria just before his twelfth grade test to escape the encroaching civil war. His family had to stay behind. At this point, his school had been blown up, his friends kidnapped, tortured, and killed. “Sometimes I feel like I have lived a whole life, like I am forty years old, or older,” he writes, “and then, when I feel that way, I have to tell myself — I really don’t believe it — that I am in America, that I am on my own, that I am only nineteen years old.” He awaits his interview for permanent resident status, which has been inexplicably delayed.
Karla Chavez, a photographer, emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. when she was just five years old, fleeing domestic violence with her mother and sister. Through Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Chavez learned the power of storytelling, using her voice to advocate for the Dream Act and a campaign for tuition equality. “I think if you expose more stories to people who are in power, then they might have a change of heart,” Chavez says. For now, she is protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a status that allows her a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.
The most visual story is shown in the captivating paintings of James Makuac, one of 150 Lost Boys of Sudan who were settled in Nashville in 2001. Makuac supports his family in South Sudan, a still unpredictable region that has recently seen a resurgence of violence. “I cannot dwell too long on the sadness of these realities,” he writes with 1PN. “I have work to do. I must tell my story and stories of the other Lost Boys. And not only us.”
In a video made collaboratively for 1PN, we see small slices of their current lives: James smiling broadly as his deft fingers cradle a lamp’s light bulb socket, just before it blows out with a poof of smoke; Khalid making coffee in a small kitchen, moving in and out of a stripe of sunlight; Karla frying taquitos with her mom, her sisters and cousins goofing around the kitchen, the faces of all bright with smiles.
The project points to the need to emphasize other narratives in our so-called Music City, ones that acknowledge the contributions of those who have sought refuge in Nashville, that prioritize their voices, and that can guide our thinking toward inclusivity.
Learn more at www.1stpersonnashville.com.
Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.