How many of us truly know our parents? After all, we show up after the fact, after they've been through most of the formative experiences of their lives, and while we're being reared by them, we're too focused on our lives to learn about theirs. We think of them the way we do almost all adults: They were never young like we are. They've never been through what we have. What could have happened to them in the past that would possibly be of any interest?
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia knows. He has heard the stories of his mother's early life – of deprivation and cruelty at the hands of an abusive foster family, of escape to a strange northern city where she knew no one, of fighting to make her own way in low-end jobs, first alone and then with six children – and how those experiences affected her. He knows his mother – indeed, he has made a study of her. A Portrait of My Mother is a solo show in which this devoted son shares her history with everyone who will listen.
His presentation is simple, even casual. In a room filled with artwork and mementos, Garcia speaks directly to the camera – Jarrott Productions filmed this performance for pandemic-era streaming – as he works on a painting. His low-key delivery, however, is in stark contrast to the conditions his mother had to contend with when, at age 5, she was sent to live with the family of his father's sister: cooking all the family's meals, doing the household chores, sleeping on the kitchen floor with rags her only blankets. And whenever she did not perform these duties to the satisfaction of her aunt, out came "the belt or the broomstick or the wire hanger or the electrical cord," says Garcia, and the aunt would whip his mother "until she crawled into a ball." For a dozen years, young María Guadalupe suffered this life of a Dickensian orphan. Small wonder, then, that she was desperate to run away from this callous family – as far away as possible. Given that she was living in Laredo, Chicago was about as far north as she could go without entering another country. And there she went, but even in her new life of freedom, Garcia informs us, his mother endured some of the same old hardships: At first, she still had no bed, spending weeks sleeping on benches in the Greyhound station, and she was still making other peoples' meals, only this time they were for the customers in a fried chicken fast-food restaurant.
The life Garcia describes is tough, but he isn't asking us to pity his mother. He wants us to see what a survivor she's always been. No matter how she's been treated, no matter what difficulties she's had to face, his mother's always pushed through, always pressed forward. When she needed to, she made sacrifices, whether it was taking in a roommate to cut expenses or taking on extra jobs to pay for necessities. And Garcia carries the story forward to the time when she became a mother, sharing stories of similar things she did and actions she took that he now understands were informed by those earlier hardships she endured. With every anecdote, he makes it clearer to us not only how his mother is a fighter and a survivor but how well he's come to know her, truly know her.
Garcia's study of his mother turns out to be that of both a son and a painter, for when he ends his account of her life, the work he's completed – the full piece painted, remarkably, in real time – is revealed to be of his mother. He knows her so well that he can paint her portrait by himself in less than an hour. The result may not be destined for a gallery or museum, but it could hang proudly in someone's home.
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