In May of 2015, my fellowship travels take me to Tucson, Arizona. When I arrive, my friend, Melissa, was still at work and would not be able to join me until after 4pm, so she gives me directions to her home where her partner, Mel, is waiting.
As soon as I arrive, Mel is so warm and inviting. She invites me to sit in the living room for a spell. To open the conversation she announces that we have something in common: her family was raised in El Paso.
Mel is a wonderful artist. She shows me a painting of a mariachi group that she painted and tells me that her grandfather had a traveling mariachi group as a young man. She often uses him as inspiration for much of her artwork.
And then — feeling comfortable, as if we’ve known each other forever — she begins to tell me about her life.
It goes like this . . .
Mel started her artistic career as a graffiti artist. As a teenager, she would get up late at night to spray-paint walls and buildings around the city. For years, no one knew she was one of the tag artists that City officials had been complaining about, looking for ways to catch him or her in the act.
One night while tagging a large wall, Mel was almost caught by local police and had to hide undetected while they searched the area. She lay still, not able to move a muscle for fear of being caught. At one point, Mel feels mice scurrying across her back, but manages to hold still so as not to be caught.
When she returned home in the wee hours of the morning, her mother was waiting for her. As Mel walked in the door, her mother asked her only this before she went back to bed: “Do you want to pay the city or do you want the city to pay you?”
It was this moment when Mel decided to change her life course. Who was she kidding — it seems that even her mother knew all along what had Mel had been trying to hide. The next day, she went to the City officials, turned herself in and offered to clean up the graffiti and replace it with a beautiful mural.
Eventually, the City hired her as a youth mentor to help young people make positive change in their lives.
Today, she is often called upon to speak at local events and serves as a role model and inspiration to young people across Arizona and neighboring states.
Mel’s paintings often depict what she sees around her in Tucson, and they reflect what I experienced in the Sonoran desert during my trip to Tucson. Her art and the messages she shares through her creative expression are what will keep me connected to Mel for a long time, across many borders.