Life Encounters on Canvas

In 1996, I was moved by the difficult stories of students who
were discriminated against and I began a cross-cultural project of students who have come here from other countries and cultures.  My project, Life Encounters On Canvas, Portraits of Young Lives, incorporates brief biographies by teenagers with large 3' x 2' portraits that I painted.  Their stories are based on a series of questions that I asked.  I told them that I was looking for stories with strong feelings regarding where their family originated from; why they moved to the United States; what problems they had to overcome; the support they received as well as prejudice and discrimination that they encountered; their education; their hopes and goals, and their family's expectations of their life.  Other questions included:


How difficult is it to learn a new language?                    
What are your important family values and how are they taught? 
What cultural traditions are practiced?                                  
What is the influence of religion on your life? 
Are there rules/ guidelines on dating and marriage?                 
What are the most important things in your life right now?

Have you had problems with gangs? How have you dealt with them?  

What do you think is the purpose of your life?       
What qualities do you admire in the people you know?
What are your strengths?                                           
What are you afraid of?

This is a work in progress.  I currently have students from Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, China, Laos, Eritrea, Peru, India, the Philippines and mixed heritage- African American, Asian American and Native American.  Their portraits are hung next to enlarged excerpts of their stories.


This project has been successfully shown in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities.  It has been displayed in community centers, libraries and district offices.  They have also been used for curriculum resources, inspirations for essays, discussions, and as a backdrop for multi-cultural events.  One fifth-grade class became docents- they “adopted” a student, interviewed me for more information, researched and drew maps of the country of origin and represented them at an evening reception for their new superintendent.
If anybody is interested in displaying Life Encounters on Canvas - Portraits of Young Lives in your community or school, please contact me: Thanks and enjoy!  John Delzell-


Amrit – East India:


My family values are taught in Punjabi, they want me to get a good job- like to be a doctor... my grandpa was doctor.  They want me to show respect to everyone.  The purpose of my life is to help my parents when they get old.  Any good son or daughter from my country they think about helping their parents when they get old.  My parents are the most important thing in my life right now.  Learning English is also important for me, but not more than my parents.



Analisa - Philippines/Mexico/Greece:

I feel that all people need to learn that not all people are the same and that they should all be different.  I was taught to respect others around me even if I don't like them. If the person is disrespectful to me I know that doing the same is not the right thing to do- there are many other things to say.


The (Buddhist) religion I have learned has taught me to take care of all gods and creations no matter what they are.  You also learn to take care of yourself and people around you, no matter who they are. My hope is for everyone to be kind to everyone no matter what color they are, or what religion they are.  Every person is equal to one another.  If people were to do this, the world would be a little more at peace with each other.


Asia – East India:


I mean I never saw my biological mom or dad.  A lot of people live with their biological mom and dad and there are some who don't... like me. I think it is really special to know that your mom actually had you- that you came out of her. I don't know the person I came out of.  Sometimes I wonder if they, (my mom and dad), didn't adopt me, where would I be now?  That is a pretty critical question.  I probably wouldn't want to know where I would be. It's kind of scary; I may have been dead.



Casey  - Anglo/African American:


My little sister was diagnosed with leukemia last year.  I didn't know what it was at first, I heard it a million times on TV, and then when I realized it was cancer I thought maybe she could die. Now Lauren is in remission and on her way to having only a yearly check-up. I like to think of this experience as being something that brought our family closer to each other.  We think about things more and we're more careful now.  Sometimes I think God was trying to teach us a lesson.  She had a lot of medicines to take and she got sick a lot.  Her hair grows and falls out.  She had lots of bruises from the shots.  Sometimes I think- why did it happen to Lauren and not to me... she's nicer than me.  If it happened to me I think I could never handle it.


 Catherine – Peru:
While growing up I never saw the lines drawn by color; they were later forced upon me as time passed but I have never really accepted those aspects of separation of color.  Every school I went to no one was like me or even from the same place I was from; I was one of a kind.  Why do others cut down on minorities and say they are the problem of their society, when they should look around their midst and see that anything is possible; there is a little bad and there is a little good in everything.  I think they only see what they want to see. When it comes to skin color people should be colorblind.  Prejudice is one of the dark sides of man. Even though there is pain and suffering I think that this is the price we pay for laughter, happiness, joy and love.  Those are the feelings that we all deserve and should be shared to make us stronger and erase the boundaries and color lines of our own making.  That is what it is to be human. 


Chan – Cambodia:


My parents and other brothers and sisters knew very little about the new world.  It was like being born all over again and seeing the light of God.   We had lots to learn. When we came here we had a lot of respect from what we thought were white strangers.  Teachers did everything they could to help teach us right from wrong in writing, English, math, etc. The students gave full attention to the problems and helped us on our every needs.  As we learned to grow in this new world everything started to change.
Cressna – Cambodia:


Cambodian culture is really hard and strict, especially if you are a girl. In Cambodia girls weren't allowed to pick their husband. If a guy fell in love with a girl, he'd tell his parents and his parents would ask for her marriage.  They'd offer an amount of money for her marriage and if the girl's parents agreed, they'd get married. It was like buying and selling the girl. Fortunately my parents are letting me date and find my husband, but only when I'm out of high school.  Cambodian culture is confusing. They thought that after you marry your spouse you'd fall in love, not before the marriage. I think that the only reason why my parents won't let me go out with guys is because of the Cambodian community.  If I was to do something, word would get around so fast it would totally ruin my rep. Coming from a different background makes me think a lot.  Being different gives me privileges but there's always a down side.  Even though I'm different I found a lot in common with other people.  I'm proud to be a Cambodian.  I have pride and respect for my culture and for other ethnicities.  I admire my parents for bringing me here to the United States and giving me a better future in life.



Darlin – Mexico:


The people I like enjoy life. They can be happy, but when talking serious they talk serious, and are a good friend. If you respect me, I respect you. I think the purpose of life is to do your dreams, if you want to do something- do it.  Enjoy life. The most important things in my life right now are my family and to finish school.




Diem - Vietnam:


Races, prejudice, discrimination, those are the things I hate most in life.  It makes me think, why do people have to dislike each other or treat each other badly just by looking at them, and not giving them the chance to reveal whatever that's inside their heart.  I wouldn't want to get to know people who are like that unless I feel that I can, somehow, change their minds.  Males being treated better than females is also another form of prejudice.  You're still treating someone different because of the way they look.  In my culture, men would be treated with more respect.  They have more of an opportunity to do what they want.  Although, women are treated better than they were before, men are still more privileged. 

Ivania – Nicaragua:


My mom met my stepfather in Nicaragua and she left to live with him in the United States for four years. I left behind many friends and family.  I am sad. I miss them.  I liked it over there very much, I didn't want to come because I have many friends over there I didn't want to lose them, and my family- my grandmother, my cousins, my uncle.  My grandma- she was crying and crying when I left.


In Nicaragua we have like a supermarket- it's like a big place you can go and buy stuff, it's outside.  You don't have to pay taxes, they don't use cash registers, you just pay the person.  It's beautiful there; there are toucans, and special sharks that live in the sweet lakes. We have monkeys, lots of birds, flowers.  It was very hot there, all the days hot, we have to wear shorts, and skirts- all the time it's hot.  I want to go and see my family in Nicaragua, or bring them all to the United States.  I miss my family and my friends.



Kim - Vietnam:


My mom is the one who cares a lot for us.  She worries about money and what we like to eat because she knows that we don't like American food.  I know that she worries a lot, but I can't help her with everything.  I just know how to eat.   Sometimes I see her cry, but I can't do anything to make her feel better.   My dad can make her happy, but he does not talk to my mom.  I began to hate him more and more.   The most important thing in my life now is to make my mom happy.  I will never let her worry about me anymore.  I will make her life more relaxing and enjoyable.  She should have more smiles on her face, and more laughter in her life.

LE VON - Jine:


My family and I are still overcoming issues about our identification.  Generations and generations of American Indian people are suffering with their identity.  My mom is Pomo; my dad is a mix of French, black, Mexican, and Choctaw.  We call ourselves Jines; it's another way of saying who we are instead of  'Indian'.


I have a very strong and supportive family, rich in tradition, spirituality and love for one another.  My important family values are to make sure you respect yourself as well as honor your elders.  All my teachings come from my parents and their parents and so on.



Marisol – Mexico/Italy:


My strength is my pride.  My pride is being Latin and being a girl.  Being a girl, I have certain advantages, like I've learned to stand up for myself.   Everything that's going on in my life and everything that's happened gave me that pride.  We (Latinos) need to get our respect back.  We lost it just because other people ruined what we had. Some people think we can get our respect by fighting; I don't believe it, I don't think that's right.  We need to believe in ourselves.  When you believe in yourself you have more respect, you have pride.


Mayra – El Salvador:


I had to face the reality that I didn't know English but I would learn. The school gives us a lot of support by helping us learn to speak a new language and to learn all subjects, to get farther in life, to be who you want to be.  But you have to work and study hard to get to there and I'm going to do it.  Still I haven't lost my Spanish blood and I'll never lose it because it’s very important to know your own language, to understand what Spanish people feel when they are speaking their language.


In my country there is always wars and fights and they are always killing themselves.  My uncle died in fight and wars.  But there is a lot of beautiful places to like around the volcano. There are a lot of fruits and anything you could think of, there are vegetables, like tomatoes, chilies, etc.  There are waterfalls, lakes and oceans.  But most people don't get to see those beautiful places, because they die and don't get to see anything, not even their families. 


PEDRO – Mexico:


My dad had gone to Tijuana before I got the (meningitis) sickness.  My mom was always there, she didn't want to leave me alone, she stayed.  When my dad found out about this he came back to Mexico.  My dad went to a church and cried and told the Virgin of Guadalupe.  To save me, he promised her that he would take me to the church walking from his house and when he got there he would take me in on his knees carrying me.  The doctors had been getting some papers ready for my parents to sign because they said I was going to die.  But that day they noticed I was getting better.  I got saved.  It makes me feel sad to think about almost dying.


Riddhi – India:


I began asking questions like:  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  What is India like? What are my relatives like in India?   During my sophomore year in high school, my younger sister, Anjali, and I stayed in India for eight months.  I had the opportunity to meet my grandparents and other relatives:  to laugh with them, eat with them, LIVE with them.  I know what the excitement is like when India wins a cricket match.  I know the colors, sights, and sounds of a bustling market and a train station.  I know Gujarati and Hindi.  I still hear the laughter when our friends burst fifteen feet of firecrackers on Holi, the Festival of Colors.  I know how my mouth burns after tasting pani pani (Indian "junk food") on the streets of Bombay.  I learned the practices and rituals of Jainism, my religion.  My sojourn in India not only opened my eyes to my culture, but also to science.  India has a plethora of ancient scriptures that constitute an Eastern outlook toward fields such as astronomy and physics.  My passion now is to work hard to receive a degree in astrophysics.  I then intend to research, primarily focusing on meshing both the Eastern and Western scientific worlds into one.  Most importantly, however, is my culture.  My Indian culture has defined me, made me who I am today.  Without knowing my past, how can I go into the future?  Traveling to India has lifted the material veil that had blinded me thus far, allowing me to experience the stories of my ancestors. 

ROBYN - China:


Values that are important to my family are to get a good education and to work for what you want.  These are taught to us by sending us to school every day and making us go to work a few times a week.  Things that I look for in people are whether they are trustworthy and if they have a good personality.  To me it's what's inside that counts, not what's on the surface.  Judging people when you don't know them is wrong.  Family is important to me because they are always there when you need them and they will never let you down. They always have faith in you and are loving you.


 To me the purpose of life is to just to live it.  I don't believe that there's any real explanation on why we are here.  We just are.  Being Chinese, I have always been different from most of the other American girls, but I have come to appreciate my ethnicity and I am proud to be Chinese.  It doesn't make me weird- it makes me special.


RUBEN- Nicaragua:


My dad was in the rebel army in Nicaragua for about a year.  He was young - he didn't want to go- but they made him go anyway, you were forced to go.  He didn't want to get killed; he didn't want to be there no more.  He wanted to go the United States, so he left, but they wanted to get him back because he was an important person in the camp.  We came to the United States later.


One thing my dad says, "No matter what, we got to stick together."  He wants our grades to be up because he says like if we do bad in school, people will say, " why are they here,” but if we get good grades and maybe a scholarship they will see that we are here to do good things.  We are to tell the truth always.


I mostly miss the rest of my family and the way of living in Nicaragua.  The air is clean; there are animals, birds, cockatoos, monkeys all over the place.  You can go outside and people won't worry about your being kidnapped or something.  Here there are more things- fast food restaurants, theatres, the rights of speech.  In Nicaragua young boys are sent to fight.


Singphet – Laos:


Communists made our life harder and harder everyday.  On September 4, 1986 we escaped from the communists. We headed to our boat to cross the Mekong River to Thailand. On our way to our boat someone was coming. We couldn't let them see us or they'd report it.  So we hid but my oldest brother was behind us; he jumped into a bush full of thorns.  When it was safe to come out, my brother came out with scratches and blood all over.  I thought that was brave.  We got to the boat, then we headed through the river.  Suddenly the river got wild; it was a whirlpool, our boat almost tipped over.  My mother prayed and prayed.  Believe it or not we made it the other side of the river safely.  As I'm writing this I realize my life could have ended right there. 


I realize that we have gone through a pretty tough life but as I think deeper there are many people out there that suffered worse.  In the future I hope that nobody has to suffer.

STIRLENE - Pomo/French/African American:


I want to prove to my relatives that even though I didn't have their support I still love them even though I don't know them. The only reason I can do this is because I choose to be the bigger person about it and forgive them. I really hope that people can listen, relate, and understand to these few words that I now live by, "Kill them with kindness."


My family is taught to do the best they can. We are expected to stick up for each other if one of us is trouble.  We are the only black people in our neighborhood.



TARA  - Anglo/African American:


I was in first grade and we were drawing pictures of our family, and this girl in my group was using a brown crayon to color her father's beard. I asked her if I could use it to color my dad when she was done.  She snickered and said that it was wrong that it shouldn't be that color.   After class my teacher came over because I was sad and I told her what happened and that that was the color of my dad.  I never talked to my parents about this.

I don't understand like how somebody thinks like that, like how can they not like somebody because they are a certain color, I think it's like ignorance. I don't understand like how they ended up like that - was it their parents?   My parents don't think you should judge anybody because of their skin or their race.

THUY - Vietnam:

My family and I moved over to the United States three years ago. We moved here for freedom and my dad wants me to learn more and have good education.  He hopes I will graduate from high school.  We also came here to learn about the world and other cultures.  A most important thing in my life is to have a good education and follow my family rules, like don't say bad words, be nice to each other. They taught me to respect other people and honesty and also don't steal stuff from other people.


My purpose in life is to help my family and our relatives in Vietnam.  I would like to be a lawyer or a computer specialist.  I want to see the White House and the Statue of Liberty.  The Statue of Liberty mean to me that I got freedom in this country and I can buy or do anything I want.  If I have time I will go visit the Statue of Liberty.




Tsehainesh – Eritrea:


The new language that was spoken was hard for me to adapt to.  I kept to myself and acted as if I didn’t understand the language.  I thought to myself I was going to forget my language and only speak this American language, cause I was surrounded with these Americans and a dark skinned girl who looked African who didn’t know any African language but only American.  I would hear her speak and play with other American kids. I had nobody to talk to at school.  I felt like I didn’t fit in.  My language could only be heard spoken at home.  My mother would always ask me if I made any new friends.  I would only answer no.  Then she would go on and on about I needed to because I would never have any friends because this was going to be our new home and would have to make new friends.  It took a couple of months but I started talking and making friends and talk more like I was getting to know the American language.  I would say it just took a lot of time, and I knew I was going to sooner or later.



Tuan – Vietnam:


We came here for freedom. People from the north were killing the people in the south and took their land.  One of my mother's brothers died, another had his leg blown off.  My father went to war when he was twenty.  He killed lots of VC during the war.  He was awake all night to fight and slept at day.  He got shot in the chest and was put in jail for seven years.  Being in jail makes you crazy.  He only had one cup of rice for a week.  He could take a bath only once a week.  In 1982 he finally got out, they gave him a shot for medicine, but he says it made him crazy.  When he came back he had to stay in my uncle's house.  It took three months for him to be back to normal.


I remember it's very hot and hard to live in Vietnam.  We didn't have any money when my father came back.  We didn't have any clothes.  We could only eat two meals a day.  We lived on a farm and we didn't have bikes or cars.  We didn't have any money to put in the basket at church.  When I was six we got a bike. I went to school when I was eight years old. There were lots of people picking on me because we were poor.  It made me feel homesick.  I had no money for snacks.  I feel sad because I didn't have any friends.  Some of the kids picked fights with me. I didn't want to fight but my dad said if they keep picking on me to beat them up.



Vanessa – Mexico:


The person that I admire most is my mom because she was a nurse, postal worker, clerk typist, receptionist, meter maid, and owned her own store.  Now it's the Renaissance Pastry, but it use to be called "Classic Reruns."  But she was a strong woman and I hope I can be like that too!  One day my mother noticed that her stomach was enlarging.  She thought she was pregnant, but it turned out that her kidney was expanding.  The doctor told her she only had four months to live.  She had leukemia.  Out of those four months, I lived each day with fear.  The fear for my mom, the fear of "what's going to happen?!" and the fear of myself.  When I saw her in so much pain, I felt really bad for all those times we had fought over stupid things.  My mother was a smart, loving and, most of all, a brave woman.  She was determined to stay and make the best out of the time she had.  She was in and out of the hospital, at times we weren't sure when to help her, or how to treat her.  I never realized what I had, until it was gone...


VERONICA - Mexico:


Although my family had always been really close there have been sad moments.  I remember when I was about six or eight.  It was around 8 o'clock at night and my dad had not returned from work… he was out drinking with his friends.  When his car pulled up my mom ran outside.  I was really scared so I waited inside.  After a while my mom came in limping.  I asked what happened, but she told me not to worry, then my dad came in.  He was drunk.  Suddenly he started yelling at my mom, (I was just listening and shaking), then he started hitting her, pulling her hair, and slapping her.  I knew I couldn't do anything.  I just cried and cried.  Luckily a neighbor came in and stopped my dad.  It wasn't easy.  After my dad stopped hitting my mom he started throwing things around, breaking everything.


I will never forget that night.  The bad and sad thing is that that was not the only time my dad went crazy.  Now, whenever my dad drinks I start shaking and remembering.  My dad knows he is an alcoholic, even though he drinks very little now, but once an alcoholic always an alcoholic.


I am proud of my mom because even though my dad hurt her, she never left him.  She had the courage to stay by his side.  I don't know if it was because she loved him or because of me and my brother.  She has suffered a lot.  There are a lot of women like her that will stand anything.  I guess sometimes it's good but I personally wouldn't stand for it.  In the past it was believed that men were stronger than women; that women had to do as the men said.  I think it's wrong, because men and women are equal.  They are capable of doing the same thing.


The future is a mystery.  We can only hope, wish and dream.   Sometimes things turn out the way we want them, but when they don't, remember that things happen for a reason and that there will be better days and things.  My family has showed me to never give up, and that is exactly what I want to do.


YOLANDA - Colombia:


I was born in Colombia, Santa Domingo.  I lived there for about six years.  My mom couldn't take care of us.  She had nine children.  We used to beg for food.  We would go to the market early in the morning.  A special truck would take us over there.  We would go around to each stand and ask for something.  The people usually gave it to us.  There were a lot of people that begged for food - we were not the only ones.  (My mom) had to put me and my four younger sisters in a group home. 


Then we were adopted by two American people. Mostly I miss my family.  I left behind two sisters and two brothers and my mom and dad.  I don't have any picture of them.  It makes me feel sad, bad.  I want to visit them; I want to see them.  And I also miss my country.  In Colombia we used to climb trees like monkeys.  We ate guava, mango, lemons, oranges.   It's pretty, but there is much drug dealing and killing.


I feel I should enjoy life, meet new people, be happy, be thankful for what you got, right?  Be thankful for your life, it's a gift from Jesus- from God.