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Home Away from Home: After 35 years, she graduates from Art School, into a world with open arms.

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Erika Nj Allen is a soft-spoken, beautiful soul from Guatemala. She’s been on my mind for the past two days as I ponder what to write for her introduction. Should I describe Erika’s studio, where everything has a purpose and a reason for being there? Should I describe her beautiful soul? Or maybe I should take a cue from her story, and highlight how Erika came full circle over 30-plus years – all of it starting in Guatemala with a letter of invitation to a U.S. art school she couldn’t, at the time, accept. 

As I mull on what to write, a TED talk – “What's Missing in the American Immigrant Narrative” – plays in my head. The 24-year-old speaker, Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez, gives a compelling narrative about how the American immigrant story is usually one of triumph. “Not so fast,” she cautions. We are quick to create a happy conclusion without thinking about the journey. A journey that is often filled with unspeakable agonies. A journey she advocates for more immigrants to share, so their tenacity and strengths can be appreciated more.

During those 30-plus years, Erika will cross international boundaries, start new careers, start new businesses, get married, have kids, move often, and divorce. In all that, the letter moved with her. She graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in May 2020, 35 years after the idea was first planted.

Interview by Clara Matonhodze Strode. Photography by Emily Palm.




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