As a homeless teen, Inocente dreamed of a better life. But she never imagined her dreams would lead to the Oscars.
She lived in San Diego with her mother and three younger brothers, and for years they bounced from the YWCA to friends’ houses, from the Salvation Army to short-lived apartment stays. Sometimes Inocente and her family, who were all undocumented immigrants from Mexico, slept in a park. Over the course of nine years, they never stayed in the same place for more than three months.
Through it all, Inocente, who goes only by her first name, held on to one particular dream: being an artist. Her chosen medium was painting, and she favored bright colors. She swirled, dabbed and dribbled paint on any surface she could find. Often, she painted on her face, creating detailed flowers on her temple or swirling arabesques on her cheek. Art brought her joy.
“If people knew my story, they’d probably think I should be painting dark, like dark paintings,” Inocente said.
People nationwide got the chance to witness part of her story in 2012, after the MTV premiere of the short documentary “Inocente.” The 40-minute film follows the homeless teen as she turns the events of her life into art. Her artistic passions play out against revelations of why she feels responsible for her family’s homelessness; they also serve as a joyous counterpoint to Inocente’s strained relationship with her mother, Carmela.
This past February, “Inocente” won an Academy Award for Documentary Short. It became the first film financed in part by Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site, to win an Oscar.
The Oscar win changed Inocente’s life. She had always dreamed of traveling, and, thanks to the film, she was able to travel the U.S. to advocate for homeless youth and arts education for young people.
Inocente will come to Seattle Sept. 27 for a series of art-centered events. First, she will participate in an art workshop for young people 12 and older at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from 6 to 6:30 p.m. After a short break, there will be a screening of the film, followed by a question-and-answer session. The event is sponsored by Seattle University, in partnership with SAM and Sanctuary Arts Center, a nonprofit serving homeless youth in the University District.
Inocente, now 19, said that while she enjoys working with young artists during her travels, she can’t watch the film anymore: It’s too painful.
Besides, many things have changed in her life since 2009, when she met filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. The husband-and-wife team had sought a young, homeless artist who would tell her story on film.
Looking back on the experience, Inocente said she didn’t mind being followed by cameras for almost 18 months. She’d grown used to people looking at her because of her painted face. Besides, she feels the movie isn’t about her.
“It puts a face to poor people, to homelessness, immigration and arts education,” said Inocente.
But the face that helps viewers connect with those issues belongs to Inocente. It’s her story that draws viewers into a young artist’s unflinching commitment to realize her dream. And it began in Mexico.
Across the border
Inocente doesn’t remember entering the United States.
She was born in a small town in Mexico and lived there with her mother, father and three younger brothers, the youngest an infant. One day, Inocente said, her father had her put on her coat, then sneaked her and two brothers across the border into California. He never asked permission from her mother.
“We were basically kidnapped,” she said.
Inocente was 5.
Soon after, her father promised her mother he’d return for her and the youngest son. But weeks passed, and he never went back to Mexico. So Carmela bundled up the child and crossed the border. The family reunited.
The reunion produced little joy. Inocente said that in Mexico, her father had been abusive, a behavior that continued in the U.S. One evening, Inocente’s father told her to tell her mother he wanted dinner. But Inocente, playing with her toys, forgot. When her father realized she hadn’t followed his orders, Inocente said he beat her. Carmela stepped in to protect the child.
“Then all hell broke loose,” Inocente said.
Her father began beating her mother. Her mother called the police. Her father broke the phone on her mother’s head. Cops arrested her father. Inocente, her mother and brothers were taken to a shelter. And her father?
“He got deported,” Inocente said.
Since Carmela was undocumented, she couldn’t work legally. Having little money made it tough to pay for an apartment. With no place to live, the family began what Inocente calls “their journey into homelessness.” Some nights, when Inocente and her brothers slept outside, Carmela stayed awake so no one would bother the family.
In the film, the 15-year-old Inocente admits she feels responsible for her family’s plight: After all, if she had remembered to tell her mother to fix dinner, there might not have been a fight. If there hadn’t been a fight, her father wouldn’t have been deported, and the family wouldn’t have gone to a shelter. Nothing, she says in the movie, would change her feelings.
The young artist came to learn that the passage of time can shift a fixed perspective.
Inocente is now 19, and she said as she’s grown up, “I realized it wasn’t my fault.”
Like daughter, like mother
Perhaps Inocente inherited her propensity to dream from her mother.
In the film, Carmela, speaking Spanish, says that she imagined the U.S. was a paradise, a place with no dirt, only grass and flowers. She dreamed that her children would have a place to live, so they could say, “Esta es mí casa.”
This is my home.
Instead, they lived in shelters or on the streets. Feeling she had failed her children, Carmela admits that once, when Inocente was 11, she took her daughter to a bridge. She told her they would both jump into the sea. Inocente begged her not to. She pulled her mother back.
“Ella me dejó,” Carmela says. “She stopped me.”
Carmela wanted to tell Inocente she loved her, that she would never harm her. But because of the suicide attempt, Carmela believed her daughter hated her. And in the film, the tension in their relationship comes into focus.
At one point, Inocente became involved in a San Diego-based nonprofit called A Reason to Survive (ARTS), which uses art to create positive transformation for young people facing adversity. ARTS staff members selected her to create a solo show of 30 works. The family was living illegally in a
garage, and Inocente and her mother got into a fight. On the eve of the show, Inocente told her mother she wanted to move into a group home for teens. But there was a hitch: She needed her mother’s permission.
A representative from ARTS contacted a lawyer to mediate. On camera, mother and daughter sit quietly in a room as the adults discuss the benefits of Inocente entering the group home. The mother weeps.
“Adelante, Inocente,” Carmela says. “Go ahead.”
Scenes like that, Inocente said by phone, are hard to watch. When the documentary was made, she didn’t see many of Carmela’s scenes being filmed. Watching the movie, Inocente learned how much her mother cared for her, the pride she felt.
Inocente only lived in the group home for six months, then stayed with her mother again before an ARTS staff member co-signed for Inocente to get an apartment. She’s been there two years but plans to move into another apartment — with her mother.
“About the time kids are moving out,” Inocente said, “I’ll be moving back in.”
And the Oscar goes to…
When Inocente heard the film was nominated for an Academy Award, she didn’t know what to think. After all, she’d never seen an Oscars telecast.
Filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine had. Their previous film, “War Dance,” had been nominated in 2008 for Best Documentary. Inocente said the filmmakers passed their excitement about the nomination on to her. They even provided her a ticket to sit with movie stars on the main floor of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Inocente said she was nervous that night, particularly because of her shoes. “I don’t wear heels, and I had these big heels on,” she said.
Then actor Kerry Washington announced “Inocente” as the documentary short winner.
Inocente followed the filmmakers on the stage. On the off chance the film might win, they had discussed what to say during their few seconds. (Winners get 30 seconds from the time their name is called until the stage microphone turns off and the music swells.)
Sean Fine motioned to Inocente and said, “She was homeless just a year ago, and she’s an artist.” He looked at the star-studded crowd. “All of you are artists.” He asked them to support arts education.
Keeping her balance in her heels, Inocente said she attended the Vanity Fair post-Oscar Party. Three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis gave her a kiss. When she saw Adrian Brody, a Best Actor winner in 2002 for “The Pianist,” she told him she liked his nose.
“I think he was a little creeped out,” she said.
Still, the formerly homeless teen enjoyed Tinseltown’s glamour and glitz. Accustomed to wearing jeans and casual shirts, Inocente dressed up in an off-white evening gown, on loan from an LA stylist.
She spilled chocolate on it, “But it’s Oscar chocolate,” she said, “so hopefully they don’t mind too much.”
Since the win, she said she’s continued to paint. She supports herself by selling her artwork on her website, inocenteart.com. The walls in her current apartment have close to 40 paintings, half of which are unfinished. When she moves in with her mother and brothers later this year, she said they’ll have to find space for her art.
Along with painting, Inocente said she loves traveling and meeting people at screenings. After a recent guest stint as a circus clown, she said she wants to travel with a circus for a year. Even though she rarely paints her face anymore, she liked the idea of colored hair, so she bought a purple wig. She plans to wear it in Seattle.
When she was homeless, Inocente said she never predicted her life would experience such a turnaround: “So this is definitely a dream.”