Hopping out of Ty's red Ford Transit van, my camera bag hanging heavy on my shoulder, I looked around at Nayda’s neighborhood block: a cozy tree-lined street with the pale New England colored houses. It was my first time in East Arlington, MA, and to this day I proclaim "if I'm going to raise my non-existent children anywhere in Massachusetts, it'd be here."
Nayda gave me a giant hug as I stepped into her home, smelling the homemade veggie dish from the foyer: black rice and black bean salad laced with tomatoes, peppers, and green onions. I was drawn to the kitchen, which was painted pale yellow with splashes of red and had the functioning format of those who use their kitchen often and smartly. This was the first time I’ve had a formal hangout with Nayda and I listened to her story while sipping on my to-go coffee cup. She told me of her move to Boston 6 years ago, how she's only experienced three difficult Boston winters, how her husband is a chef and they met in dance class, and the details of when her family spent a month in Italy. I recently rifled through her pics on Facebook (cuz I do that) and sure enough saw a delightful series of Italy snapshots of her husband, their 3-year-old big-eyed son Lucas and Nayda’s smile under her dark curly hair. The photos had the backdrop of family city bike rides and in front of her exhibition of small paintings in Venezia, Italia.
I put the first bite in my mouth. Sweet and savory. She smiled and must have known I was drifting away from her stories due to the delicious taste of cilantro and lime, salt and pepper. She began to explain Puerto Rican food and the different salts and spices she used… I drifted again. Shit, I hope I don't cry. I cry with exceptional food. My psychologist friend, Breanne, recently told me this behavior was my way of taking notice of the small things. “It's okay,” she assured me, “The world is full of beautiful moments."
“Welcome to the studio!” Nayda beamed after our lunch was over, guiding me through sheer curtains to her four-seasons room. We landed in a wooden-paneled, newly carpeted, place of relaxation. She quickly lined up a series of small oil paintings on her painting station- an easel of stacked cardboard boxes fixed to the artist’s height.
I squinted my eyes to allow myself to swirl in the detail of her artwork. I was familiar with her small-style of painting, with panels the size of an iPhone, each one consisting of a superbly rendered oil-painted woman’s portrait. "#Latina: Reclaiming the Latina Tag” is Nayda’s investigation of Latina stereotypes in online media, particularly Instagram. She’s obsessed with portraits and believes we connect with other first through the face and that’s why "the painted portrait still has the power to move us”.
She showed me the teeniest little brushes she uses and they reminded me of floss. Holding each one gently I admired their delicate size. She let out a laugh and I looked up fast enough to catch her modeling her bi-focal glasses that she uses to focus on detail while painting. She flashed a cheesy smile and crossed her eyes, then quickly removed them and threatened me if I photographed her while wearing them.
Despite her explaining to me how excitedly nervous she was about her latest Artists Residency at MASSMOCA she is self aware and continues to discover herself and her cultural identity through her art. It was a dream, I thought, this four seasons room, the bright afternoon sun slicing through the windows, these warm walls, what a space of pure zen and creati-
In ran Lucas. He darted into Nayda’s thigh burying his head deep into her denim jeans. I had walked past him when I first arrived, as he quietly watched a YouTube episode on trucks while his hands were wrist-deep in red bowl filled with kid munchies. He had looked up while I walked past him to the kitchen and glared. His expression was like a tiny Sean Penn; "what are you doing on my turf..."
"Quiero galletas...” he whimpered into his mom’s waist while avoiding eye contact with me, his left hand holding a small truck and layered in sticky. Cookies may have been what he was requesting but in reality he wanted his momma's attention. I shuffled around the studio while they talked cookies and zeroed in on all the children’s art materials: glue, markers, dried clay projects and orange ottomans that were kid-sized. Nayda, now half-cuddling with Lucas, noticed my gaze and told me how she hosts weekly art classes in this warm studio for the neighborhood kids, giving fellow mothers a well deserved breather.
“It’s an internal thing,”, she quipped while snuffing Lucas’s plastic truck out of her face, “I have this maternal instinct with children, I know I have to give myself to my child and it’s equally important to be happy in my space and create. It's finding the balancing act- who can watch him so I can get away. How to be involved in my community with other moms to socialize in my community. Talking as much as I can. The world, karma, God, whatever you believe in, sends people and things into our present and I try to do the best with what’s in my reach.”
We made our way outside, Lucas leading us to a playground in Magnolia Park, Arlington on his big wheeler making “vrooming” noises. He could have a future in trucking, I thought. Nayda shut the metal gate entrance behind us and I looked up towards the afternoon sun and the playground spread: a scattering of kid sized bulldozers, big wheelers, shovels and pails. It was as if an outdoor toy convention had happened. I’ve never seen this before.
"Whose are all these?"
"They are community’s. The toys are all donated and free to be played with by whomever."
Lucas let loose in the park, sliding and swinging with his mother, laughing from one moment and gazing like the miniature man he was the next. I snapped photographs quietly, smiling and being casual- careful not to interrupt this mother and son’s playtime or dictate any actions that weren’t natural. That’s important with family photo shoots, you have to let the life happen. The sliding. The swinging. There is nothing like the dynamic of energies between a parent and their lil' cub during play time.
Suddenly I realized this wasn't a special trip to the park because a camera was involved, this was part of Nayda’s daily routine. Every day she balances her art career with her family's needs, which include rolling around in the grass of this friendly local park.
I asked Nayda how she does it. All of it - painting, mothering, pushing her creative self. She took a long breath in and assertively offered her advice: “I love my child and husband and there’s no magical solution- there’s just an attitude of how much you want it. As long as I have a goal set ahead that I have time for myself I can look towards that. I give every Monday to myself, and with that, I’m like ‘okay I can do this’.”
This is what self awareness and creativity is like for Nayda, allowing herself to be grounded for her family and perhaps this is what we all need: Mondays, daily hugs, salt and pepper, and the ability to be open and drive to continue on.