My art – and my life – was dark and surreal. Then I moved to Canada

This me column is by Calgary artist Claudia Reyes, who relocated to Canada from Mexico. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, visit the FAQs.

I was born and raised in Mexico. When I talk to people in Canada and they find out where I’m from, they often say things like, “Oh! This is such a wonderful place!

But why are so many people fleeing?

I am an artist and a perceptive person. I can tell if my surroundings are healthy or not. Fifteen years ago, when the violence around me became extreme, I began painting as therapy; black and white, surrealism. My world was so dark, a haze of gray everywhere I looked, and that reflected in my art.

In Mexico, danger is always near. I saw people being kidnapped in the street in front of me and heard the scream of a man being murdered in front of my house. I became paranoid, always checking the reflections in store windows to see if I was being followed, and never speaking to others in public.

When I hear my new neighbors dream of vacationing in Mexico, I often recall a time in particular when I was going to a friend’s house in my hometown of Monterrey.

I was standing around watching my friends play in a garage band when there was a loud bang. Next thing I knew I was thrown to the ground. Heavily armed men wearing black clothes and balaclavas asked so many questions and repeatedly kicked my legs and ribs.

A painting of hands suggesting a person looking over a wall at a desolate industrial scene.
Claudia Reyes painted her hometown in black and white to represent how dystopian life in Mexico felt to her. (Claudia Reyes)

I felt frustrated and powerless — I lay on my stomach at gunpoint for three hours, not knowing what was going on and not daring to ask. When I heard the gun safety being released, I thought I was going to die.

Minutes later the men said we would leave the house with them. I was shaking again, because usually when that happens you don’t go to jail. Someone was taking photos as we went outside. Two men were lying with machine guns aimed at the entrance of the house.

Then suddenly a military official came and said only: “We received an anonymous tip that people were kidnapped here.” And they went. No apologies, no nothing.

It’s dystopian. More than 100,000 people are officially believed to have disappeared in Mexico, and not all of organized crime. It feels like you could be killed by your own government at any time.

At some point it was too much. We had to give up going out, driving or traveling. The kidnapping and drug cartels grew closer to me and I heard horrific stories involving friends and family. It didn’t feel like I was alive anymore.

Six years ago my husband got a job in information technology in Canada and our lives changed completely.

I remember the first time I set foot in Calgary. There were two queues of people in a hallway at the airport. I didn’t know what was going on so I was careful.

But when the volunteers said, “Welcome to Canada! Welcome to Calgary,” that was a nice surprise.

A woman stands near a remote mountain lake.
As her fears and anxieties subsided, Claudia Reyes accepted life in Calgary and began traveling and hiking again. (Yolanda Garcia)

My fears subsided when I saw women walking alone on the streets at night without worrying about being harassed, followed, raped or kidnapped. I used to live in downtown Calgary and go for a long walk to Prince’s Island Park every day. The contact with nature helped me a lot. I became aware of my surroundings, but in a normal way, not in a paranoid way.

Once we got a car, we traveled to places mentioned by online hiking groups—we visited Kananaskis and Banff, hiked around the ice fields in the summer, and found snowshoe trails in the winter. We tried kayaking and chased the northern lights.

Finally we can enjoy life again. Even my art slowly changed.

A collage of two brightly colored paintings.  On the left is a fox and on the right are two white owls by the side of a frozen lake with the Northern Lights in the background.
Artist Claudia Reyes began painting colorful nature scenes after her fear gradually faded. (Claudia Reyes)

When I moved here I took a break from painting because I didn’t know what to paint. My brain was confused. When I started again, I was surprised to see myself with colors. Nature made me so happy and I drew animals – a fox, an owl – and even a winter landscape with northern lights.

On August 2nd, I will finally become a Canadian citizen.

Sometimes I hear people in my neighborhood complaining about the most absurd things – like the magpies making too much noise. But growing up in a place of such danger and uncertainty, a country like Canada feels like paradise. Even the magpies sound wonderful.

We have a magical place here.

Tell your story

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More from our workshop in Calgary’s Northern Hills:

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