Artist And Writer José Faus Calls Kansas City Home, But Bogotá Still Calls To Him
Writer and artist José Faus isn't religious, but when he's looking for comfort, he says the Virgin Mary.
"It is, in a way, a nod to the things I've lost."
He came to Kansas City from Bogotá, Colombia, when he was just nine years old, not fully understanding he was leaving forever.
"I remember feeling so discombobulated. I really thought, Well, when are we going back home? And it just never came."
His mom had been living in the United States for years before sending for José and his brother. His father had been gone since he was small. In their absence, he'd been raised by his grandmother, a powerful force and larger-than-life matriarch, an avid canasta player who used to take him to a private club to while away the days.
"The boys and girls would get tossed into a little pool to play," he says. "Those are vivid memories."
José's grandmother wanted him to become a priest, so when she said the rosary every night, she made José say it with her.
"It felt like punishment to me," he remembers with a laugh. "I would be so miserable on my knees, kneeling, saying the rosary with her, and I remember looking at the beads, counting them, thinking, it's getting close ... when it hits that crucifix we'll be done."
But years after leaving his grandmother's side and being uprooted from the people, language and culture that felt like home, he says, "Those Hail Marys are, for me, they're my om. They're my mantra."
He came to Kansas City in the dead of winter, having never experienced cold. His mom, who he hadn't seen in three years, picked him up in Florida in December of 1964, along with his stepdad. They drove two weeks across the country, finally landing on the West Side, in the West Bluffs projects, in January of 1965.
"It was a big shock," he recalls. "Everything was so different and strange to me, the only thing that was familiar, the one familiar I could hang my hat on so to speak, was language. Spanish was spoken. That was my first embrace, was language."
But even that was about to change.
When the family moved three years later from the West Side to Overland Park, their friends and neighbors no longer spoke Spanish. And his mom established a strict rule: no more speaking Spanish at home, either.
"My mother made a very calculated decision," he acknowledges. "My mother has a very harsh accent. She realized if there was going to be any measure of success for her kids, it would have to be one that was not judged by how they spoke. She made a rule. We stopped speaking Spanish in the house. We had to learn English. That was another part of the separation. On the other hand, I can thank her a lot for it. I love English. I love the music that I hear in the language."
He may not have been judged based on how he spoke, but Faus remembers feeling judged for how he looked.
"It comes in so many different ways," he recalls. "I don't see people who look like me, and the names are different, and you start to realize there's something odd here. Growing up I saw so many things that I chose to just kind of let wash over me but that I know imprinted on me. Situations where you're kind of singled out."
That came mostly in the form of disciplinary action.
He remembers going with his mom to work at a cleaning job and seeing syringes. He didn't know what they were for, but he figured out that you could shoot water out of them, which he thought was cool. So he picked up a bunch of them and brought them to school to show his friends. The response wasn't to take him aside and ask him where he got all those syringes or what he was doing with them. Instead, law enforcement was called in immediately.
Not that he claims to have been an angel.
"I went through a period of rebellion," he admits. "I embraced a lot of the drug culture in some ways, I did. I understand that loss one has. The sense of being apart from something when you don't have all the pillars that 'happy families' have. But at the same time I also realize that some of my experiences were fueled by rejection or anger or whatever it was, but I survived them."
Teachers were a powerful force in his life overall. In fact, it was a teacher who made him realize he had a knack for writing when she had him stand up in front of the class and read something he'd written. He still remembers the sentence: He sat up, wheeled on his saddle, and turned around.
"I didn't even know what 'wheeled' was," he says.
Now, at 60, he’s an integral part of Kansas City’s art scene. He's been a mentor to boys with a susceptibility to gang violence and drug use. He’s one of the founders of the Latino Writers Collective, where he encourages authors to write in their native tongue. He’s painted murals in Kansas City, Mexico and Bolivia. He maintains a studio art practice in Kansas City, Kansas. He helps younger artists through Artist, Inc. And his writing has appeared in lots of anthologies. He’s out with a new book of poetry, The Life and Times of José Calderon.
He speaks Spanish again, but with a stutter. And Kansas City may be home, but without one of the crucial sentiments he feels for Bogotá: that sense of longing.
"There is a sense, though I love this country in many ways and I love this city to no end, when I'm gone from Kansas City, I don't miss it. I don't long for it."
Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.
Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard and Midwesternish. You can reach her on Twitter.