Education

From 'invisible' to 'important': A teen finds beauty in her story through poetry

Vanessa Tahay performing during the Get Lit Classic Slam, a youth spoken word competition, on April 30, 2016.
Vanessa Tahay performing during the Get Lit Classic Slam, a youth spoken word competition, on April 30, 2016.
Daniel Lennox/Courtesy of Get Lit

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As part of our new series Age of Expression, teen artists from around Southern California share stories about the art they create and why they do it.

Like many artists, Vanessa Tahay's poetry was born out of pain. 

In her poem, "A Dream in Five Days," she details her journey from Guatemala for the United States as an unaccompanied minor.

Here's an excerpt:

Sitting on the desert

Dying for a drop of water

It's not fun thinking about your family

About everyone you left behind 

No beauty so close to bones

In less than one week

Maybe someone will stare at my skeleton the same way

She left her home in a small village called Totonicapan when she was 10 – crossing deserts, rivers and borders. With a new language and culture, adjusting to her new life was hard.

"I never told anyone in elementary school or middle school because I was, you can say, ashamed at that time," said Tahay. "I didn’t want people to know that I’m this poor girl that just crossed the border and just comes here not know anything, basically. That’s what I thought."

When she started writing, she found the strength not only to turn her story into prose, but to actually perform it on stage. Tahay, a rising senior at Cleveland High School in Reseda, is a member of the school's Get Lit spoken word poetry team and is now part of a competitive performance troupe, the Get Lit Players. 

"All my poems, all these Latino poems that I’ve written," said Tahay, "it makes me feel proud because all this journey I went through, it becomes beautiful."

 Vanessa spoke to KPCC's Priska Neely about finding her voice as a poet.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how poetry changed her life

When I came here, my mom told me to write my story in a notebook. I started writing in Spanish, like, [about] the journey and everything. When I was in middle school I took the time to translate some words into English and I didn’t know what to do with it. ...

Vanessa Tahay, 17, performs her poetry during semifinals for the Get Lit Classic Slam, a youth spoken word competition in Los Angeles.
Vanessa Tahay, 17, performs her poetry during semifinals for the Get Lit Classic Slam, a youth spoken word competition in Los Angeles.
Jeffrey Smallwood/Courtesy of Get Lit

When I actually started writing poems, it was really the poetry that made me say everything at once, just to everyone. It was poetry.

I remember my first poem was titled, “Invisible.” Bringing flashbacks of my elementary school days where no one talked to me. And walking the halls, this kid pushes me and I can’t say, "Watch out." I didn’t say anything [because] I didn’t know English. So that whole thing turned into that poem “Invisible."

What poetry did to me – first of all it helped me a lot with my language. I’m in this program called Get Lit where we go around to schools and say our poetry. When I started saying it in spoken word – going around places, saying it in public, sharing it to all those people – it made me into a stronger person.

My first poem was “Invisible.” It made me not feel like that anymore. It made me feel important.

On her fears about sharing her story

Some days I’m scared because what if I say one of my poems and people from immigration are there and they take me – all these crazy things. But honestly I want people to know the true story. I want people to know how much we’ve suffered to come here.

All the people that come up to me, they tell me, “That poem was really good. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for saying things that other people won’t have the guts to say.”