On Chicano New Year’s Day, Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein is reading her poetry as the train rumbles by behind Gallista Gallery. It’s a Spring Equinox celebration full of music, food, drinks, and art, but the revelers have become more serious as they consider topics like the state’s slashing of educational funds and nuclear meltdowns in Japan overshadowing local efforts to expand the power source.
Then there is Victoria — electrifying the event as she describes her time in the psych ward. She is cheered on in Spanish, and several gasp audibly as she describes life in Room 423. “Though you would have me locked up, I would be cradled by your dark, quiet comfort, your `Plexi` glass protecting me from jumping,” she reads.
Ten years ago Victoria left work as a fashion model to focus on writing, activism, and her family. She had already been profiled in the San Antonio Express-News several times. Her beauty, talent, and uncanny resemblance to Frida Kahlo — which once won her a pair of tickets to a play about the artist — made her someone to watch. The poems in her first book of poetry, Peace in the Corazon, and her pieces spotlighted in the book The Promiscuous Light: Young Women Poets of San Antonio, are sensual and sober explorations of youth and purpose that focus on getting out of horrific relationships and back into the joy of life.
It took a decade for her second chapbook to come out. In the interim, Victoria went through hardships, the sort that have undone so many others. The poems in Another Water Bug is Murdered While it Rains in Texas are dark, declarative lines that describe her severe depression, the untimely death of several close friends, and her own battle with suicidal thoughts. In place of the sprightly anger displayed in Peace in the Corazon, there is the admission of failure and a wrenching elegy for crushed spirits.
“2007 was the worst year of my life,” says the poet who, along with suffering the tonal pangs of fibromyalgia, had also been battling both mania and near catatonia that landed her in the psych ward of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Methodist Hospital. She struggled with suppressed childhood trauma (events she declines to speak of, but plans write about soon) and the death of her grandfather.
Victoria recalls the days before she began her slow crawl back to life. She would lay in the bathtub and think of ending everything. After having a tumor “the size of newborn baby” removed from her back, she wrecked a car and ended up in the hospital on drugs that killed her creativity, lacerated her will, and led to a dramatic weight gain that further complicated her health and already-unhinged psyche. “I couldn‘t write anything and I couldn’t take care of my family. I was in bed all the time. When I realized what I had gone through, I told my husband he could leave me, he hadn’t signed up for this.” But her second husband Xavier was madly in love with his wife, so he took over all the work and cared for their three children.
But she did find her way back. Already a spiritual person, she found herself embracing her Catholic faith more and more (“I do the rosary like it’s a mediation, in a kind of Buddhist way”), and devoting herself ever deeper in service of others. Wary of the dark places her mind might go, she fills her life with selfless acts to help others find their way out of pain and misfortune. Her art became about healing — especially healing the community.
Aside from her work with women’s shelters and her involvement with both the abusers and the abused, she has engaged with young people at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center — a youth-opportunity program that focuses on high school dropouts — and the Jump-Start Historias y Cuentos program. In the summer of 2009, she worked with struggling young people caught up in juvenile drug court through Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities Program, chronicled in part in the chapbook In My Mind Was Planted a Seed. “One of the students I encountered had never finished anything in his life, not his GED, not anything, but he finished the class,” she says with pride.
Victoria challenged the young people to make art out of the darkest parts of their young lives, asking them to write about the first time they let down their mother, or the first time they were busted for drugs. In turn, she shared her own suicidal struggles with these teens in an effort to let them know about the pain, manipulation, and frustration of bad relationships she had been through that eventually led to her desire to be better for herself and her community. “Everybody at Gemini said the kids wouldn’t read their own work at the final reading, that they would be too embarrassed to read before the audience. But they did. They read their works, and it was amazing.”