No Place Like Home
For most high school students, taking a literature class is hardly a life-changing event.
Not so for Italo Vasquez-Velasquez. Born in El Salvador, he attended a private high school in the mid-1980s. His teacher assigned books like Nausea by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, which portrayed a fictional historian’s increasing anguish as he questions the world around him.
“I was 16 or 17 and it made me feel powerful,” says Vasquez-Velasquez, now in his 40s. “I thought about how cool it is to be able to speak your mind. If he could do it, I could, too.”
His admiration for the books he read was reinforced by his father, who revered the El Salvadoran writers who risked their lives to challenge the status quo—writers like the poet and anti-government journalist Italo Lopez Vallecillos, for whom Vasquez-Velasquez was named.
His reading continued after he graduated with contemporary writers like the novelists Horacio Castellanos Moya—a writer whose work his father introduced him too. Castellanos Moya’s 1997 El Asco (Revulsion) criticized the country’s ruling class. The book was both scathing and popular, making him the target of anonymous death threats. Considered El Salvador’s foremost novelist, Castellanos Moya has lived in voluntary exile for more than a decade.
As Vasquez-Velasquez attended college, he continued to read widely, both the literature of his homeland and of other countries. They sparked his imagination and his political awareness. He became increasingly outspoken, participating in protests against social injustice.
“Eventually, I had to leave El Salvador,” he said. “I felt like the society was too narrow and conservative. I didn’t fit.”
Tension between countrymen
Now an American citizen, Vasquez-Velasquez has lived in New York for 15 years where he works as photo stylist and producer.
“At first, I did what everyone does when they arrive in the United States,” he said. “I waited tables and worked in coffee shops while I took classes. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have the passion to be a photographer—I’m more comfortable behind the scenes. I started my own business as a producer.”
In August of 2008, Michael Turek as Vasquez-Velasquez to help on a photo shoot in Pittsburgh. Turek had an assignment to take pictures of row houses redeveloped by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P) for writers living in exile. COA/P partners with local artists or allows the writers living the houses to make the buildings visual striking examples of artistic express. The most recent house is called “House Permutation.” It features a sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley on the outside and a door etched with the words of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
When they arrived, COA/P founder and director, Henry Reese, asked Italo where he was from. “When he said he was from El Salvador, I said, ‘The writer who lives in this house is from El Salvador,’” said Reese.
When he found out the writer inside was Horacio Castellanos Moya, Vasquez-Velasquez was elated. “I wanted to see what he was doing after leaving El Salvador. He is a great writer; I have always wanted to meet him,” Vasquez-Velasquez said.
Turek and Vasquez-Velasquez asked if they could take pictures of Castellanos Moya in the house. As a producer, one of Vasquez-Velasquez’s jobs is to help his clients relax before a photo shoot. He noticed that Castellanos Moya was a bit reticent, even shy. But he had no idea what was going through the famous author’s mind.
“I thought that Italo was a spy!” said Castellanos Moya, laughing. “I was not prepared to see another El Salvadoran. If I lived in New York or Los Angeles, I wouldn’t be surprised. But in Pittsburgh, that’s not common. I had to wonder why this guy wanted to know so much about me.”
It didn’t help that Vasquez-Valesquez encouraged Castellanos Moya to show the photography team around his home. “In El Salvador, before there is an attack, they send someone to explore the site and prepare,” said the author. The main character in his acclaimed 2007 novel, Senselessness, displays a similar uneasiness The book is a powerful, witty commentary on the government genocide of indigenous people in Central America.
The freedom to write
Vasquez-Velasquez tried to help the exiled writer loosen up. But it was not his amiable demeanor that eventually disarmed Castellanos Moya—it was his name.
“Italo is very uncommon; I don’t remember ever meeting another El Salvadoran with that name,” said Castellanos Moya. “The only other one that I knew was a famous poet. That’s what came to my mind. That was an important factor to relax me.”
In Castellanos Moya’s attic writing nook, Vasquez-Velasquez was struck by how the cozy room was flooded with light. “It made me think that Castellanos Moya couldn’t be doing this if he was back in EL Salvador,” he said. “He wouldn’t have this special place to write or the freedom to do it.”
Later, Vasquez-Velasquez called his father and told him that he had met the great novelist. “My father thought that by me meeting Horacio, he had met him, too!” said Vasquez-Velasquez.
The experience made him reflect upon how he had been profoundly influenced by literature as a young man. “For people in other countries who are intimidated and can’t say what’s on their minds, it’s important to support voices like Horacio’s,” he said. “People must hear and follow those voices. That way you can change lives, countries and destinies. Thank God they exist.”
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