International Museum Week & Diversity

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For International Museum Week we shared stories and articles that showcased diversity in both our art and our mission at The Mint Museum. The final story to celebrate #InternationalMuseumWeek comes from a beloved Mint staffer who is known for her loving spirit and warm laugh. A native of Colombia, South America, Kurma Murrain joined the Mint team as community programs coordinator in 2018, where she (alongside Rubie Britt-Height, director of community relations) helps organize some of the museum’s most dynamic programming catering to the region’s international audience and anyone who wants a taste of the world outside Charlotte. Read about her journey from the Colombia of her early childhood, to how she became an award-winning local poet. Link in bio.

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Kurma Murrain, Coor. Community Programs & Rubie Britt-Height, Dir. Community Relations -Mint Museum

From narco war-torn Colombia to the Mint: how one staffer found her home away from home at the museum

We at the Mint were so excited about International Museum Day this Monday, May 18 that we decided to unroll a week of content for it. And how better to round out the week than to tell the story of this year’s theme—diversity—than through the story of one of the Mint’s crown jewels: Kurma Murrain.

A native of Colombia, South America, Murrain joined the Mint team as community programs coordinator in 2018, where she (alongside Rubie Britt-Height, director of community relations) helps organize some of the museum’s most dynamic programming catering to the region’s international audience and anyone who wants a taste of the world outside Charlotte. Murrain is also an award-winning poet, a talented performer (she was part of The Vagina Monologues at Queens University of Charlotte in 2016), and always ready with an easy laugh.

Here’s Murrain’s story, as told to Caroline Portillo. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

I grew up in Bogota, Colombia, in the mountains. I was always writing something — I started with little poems for my mom about how much I loved her. Then in my early teen years at school, I always wanted to share what I was writing with my friends. The teachers noticed and started calling on me to read my poems: in the classroom, on Mother’s Day, on Teacher’s Day. When I was taking physics in high school, I was so bad at it. Failing miserably, and there was no way I was going to pass that class. Then one day my physics teacher came in the classroom, after having read a poem I’d posted on the bulletin board at school. He said, “You don’t need to study physics. You have a talent. I’ll give you a passing grade.” 

Escobar, narcos and ‘a good place to be’ 

We watch a lot of American TV and movies in Colombia. I grew up poor, and to watch those TV shows, I thought everybody in the United States lived an abundant life, and had beautiful houses. Plus, in my country, there was a lot of racism. My brother and I were usually the only black students in the school,  and we were bullied because we were black. I didn’t see that on the TV shows in the United States, so I thought, “that’s a good place to be.” 

I was also living in Colombia during the time of Pablo Escobar, the narco war, and the guerrilla. I experienced so many horrendous things. They were killing everybody—journalists, artists, important people from the government. They were kidnapping and putting car bombs everywhere. So, yes, I was dreaming about the United States, but I also had another motivation to get out of there.

[NOTE: I am happy to report that Colombia’s former president Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring the nation’s more than 50-year civil war to an end. Colombia is now a safer, more beautiful place.]

The Warmth of Other Suns program at The Mint Museum

In 1998, a coworker told me the YMCA was recruiting summer camp counselors from other countries. I was hired to work at a special needs camp in New Jersey for three months. I had my first experience in the United States and wanted to come back. I came back in 2000 to work at another special needs camp in the Catskills in New York. 

Afterward, I kept thinking “I want to go back, but I want to work in my field, education.” In Colombia, I was teaching English at several universities and teaching private classes at a bank, so my friend told me about a program called Visiting International Faculty, that hires teachers to come to the U.S. for three to five years. 

I called them and told them about my experience, and they said I was the perfect candidate except for one little thing: I needed to have had a drivers’ license for at least two years. I didn’t drive. So I started taking classes, got my license. This was the thing I’d been dreaming of my whole life, so I was like, “OK, it’s only two years.” 

I was 32 when I could finally apply to be a teacher in the US. I marked on my application that I wanted to work in California. That’s what I’d seen in the movies. But it was a school in Charlotte that wanted me, South Meck High School. And they wanted me to be there in two weeks. I had a mini panic attack, heart attack, and stroke at the same time. And when I saw the email, I said “Charlotte?” 

I even considered not going because I’d fallen in love. And this man was gorgeous. But when I told him, “Hey I got this email and I may go to Charlotte in two weeks,” he started laughing. I said, “What the heck?” 

And he said, “I’m laughing because my best friends live in Charlotte.”

‘Like Disneyland’ 

It was amazing. The guy I was dating made introductions on email, and his friends said I could stay with them at their home off Carmel Road while I settled down. I didn’t even have a car, so they took me to school and picked me up in the afternoon. I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at South Meck for three years. 

In 2005, one of the Spanish teachers, Mr. Lopez, told me there was a poetry contest at the Mint Museum. You didn’t have to sign up for anything. Just show up and read your poem. 

We went straight to the auditorium at Mint Museum Randolph. I didn’t win, but there were more contests at the Mint—four a year—and I won three consecutive times between 2005 and 2006.

Winner of Poesía Viva at The Mint Museum, 2006 (Primera Fila)

I met Rubie Britt Height, the Mint’s director of community relations, in 2012. I was getting an award at the main library uptown and asked the audience if I could read a poem I’d written for my mother who had passed just three months earlier. After I read the poem, Rubie had her mouth open in awe. Then she started inviting me to events at the museum to read my poems, especially Mint to Move. Before everyone started dancing, I would read a poem. 

Waiting to receive an award for Latin American artists at the Main Library & the day I met Mint’s Director of Community Relations, Rubie Britt-Height

In 2016, I went to teach English in China for a year. I love adventure. But even while I was there, Rubie asked me to send a video of a poem for the Mint’s Día de las Velitas (Day of the Candles)   celebration, a Colombian tradition, that December. And a few months later, she had an event at
the museum while I was visiting a cousin in Thailand, and she asked me to read a poem I wrote while I was in China. Because of the time difference, I got up at 5 AM to get ready to connect to Charlotte via Skype. 

When I came back to the U.S. I returned to teach Spanish at a school in South Carolina, but I wasn’t fulfilled. Then Rubie gave me a call. She said there was a position open at the Mint for a community programs coordinator and that I should apply. 

When they hired me on April 30, 2018, I was ecstatic. The Mint was the best place in the world. Like Disneyland.

Photoshoot for Immersed In Light video

Called to be inspired

The Mint is the most beautiful place. It’s quiet. It calls you to meditate, to be inspired. And my coworkers are so kind. Before working at the Mint, I already had strong ties to the Latin community and the artistic community. I’d been on panels and shared poetry at places like Queens University and Johnson C. Smith University. But being at The Mint Museum now is a platform on which I can help others.

It’s exciting to plan for them, to talk to the performers, to see them and see the reaction of the people. It makes me feel accomplished, too. After each event I think, “Wow, this was great. And I was part of it.” 

What I love about the Mint’s programming is I am able to see such a variety of artists, painters, musicians, dancers, poets. It’s such a great array. Every program is so unique and brings a different public. 

The Mint is a big part of the Latin community. At Mint Música & Poesía Café—a biannual event that features talented poets, dancers and musicians from the region— we’ve had a salsa dancer who’s now dancing at an academy in New York. We’ve had a cellist from Colombia play while a PowerPoint of photos from Colombian landscapes played. We’ve had a poet from Puerto Rico share a powerful story about his father.

Mint Música & Poesía Café w/ Puerto Rican Poet Neftalí Ortiz

Before I worked at the Mint and heard about Mint to Move—our bimonthly cultural dance night that regularly draws 300 to 400 people—I was like “We can dance at the museum? And there’s a DJ and sometimes a live band playing? Oh my gosh.” So I started bringing all my friends. 

Through Mint to Move, I’ve met black people from other Latin American areas and countries, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba. They understand the struggle. For instance, I teach with the Mint’s Grier Heights Youth Art Program on Wednesdays. The children think I’m black before I speak. And then once I speak, they just open their eyes and are like, “you’re not black.”

“But, wait,” I ask them. “Why does that change?” I have to explain to them that slavery came to North America, but also to all parts of America: Central America, South America, the Carribbean. They don’t teach that at school.

Cumbia (traditional Colombian dance) performance at Mint to Move

It’s very touching to be able to see and experience artists who are from your country or any Latin American country. It’s like bringing a little bit of home to the community. And the language—to be able to listen to poetry or music in Spanish. The older people especially get so emotional when they can listen to their language and talk to people like me. It’s a great way to stay connected to their community and their country. 

Then I also work with people who just want to know more about Latin American culture. We had a group from UNC Charlotte and another at Johnson C. Smith University who started coming to Mint Música & Poesia Café and Mint to Move. They just love these events. Then there’s Bilingual Stories & Music, which draws Latin families, Asian families, African-American families, white families. And there are so many marriages with spouses from the U.S. who want to learn about their spouses’ cultures through our programs. It’s a beautiful connection they make because they have that special person next to them, and they’re experiencing the programs together. They can see through different eyes. And because of the Mint, I get to be a part of that.

Latinx? I am a Latina, LA-TI-NA

America is a country I love so much. However, at times its “political correctness” gets to the point in which you cannot express your opinion freely without offending somebody. So they keep trying to reinvent the wheel by changing the names of races, physical conditions, and even communities. That is the case of Latinx, the “new” word to refer to us, Latinos. However, who asked us Latinos what are our pronouns or what we would like to be called? Latinx seems a term from outer space. Imagine this conversation:

-Which planet are you from?

-I’m Latinx. How about you? Are you Americanx?

The fact that so many words have been adapted into making everyone feel accepted can result in confusing terms not only for foreigners, but also for Americans. A few years ago, for example, I entered a women’s store and left frustrated because I couldn’t find anything my size even though the store was stocked with the latest fashions. When I saw the words “curvy”, and “women sizes” I got excited I was finally going to find pants and skirts to fit my very rounded behind. I later realized “women” and “curvy” are the “new” words to describe heavy set females.

Likewise, the first time I saw the word Latinx in a document, I emailed my boss to tell her there was a typo; then she revealed “the truth”. Latinx is a new term so one part of the population doesn’t feel excluded. More excluded? How? The United States is closing its borders, our president calls us all “Mexicans”, rapists, and thieves. I think that train already left the station, so calling us Latinx doesn’t make us feel any more welcomed or rejected.

We Latinos do have a way of including everybody though. In written form we use the @ symbol to refer to males and females; as in Latin@s, amig@s (friends), or compañer@s (partners), since the @ looks like an o and an a at the same time. We do this only in informal settings though. Nevertheless, in spoken form we still use the terms Latinos, Latinas, Latino, and Latina. And these are the words I have been hearing from my Latin American friends living in the United States as well.

Part of my job requires to make surveys and when I have asked a Latin@ if they identify themselves as Latinx, invariably, they have hesitated. They’ve stopped to ask, “What is Latinx?” After a brief explanation, they chuckle pointing out at the ridiculousness of that word.

My college professors always emphasized, Go to the source. So I did. La Real Academia Española, Diccionario de Americanismos. I typed Latinx. The result: La palabra latinx no está registrada en este diccionario (The word latinx is not registered in this dictionary). Same result for the Spanish Dictionary.

Then I went to the other source. Oxford Dictionary:

La·tin·x

/ˌlaˈtēˌneks/

noun

1.a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina): “The books share stories of the civil rights struggle for African Americans, Latinxs, and LGBTQ people.”

In the example above, I saw another leg of the word. It can be plural! I’m going to need to hear the pronunciation of this one soon.

In my opinion, we don’t need a gender-neutral nonbinary word to refer to us. America, first, fix the chart of races in which a Latino can’t be Black and vice versa. Also, delete the words Latino and Hispanic from race since these words refer to origin and language, and there is a variety of races in the Latin American countries.

received_574724883335399225346634.jpeg

Countries of origin from left to right: Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico. (Photo by José G. Vázquez)

Latinos come in a variety of colors. We have been colonized by the Germans, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. During the Atlantic slave trade, Latin America was the main destination of millions of African people transported from Africa to French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies. Slavery’s legacy is the presence of large Afro-Latino populations. After the gradual emancipation of most black slaves, slavery continued along the Pacific coast of South America throughout the 19th century.

If you ask me, I will say I am a Latina, and I am also Black. One category doesn’t exclude the other, and both are correct terms to refer to my origin and my race. I am proudly part of the traveling exhibition NUEVOlution: Latinos and the New South that started at the Levine Museum in Charlotte, NC, and has traveled to Birmingham, AL, and is now in Atlanta, GA.

The word Latinx just comes to complicate the already complicated definitions and categories that have been assigned to us. Although eventually, this is a term we will have to accept since surely it will be part not only of surveys, but job and college applications, and daily conversations. However, in the meantime, and while we still can say it, WE ARE LATINOS! Period.

* This article reflects my opinion and the opinions of some people I know.

America: Latinos Can Be Black Too!

On a previous blog, I meditated on my experiences and feelings about being a Black Latina in the United States. I thought I had said everything that needed to be said; nevertheless, another event made me stop in my tracks.

I have moved quite a few times since my return from China a few months ago, which has prompted me to change my driver’s license in a couple of occasions. The second change happened when I returned to North Carolina. The officer asked, “Race?” I responded, “Black” without hesitation, feeling pleased I didn’t need a lawyer to justify my skin color this time.

My new driver’s license arrived in the mail just in time for the primary elections so I went online in order to find out where my voting post was. There it was in black and white. My name. My address. My race: Black/African American -Non Hispanic/Non Latino. How could this be? I remembered the DMV officer hadn’t asked me anymore questions with regard to my origin. She merely assumed being Black excludes any other category. A simple check mark and my heart was black and blue. They have taken away part of my heritage… again.I Voted

What they don’t realize is that that simple checkmark also took numbers from the elections. All the campaigns my Latino friends put in place to raise the statistics on Latino voting went to the drain. We Latinos vote! However, how many of us have been left out of the news because we don’t look like the idea America has of what a Latino should look like? They are still saying that not enough Latinos vote because of the ignorance of the authorities and the system in general. Eleven years have passed since I first initiated the process of becoming an American citizen and they still don’t recognize me as a Black Hispanic Latina.

Latinos go to the polls. I know because I am one of them.