Carmen Patiño is a writer, editor, and intrepid globetrotter. She has worked and lived in the U.K., France, and Spain, and continues to pursue an undergraduate degree at San José State University. Her work has been featured on EdSurge.
For Jesse Villegas and Giselle Ayala
Miguel Machuca is a Downtown San José based artist whose work confronts the dichotomous nature of life: good and bad; light and dark; life and death. In his art, Machuca manipulates charcoal in ways that prove death is not always the shadow of life and that darkness can also emit light. In 2017, Machuca told Content Magazine that he likes to work with charcoal because “it’s like ash—like what his body will one day become.”
Machuca’s family emigrated from Guadalajara to San José when he was 8-years- old after his father died in a motionless car accident. The jack that held up the malfunctioning car gave out, instantly crushing his father’s chest cavity. He has a clear image of his first encounter with death; but, is unsure if he actually saw his dad under that car or if, as he puts it, simply “fantasized” this image in his mind to conjure up some type of closure in his heart.
As an immigrant child in America, Machuca struggled to learn English while simultaneously learning the same material as his counterparts. The language barrier meant that he often found himself doodling during class. As a teenager in east San José, he became involved with the wrong crowd. But in spite of not having his father’s guidance in his life, he was always sensible and used his words to get out of trouble. He remembers once convincing his friends not to steal a car; not because he was afraid of the cops, but because he was terrified of his mom’s chancla. Around this time, Machuca had his second encounter with death: he saw his friend get shot point-blank in the face. His escape came in the form of pens, pencils, and paint—whatever he could get his hands on—to move forward.
After high school, he got involved with the Northern California rave scene. Machuca calls this “What breakdancing was to the 70s, 80s in Brooklyn, NY, is what the 90s, 2000s rave culture was in California.” This period was a true school of life for him; revolving his self around creative minds producing poetry, music, and art. They were his professors on self-expression. While his family frowned upon his decision to not pursue a formal education, Machuca became an avid learner of all things art and culture.
In 2015, Machuca encountered death for the third time when he was diagnosed with Stage Four non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. He was afraid. Angry. Hurt. He recalls the first thought that came into his mind was, “I don’t want to die.” A few months prior to his diagnosis Triton Museum of Art chief curator, Preston Metcalf, offered Machuca a solo exhibit. His first solo exhibit. Machuca considered this commission the “pinnacle” of his career and it became his drive to fight for his life. “I can’t go yet—my show—I still have so much shit to do.”
Machuca’s medical team made a plan to immediately start fighting the aggressive cancerous cells. Two days after going into urgent care, he was admitted to the hospital and started on chemotherapy right away. He calls himself lucky because he didn’t experience the usual chemo side effects: dizziness and nausea. Losing his hair, however, nearly broke him. He recalls standing in front of the mirror and just knowing, it’s time. Like Samson, his hair was his fountain of strength, his identity. It’s time. This would be on his terms. He grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped his long ponytail.
During the seven months that followed, Machuca remained strong every week as the poisonous substance left the IV and entered his arm to fight both the bad cells and the good cells. Machuca says that his body took to the chemo as Popeye took to spinach, his body wanted to win the fight.
In addition to the chemo, Machuca also credits his family and friends for the strength he gained during those months. His friend Jesse Villegas, for instance, showed up to the hospital with approximately $300 worth of art supplies. And a miniature electric eraser. His friend Giselle Ayala supported Machuca throughout his journey. Sadly, both were fighting their own fight against cancer. And lost. Machuca gets emotional when speaking about his two friends, Jesse and Giselle, saying, “Why me and not them? Why?” University of Oxford clinical psychologist and researcher, Hannah L. Murray, reported in her 2017 study that 90% of people surviving a traumatic life event, where others died, experienced feeling survivor’s guilt. When Machuca murmurs their names his voice shakes and the memory weighs his shoulders down.
Machuca wants to honor his friends and those currently battling cancer by living his life to the fullest. Underneath all of the adulthood things that are piled up on his spirit, he can still go deep down and reach the genuine part of himself. That untainted light shining from within his spirit helped Machuca complete his 25 art installations one year after he was cancer-free. In the fall of 2018, the Triton Museum of Art hosted Machuca’s solo exhibit rightfully titled, “Drawing Light from Darkness.” Over a cup of coffee, I am overwhelmed by Machuca’s energizing aura. Like dusk, he is both light and dark. Full of hope and despair. Full of calm and, yet, still fear.