My art – and my life — was dark and surreal. Then I moved to Canada

This First Person column is by Calgary artist Claudia Reyes who moved to Canada from Mexico. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was born and raised in Mexico. Often when I talk to people in Canada and they find out where I am from, they say things like, “Oh! That is such a wonderful place! It’s magical!”

But then why are so many people fleeing?

I’m an artist and a perceptive person. I can tell if my environment is healthy or not. Fifteen years ago, when the violence around me became extreme, I started painting as therapy; black and white, surrealism. My world was so dark, a gray veil everywhere I looked, and it reflected in my art.

In Mexico, danger is always close. I saw people kidnapped on the street in front of me and heard the scream of a man being murdered outside my house. I grew paranoid, always checking the reflections in the store windows to see if I was being followed and never talking to others in public.

When I hear my new neighbors dreaming of Mexico vacations, I often remember one time in particular when I went to a friend’s house in my hometown of Monterrey.

I was just standing around, watching my friends playing in a garage band, when there was a loud bang. The next thing I knew, I was thrown on the floor. Heavily armed men wearing black clothes and balaclavas were asking so many questions, and kicking my legs and ribs repeatedly.

A painting of hands suggesting a person is peering over a wall at a desolate, industrial scene.
Claudia Reyes painted her hometown in black and white to depict how dystopian life in Mexico felt for her. (Claudia Reyes)

I felt frustrated and impotent — just lying there on my stomach at a gunpoint for three hours, not knowing what’s going on and not daring to ask. When I heard the sound of the safety on the guns being released, I thought I was going to die.

Minutes later, the men said we were leaving the house with them. I was trembling again because usually when that happens, you are not taken to jail. Someone was taking photos as we walked outside. Two men were lying down, machine guns trained at the entrance of the house.

Then suddenly, a military official approached and said simply, “We received an anonymous tip saying there were people kidnapped here.” And they left. No apologies, no nothing.

It’s dystopian. More than 100,000 people are officially listed as disappeared in Mexico, and not all from organized crime. It feels like you can get killed by your own government anytime.

Eventually, it was too much. We had to give up going out, driving or traveling. The kidnapping and drug cartels felt closer and closer and I heard horrific stories involving friends and family. It didn’t feel like I was living anymore.

Six years ago, my husband got a job in information technology in Canada and our lives changed completely.

I remember the first time I set foot in Calgary. At the airport, in one hallway there were two lines of people. I didn’t know what was going on, so I was cautious.

But when the volunteers said“Welcome to Canada! Welcome to Calgary,” it was such a beautiful surprise.

A woman stands near an isolated mountain lake.
As her fears and anxiety lifted, Claudia Reyes embraced life in Calgary and started to travel and hike again. (Yolanda García)

My fears started to wear off when I saw women on the street walking alone at night without worrying about being molested, followed, raped or kidnapped. I used to live in downtown Calgary and go to Prince’s Island Park for a long walk every day. Being in contact with nature helped a lot. I became aware of my surroundings but in the normal way, not in a paranoid way.

When we got a car, we traveled to places I found mentioned by online hiking groups — visiting Kananaskis and Banff, walking around the Icefields in summer and finding trails to snowshoe in the winter. We tried kayaking and we’ve been chasing the northern lights.

Finally, we feel free to enjoy life again. Even my art slowly changed.

A collage of two paintings in vibrant colours.  On the left is a fox and on the right are two northern white owls on the side of a frozen lake with the lights in the background.
Artist Claudia Reyes started to paint colourful nature scenes after her fearful gradually faded. (Claudia Reyes)

When I moved here, I took a break from painting because I wasn’t sure what to paint. My brain was confused. When I started again, I was surprised to see myself using colours. Nature made me so happy and I painted animals — a fox, an owl — and even a winter landscape with the northern lights.

On Aug. 2, I’m going to finally become a Canadian citizen.

Sometimes I hear people in my neighbor complain about the most absurd things — like the magpies making too much noise. But when you grow up in a place with such danger and uncertainty, a country like Canada feels like paradise. Even the magpies sound wonderful.

We have a magical place right here.

Telling your story

CBC Calgary is hosting a series of in-person writing workshops all across the city to help community members tell their own stories. Check out our upcoming opportunities at

More from our workshop in Calgary’s Northern Hills area:

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