Rebecca Zala, 17, was born in Mexico, lives in Scarborough, and studies at Ryerson University; she balances the most obvious aspects of her identity with the more subjective experiences of those aspects, and expresses herself through her art. We met at Scarborough Arts’ EAST Spoken Word Poetry workshop held at various Toronto libraries. After a meeting, I photographed her in the surrounding area, and after the photo shoot, we spoke at Lawrence East station – some answers have been edited, others moved around.
What have you been doing on Lawrence Avenue?
Every Saturday, I’ve been going to Morningside Library for spoken word workshops. I’ve been receiving feedback and creative criticism of my work. I’ve been meeting several really cool poets, and really enjoyed myself.
What interests you about spoken word poetry?
I like that it is a merging of both poetry itself and acting. I really enjoy acting, specifically voice acting. It’s a poetic monologue, it’s like an anthem, your own personal testimony.
What do you think is the value of the spoken word collective?
Personally, it has helped me gain confidence in my poetry and my style. It has given me new opportunities through the networks that I’ve created. And beyond this, as a social event… I definitely feel this is a community thing, we were all brought together by this program. Had it not existed, we wouldn’t have been able to meet each other, and not just meet each other but perform poetry together, learn from each other, anything you can’t do with one member or one person at home on the internet trying to look up how to do this stuff yourself.
Do you think you’ll move into different careers, or will you stay with what you studied?
[train rumbles away] I think I’ll stay with media and televison, but that could also include advertising.
Are you proud of your poetry, proud of what you’re studying, proud of where you live?
I’m proud that I have come this far to be writing poetry with the amount of skill that I have crafted. I am proud of what I’m studying because unlike a lot of people, I am studying something that I enjoy, something I would skim Wikipedia articles about but now I have the privilege of being able to learn it formally. And I am proud of where I live because my parents worked hard to bring me here, and I’m lucky to be living in Toronto. I honestly wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
What do you expect people’s reaction to be to your photo and your story?
I hope they’re going to see this and they’re going to appreciate non-profit organizations like Scarborough Arts and to know that I am a youth poet. Scarborough Arts made an investment in me, and free opportunities like this really are important.
To the youth of our area.
Do the young people of Toronto need more groups like the one you attend?
Definitely. I think it’s always important for there to be free artistic learning opportunities… There are some things that don’t have a club at school, that don’t have a team that you can join, and I think that was something that was lacking at my high school, and so, I sought it elsewhere.
Is downtown more cultured than the suburbs?
There is a greater visibility of the expression and culture downtown. And that’s what brought me here. I think it’s starting to thrive in Scarborough but hopefully we can achieve that at the same amount of vibrancy that there is downtown.
Could you live in Scarborough for the rest of your life?
To be honest, I don’t know. Because the job I will be doing one day will probably be downtown, outside of Scarborough probably, and I would want to move closer. You know, because the commute is so long – even from Scarborough to Ryerson everyday… People on residence act like it’s the worst thing ever… But I think I’ll be living in Scarborough for maybe longer than I expect. Maybe I’ll switch around and come back one day.
Did you wear anything personally significant in the photos?
This dress is what I was wearing when I performed a spoken word poem for the first time by myself in front of over 200 people. It was kind of like my big debut; a lot of people told me that they enjoyed it, they liked it, one girl told me she cried. That was really the big push to begin performing more seriously, I’d say. And that was in grade ten. I’m also wearing a Pocahontas denim jacket, which I found at Black Market Toronto for $10 last summer, and I was screaming and flailing around when I found it. I’m wearing a Barbie backpack. I played with a lot of Barbies when I was a kid, and I like how that engaged my imagination. And, you know, when Ruth Handler created Barbie, it was so girls could play out their dreams, and just experiment, I guess. Did you know Barbie has over 150 careers?
Yes. I think Barbie is really inspiring… did you know they created an astronaut Barbie before they even landed on the moon?
What does that have to do with Lawrence Avenue?
Does Lawrence Avenue deserve to be discussed?
Um, no, not exactly. Just the people of Lawrence Avenue. Who are the personalities that are engaging on the street? That’s what makes Lawrence Avenue what it is.
What about the non-profit organizations, and the churches, and the schools, and the groups of youth who find themselves joining together independently as friends? Isn’t there something beyond the fact that they’re like-minded, isn’t there something about this neighbourhood, or this street, or this city, something even ethereal about it, something essential that requires debate, or is it enough just to live on Lawrence Avenue and describe your life?
There’s definitely some common quality. I get what you’re saying, it’s hard to put into a word, but I feel you.
Is art the responsibility of the individual or that of groups?
I don’t think anybody can get as far as they can without the help of other people. Art is definitely group-oriented and its through being provoked, it is through cultivation and investment by groups that you will really see great art being made, great artists coming together and change coming through.
What gives you confidence to go on stage?
The fact that I’m a human being and that everyone else watching is also a human being. I shouldn’t be afraid of anything I’m sharing because we’ve all suffered before, we’ve all experienced things, and if anything, I hope someone can relate to what I’m saying and know they’re not alone – which is more important than feeling vulnerable or embarrassed. If I can share that type of moment with someone, that means the world to me.