Cornerstone Theater Company


Living in Color

There’s something that Natalie Venegas sees that has always been present, but was once obscured by the insularity of gang life.
Natalie sees beauty. The scenery viewed from the New York–Syracuse train running along the Hudson can bring her to tears; she has a deep understanding of the theater’s power of catharsis; she revels in the intimacy of dialogue. Her artistic sensibilities are in part why she is so excited to be part of the Café Vida cast. But the most important thing about her participation is the lesson she is teaching her children and herself: “What I’m learning right now, since I have to practice late and go to work and school, is that sacrifice is what you need to do to succeed. Instead of sacrifice for drugs, I sacrifice to achieve.”

As a young woman, Natalie saw herself go down a dark path of addiction and gang life. She had a painful upbringing that included sexual abuse and drug use by her mom.

“It’s very hard to make positive choices when negative choices are all you know…Things happened to a little girl that weren’t supposed to happen to a little girl. I got robbed of a childhood. I had to grow up fast. Yeah I had a choice, but…it was so much easier to numb my pain. When you see your mom get loaded, you don’t care.”

Natalie has been at Homeboy Industries for over a year.

On her path to recovery, Natalie attended a treatment center that offered a behavior modification class. There, she learned about the importance of keeping a goal book. She was skeptical. How could writing your wishes down make them come true? “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would go to New York. I just slapped it in there—I put New York in there. That shit really works. Statistics show that if you have a goal book, you are more likely to succeed. It’s a Harvard statistic. Even graduates from Harvard, if they don’t have this goal book, they fail. So I write: I’m going to New York.”

“I went to New York to speak at a women’s conference. That was so overwhelming for me. Someone who has been in and out prison, who gave up hope on herself, who thought that all she ever would amount to was getting loaded with her homeboys. And now these little girls were looking up to me, looking to me for guidance. I never thought that could be. I am so grateful for life. I want so much more now.”

The fruit of hard work is certainly sweet. That’s true for Natalie in school, work, and the production of Café Vida. “I just took a midterm thinking I was going to fail. The teacher gave me back my paper and I got an A. How did I get an A? That’s crazy!” It’s not crazy, it’s the empowering realization that one’s positive actions can have positive effects. And that’s something that she’s learned through Homeboy Industries. “When I went to Homeboys I still didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to believe in myself…Through Homeboys I started to build myself up.”

Café Vida is providing yet another opportunity for Natalie to prove to herself that she is capable of many things. She took a chance auditioning, wishing to be part of an art form she admires, and to teach her young daughter, who is interested in acting, that she should not be afraid to pursue her interests. She says that participating in this play has been rewarding. “At first I doubted myself. I thought, man, I can’t do this. But I amazed myself. I accomplished another thing. As long as I keep doing it and try my best, then that’s all right.”

Natalie (left) as Lola, with Sue Montoya as Luz in 'Café Vida'

Natalie sees beauty because she knows the pleasure of a dream coming true. She speaks of what she once thought was a far-fetched dream with sincere excitement, something lost in so many people with pasts as dark as hers. “So, we fly into New York. We got to eat in Little Italy, at a pizza place. Then we go the next morning to the World Trade Center. Then, in the morning, we took a seven hour train ride, the most beautiful train ride. Most peaceful, breathtaking scenery along the Hudson river. So graceful. Things like that—it just touches me. It’s hard to explain. Just from where I come. Who would have ever thought that I would be there? Just to see that. Just to have the opportunity to experience something like that. To experience nature instead of sitting behind bars, in concrete. I’m so different now. I don’t want to give my time to the state. I want to live life. I used to see life in black and white. Now I see color.

Natalie has been part of Homeboy Industries since April 2011. She plays Lola, Luz’s mom in Café Vida.

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Maria Guerra is Cornerstone’s Administrative Assistant.