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‘I used to pick the grapes, and now I can drink the wine.’ Ivan Cruz debuts paintings at Trinity Oaks

By August 17, 2023No Comments

While growing up in Mexico, Ivan Cruz admired the art in the gallery windows, but he knew he could never afford to buy a piece. So, when he moved to Salisbury, North Carolina he started painting his own instead.

“I like to paint. I always admired art since I knew about art. I realized it’s something that I can do,” Cruz said. “I don’t have any training, just something that I like to do and I’m learning as I practice. The more I paint the better they become.”

He’s been perfecting his painting skills since 2002, but only recently decided to share his works with the world during an exhibition at Trinity Oaks after sparking a friendship with resident Garry Watkins.

From Mexico to Salisbury

Cruz grew up in the south part of Mexico. He is the oldest of eight siblings, so his job was to take care of the younger ones. That meant sharing a bed with them as well, since the family lived in a small home.

But he didn’t know he was poor until he began high school.

“A lot of kids would eat at restaurants on breaks. They asked me to go eat, but I didn’t have any money,” Cruz said. “So, they said, ‘Oh you are poor.’”

He dreamed about getting a higher education after high school, but quickly learned that the expense was too much. He always thought that if he got a job, he could pay for school. But that wasn’t the case. His paycheck barely covered his food and bills. There wasn’t any left for books and the bus fare to get to school.

He began learning English when he took a job as a dishwasher at a hotel in Acapulco.

“I started listening to people who were speaking English. I knew I could get a better job if I knew English,” he said. “So, I started taking English classes at churches in the evening.”

Then Cruz heard that if he came to the United States, he could make more money doing the same jobs as in Mexico. He formed a new dream and set his mind to getting here, which he finally achieved at the age of 19.

“It took me almost a year. I would work in one town and immigrate to the next town. When I finally got to the U.S., my uncle who was already here helped me establish a job in California picking grapes. So, I worked in the fields for 3 years,” Cruz said. “It’s funny how I used to pick the grapes and now I can drink the wine.”

When his uncle went back to Mexico, Cruz moved to Ohio where he learned he had more family. After realizing that he wasn’t made for Ohio winters, he connected with family in Concord, North Carolina and moved there to work in a chicken processing plant. It was there he met his wife, and the couple had two children together.

He eventually bought a house in Salisbury while working jobs in construction. From there he got an apprenticeship at Central Piedmont Community College to start a career installing fire sprinkler systems. When he began traveling for work, he spent the time in his hotel rooms painting.

A friendship across cultures

Watkins and Cruz fatefully met while attending a Christmas concert.

“Ivan was among the people there at the concert, and I have always been attracted to other cultures, so I started asking questions,” Watkins said. “Then my wife (the late Carol Watkins) and I invited him to a Christmas party we had, and the friendship just grew.”

At first, the friendship was about sharing stories with one another. Watkins was fascinated with learning as much as he could after Cruz told him that in Mexico his family would burn their house down every two years and build another one when scorpions infested it.

Eventually, Cruz invited Watkins over to his house, which is covered with his paintings.

“It’s beautiful work, very colorful abstract. I was drawn to the color, then I realized that each piece was saying something. It’s not just a mass of colors, it’s his interpretation of whatever he is painting,” Watkins said. “He paints large, and he paints small. And he’s been very closeted about it and never showing his work. But once I saw it, I knew there was potential and there were other friends that had seen it and we’ve all encouraged him to start showing his work.”

With the support of Watkins and his other friends, Cruz agreed to be featured in the Trinity Oaks art exhibition series. His pieces were well received by residents at the reception, and LSC New Americans Program Community Engagement Coordinator Quinn Rizzo. She was the first person to purchase one of his paintings.

“I call it abstract art because I can paint something that doesn’t look exactly realistic, but there are some things that might be. The shape might be realistic, but have different colors,” Cruz said. “There are people who see different things in them. So, I leave it to their own interpretation. When you see people trying to figure out what it is, I enjoy that.”

When he isn’t painting, Cruz is running his own business. It’s called ACS Service that helps the Hispanic community connect with resources. He also works with that community to teach them how to build credit so they can purchase their own homes.

He’s also working to build his mother and family a home in Mexico. The walls of that home are adorned with his paintings.

Erin Kidd

Author Erin Kidd

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