“If you want to break barriers, and make someone welcome, there are many ways to connect”
Country of Origin: Uruguay.
Occupation: Ceramic Artist and Tutor. State of Residency: VIC. Favourite place in Australia: The mountains, The Grampians, for example, as part of the Great Dividing Range (which it’s known for its rugged sandstone mountain ranges, wildflowers and wildlife). Upon arrival: Surprised by the lack of social activity in the city.
By Trini Abascal
Maria is a Ceramic Artist and Tutor. She specialises in Raku firing and sculptural work. She has exhibited her work in different venues around Victoria. She has contributed to the community through her voluntary work including: hosting community radio programs, choreographing and organising traditional dancing groups, and running voluntary pottery workshops for aged citizens. She has also collaborated and participated in festivals that support both local and overseas causes.
Tell us your story
My story as an emigrant resembles that of many other migrants who have travelled around the world throughout history. The mass displacement of a people is always a reflection of instabilities in their countries of origin. My story is part of that tapestry. I was born in Uruguay, Montevideo. In 1972, I graduated as a Dental Technician and traded in that profession for two years. In 1973, Uruguay was part of a coordinated wave of military dictatorships that lasted for 13 years and spread throughout many South American countries (Chile, Argentina and Brazil). The political and economic circumstances in my country compelled my husband and I to make the decision to apply for visas to a few different countries, Australia was amongst them. Australia was the first country to respond to our applications, offering us the visas under the condition that we should remain in the country for the first two years; otherwise, the visas would be revoked and we would be accountable to pay for all the expenses the Australian Government had incurred during our stay in the country. Although we knew no one in Australia, we were not in a situation to discern terms and conditions. We needed to get out of our country as soon as possible.
We had very little and vague information about where we were going. We left our home with a mixture of insecurity and sadness, but also with a youthful spirit of adventure. We travelled from South America on a charter plane with migrants from different Latin American countries and landed in Melbourne on a September afternoon in 1974. At our arrival, immigration officers began to divide the group to various immigration centres. Our group was transferred by bus to the Midway Hostel in Maribyrnong. In the hostel, couples without children shared an apartment comprising of two bedrooms a common living room area and a bathroom. Meals were served in a common dining room. The accommodation was good, clean and comfortable. We were allowed to stay in the hostel for few months but not for free; we had to pay roughly one weekly wage for it.
The next day, after an early breakfast, few buses were waiting to take us to work. We were divided by gender. The men were taken to metal factories around the area and the women to an abattoir. Once in the abattoir work was distributed, my place of work was inside a refrigerated chamber. After a brief explanation of what I was required to do, I was armed with an apron, a paper hat, and a knife; and stood up at a bloody splatted metal table. My work consisted in carving out glands from the legs of lambs. While my hands morphed from red to purple from the freezing conditions - and the legs of lambs piled up on the table - I remembered the requirements of the Australian Embassy to obtain our visas; and, with a smirk in my face, I wondered in which immigration office desk drawer my qualification certificates were lost. My co-worker in the abattoir was Jack, a big Australian man in his midlife, with a big belly covered by an apron that matched the bloody table that we both shared. He made a few frustrated attempts to communicate with me. I imagine that he recognised my facial expression of shock and confusion. He began humming Beatles songs which successfully twitched a smile of recognition from me. I believe that was his last resort to get me out of my stunned shock. Swaying his knife he invited me to hum along with him, to which I agreed. We had created a common ground; a way to communicate.
After the abattoir, without paying much attention to my career and my passion (ceramics), I took on cleaning work and worked in factories. Our plans for the near future were to work hard, save money, learn the language and, at the end of the two years, travel around the world. Before the two years that the Australian Government had stipulated that we remain in the country was up, our first child was born and within another couple of years, our second child was on the way. So, for the following few years I took care of my family during the weekdays and worked on weekends while my husband took care of the children.
During my first year of living in Australia I joined organisations and community groups with the aim to update and notify the general public, politicians, and human rights organisations about the critical situation of my country.
As soon as my children started school, I started considering my career options, I realised that it was practically impossible to update my qualifications as a Dental Technician because we needed two wages to make ends meet and the only opportunity that I had was to take on an apprenticeship; which was poorly paid. Somehow, I wasn’t disappointed. Instead, I decided to focus my attention on my old dream that was cut short very long time ago, albeit, with very good intentions by my parents: clay, ceramics, and art. I enrolled in as many courses and workshops that I could. And in 2004 I decided to return to studies to obtain a Certificated in Arts, Ceramics. In 2008, I graduated in Ceramic Arts at Holmesglen Institute of Victoria, since then, U3A Melbourne and other private enterprises have commissioned me. I have also exhibited my work in different venues. I work running ceramics classes, workshops and lectures in Communities Art Centres around the western suburbs of Melbourne; at my home studio; and at Hunt Club Community Art Centre in Deer Park where I have taught for the last ten years.
Family and friends – Over the years, I have been confronted with many challenges, I regretted none of them: I still miss family and friends. But I have learnt how to stand on my own two feet, look around and discern personalities, and trust new relationships.
Homesickness – I miss my country and its idiosyncrasies. But I share my culture with others and learn about theirs.
Gender equality – Coming from a third world country, I was shocked to find out that in 1974 Australia was just catching up with the world in many fronts including gender equality. There was a big gap between women and men’s wages. Women had a separated entrance to a ladies room in pubs and they were not allowed to drink alongside men.
Fashion and social life – At that time, Australia was also delayed on fashion and social life to name just a few. Bikinis were seen as a no-no. And “ladies” were expected to wear stockings even in summer! There were no outside tables in restaurants, and the only coffee available was instant. Melbourne looked like a ghost town at 5:30 pm and in the suburbs everything was closed by 6:00 pm.
Piece of advice
Give back – In the last 40 years, it has been remarkable to see the transformation of the country that I now call home. Australia has given me the opportunity to give the best of me back to society, and for that I will be always grateful.
Find ways to connect – My first experiences thought me that language is not always an obstacle; if you want to break barriers and make someone welcome there are many other ways to connect.
In the next few years…
Maria would like to continue contributing to the community using her passion for the arts and teaching. She is currently preparing an exhibition that, she hopes, will be ready for next year. The theme will be her career as a ceramist and the influences that her work has been through the years. She will also like to continue enjoying time with her family (she is mother of two and a grandmother of five).