TikTok creator @larteur posted a video captioned “All immigrants are artists” and as the proud daughter and sister of Colombian immigrants who would hardly describe her family as “artistic,” I was intrigued.

The 60-second video shows a clip from an interview between Steven Yeun & Riz Ahmed in conversation from Actors on Actors (via Variety Youtube), and the most poignant part of the TikTok clip is when Actor Steven Yeun shares something he had recently heard: “All immigrants are artists. You have to make something from nothing.”

The 60-second video shows a clip from an interview between Steven Yeun & Riz Ahmed in conversation from Actors on Actors (via Variety Youtube), and the most poignant part of the TikTok clip is when Actor Steven Yeun shares something he had recently heard: “All immigrants are artists. You have to make something from nothing.”

I whole-heartedly agree that immigrants have to make something from nothing, for a spectrum of reasons. From a CityCrafting perspective, what we could be doing instead, is finding the abundance within by looking past superficial assumptions about challenged communities and the people who reside in them.

Steven Yeun: “I’ve been weary of films that touch upon, on its surface, what could be easily just left at identity. I felt this intrinsic feeling that it was also its own trap if I didn’t tread carefully. Meaning, like, I didn’t want to be defined by just my identity. That you know, you make the film and it’s about your culture, and you represent your culture, and then all of a sudden, like, you’re on a giant press tour, like, talking about your culture and then, like, all of a sudden you become this weird de facto cultural ambassador for the thing. You’ve been shrunken down to just this one metric of who you are.”

Steven Yeun: “When my dad came over here and immigrated, he knew he was going to run into some weird situations but he doesn’t come home and, like, sulk about, like, how he was oppressed by the outside. He just like, ‘Today was a shitty day. And, like, now I’m going to eat my food and be with my family.’

Steven Yeun: “We’re not ruminating about who we are against the outside world on a constant basis. We’re just trying to live our life. And I think when I read the script, that was the truest part of it. I was like, oh, look at this: this doesn’t need anybody else, it just needs this family, and that’s all. And then by telling it like that, you actually take down all the barriers of entry so that anyone can enter into the story and say, like, “Yeah, I understand. That’s the drive of a father, that’s the spirit of a mother, that’s the will of a family. And then all of a sudden, we’re all connected.”

Steven Yeun: “We need to communicate our differences, too, sometimes, so that we might stretch the boundaries of society and culture.”

Riz Ahmed: “Any kind of breakthrough culturally, is gotta be seen as a win for all of us.” 

Steven Yeun: ”I think perhaps the way that we could help to see each other, and help each other, and service each other comes when you realize that I don’t exist without you. That I am connected to you. Your well-being is my well-being.” 

Personally, I relate to a lot that was expressed in the interview by both actors–the experiences of an immigrant family, existing at the confluence of two cultures, and feeling like the opportunity to provide for my family overrides any maleficence people might attempt to throw my way. I don’t waste my time on that. Rather, I choose to focus on providing for my family, and recognizing that the majority of folks are just trying to do the same.

My parents and brother immigrated to the diverse, coastal city of Norwalk, Connecticut in 1986. Our home is 1.2 miles away from the Long Island Sound and less than an hour away from New York City by Metro North train. Growing up, and still, my mother describes Norwalk as her “heaven” on Earth. After living abroad and away from home for the better part of my adult life, and presently reflecting on where I would like to start my own family, I understand more than ever why she feels that way. 

Norwalk provided her opportunities that allowed for my brother and I to attend schools and live a life my parents dreamed of growing up. I remember attending my brother’s graduation from Trinity-Pawling Prep School in Pawling, NY with its pristine lawns and perfect academia aesthetic, noticing that we were one of a handful of non-white families in attendance. I felt proud to come from such hard working parents whose goals were so simple: work hard and provide for your family.

It was my mother’s dream to live in America, a dream not shared by my father. Against all odds, she made it happen. I say against all odds because my mother immigrated without my father and started a new life in Connecticut with her 8-year old son all while being pregnant with me. As my parents describe it, my father stayed back to finish taking care of their life in Colombia. He still laments over the perfect stamp collection he hasn’t been able to replace. However, he insisted that he couldn’t live without my mother and brother and joined them 3 months later, in the nick of time for my arrival. 

I come from a long line of strong, independent, trailblazing women. In the 1950s, my grandmother opened and operated her own bar, La Bucana, in the center of Medellin, Colombia while she was pregnant with my mother. La Bucana was known for hosting reputable doctors, architects, engineers in charge of planning the infrastructure of Medellin at the time, officials with positions high in the police brigade, heads of the Department of Transit, and heads of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), amongst many other notable types, when the mere thought of a woman-owned business was considered ludicrous. My father worked for my grandma for many years and shares that those same patrons respected my grandma and considered her their equal for her tenacity and work ethic.

Abuelita Blanca in Medellin, Colombia. Summer, 1996.

Professionally, I see this tenacity and work ethic in a lot of communities–both in communities mostly populated by immigrants, and others. What they have in common is the desire to provide for themselves and their families, but a lack of access to resources, opportunities, education, legacies–forced to live a life with a label imposed by society–”low-income, poor, ignorant, hustler, unsuccessful, lazy, dangerous, etc.” I don’t think we speak sincerely enough about having that shared struggle–whether that be because of shame, or otherwise. 

I agree with Riz Ahmed when he expresses, “Any kind of breakthrough culturally, is gotta be seen as a win for all of us.” This cultural breakthrough of intentionally focusing on the lived experiences we have in common, our desires to provide for our families and the barriers we are met with, to build a foundation to strengthen the communities we co-exist in, is what I have always admired about the thoughtfulness that goes into the CityCraft process. One CityCraft initiative that comes to mind is the Noisette Community Master Plan from the early 2000s that has now become a model for sustainable city redevelopment. What made that plan remarkable then, and what has stood the test of time, is the recognition in the plan of the broad array of human talent, capacity and possibility, including from the community’s most vulnerable, marginalized, and overlooked citizens that could be included in this work to move the community forward.   

I started working with CityCraft nearly 20 years later in February, 2017, and since then I have always understood CityCraft and “CityCrafting” and “CityCrafters” as people who have either seemingly experienced having to make something out of nothing, or those allies who have the awareness to see that it is a reality for a lot of people here and around the world. We often fail to see the plenty, the human capital in untapped creativity, innovation and energy, that is hiding in plain sight. Only by supporting and unlocking the full potential of a community can we catalyze this energy into durable change that only human capital can create.

CityCrafters work collaboratively, intentionally, patiently, with unwavering insistence for a better way. My greatest hope for CityCraft when we say we are “Restoring the Long-term Economic, Social, & Environmental Health of our Cities” is that every community we work with is given the chance to make something out of abundance, rather than something out of nothing.  

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