Academy Awards: Inocente, a Film About Undocumented Artist, Wins for Documentary Short

Inocente is very petite and very shy. Her face is striking. Her eyes are huge and a warm-brown. Her smile is a little tense and hesitant. For a teenager, her memory seems scattered. Her story begins when her father brought her and her brother to the US illegally from Mexico, without her mother’s consent. The film, which won an Academy Award for best documentary short, will chronicle Inocente’s young life—an undocumented and homeless teenager with an incredible artistic gift.

She thinks maybe she was 5 or 6 when she crossed the border. Initially, she and her father would stay with family, but within months of her mother’s arrival, her father would be deported and the family on the streets. Inocente blames herself. As the oldest child, as the only daughter, as the victim – she blames herself.

Without giving too much away about the film, suffice it to say, there’d been a history of abuse and violence in Inocente’s life, and she and her family would pay the price.

Undocumented, her mother was unable to work, so Inocente and her family were shuttled from shelter to shelter. Sometimes they’d stay in parks and on friend’s couches, and she’d attend many different schools. She says of her constant movement, “Everyone treasures his or her things. It’s unfair for kids to have to carry their stuff around in bags. When I was little, I didn’t think it was weird. But as I got older, I began to see that other kids at school had houses to live in. I didn’t tell people at school I was homeless. It was my secret,” she says.

The brief period she spent at the Monarch School for homeless kids would alter her life forever. A non-profit program called A Reason To Survive (ARTS) that provides arts-based programs to help kids facing life challenges, provided transportation to their site for art classes. And Inocente says she’d always loved art.

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“My life depends on being an artist,” she says.

It didn’t take long for her teachers to take notice of the incredible talent they had in this young woman. “I don’t believe even she knows how special she is,” says Matt D’Arrigo founder of ARTS.

Unlike the dark work one would think she would create, Inocente’s work is filled with bright, happy, colorful, bunny-like characters and animals, painted in a Pop-Art style with little edge. 

“My work is colorful because I believe if there were more color in the world, more people would be happy. The bunnies or funny animals are like imaginary friends for me. I grew up too fast. I didn’t have a childhood. As long as I can remember, my mom told me we had bunnies back in Mexico. I don’t remember them,” she says. 

Today, Inocente has a real bunny. His name is Luna.

Her relationship with her mother is strained. She indicates there’s been some physical abuse. Her mother has taken homelessness very hard.

“Being undocumented had a huge impact on my mom. She couldn’t work. So many doors are closed to you. At least our family wasn’t separated. It was a fear for my mom. She didn’t share it with us, which is good because we were afraid enough,” she says.

“Living in the shelters isn’t normal. For a kid to be moving around and not have a stable place. The family shelters were OK, but the one’s with single older men or women were scary. You didn’t know who was sleeping next to you—they’re strangers,” she says.

Inocente says she hopes the MTV movie inspires people and brings awareness to the major issues the film addresses--undocumented people, homelessness, and art. She says, it’s time to put a face on those issues and maybe something can be done about it.

Her first art show was in 2009. She sold every one of her 30 paintings. She made enough money for six months rent and food. She has a place of her own now. She lives in a studio apartment she found on Craigslist.

Since 2009, the demand for her work is high. Where once she sold her large pieces for $1,200, when she was recently in New York doing interviews for the MTV film premiere, she had a show, and sold a large piece for $5,000.

She says she finds her artistic inspiration from a young, local San Diego artist named Kyle Bowen. 

“I get embarrassed when I do interviews, and they ask me questions about artists. I don’t know who Picasso is. I look to local artists--they’re the new thing, more what’s happening in art,” she says.

Her next project is a show to raise money for a couple of bunny rescues. She also wants to join the circus in 10 years. Not today, because she says, her bunny Luna can't travel. She wants be a trapeze artist. Even though she admits, she’s not that flexible.

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.