For all of her adult life, Emma Reyes was known as an artist who painted and sketched, and as storyteller in the world of other artists in Europe and South America. The historian Germán Arciniegas urged her to write down her memoirs, but she begged off, claiming not to have any literary talents. He suggested that she write him letters about her childhood, which eventually became this memoir in epistolary format. Arciniegas showed some of the letters to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who expressed his great enthusiasm to Reyes. She, in turn, felt betrayed by Arciniegas, believing that he had violated her privacy and stopped writing to him for decades. The letters are candid and direct in detailing beauty and ugliness about Emma Reyes' first nineteen years of life.
Emma Reyes was an extraordinary woman who grew up in an extremely poor section of Bogotá, Colombia, with a sister, a boy, and a woman. At the time she had no idea that the woman was her mother, nor that the boy was possibly her brother. She and the other neighborhood children played in heaps of dirt and garbage, and buoyed by imagination built figures from junk and created stories. Reyes witnessed and was on the receiving end of devastating cruelty. Taken from the dark windowless room where she lived as a child, she went to a convent, where young girls labored for more than ten hours a day cleaning, scrubbing, sewing and embroidering fine clothing for other people. All of them lived in a world that was filled with threats, degredation and no hope for another way of life. What she remembered, before the convent and inside it, conjures a life of faith, faith betrayed, and rudimentary beliefs in folkloric customs. At the end of her memoir, Emma Reyes cagily finds a way to get the keys to the convent and escape, which is where her first nineteen years of life end. Not the most promising childhood for a young woman who evenutally worked with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and interacted with writers, intellectuals and artists.
Everything about this memoir is astonishing, including how it was originally published, and how it came into the hands of the novelist Daniel Alarcón, who translated the book into English and wrote the introduction. At the Bogota Book Fair in 2014, a stranger gave him the book and said, “You must read this. You have to.” There are fourteen chests of papers that were left to Arte Vivo Otero Herrera, and its director, Camilo Otero. Perhaps one day those papers will be organized to help fill in the many gaps and questions about the life of the remarkable Emma Reyes.