As a child in a homeless family in San Diego, Inocente Izucar had to wear donated clothes to school. But she made the best of her wardrobe, creating her own zany style—tutus with high-top sneakers, fuchsia flowers in her hair. In her early teens, she became a walking work of art, painting her face with wild swirls and dots around her eyes. “I just thought it was fun,” she says. “When I got a little bit older, I realized people were looking at me weird.”
Among those who noticed her: a pair of filmmakers. When they saw her at a local arts center for kids, she became the subject of a documentary, Inocente, which went on to win an Academy Award in 2013. Since then, Izucar has been crisscrossing the country for screenings of the film, giving talks about homeless youth, and selling her artwork—bright, splashy, imaginative paintings, like those early swirls on her face.
Izucar, who will discuss her life and work at the Women in the World Summit in New York City this month, has her own apartment in San Diego now, which she shares with two rabbits, Luna and Bun Bun. She has lived there for about a year, she says, which is longer than she lived in most places as a kid. Back then, she lived in some 30 different spots in San Diego with her mother and three brothers, she says—homeless shelters, garages, a park. “We never knew where we were going next,” she says. “We didn’t have much personal stuff. You just have a handful of things you need. It becomes normal after a while.”
Born in Mexico, she crossed the border into America as a child with her family. She was too young to remember much of the journey, but she does recall a terrible night after arriving in California. She describes the night in the film, recalling how her father “started beating me pretty badly, to the extreme that it was just unbearable,” and her mother called the police. Her father was deported, she says, and her mother and brothers became homeless. “No matter how many people tell me that it’s not my fault, I still feel like it’s my fault,” she notes in the film.
Her mom worked odd jobs as an undocumented immigrant, never making quite enough money to pay the rent. At a low point, the family lived in a public park. Izucar remembers her mom sitting up all night, keeping an eye out for danger. “She would wake us up in the morning to go to school,” she says. Izucar kept her homelessness a secret from her classmates. When she was 11 years old, her mother, in a moment of despair, took her to a bridge in San Diego and suggested that they both jump. Her mom described the dark night in the documentary, saying her daughter talked her out of it. “Thankfully, I can’t remember that night,” Izucar says today.
She found an escape in artwork. “I usually did doodling in my free time in school, whenever I could,” she says. “I painted my first school mural in the fifth grade.” As a young teen, she wandered into an arts center that helps kids called ARTS: A Reason to Survive. Film directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine discovered her there. They talked with her about doing a film to highlight homelessness, and she was game, sensing an opportunity to help people understand the lives of homeless kids. “People start paying attention when they hear a real actual story from a person who is living that life,” she says.
She didn’t mind the cameras, she says. “They just followed me everywhere. I thought it was kind of funny.” As the film opens, she looks into the camera, her eyes highlighted in dramatic red and blue swoops, a yellow flower in her hair. “I’m not just a girl. I’m a girl who likes to jump in puddles and likes flowers,” she says in the film. “Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I don’t have a life, because I do have a life.”
During the course of the filming, she created 30 paintings for her first exhibit at the youth arts center—vivid, abstract images of hearts, animals, cities, a baby in a womb. She sold 29 and kept one, a family portrait, and raised some $12,000 for the center and for her college fund, she says. Around this time, she left high school and got her GED, she says, to avoid bullies. “High schools are mean,” she says. After the film came out, someone opened a fake Facebook profile, claimed to be a classmate who knew her at school, and posted hateful messages, she says. “Someone had a lot of time on their hands to do that.”
She says she had never seen the Oscars before attending the event with the filmmakers. “Someone let me borrow a dress,” she says of her cream-colored gown. “They fitted it and everything. It was quite comfy.” She says she didn’t recognize most of the celebrities, but she remembers meeting Adrien Brody and Melissa McCarthy. “She was really funny. I really liked her.”
Inocente and her family got green cards last year with the help of a pro bono lawyer, she says. Now 21, she is selling her paintings on her website, Inocente Art. She makes enough money to get by, thanks to her speaking engagements and artwork. She says her art has evolved over the years to be “definitely less messy.” She is considering college in the future, when she is “not too busy and I have money.” As she points out in the film, “I have a lot of impossible dreams. But I still dream them.”