Barranquilla, Colombia has given a lot to the world:
There’s Shakira, the star whose hips don’t lie!
The Barranquilla Group of writers, where Gabriel García Márquez made a name for himself.
And there’s Luz Natalie.
Just like Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll, she chose a single stage name: Natalie.
“I didn’t change my name when I got to Quebec. I shortened it.
I wanted to avoid hearing ‘Luz? What? Can you repeat that?’”
Natalie completed a master’s degree in literature, with a performing and screen arts concentration, at Université Laval.
Before that, she earned a multidisciplinary bachelor’s in education and political science, along with a certificate in creative writing and a diploma in international relations, while shuttling between Quebec and Barranquilla.
She also worked at Quebec’s National Assembly for three years.
And she’s the mother of a teenager. All at 36.
First things first: Natalie is an actor.
In 2019 she graduated from the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Québec, a performing arts academy.
Now she’s a regular performer with La Bordée and Premier Acte.
“There was just one teacher at the conservatory who called me Luz. I said my full name once, in front of the class, with my usual ‘But you can just call me Natalie.’ He answered ‘But Luz is so pretty!’
He must be the only one in Quebec who calls me Luz.”
Her story shows that you never know where you’ll find your light – your luz. Sometimes you might have to cross the entire globe!
“It’s all about theatre.”
Even as young girl, Natalie dreamed of the stage. At age five, she was already acting.
Natalie was raised by her grandparents. Her mother and father, both medical specialists, moved to Brazil at separate times. Though the original plan was for everyone to live together there, Natalie’s father, who was first to arrive, met another woman and fell in love. When the rest of the family landed, he broke the news to Natalie’s mother, who had to make a choice: go back home to Colombia’s conservative, Catholic society, and face humiliation, or stay abroad to continue her studies. She chose the second option, so Natalie and her younger sister grew up commuting between countries, with the family home in Barranquilla as a pied-à-terre. “We got so much love in that home, from my grandparents. And from my uncles and aunts who lived with them. I never felt alone, or abandoned. That was what life was about.”
“By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to be an actress.”
But, Natalie being Natalie, she took a circuitous path to the theatre.
“My family was against it, of course. They wanted me to ‘get a real job.’ Anything at all.
But my mom gave in eventually. She said, ‘Okay. If you can get into the top state university, you can study theatre.’”
For her mother, who moved back to Colombia when Natalie was 12, there was no room for half-measures. Her daughter would have to either be the best, or not be an actress at all. Natalie was angry with her. But now she wonders whether this pressure wasn’t merely a symptom of typical Latin American machismo.
“My experience growing up in Colombia was a lot like what I hear about Quebec in the Duplessis years. Men watch the soccer game while the women scramble around getting stuff done. People expect so much of women!”
In the end, Natalie didn’t get into the highly competitive theatre program at the state university. Her dream seemed to be slipping away – until her father agreed to pay for theatre studies, if she moved to Brazil with him.
“So I went to live with my father.
Four months later, I got pregnant. I was 17.”
She told her father, who took the news hard. Despite his progressive, intellectual side, he couldn’t accept a daughter with an illegitimate child. He kicked her out of his house, and Natalie had to move in with her child’s biological father. He took the news even worse! Though her mother-in-law managed to smooth things over a bit, dishonour had already taken up residence.
When she learned that Natalie was pregnant, her mother was stunned.
“First I wanted to be an actress. Now, I was pregnant out of wedlock.”
She decided to brave the social stigma and take her daughter back to Colombia.
“I realized later that my mother also had to live with shame. She was super brave, because a lot of women would have just disowned me. It’s true! It’s not something we generally think about, here, but it’s a reality in other places.”
Natalie is clear-eyed and eloquent when she speaks of that period. She sees both the beauty and the tribulations, understands why things were done, shame perpetuated, lives cracked apart.
When Natalie’s mother went to get her in Brazil, she laid down the law.
“She spelled it out. ‘I’ll do what I can to help you, Nat. But you have to choose a real career.’”
Despite making sacrifices, Natalie remained resilient. She cut herself off from the theatre world – from her friends, her old haunts, the performances she loved – and went back to being the top student of her younger days. Her new plan was to study international relations, and become a diplomat.
“You know how I decided? I said to myself, ‘What career will get me as far as I can get from Colombia, as quickly as possible?’”
“I had no desire to live in a society where I felt constantly oppressed. That feeling only got worse when I came back with a child. But there was also the fact of being a woman, wanting to be an artist. There were so many different reasons I didn’t fit in. But it turns out I’m not that weird! When I got to Quebec in 2005, I realized that I wasn’t weird at all!”
At first, it was love that brought her to North America.
“I had an opportunity to take part in a simulation with the Organization of American States, the OAS. That was where I met François, from Sherbrooke.”
For two years, they had a long-distance relationship. In the early days, François visited her in Colombia whenever he could. Then it was her turn to travel. She enrolled at Université Laval.
“After my first six months here, I said ‘Look, I don’t see how I could go back to Colombia. There’s no way!’”
“One of the things I found most moving was reading the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms – I’m in international relations, so I read that sort of thing!”
“And there’s a line in there that says something like, ‘Equality between men and women is a fundamental value.’”
“Well, that was the kind of place I wanted to live. A place where equality is a fundamental value.”
Through all these displacements, Natalie’s inner homeland has always been the theatre. After arriving in Quebec, it only took her six months to reconnect with her passion. She enrolled in the Université Laval theatre troupe.
Little by little, Natalie got more involved, becoming a well-known member of the city’s arts and literature communities.
Finally, on her second attempt, she got into the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Québec.
She is grateful for this opportunity, which equipped her to follow her vocation. But she also knew from the start that, as the first non-French-speaker ever accepted, and a woman from outside the mainstream culture, she’d face an uphill battle, and have to carve her own path.
“I constantly wondered what I was doing here. It’s not that I doubt I’m a good actress. It’s that I wonder, as a woman of colour, whether there’s a place for me here.”
“It’s a hard thing to say out loud, and a hard thing for people to hear,” she says, fully aware of how divisive this debate has become in Quebec, and even in theatre schools.
“At the conservatory, people would tell me, ‘You don’t have enough of a Quebec accent.’ It was a subtle way of saying that the problem was that I’m not a Quebecer. But I understood it as a technical issue. They wanted to help me, so I could land roles and work in environments where people are a little too sensitive to accents.”
“But that hit me hard. I thought, ‘What the hell? What more do I have to do to be a Quebecer? I’ve been here 15 years. I’ve been working hard to speak this language for 15 years. Why can I still not be a Quebecer?’”
Natalie channelled her frustration until it became a source of creative material. And she raised her voice – her feminist, racialized voice.
Since then, she has graced the stages of various theaters in Quebec, to talk about her life, her language, and her relationship to Quebec.
One highlight was Ici.
“When I saw the first version of the show, at Quebec City’s theatre festival, the Carrefour international de théâtre, I was really touched. But it didn’t seem to give much room to the voices of people who don’t miss the places they came from, who really want to be here. My home is here now. And it felt like that angle was missing. So when I was approached for the second version, a lightbulb went off. ‘That’s what I’ll talk about!’”
The play gave Natalie the forum to speak, in her powerful and poetic voice, about her multifaceted identity.
“My attachments have always been fluid. Probably because of the way I grew up. I wasn’t attached to a single house, or even to my parents or my friends. I think that, psychologically, the messages I was getting about the meaning of ‘home’ were very elastic.”
She has developed a patchwork soul cut from many different cloths, like a quilt to warm her wherever she roams.
“I had multiple houses, multiple families, spread all over.”
Because Natalie is a García Márquez, a Shakira.
An inspiration. A pioneer. A global citizen.
“I’ve never been homesick.
I chose my country.”