08/10/2012 07:09 EDT | Updated 08/10/2012 07:23 EDT

Isabel Cisterna Gives Immigrants A Voice Through The Arts: Mighty Micro

Isabel Cisterna can still remember a time in her past when despair was what she knew best; growing up in Copiapó, Chile, in the centre of the driest desert in the world, she knew she needed to find opportunity elsewhere. "The situation at home was difficult," she tells Huffpost Canada Impact. "Things were bad politically and financially. I came to Canada by myself when I was 18, 21 years ago. I was a little bit scared, but I had this feeling I had nothing to lose."

While Cisterna was hopeful Canada would be the place where she could exercise her skills and talents, her hopes were quickly dashed. "Once I came to Canada, I found it hard to make a living. The barrier was emotional. I felt so alone and I felt invisible." Working in a factory, she experienced a sense of isolation and depersonalization. "It was the most difficult time in my life," she states. "[I was] a person behind a machine."

Driven and ambitious, Cisterna was determined to make a better life for herself. She watched 'Star Trek' to learn English (though she coyly admits the only character she could understand was Data, the robot). Her true dream in life was to act, but, she says, "an actor and storyteller being bound by a language is like an athlete being bound by a wheelchair."

Feeling restricted and alone, she spent much of her time talking to herself -- out loud; speaking, even if it was to no one, helped her find her voice and to gain confidence. She realized, if she could benefit from such a monologue, other new immigrants in her community could, too.

Merging her new-found passion for chatting with her long-time desire to act, she pitched a one-woman monologue stage show entitled "I am Isabel" to a local theatre in her adopted hometown of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. in 1998. While the owners weren't particularly open to diversity in the arts (Cisterna’s Chilean accent is a proud part of her cultural identity), the community at large welcomed it; she went on to perform the monologues on a smaller scale at coffee shops within her community for the next three years. And, eventually, theatre officials allowed her to take her one-woman performance to their stage. She recalls a time when she was embraced by the theatre community: "In 2001, I was invited to participate in a writers block competition... this was produced by the established local theatre company (which is no longer in business)...that’s when I felt they were starting to listen to me... that's when everything started to take shape."

Cisterna has come a long way since those monologue days. She has since founded Neruda Productions, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the immigrant community through music, dance, drama and visual arts. Her goal is to nurture a healthy community that celebrates diversity. According to Cisterna, "We use art as a vehicle for social change -- for engagement." Neruda Productions pairs local artists with international artists and gives them an audience that they normally don't have access to. According to Cisterna, "they learn from one another through rehearsals and performance - we give them the opportunity to go outside of performing for their own culture to understand Canadian context." Made up of 60 volunteers and 50 different artists (both local and international), Neruda Productions provides its artists with initiatives that provide training in areas such as marketing, portfolio development and presentation networking, as well as visual art exhibits that showcase their artists' work.

To Cisterna, a rich and diverse community is a source of enlightenment: "Every time you come into contact with people with a new voice, you learn something not only about them, but about yourself. Every time you have that kind of stimuli, it leaves you with more questions than answers. To have those moments enriches us as people."

For all of her efforts, Cisterna was recently recognized as one of this country's Top 25 Canadian Immigrants. The 2012 recipients -- who included MP Olivia Chow, Canadian Forces Surgeon General Commodore Hans Jung and hip-hop artist K’naan -- were narrowed down from 75 finalists by a panel of past winners. The award is a statement of recognition for Cisterna’s efforts in developing a program that allows new immigrants to feel more connected and rooted to their community.

It's an incredible achievement, but not one that Cisterna has let go to her head. Today, she continues to fight for equality and cultural rights. She ran for the last Ontario provincial election as the NDP candidate for Kitchener-Waterloo because she wanted to spread awareness about silenced immigrant voices. "I wanted to go out there and talk about issues that weren't being addressed: immigration rights, women, children, our changing community, arts and culture."

And now, more than ever, her words are reaching and inspiring new immigrants who may be questioning the contributions they can make to their communities: "When people tell you you can't do something because of your language or because you have an accent, don't listen to them. Being an immigrant is hard... But the people who succeed are those who participate."

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