Shadows do not follow the slant of the moon or sun in Juliana Recio’s paintings. There are no straight lines because she finds them unyielding and contrary to life’s camber and swirl. Her colors are the rich, sometimes playful, hues of her native Colombia, where her struggle to survive began.
Many times she could have died. There have been innumerable surgeries related to polio, which struck her at age 5 ½ months. When she was too weak to breathe, she was placed in an iron lung. There was bronchial-pneumonia, and there were the explosive sounds of violence bursting throughout Bogota.
Through it all, a velvet wisdom emerged. Through legacy and discovery, Juliana learned that a person’s sense of purpose lives forever. As Access Services advisor at OSU, she advocates for students with visible and non-visible disabilities and helps them receive services available through Disability Access Services. She has been advocating for children, youth and adults with disabilities for the past 20 years in non-profit organizations and universities throughout the United States.
As an artist, she mystifies through a genre known as magical realism, incorporating idiosyncratic interpretations into everyday scenes. The bird in one painting is larger than the cage. In wistful ways, Juliana is the bird.
The painting is titled “I’m Not Going In There.” Time and again, she has told herself that. Do not allow yourself to be confined by Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS), isolation, fatigue, weakness and pain that descend more profoundly and frequently than before.
She has told others the same. Reach high. Overcome. Don’t allow pride or fear to stand in the way of potential. Services available to students with disabilities are not for advantage but for parity. They level the playing field, she tells OSU students. Use them. Do not enter the cage.
“The greatest barrier to accessibility is rigid thinking,” she says.
It’s like trying to leave a footprint once cement has hardened. In work and art, she attempts to open minds.
“Adjust, adjust, adjust,” she says. It’s the course of life. For Juliana, however, adjustments are urgent to offset the effects of PPS, a progressive condition that has taken her from leg braces and crutches to manual wheelchair and, now, a battery-powered chair.
Sometimes she is terrified. She must conserve energy to prevent the effects from worsening. At the same time, she is an overachiever driven by will her since childhood but she can sense the balance in her life slowly tilting to the point where she now needs a caregiver.
Her promise is that each person she encounters will receive 100 percent of her attention. She facilitates discussions about academic and housing accommodations to students, faculty and staff. Do not lower standards or expectations, she tells them, but understand that OSU exists to help all its students, not just some.
It’s work she hadn’t expected to become a career. Her degree in communications from Wilmington University and a love for languages led to teaching, translating and working for non-profits. Working solely with people with disabilities felt confining until a Chicago professor from Colombia suggested she could serve great purpose in the field, especially for underserved populations.
“I learned that it wasn’t just about me,” she says. “It was about helping other people.”
In her own life, it was her mother, Blanca Isabel Calero, who was Juliana’s advocate and devotee. Juliana was 5 ½ months old when she became ill. Blanca took her to the doctor, who said it was probably the flu. No, Blanca insisted. It was more than that. Her legs dangled like those of a Raggedy Ann. There was no life in them.
In other parts of the world, the polio vaccine had nearly eradicated the disease by the early 1960s, but it was prevalent in developing nations. Cases now are limited primarily to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Blanca had high expectations of all four of her children, but she was especially demanding of Juliana. Encouragement was not enough. She wanted to instill strength for the road ahead.
“Why are you being so tough on me?” Juliana would ask.
“You’re going to have more difficulty than your siblings, and I want you to be prepared,” her mother explained.
At age 12, Juliana spent a year and a half in a body cast following spinal surgery, and that’s when her mother bought her paint, canvases and brushes. Do not measure life by what you can’t do, she told Juliana, and don’t wait for life to come to you.
“You’re smart,” she told her daughter. “You’re beautiful”.
Juliana’s first painting was of a flower vase that looked like a mushroom. She delighted in realizing that people weren’t sure what they were looking at. It made them look closer, think about what they were seeing and feeling.
Blanca’s response was predictable: “It’s wonderful.”
As a kindergartener, when Juliana’s classroom was on the second floor, she had to stay in during recess, so her mother gave her puzzles, books, and toys to keep her occupied while the other children played outdoors.
Once when Juliana’s class went on a field trip, the other students went hiking.
“Did you stay behind at the camp?” Blanca asked.
“Yes,” Juliana replied.
“What did you see?”
She said she had looked around the camp and found an old Spanish structure.
“See,” Blanca said, “You saw something the others didn’t get to see.”
In 1980, when Juliana was 17, Blanca sent her to the United States to live with family friends hoping there would be advanced treatment that might allow Juliana to discontinue her need for a wheelchair, which, in her mind, represented the ultimate loss of independence.
After numerous surgeries, Juliana returned to Colombia in 1987, when her visa expired. It was a violent, fearsome time in Bogota, and her adopted family in the United States urged her to return. She received another visa, and in 1990 Blanca took her to the airport. She didn’t cry until Juliana was gone. Then, for three days, she sobbed.
Ten years ago, Juliana received a telephone call from one of her sisters. There had been an accident. Blanca had survived but was unable to use her legs or arms. During her recovery, she refused physical therapy and shunned the wheelchair. She wanted to give up.
Juliana called her: “If you don’t try to get better, then I will never forgive you. If you give up, that would mean everything you told me was a lie. You told me my disability has nothing to do with what I can do in life, and I want you to hear me. I will not forgive you.”
She soon regretted her words thinking how dare she speak to her mother that way, but Blanca listened and realized that Juliana was right. She learned to use the wheelchair and began physical therapy. Their changed roles drew them even closer.
“Nadie te quita lo bailado,” Blanca would say. “Nobody can take away from you what you already have danced.”
Then, last year, Blanca died.
Adjust, adjust, adjust. Juliana still feels her mother’s presence in her work and art. Her words continue to inspire and guide.
“Always keep with you the things that you do in life that are fun and joyful.”
Those, too, were Blanca’s words.
As Juliana paints a magical world, her mother’s lessons flow through the brush, coloring a world without straight lines. She wishes they could still talk, laugh, cry and share their sense of purpose.
Their love was their dance, and it cannot be taken away.
Photo and story by Duane Noriyuki