Growth Pains and Pearls

Growth has a variety of timetables. Growth through life’s Big-T and Small-T traumas is more difficult for some than others. All do not ripen at the same time or in similar circumstances.

Miriam Alarcón Avila, a visual, multimedia and storytelling artist, was born in Mexico City. She was 14-years-old when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake killed 10,000 people, including some of her friends. At 16 she ran away from home with a journalist ten years older with his promise of giving her a pawnshop camera and Fujifilm. Taking hundreds of pictures but never developing the black-and-white photos, Miriam dropped her love of photography to study science, marry a scientist, and emigrate with her family to Iowa.

Both her husband and children found dream educational possibilities. Miriam won a scholarship for a university course in black-and-white photography. By assisting her professor in his photography lab, she harvested her old photos and rediscovered parts of her legacy. Miriam’s dream was to work for National Geographic magazine; instead, her ripening took longer than she wanted.

Her husband completed doctoral studies in Iowa and planned a return to Mexico. Miriam and her two children did not want to let go of their own educational possibilities, so the family unit separated. Miriam and her children became “undocumented,” as her ex-husband’s visa as a foreign student no longer sheltered them. Years of stress-filled work allowed her to pay the bills, but it was a last-minute decision to attend a photography symposium one day that ripened her dream.

Miriam recalls crying at seeing the work of others. Warm encouragement was offered by a symposium speaker, Jonathan Woods, a photojournalist and producer at Time magazine. He told Miriam that she could pursue her dream when her children were in college in 4 years; he advised a 4-year plan. Miriam attributes this pearl of permission as a turning point: “In that moment, my brain just exploded.”

With a grant from the Iowa Arts Council in 2017 Miriam created her photo documentary project, Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa, with portraits of heroic Latino immigrants wearing masks (that she made herself) to protect identities. Miriam recalled a childhood hero, El Santo, a Mexican professional masked wrestler. A luchador is a person who fights or struggles to achieve goals. When her luchador subjects wear their custom-made masks, they feel empowered.

Harvesting hidden voices, Miriam interviews her photographic subjects and writes their history in poems. Her admirable goal is an effort to fight the false narratives of Latino immigrants to the U.S. She describes her work as fostering “…people from different cultures to see that in essence, we are all the same.” For other poignant immigrant stories, read Somewhere We Are Human, edited by Reyna Grande and Sonia Guiñansaca.

The time may be ripe for you to harvest some old dreams.

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

133. When in your life did you drop a dream?

134. Is there a possibility to harvest some aspect of that dream today?

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. I admire those who make a dream come true. I’ve had goals, but was never much of a dreamer; taking it mostly a day at a time, but I did dream of moving to the Pacific Northwest; seeing Alaska; building my own log home (not in Alaska!); and seeing my patent to market. Fortunately, not achieving any of those has not left a hole in my soul (just one in my pocket, for the latter!)


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