The Expat: Leigh Shulman

CV: Leigh Shulman
Born: South Africa, moved to the US aged five
Lives in: Salta
Age: 39
Profession: Founder of Cloudhead Art Foundation
Education: Masters in literature and education at CUNY
Currently reading: The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
Last seen: The Wire
Gadget: iPad

How did you end up living in Salta?
We used to live in New York and we left, although we didn’t really know where we wanted to go. So we travelled for around three years. A friend then suggested we go to Montevideo and we planned to check it out — although we still haven’t been there — and we originally came to Buenos Aires as a former professor of Noah, my partner, suggested we meet some people in Salta. He was also going to be here so we timed our visit to coincide with him.
So we came to Salta, which we really like. It’s mellow and great for kids. After living in New York for so long, I didn’t want to live in Buenos Aires, although I do miss the city. I like the life here. It’s very calm, people are really nice. I don’t think it’s ever 100 percent easy being an expat but I feel pretty comfortable.

Had you been to Argentina before?
I know it seems crazy, but no! We figured we’d check it out three years ago, and had already been living in lots of different places. But we do like it here. We’ve got a little bit of everything. We’re close to the city, but we’re in the countryside, Salta is a small enough city so that it isn’t insane. Things feel easier than they ever did in New York.

Are you from New York?
I was born in South Africa and moved there when I was five. I’ve lived in Israel, all over the US and in New York for 15 years before we started travelling. Nationality-wise I’m American, but when people ask me where I’m from, it’s impossible to answer. I’m not from anywhere. My family lives in Atlanta, but I only lived there for three years. I was born somewhere, lived somewhere else and now I live in Salta.

What did you do in New York?
I was a writer, I worked for MTV designing websites, and when I left MTV I opened my own internet consultancy. I also taught at university for a while but when my daughter was born, I became a stay-at-home mom.

What made you leave?
There was nothing left for us. We’d done all these things, had a kid, and I felt like life with Lila in New York was very difficult. It’s very compartmentalized and there is a very fine line. People were so uptight about everything, that it all has to be done in a certain way. It was isolating and travelling sounded like fun, so that’s what we did.
I read a parents’ message board and there are posts such as “I can’t believe how rude so-and-so is. They sent out a birthday party invite a week and a half before the party..” And I think, what’s wrong with that? But people in the US get angry and think it’s rude. We receive invites the day of the party in Salta…

What are the advantages of raising a child here?
I feel kids here get a strong sense of self as it’s such a community and an environment for kids. As adults, we might not always be welcome everywhere, but Lila always is, and she is always included. Argentines are much mellow when it comes to kids. Even if kids fight, parents don’t get mad because another child did something to their seven-year-old.
Right now, if we had to move back, we’d have to get jobs that take up all of our time and we couldn’t do exactly what we like to do. And although there is a certain amount of overlap, we are also the only people doing what we are doing with regard to the NGO, and that’s a really nice position to be in.

Tell me about your education programme.
All our projects and work is here and we are working with the Wichi Indians on one project, and with the community in Salta city. We go to a poor neighbourhood and teach media classes, from iMovie and Photoshop. We work with a group of around 15 kids, and have worked really hard to get to where we are.
Although part of me wants to travel again, we have our lives here and I would hate to leave behind everything we’ve started. And at that is what is keeping me.
Lots of people are working on similar projects which overlap but we are the only foreigners doing this and obviously that generates interest too. It means we already have a space and it’s easier to get to know people.
It has a non-profit side to it, which is the Wichi teaching project, but there is also an arts side, and we’ve held two exhibitions.

How did you start Cloudhead?
We’ve been doing a lot of these things anyway so we thought it would be good to make it a more formal project. In the process of developing that, we were in touch with a US university which was going to fund us. But they pulled out at the last minute, but that was great as it left knowing exactly what we wanted to do. Suddenly everything went forward.
With regard to the Wichi project, a friend who worked for the United Nations has done a lot of work with indigenous populations all over South America, is friends with a guy teaching the Wichi language. He, in turn, had a friend who gathered donations of food and clothing. We went with him one day to offer up the donations to one village near Hickmann.
Although Elio travels a lot to reach out to as many people as possible, we stuck with this one group.

You also have some artists staying with you…
That’s right, and they either help us with us a project or give a class and we help them set up an exhibition, for example. We’re spending a lot of time getting to know the arts community too. We might walk into an exhibition and people will say “the Americans are here.” There aren’t a lot of us so it makes it easy to form a place in the community.

So do you feel like an expat?
I do live here and although they may not be deep, I do have roots. My daughter is in school, I have friends and I set up an education organization, and when someone is after a contact in Salta, it’s always “Leigh”. I know I’m here for now.
I’m definitely an expat as we’ve been through the travelling thing which is very different as there is no one connection to a place whereas I do have that here.
When people do ask “where are you from?” what they mean is “where were you born and where did you grow up?” And those are three different questions and I have three different answers. There are few expats in Salta so when I do meet some there is always an automatic connection. Most of our friends are from Argentina, though. It’s an interesting place although the charm is wearing off a little bit as people do things differently.

What has been hard to adapt to?
Getting used to how people interact with each socially. No one is very direct, and someone once told me it is ruder to say no rather than not show up to an event. It’s the reverse for me. That means it is harder for me to trust people, as I don’t know if they aren’t saying something because it’s rude not to, or because they mean it.

Does your daughter speak better Spanish than you?
She’s my little dictionary. Although she doesn’t always know the word. For a while she would invent stuff and say “that’s how you say it.” But now she says, “oh go and learn Spanish yourself, mama.” Her accent is perfect. People sometimes ask why I have a daughter who is so fluent.

You live outside of Salta city.
About 10km from the centre. We have a dog called Mani, but the way we pronounce his name sounds like “money”, so people must be thinking “Oh, there go the Americans with their dog Money.” He’s been taught to kill chickens by the local dogs. He never knew how to do that before.

Working wonders with the Wichi
Leigh Shulman seems to have carved out a niche for herself in Salta in just three short years. A go-to person in terms of a contact for foreigners in the north-western province, the mother of one relishes living in a small town just outside Salta’s capital, and uses it to her advantage to achieve her goals.
After dabbling in various art projects and schemes, Cloudhead Art Foundation took on a more official role earlier this year, and as part of its aim to “build community through art and technology,”Shulman is now working with the Wichi indigenous community.
She says: “Before we started working with them, we’d already put out the message for camera donations, knowing we wanted to do this project — it just took a while to be connected with one village.”
Talking about the relationship with the Wichi, she says: “They are receptive to us, and we are all getting to know one another. They are starting to trust us, as they have had so many people come in, saying “we are going to help you.” Those people stick around for a while, then just disappear.
“I don’t know if they really understand exactly what we are doing as we are still developing it. But the kids took photos with the cameras we have and then we held an exhibition. Just this week, we sold a set of photos from the Originarios exhibition. This means we’ve made enough to cover our costs and are now into profit, which will go directly to build a garden and develop running water for that village.”
Having returned to the village near Hickmann several times, Shulman recently discovered that the Wichi community has a substantial plot of land to their name. “We found out they have around 300 hectares of land, which can be farmed, and so we are trying to work out what crops will grow on that land, what will be sustainable, and how much can the Wichi really do. That land could effectively, one day, support the whole village.”
She explains Cloudhead’s aims, which will hopefully come full circle to help the Wichi to sustain themselves. “I’m trying to connect with other websites, stores and groups, and all they need to do is put one of our photos onto a T-shirt. We’d then get a percentage back to put into the village. Even if we only make one dollar per T-shirt, US$10 is bread for a day for 150 people, and that’s pretty substantial.”

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 20, 2011.
Photo courtesy of Leigh Shulman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *