How poetry saved two young women's lives — one in Peru, one in Los Angeles


Senna, in production of "Girl Rising"



NEW YORK — Poetry changed Senna’s life.

She wrote her first poem at age 10, she said, because “I could tell my notebook what I wanted to say. … I imagined that my book and my notebook told me, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’”

Unbenounced to her, halfway across the world, someone else was writing poetry for the same reason. 

“I started to write because the paper was the only person I could talk to,” said Marquesha Babers, 18, from Los Angeles. “Poetry has actually saved my life.”

These two young poets from opposite sides of the world met for the first time on stage at the 2014 Women in the World conference, held at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 3-5.

Senna, 17, had been featured in the documentary film “Girl Rising,” and Marquesha, 18, was so moved by Senna’s poetry that she had written a response. The conference brought the two young poets together to perform and tell their stories.

Senna comes from La Rinconada, a mining town in Peru where living conditions are some of the world’s harshest. At 18,000 feet above sea level, this small Andean city — the highest in the world — has no paved roads, no sewage system and no running water. About two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. 

Senna’s father, a miner, encouraged her to go to school, though he never got the chance to watch his daughter follow her dreams. He was killed in a mining accident when Senna was young.

On stage, Senna recited a poem dedicated to her father, delivered with heart-wrenching emotion. Her stage presence far surpassed her young age and tiny frame. It was as if she had been performing at Lincoln Center her whole life.

“You, father, who lights this path of my pain, take this meager longing for your affection and make it into the full realization of your love.”

See the full translation of Senna’s poem on Girl Rising's website.

Marquesha is from Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles that has harsh conditions of its own. The LA Times’ “Mapping L.A.” project ranks 265 L.A. neighborhoods’ median household incomes from highest to lowest. Watts was number 262 on that list (with a median household income of $25,161). The project also ranks the neighborhoods by the percentage of residents with a four-year college degree — Watts is ranked number 261 at 2.9 percent. And when ranked by violent crime rate, Watts soars close to the top of the list, with a higher rate than all but 10 other neighborhoods.

Babers was homeless for seven years of her childhood, and like Senna, she used poetry as a way to express herself amidst a difficult reality.

“If I wouldn’t have discovered poetry, I probably would have harmed myself in some way, or been on a whole different rampage,” she told GlobalPost. “I wasn’t able to talk to anyone … so I just wrote."

Marquesha performed a poem she had written in honor of Senna. And though in a different language, from a different culture, and, indeed, from the other hemisphere, Marquesha stood on stage with the same presence, emotion, and wisdom as her Peruvian counterpart.

“There is a little piece of Senna in all of us. The unbreakable warrior princess from Peru, From Haiti, from Africa, from wherever you are from. Our stories all connected by words. Spoken from a place of untamable fire blazing determination to succeed.”

And there’s another parallel between Senna and Marquesha. Both have graduated from high school. Senna will be going to college in a few weeks, and Marquesha — who graduated as a straight-A honors student — hopes to enroll in culinary school and open her own restaurant.

When asked what about Senna inspired her, Marquesha said, “she learned poetry on her own, she did everything herself and rose above everything everybody said, without using it as an excuse to lay down and just do nothing.”

The same could be said about her.