We had the good fortune of connecting with Yamila Rollan Escalona and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Yamila, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I an a bonafide Miamian through and through; born and raised. I am a first generation Cuban American and thank my family for taking great risks to immigrant to the US during the 1980 Mariel boat lift. My upbringing was very much rooted in not forgetting were we come from. I didn’t speak English fully until maybe 1st grade (despite being born in the US). My father, grandparents, uncles and aunts carried nostalgias of times past then even through today. The stories, the regret of following the political climate of the 50’s, the longing of seeing a free Cuba that only my grandparents got a brief taste of is what kept me and my sister constantly grounded and tethered to an island we only visited but barely knew. My family also kept a tight family bond. They always counted on each other for support, did everything as one, never left each others side and invested in the constant cultivation and respect of not only the elders but the children as well. The decades of scarcity, oppression and fear led to making each dollar count here in the states, learning bravery from my parents and how to speak up for ourselves no matter what. We also learned how important ancestral connection and spirituality was. Again – our parents made sure that we never forgot where we came from.

Today, I still carry Cuba on my sleeve while thanking the land in which I was born as well as ask for blessing from the people on this land that were here way before any of us. My background and upbringing has taught me humility, gratitude, compassion, strength, courage and confidence. My parents always practiced an open door policy line of communication and full transparency. That carries on with me today in business, in relationships and servicing our community. My foundation has helped me to take calculated risks, have no fear and stand up for what I believe in. I speak with no “pelos en la lengua” – specifically moreso when it comes to advocating, representing and defending individuals with substance use disorder, people who use drugs and their families. The work that I put out everyday is centered and focused on my ancestors (my sister especially). It’s that otherworldly power that fuels me to get up every morning and live not only for me but for them and the community around me.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Yaya Por Vida is a local nonprofit that uses art to connect the community in the areas of overdose prevention, awareness, substance use recovery, and harm reduction. We connect with people who use drugs (PWUD), those impacted by unmanaged substance use disorder and their families to provide culturally sensitive resources to reduce overdose, early prevention, safe use and options for recovery through the arts.

My sister, Yaritza Rollan (better known as Yaya ) dedicated her entire life to the arts. She tattooed, painted, drew, created murals, and even got into Cosmetology. She began participating in local gallery events right out of high school, got herself into tattoo apprenticing all on her own, and paved her own path to what would have been a bright future in the art world. Sadly, she immediately met and became influenced by the darker figures of this profession and began a slow decline into opiate addiction. Nevertheless, she always held on tight to her art, still tattooed, and still worked hard to stay on the path of her dreams regardless of her struggles. Sadly, the ten year battle with drug addiction claimed her life on December 28, 2019. That was the day another shining light in an otherwise grim world ceased to shimmer.

​Her struggle was not in vain from where I see it. In the aftermath of her passing, I learned how much she inspired those around her, especially at Reaves House (click here to learn more). In her worst moments (whether of her own accord or not) she always found a way to get clean again. Reaves house might have been her last stop on this earth but it is certainly only one of many stops in her new journey across the universe. Reeves House is a non-profit, women’s only community treatment center in the heart of Miami with over 50 years of passionate work in trying to get our girls off the streets and back to living healthy lifestyles.

Yaya por Vida has integrated work in the areas of harm reduction supplies, especially for our houseless SUD victims living on the streets with limited access to care. Wound care, meals, clothing, Naloxone kits/training and resources to seek no to low cost treatment, permanent housing and more. Care kit drives are conducted the last Saturday of every month. Since our first drive in September 2020, we have passed out a total of 844 kits and have saved 84 lives thanks to our houseless residents using our Naloxone to revive a bystander or friend. We also combine our care kit drives with community clean up and deep relationship building with the folks we meet. Our “Art as Healing” program began 12/2020 at Jessie Trice Reaves House. We currently conduct two monthly two hour sessions in the areas of painting, drawing, sculpting and creative writing. We follow the program with two one hour peer-led group sessions focused on topics that interconnect with past trauma, recovery and substance education, mental health, women’s health, mindfulness, spirituality, family unity and more.

The only way I may live her legacy is by giving back to the community that is the most neglected. The homeless, the disenfranchised, those struggling from substance use disorder seeking help. So many groups in our community are often judged and ignored. If my sister were alive and sober today, she would have continued to give these groups a voice. I pledge to live out her hopes and dreams.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would definitely start out with Little Havana. My not begin where my roots are most prevalent. I would start off our day in the doming park, stop for a sweet treat at Morelia’s, enjoy some craft beers at Union, eat and dance at Cafe La Trova, take a cigar break at OCHO and bar-dance hop to Ball and Chain, Los Altos and Hoy Como Ayer. That might be followed by a late night 4th meal at the 24 hour La Carreta.

The beach is a given. It might sound like the cliche thing to do but I love the ocean. I would not take my bestie to the touristy, high priced section of South Beach. We go where the local chill – 71st, 41st or 54th. I would show them the cheap way to eat at Joe’s after a day out in the sun…just cross to the market place next to the restaurant entrance. We would grab some stone crabs to go and head to government cut to watch the cruise ships go by. I would also have a cabin rented in Oleta River State Park to crash at. The next day or two will be all about outdoor bar b ques, kayaking, bike riding and relax at the intercoastal beach.

I wouldn’t let my bestie leave without them getting into some community outreach and art emersion. I would take them to visit our partners at Green Haven Project to experience what true love for Overtown looks like through plant cultivation, whole foods and giving. We would make sure we are hosting our outreach in the garden while my friend is in town. They would have a chance to meet member of our houseless community and serve their needs – even if it’s just to sit and chat for a while about the atrocities they are being subjected to by the city’s draconian ordinances. My friend will be trained on Narcan, paint for a bit with the children around the block that stopped by provide life saving harm reduction tools for people who use drugs. Once outreach is done, I will take them on an art tour start with Perez but ending with local galleries like Archive 79. The vacation wouldn’t be complete without some croquetas and cortaditos at CAO bakery.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
It takes a village to raise someone. I would be remised to say one person has been influential in my work. However, the person that inspires what I do day in and out is no longer with us. My sister, Yaritza “Yaya” Rollan is the reason why I advocate for Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health today. She is in every brush stroke, lead of a pencil and prepped canvas within our Art as Healing programs that we provide to non profit inpatient treatment patients. She is in every word I speak and type. She is with me at the moment where I wan to quit the most and in the moments where I have the most energy. I say this with the best intentions – I wish I didn’t have to do what I do today. That would mean that my sister would still be alive. Grief is very different for everyone but one aspect reigns true for all. Families of loss wish they could have known then what we know now and have done things differently. I chose to spread the knowledge of what I now know to help other live- even if Yaya is gone. I vowed to live her legacy and make sure she was not forgotten. I can only hope she is happy to see how much people still love her and will continue to remember her.

Website: www.yayaporvida.org

Instagram: yaya_por_vida

Facebook: www.facebook.com/yayaporvida

Image Credits
Some of the images were photographs by BadFish Creative (Christian Bahamonde).

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