Inocente Izucar is sitting on the couch inside her modest apartment on the outskirts of downtown. Her two bunnies, Luna and Bun-Bun, are cuddled up underneath her dining-room table, which is packed with paint and art supplies instead of placemats and napkins. The place isn't big or fancy but it's hers, and that's all that matters.
"When I got my apartment, I felt like I wanted to give someone or something a home, too, because it was my first home so I wanted to share it," says the young artist who prefers to go by her first name as she pulls back a chair to better show off her adorable, furry roommates.
Inocente recently turned 21, but she's been doing adult-like things far longer. The intimate details of her difficult childhood are divulged in Inocente, a 40-minute documentary by filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine that aired on MTV in 2012 and won an Academy Award in 2013. The film, which was shot in San Diego over two years starting in 2009, follows the then-15-year-old as she struggles with homelessness, her undocumented status, family problems and her dream to become an artist.
Things have changed dramatically for Inocente since the film was first released, but her life didn't immediately turn into a cakewalk. The documentary leaves off after Inocente had her first-ever solo show with A Reason To Survive (ARTS), a local nonprofit that provides arts programs to at-risk youth. The exhibition was a smashing success. People responded to her simple, bright, colorful, imaginative works that often feature animals, hearts or made-up creatures. The show sold out, but the documentary fades to black before Inocente finds a stable home.
Landing on her feet has taken a tremendous amount of work. Inocente's relationship with her mother has always been tense, so after moving out and back in several times she decided to strike out on her own for good. She used the money made at her first solo show—money the film indicates is for a college scholarship—to pay for her first apartment. As a formerly homeless artist, she didn't have rent history or a standard job. Coupled with the rabbits, the one landlord that would rent to her asked for four months of advanced rent plus a hefty deposit.
"I used all my savings to get an apartment and it was really awful, but the bunnies and I have a roof over our heads so I'm happy," she laughs. "I am still thinking about school. I want to study sign language but I just haven't gone yet. School will always be there. Right now, these conferences and these opportunities with the film, they're not going to be waiting for me like school will be."
Inocente, who just got legal status last year, is able to earn part of her income by charging a fee to appear at screenings. The film recently showed at The National Education Association conference to a standing-room-only crowd, most who hadn't seen the film. Inocente's often surprised by the number of people who haven't seen the movie—which can be purchased through iTunes or viewed free online at mtv.com—but she says the important issues covered in the documentary are what seem to keep the wave of interest going so many years after its debut.
"A lot of documentaries die down easily," she says. "But this documentary is relatable because homelessness hasn't ended, the arts are being taken away from schools and immigration is still an issue... I think that's why it's been going so strong and that's why people still want to see it."
At her in-person events, Inocente does her best to make the discussion that follows the screenings more about the issues in the film rather than focusing on her personal life. She talks about how there aren't adequate resources for homeless people and tries to make a point of explaining how educators can reach out to their potentially homeless students.
"Because it's not about me—the documentary—it's about every teen and every kid who doesn't have a place to live," she says. "I talk a lot about how we can try to find those kids, and I think one of the main ways we can do that is to have resources for them because they're not going to ask for help if they think you don't have anything to offer. If they know you have resources and connections to after-school programs and emergency shelters, then they'll probably come up and talk to you."
Inocente books all her own speaking gigs. She sees the number of requests slowly dropping and knows the limelight will eventually fade. She isn't interested in finding an agent or otherwise further capitalizing on her momentary fame, though. She says she had a contentious split with ARTS a few years ago and that's part of why she wants to manage her career on her own terms. She says she sells a respectable amount of artwork through her website, originalinocenteart.com, and at the few public exhibitions she's had since the film debuted. Up until very recently, that's been enough for her.
"But now I'm trying to get into the art scene here," she says. "Now that my talking engagements are slowing down, I want to focus more on my art. I haven't done much in San Diego with the art scene. I'm ready now."
August is turning out to be a big month for Inocente. At 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, ArtReach San Diego, a nonprofit that provides visual-arts education to schools countywide, will be hosting a $5 screening of Inocente at Barracks 17 at NTC at Liberty Station (2710 Historic Decatur Road) in Point Loma and Inocente will be there. She'll also have a booth at ArtWalk San Diego happening from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 15-16, at NTC @ Liberty Station (2465 Hisotric Decatur Road).
The one negative aspect of all the publicity from the film, says Inocente, is that people generally have a misconception of who she really is. People think she's rich and famous now, but she hopes to help them understand that she's a starving artist who struggles to pay phone bills and rent just like other young creatives trying to turn their passion into careers.
"I don't think I'm famous," she says, giggling in the same charming way she does while narrating her harrowing tale in the documentary. "I'm just a normal person trying to survive."