Episode Two: The Art Book



Episode Two: The Art Book

Produced by Sarah Gabrielli and Shehzil Zahid.

Transcript Key: 

Speakers (in order of appearance): In this transcript, Speakers’ words will all appear in size 14 black type. Speakers’ names are in bold size 14 black type. Portions where we hear music or scene sounds are italicized

Narrator: Sarah Gabrielli: Sarah guides the listener through Yasmine Elasmar’s story and serves as host and narrator.

Yasmine Elasmar: Yasmine is the main character of the story. She is in her final year at NYU, and has spent the last few years grappling with her responsibilities at school and home. We follow her journey as she cares for both her grandparents before they pass and how she honors their legacy through an art project.

Ashley Urtecho: Ashley is Yasmine’s friend from NYU. She provides insight into the dichotomy between Yasmine’s school and home life.

Manuel Elasmar: Yasmine’s grandfather, who has passed. His voice comes as voicemails Yasmine has saved.

Monica Elasmar: Yasmine’s mother and Manuel’s daughter. She provides insight into Manuel’s life before he immigrated to the U.S.

End Transcript Key.


Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine Elasmar grew up in her grandparents’ house in New Jersey. She moved there with her mom and brothers when she was six years old.

Yasmine Elasmar: …they literally welcomed us with open arms and that’s not something a lot of people would do.

Sarah Gabrielli: Now 21, Yasmine is a senior at NYU where she studies psychology. She is also a first generation college student–her mom, Monica Elasmar, started school but had to drop out and work full time. Yasmine’s grandparents on the other hand? They both got degrees. Her grandmother studied nursing and her grandfather studied art at Rutgers.

Yasmine Elasmar: …he learned a lot of the technicalities of art so he was able to look at like shadings lightings, and that definitely, um, the impetus for drawing and painting was already in him but what that did was kind of sculpt into a more of a fine art.

Sarah Gabrielli: Her grandparents’ success was a big part of inspiring Yasmine to go to college herself.

Yasmine Elasmar: …seeing my grandparents do it. It kind of made us like, that’s the role model, you know, so we’re gonna do it as well. So I mean, we were all, all under the assumption that school was the plan.

Yasmine Elasmar: They literally told me to go to NYU. If we have to sell this house, we will. 

Sarah Gabrielli: Throughout her freshman year, Yasmine would commute back and forth between Manhattan and Jersey. 

Yasmine Elasmar: My grandma, she was in really bad shape 

Music fades in, plays under…

Yasmine Elasmar: and so there became a lot of complications and my family wasn’t the best at handling the complications that came with it. 

Sarah Gabrielli: She was caught in the middle of these two worlds–the one at school with her classes and her friends, and the one at home, where she needed to take care of her grandparents. 

Music starts to fade out.

Yasmine Elasmar: There was a point in the middle of a week right before a midterm, where I got a call from my mom – a text – in the middle of a lecture and I left, got on the train and went home that day, in the middle of the week.

Yasmine Elasmar: And I didnt think twice, I got up and left and I just came home…but there’s just certain things that as a first generation student you have to accept that you won’t get as easily as other students, right? Like there’s high priorities at home. I have a family that needs me.

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: This is First Generation, a podcast that follows the internal and external obstacles first generation college students face. My name is Sarah Gabrielli. In this episode: we follow Yasmine as she grapples with the internal tug of war between family and school. As both her grandparents get sick, she embarks on a special project to honor her family history and her grandparents’ legacy. This is episode two: the Art Book. 

Music fades out.

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine is incredibly pragmatic for a college student. 

Yasmine Elasmar: You want to be realistic, you want to make money, and you want to make sure your family is good. And I think a lot of first generation students don’t have – 

Noise/clattering in the background.

Yasmine Elasmar: -the luxury of choices. 

Sarah Gabrielli: When her grandmother got diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, Yasmine did not have the luxury of choice.

Yasmine Elasmar: Friday afternoon, right after my last class, I will hop on the train. If I was needed, or if I was getting too late I will come home Monday, I will go back, sorry, to campus Monday morning…I would have to leave super, super early. And I had an 8am every Monday. I would be on campus before this first Starbucks even opened.

Sarah Gabrielli: Eventually Yasmine wants to go into the medical field to become a pediatric neurologist. When her grandmother got her bladder removed, Yasmine was the only one comfortable enough to change her drainage bag. 

Yasmine Elasmar: I think I was the only person that could keep a level head and change it for her no matter how she was feeling. And she was comfortable with me doing it for her, she only trusted me to do it.

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine’s school friends started to notice her absence from campus around this time. This is one of her best friends Ashley Urtecho. 

Ashley Urtecho: I just thought she was helping them out or visiting, yeah it wasn’t until afterwards when we started getting close that she told me what happened. Um i’ll be like ‘how much have you studied for this biology exam’ and she’ll be like, ‘oh I barely studied, I was at home, I spent all of the weekend helping out.’ And I was like, wow, that’s a lot of work. 

Sarah Gabrielli: And none of this was easy on Yasmine.

Yasmine Elasmar: I felt guilty having fun sometimes where, like if my grandma was sick, like I couldn’t party, I couldn’t be fun with my friends. And it was almost like a very, it was a hard thing to balance because I love to have fun. But it felt wrong having fun…there was never a long period of time where I could be myself and feel normal, and feel like myself how I was in high school. That’s something I’m still struggling with is trying to be happy.

Sarah Gabrielli: Despite undergoing treatment, Adelaida passed in January, 2018. Though Yasmine suffered a great loss, she still had her grandfather, Manuel, who, she says, had become her best friend over the years. 

Yasmine Elasmar: My grandfather was my person, he was the best person to go for advice…when I, when I had boy troubles, I went to him first before I went to my own mother, like, that’s a weird kind of relationship to have with a grandfather. But that’s how close we were. He embodied the best father figure that I could have ever dreamed of. 

Sarah Gabrielli: While she was away at school, Yasmine and Manuel would check in over the phone. He sometimes left her voicemails. Here’s one from her birthday last year. 

Manuel Elasmar [voicemail]: Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Nefertiti….happy birthday to you…bye bye.

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: One of the things the pair bonded over was documenting their family’s history through an art project. Years ago, when Manuel retired, he started putting together a book of his art. 

Yasmine Elasmar: He didn’t set out to create a book…What he loved to do was make paintings. And only a little bit later on, did he realize that these could tell his story, because he was already painting what he was feeling. 

Music fades out.

Sarah Gabrielli: The book was supposed to be a gift for his wife Adelaida. 

Yasmine Elasmar: After my grandma passed away, he was very depressed and very blocked out. And our goal together was to get that book done. I promised him in the hospital, that I would finish it for him. And that’s not a promise I intend on breaking.

Sarah Gabrielli: What’s inside the art book? 

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: It’s a collection of paintings and poems inspired by Manuel’s life in Chile. Much of his early childhood and adulthood is depicted in his paintings – in beautiful, vibrant strokes that show children playing soccer and musicians strolling through the streets in the countryside of Chile, where he grew up.

Music fades out.

Yasmine Elasmar: Yeah, this next one, I think this is my favorite one….

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine is holding up one of her grandfather portraits. This one shows an old woman in the countryside of the Andes Mountains. 

Yasmine Elasmar: …so this is not paint, these are all small lines of a pen. very small, very fine, if you can see up close, so this is very time consuming and this takes a lot of time and I think it’s his best style and I’ve always told him it was his best style. The amount of detail that he could get and the lighting he could get and maybe illustrate just with small little lines. 

Sarah Gabrielli: Further into the book, the images reflect the hard times that eventually fell on Chile. 

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Sarah Gabrielli: In 1973, a group of military officers overthrew decades of peaceful civilian rule and established a U.S.-backed junta. The junta violently suppressed socialist dissent. In 1975, military officers came for Manuel. 

Music fades out.

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine’s mom, Monica, was only 13 years old at the time. 

Monica Elasmar: My dad was a political prisoner. Part of his torture was to, he had surgery on his knee. And they kept telling him to go up and down the steps. And then if you couldn’t go up the steps that would hit the knee with the bat. 

Sarah Gabrielli: The United States Embassy was the first to answer Monica’s mom, Adelaida’s, application for a visa.

Monica Elasmar: They went from the camp military camp straight to the airport. So my father never went back home or anything after he got picked up.

Sarah Gabrielli: Manuel’s torture left him unable to work for about a  year but it left him wanting to tell the story of Chile through his art.

Music fades in.

Yasmine Elasmar: The concept of the book is to tell the story of how he was feeling and the things that maybe might have been forgotten in current history. Like there’s a, there’s a lot more about the history that has been left out of textbooks. 

Music fades out.

Yasmine Elasmar: And so his goal for this is to illustrate his family, what they sacrifice and how a lot of his other friends, what they had to go through as well. 

Monica Elasmar: And what they lost.

Yasmine Elasmar: And what they lost, yeah.

Sarah Gabrielli: The book is divided into two halves. Before and after the coup.

Fade into the sound of Yasmine looking through the paintings.

Yasmine Elasmar: So there’s portions of the book that are happy and colorful and vibrant and the other half of the book is dark and you can see the painting style definitely changed. 

More rustling and movement throughout. 

Yasmine Elasmar: This one is more of a darker piece, you can see the colors are very different. And the style is very different. It’s more cloudy, murky. After the coup, all the men would be away from their wives and families. And so this woman, this older woman is by herself in the dark. And you can see through the window, her man, her husband coming home late at night. And that’s basically what a lot of families are going through at the time where they disappeared.

Monica Elasmar: They disappeared. 

Yasmine Elasmar: And they never found them again, right?

Monica Elasmar: Yeah, they were killed by the government.

Yasmine Elasmar: And they were buried and you would never know what happened to your husband or your loved one but you assumed it had something to do with that.

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: Manual and Yasmine would work on the book together in a pact to complete his life’s work. Sometimes Manual had fits and bursts of creativity that spurred beautiful work and other times, the process came along slowly but Yasmine was right by his side.

Yasmine Elasmar: He also had cataracts so it became too difficult to portray very clear images so over time his paintings became more…less refined.

Music begins to fade out.

Sarah Gabrielli: Last year, Manuel’s health really declined. He had diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. He was hooked up to an oxygen machine, constantly.  Once again, Yasmine’s life became a stream of train rides, commuting between Jersey and New York to help take care of her grandfather and spend time with him. Even when she was home, in New Jersey, Manuel would call Yasmine from other parts of the house. 

Manuel Elasmar: Hello partner, it’s time to get up. Now, we are going to be late. Get up! Come on, Nefertiti. We need you.

Sarah Gabrielli: Manuel could have been talking about a number of things he needed from Yasmine when she was home.

Ashley Urtecho: Yasmine kept telling me all of the details of having to take care of her grandpa during the last few weeks.

Sarah Gabrielli: This is Yasmine’s friend Ashley again.

Ashley Urtecho: She had to like, take care of him with his medication and oxygen, and cleaning up after him and also cleaning up after the dogs, and also everyone in the house. She really had to be like the strong adult, the strong responsible adult in her family. 

Sarah Gabrielli: And Yasmine and Manuel would try to work on the art book.

Yasmine Elasmar: He had to take many breaks, longer breaks, he would fall asleep anywhere. And then the book wasn’t getting done. And so we were all kind of getting worried that that piece of him wasn’t gonna get finished. 

Sarah Gabrielli: He never did finish the book. Manuel passed away from previous health issues in February 2020, just as COVID-19 first peaked in the United States. 

Yasmine Elasmar: I can say for myself that I haven’t been able to truly grieve, I guess the right way, quote, unquote, the right way, you know, to feel all these emotions, because, like, everything happened so fast, like I got sent home. Yeah, it’s still very, it’s a very raw pain still.

Sarah Gabrielli: The family didn’t have much time to process their loss before COVID hit. And there was nothing to distract them from their grief once everyone was stuck at home in lockdown. Yasmine’s mom, Monica, had lost both of her parents in the past two years… 

Monica Elasmar: …we realized they’re not here. My dad is not here and we couldn’t cry. We couldn’t grieve. We couldn’t go shopping. And we couldn’t get together to go through his things, you know, put away his things, put away his clothes, his shoes, you know, stuff that ‘s in the house, that nobody has been able to come in here and, divide everything because they don’t come inside the house. The only thing I was worried was about my kids getting sick, and I had nobody to help me out because they were no longer here. 

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: One of the hardest things for the family to grapple with, has been knowing the art book is still incomplete. Especially for Yasmine. Now, the responsibility of finishing it falls entirely onto her.   

Yasmine Elasmar: It’s like a – an open wound, right? Because it’s like, I’m a student, and I’m studying for my MCAT. And I’m so busy, but it’s always like, in the back of my mind that I have something else to do, right? It’s not done it’s not…

Monica Elasmar: Complete. He worked so much that we need to finish it. 

Music fades out.

Sarah Gabrielli: Today, Yasmine is still living in her grandparents house. She stays busy with school, extracurricular activities and her grandfather’s art book. 

Cut back into sounds of rustling as Yasmine pulls out paintings.

Yasmine Elasmar: I wish he could have explained this to you himself – but this is the last one. So this is a painting of my grandmother that he made. And he was never happy with it, he actually didn’t like it. This is her in a nurse’s uniform. And he felt like he didn’t. She was a very feminine woman, very ladylike, very elegant. And he thought he didn’t portray that enough for her. And so he actually didn’t want to show her the completed project until the end, and he didn’t like it. And so he didn’t want this in the book, but I think I’m gonna include it…because this whole premise of making the book was an ode to my grandmother. Right? So now it’s kind of like our projects to make it for them now. So I think this is an important piece…So this is gonna go at the end. 

Sarah Gabrielli: Some pieces in the art in the book are from 20 years ago, but others are more recent. Some pieces Manuel never finished.     

Yasmine Elasmar: I’ve ended up writing some pieces of the poems because I know his style. 

Music fades in, plays under…

Yasmine Elasmar: I know the things he wanted to say, because I was here with him while he was writing, and he was telling me like, this is the story I want to tell. And this is the way I want to tell it. And so just because he didn’t finish, the actual poem, doesn’t mean it can’t be finished, because I do know what he wanted to say.

Sarah Gabrielli: As Yasmine has said, she is the only person that knows her grandfather’s vision for the book. So she is the only one that can see it through. 

Yasmine Elasmar: It just seems like there’s never enough time, and never enough hours in the day to get everything I want to get done. And so I struggle a lot with my own self critique.

Music fades out.

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine says she is going to make sure it gets done after she takes the MCAT in February. The last thing her grandparents left her with was a passion for her education and for eventually working in healthcare. 

Yasmine Elasmar: What really solidified me wanting to be a health professional and continue with what I’m doing is basically watching my grandparents age, and I became very in tune with their health. …And that basically made me really understand both sides of the health of health, right? So it’s the patient, there’s a family, and there’s the doctor, there’s a lot of barriers of communication, and I was a merger. 

Sarah Gabrielli: Growing up with a support system in the form of these two grandparents, really changed her outlook on life. 

Music fades in, plays under…

Sarah Gabrielli: Yasmine’s grandfather would always tell her she was going to be the best neurosurgeon in the world. 

Yasmine Elasmar:…constantly hearing those, it’s words of affirmation, you know, like, the more you hear it, the more you start to believe it. So if I didn’t have those words, and that extra push to become, to be in school, I might not have been the strongest student that I am now. There’s a line that he would, my grandfather, would always tell me whenever I’m upset…whenever I’m upset about grades, boys, you name it, he always told me to protect my smile at all costs…and I can hear him say that to me, because he would text me, me and him texted…

Music fades out.

Yasmine Elasmar: He would text me like, how are you doing, pretty one? Make sure to be happy today. 

Manuel Elasmar [voicemail]: Hi Nefertiti. I just wanted to see you how you’re doing. Call me when you can, pretty one? Bye bye.  

Music fades back in…

Yasmine Elasmar:…he always said, you are a confident, beautiful, smart, young woman. And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be happy in this life. Like I hope we can give you everything to make that happen. And that’s exactly what he did for me.

Sarah Gabrielli: This episode was reported and edited by me, Sarah Gabrielli, and produced and edited by Shehzil Zahid. Music by Joey Freeman and special thanks to Yasmine and her family.

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