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At the Mount Stephen Club to honor the Montreal Woman of the Year 2010, I was very touched to receive an unexpected award from the President of the Montreal Council of Women. This is how I was introduced by friend Tarah Schwartz of CTV :

" It’s time now for our little secret honoring. The MONTREAL COUNCIL OF WOMEN would like to pay special tribute today to a very special woman. I couldn’t be happier to be introducing her myself – and she has no idea that this is coming. Every time I see this woman she reminds me to embrace life. And that’s a gift. She is made up of pure heart and pure spirit. She gives of herself in everyway – and has taken great strides in her short relationship with the Montreal Council of Women - and they are truly, truly grateful. She is an extraordinary example of a woman who fights - to live, to live well, to live joyfully so that she can share some of that joy with those who are lucky enough to have her beautiful energy in their world. She paints, she writes, she plays music, she is a truly remarkable woman. 

Please join me in honoring once again the Montreal Council of Women 's 2008 Montreal Woman of the Year, the beautiful Cheryl Braganza.

To see photos of this event Click PHOTO GALLERY - Gala Luncheon.


ON NOVEMBER 17, 2008, THE MONTREAL COUNCIL OF WOMEN PRESENTED CHERYL BRAGANZA WITH THE MONTREAL WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2008 AWARD. "for having excelled in helping immigrant women to integrate, to be involved in human rights and to become empowered by communicating with them through the arts."  The ceremony took place at the Chateau Champlain Marriott hotel in Montreal.  





When Anne McLeish of the Montreal Council of Women left me a message that said: Cheryl, I want you to know that you have been selected for the Montreal WOMAN OF THE YEAR AWARD, my first reaction was one of disbelief.   It took a few days to realise the enormity of what had happened.  That was three weeks ago.  That is how long it has taken me to prepare myself to speak to you today.  


Here is my story…….. 


I was born in Bombay, India where my mother’s family lived and then brought back immediately to Lahore Pakistan where I grew up.   The name Braganza is Portuguese because our ancestors were from Goa.   Goa ,  located on the west coast of India,  was occupied by the Portuguese for 400 years.  We were originally Hindus, maybe Muslims, but our names and religion were actually imposed on us by Portuguese colonizers.  


My father  owned  BRAGANZA & SONS HOTEL, right across from the historic railway station in Lahore  and that’s where I was brought up amidst gardens and bungalows which were built in the time of the Raj.      During the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 , our hotel was used as the headquarters for the Muslim League and by the British army both of which were involved with the transfer of power.    Hindu and Sikh women and men would hide in the hotel for days.  Many of them  were massacred as soon as they stepped outside the hotel gates.   My mother and father were so traumatized by what they saw – the rampant bloodshed -  that they refused to talk about it for many years.      


My childhood exposed me to extremes of those who were affluent enough to come to the the hotel and those who had to beg right outside the iron gates.  Around the age of 6,  an older woman beggar who would sit on the road and  smile at me every day on my way to school.  I used to wonder how this woman who had nothing, was still able to smile.  Then one day, her body just lay there, crumpled up  .  People were gathered around her and stared.  So did I.     She was dead.  No one picked her up for a long time.   And the smile I had got used to on my way to school was gone forever.           


I grew up Catholic in a Muslim country .    There was a  mosque right outside the hotel and the plaintif call to prayer of the mullah  3  times a day indelibly marked me.    It was beautiful and it resonated in my young musical mind.     


Growing up in Pakistan,  I was shy and very reserved in front of my Muslim girlfriends.  I don’t remember ever meeting a Muslim boy and even though I had a brother,  I never met his friends.   I attended a convent school run by Belgian nuns, then later a womens college run by American missionaries.   In school in Pakistan,  I was never asked to give my opinion on anything.   Never.   We learned the textbooks  by heart and the closer one got to the exact text, the higher the marks.   HOME WAS NOT THAT DIFFERENT.    No one asked for my opinion.    I just obeyed.  I kept close to the text.   Respect and family values were so important that even if I had different ideas on anything, I kept them to myself.   My mother, despite the social constraints imposed on her as a woman,  she made a special effort to encourage an appreciation for the arts.   She taught me piano.  It opened up a new world for me.  


 I remember when I was 14 years old,  a professor from the renowned  Juillard School of Music in NY  came to Lahore and I auditioned for him.      I never heard anything back.  6 months later my then piano teacher mentioned almost  in passing that I had been  offered  the scholarship to study  in New York at the time of my audition , but that my parents had refused  and chosen not to tell me.  They had decided FOR me.



One year later, Roman Catholic nuns with whom I studied, suggested a year of language study in Rome.  This time, my parents raised no objection because I would be closely supervised. Much to my dismay, all the young people I met  questioned  everything.  When I was asked a question, I became dumbfounded.  I didn’t  know what to say.  I really didn’t know what I thought about anything because up to then, textbooks and elders had spoken for me.  I just repeated what I heard or what I read.     I remained shy and awkward in front of my new friends who came from different parts of the world.   I admired their bluntness and that they felt so comfortable about speaking their mind.  I wanted so much to be like them, but I couldn’t. I did not dare.  I was afraid of being ridiculed.  I turned inward and  started to paint.  I retreated  in silent moments into another world.     


I thought back to the  way traditional South Asian  society regarded daughters.   In a very general sense, we were considered  burdens to families.   A common expression among parents who had daughters was:     WE ARE RAISING FLOWERS FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S GARDEN.   Even though my family broke that barrier by sending me away on my own,   I  couldn’t help feel the weight of an oppressive tradition.   I was allowed to  excel, but just in the confines of a certain frame,  within certain boundaries.    


Testing the boundaries led to unexpected results.  It was a confusing time for me. When I suggested to my parents that I was ready to join the convent, they reacted, based on their previous responses, quite irrationally.   They enrolled me in Trinity College of Music located in the heart of London.  It was the SWINGING SIXTIES.      


On August 31st, 1966,  when the Empress of Canada docked in Montreal,  I was on it – travelling alone.  I remember the scene vividly.  Hundreds of  people hanging over the edge of the ship waving into the waiting crowd on the pier.  I knew no one in Montreal. I was alone but there was this excitement about landing on a new continent. 


I stayed in a girls hostel run by nuns on Laurier.   In the cafeteria I would meet other young women arriving from countries I had never heard of, embarking on  similar journeys of discovery.  While we sat and shared stories,   I did portraits of them in pastels.  


Those were the magic days of Expo 67 with Mayor Drapeau,  we were  swooning over Pierre Elliot Trudeau,   coffee cost 10 cents at the A & W on St. Catherine street, the metro trains were clean and shiny.  I took sculpture classes  at l’Ecole de beaux arts on Sherbrooke street, which sadly does not exist anymore. 

For me, Montreal was NIRVANA.    I loved everything about the city, the streets,  Mont Royal, the French signs, the way the colors changed with the seasons,  and especially seeing the astonishment when I spoke in French.  I guess that year in Rome had its dividends.     I understood then that Language was, and is,  SUCH a powerful key to dialogue and understanding.  It allowed me entrance to another culture.    Years later, when  my husband was transferred to Lac St. Jean,  which is not even in the Province of Quebec, it was  language that gave me access to the bustling art scene.         


This was in stark contrast to what happened, 20 years later.  Nothing growing up in Pakistan had prepared me for what I was to experience.


When the twin towers crashed in 2001,  I began to step on  memory mines, these pockets of memory that suddenly explode, that explode inside us all.    In  September of that year,  the MONTREAL GAZETTE  published an article I wrote on a racist incident we had experienced 20 years previous, in the 70’s,  in the West Island where the word PAKI was burned on to our front lawn.   and we had received anonymous calls telling us to get out.   There are copies here and I encourage you all to read it.  The frightening part of that experience was that no one came forward to even acknowledge it had happened.  I believe Ann McLeish of the Montreal Council of Women referred to them as The silent majority.     


It’s what the experience  did to ME – the feelings of inadequacy that rose, the fear I had for my 3 sons.  My self esteem was at an alltime low. A  policeman had come to our house at the time and when he saw that I was agitated and wanted to move out,  he had said to me:  “You have a right to live here like everyone else.”  I remember clinging on to those words and holding them very close , repeating them often to myself .  Those 10 simple words kept me sane, kept me strong, kept me hopeful.


I took a course in Assertive Training for Women where I  felt the comfort and support of other women.   The moderator made us write down our strengths.  I wrote down PIANO , POETRY & PAINTING.   


In writing and publishing my story  20 years later,  it was cathartic.   My own sons had, at the time, been deeply affected I know, but they  were still surprised to read my reaction in the paper.      Over 100  people wrote back  in response.  They thanked me for speaking up because my story reminded them of their own stories of racism.  Many Montrealers  wrote to APOLOGIZE, to apologize for the frailty of the human condition. 


On November 21, 1989,  Mark Lepine murdered 14 beautiful young women engineering students at the Polytechnic  in Montreal.  I  was  in torment because I wanted to take my sons to pay homage.  But I ended up going with one son only, standing in the rain along with thousands of others.  


That young girl in Pakistan who could never speak up then, now galvanized herself to speak out and speak up, through writing, through music, through poetry and especially through art


One summer evening I was walking down Sherbrooke Street when I was handed a pamphlet by a woman who was promoting a benefit supper for the women of Afghanistan.  She was a white woman, had never been to Afghanistan and I asked her WHY, why would you do this ?    And she looked straight into my eyes and said :   WHY NOT ?   Those 2 words were enough to get me involved with the CANADIAN WOMEN FOR WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN .  I offered images for a PEACE CARD.   Later, for this  2008 calendar of paintings.     Many of you supported the calendar project buying bundles at a time to give as gifts.  I thank you now publicly on behalf of all the Afghan women you unknowingly have touched.     Margaret Mitchell of ZONTA who bought 60 to distribute to other Zontonians,  Fehmida Khan of the Cdn Muslim Women’s Assoc, and many others.     


We know  that people are not, for the most part, moved to action by written information.  People are moved by  images that touch the common center,  by ideas  that create a vision, that inspire, that provoke thought and understanding, by other people whose lives are full and joyous.     When people look for hope, as in times like now, they turn to the arts, to the symbols and images that  hold and  heal.


Whatever art we artists  make -  can only contain our knowledge of the world, which in turn is transformed by that which is deep within us.  So when I  read about women, AND WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANT WOMEN, from the love that moves us -  to the heartaches that bring us to our knees – because that is OUR STORY,   I stir that with my own experiences  and  create something new  that gets added to the universe, to our collective consciousness . 



Divorce is not an easy choice anywhere in the world, just like it wasn’t for me,  an Indian woman in Canada.  Like many women, my contribution in the household was to cook, to clean and to take care of my children.  While I knew these were important tasks, I did not see them as the sum total of who I was and it was only when I was confident enough to leave my marriage, after 23 years, that I began to recognize  I had greater potential.  That being put down, devalued and undermined has no place in any relationship.    That I could still  love my children but also value the woman I was. That even though I put myself at risk of being ostracized, as women do even today,  I could rise above it all. 


Divorce turned into a life-changing event.  I was able to strengthen parts of me that I had forgotten existed.  I was able to share with other women in similar situations,  able to branch out and do the things I had always longed for.  ABLE  to become the woman I really am.      


I remember Andre, my eldest,  much later, saying to me:  “Mum, there is so much about you that is different.  I don’t know how to explain it.  You are a different woman.”    


Yes, we women, we hide so much under mantles of lace, under sarees of silk,  under burquas, under apple pies and strawberry tarts.    We hide until we no longer can.


I was also living under the added cultural burden of the Caste System .   It doesn’t matter what part of the world you come from because similar systems exist all over, in some form or the other.   What started off as a division of labour evolved into a system of hierarchy, a system that categorized people by birth.    If one is  lucky enough to be born into a Brahmin family, the priestly caste,  you  belong to the highest  echelon. Then come the warriors, the merchants, the laborers and the untouchables.  It is legally banned but centuries of tradition are not erased that easily.  Like the class system in Great Britain.    Indians carry the Caste System  on their backs, we take it with us wherever we go and it surfaces insidiously when marriage time comes along.


The inherent danger is  when people begin to FEEL superior or FEEL inferior because of which box they are in .  We must do what we can to change this and make it a more humane, caring,  and enlightened society where everyone is treated fairly and equally.  


Many of us live as if we are going to live forever.  I know I did.  And I am not sure if that is good or if it’s bad.

But 3 years ago,  something happened  that reminded me that my life was indeed finite.    I was diganosed with cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma,  which crushed my spine and I spent 5 months  at the Jewish General undergoing different treatments, none of which worked.  


It was a difficult time in life,  not so much for me (because I was heavily sedated most of the time)   but for my sons, for my friends who  cared.    Some were convinced that the end had come. Others were  hopeful.   


 I have always felt that trials like this are sent to teach those around  something more valuable than anything we can learn elsewhere.  



A year later, a new experimental drug was made available for me and within 3 months, I was in remission.    


And it’s what  emerged from that whole year.     Suddenly being forced to face my own mortality, being so depressed and almost giving up on life,  and then realising that I had been given another chance .    

 I was convinced there must have been  a very good reason for this.  And my task was to find out what it was. 


The reasons are being manifested every day, as Evadne has pointed out.  The universe is opening up in strange and wonderful ways.     On my easel at home , I have a handwritten  message that is my morning prayer.  Its by Goethe, the German philosopher and it reads:







Just recently I was fortunate to meet and work with young and dynamic Indian and Pakistani students from SAWA, South Asian Womens Aid at  McGill University  (some of who are here today).  When I look at them, its like looking backwards in a mirror.  I see this young woman who left Pakistan in 1966, very awkward and shy.     I marvel at how things have changed , how exciting and dynamic today’s youth are,  full of promise and self confidence , not afraid of speaking their minds, wanting to do so much, ready to break forth.  They give us so much hope.   They revive ALL our  spirits. 


I believe that what has brought me here now, standing in front of you  as the MONTREAL WOMAN OF THE YEAR,  is that for a lifetime, I had been  filling up a treasure chest,  as WE ALL do throughout our lives.  Things I hold dearest to me.    my sons Andre, Carlos and Miguel ,  family my friends,  laughter(very important)  love, music, art,  literature,  poetry, travels.  And in moments of need, it was there for me.          


Since the award was announced, I have felt overwhelmed with gratitude and have spent many moments alone in tears, tears of being thankful, for so much.  During those tears, I painted and this is what appeared.  A dove and a woman with a heart that is overflowing , thankful for her life, thankful for her sons,  thankful for her friends, her talents,  to the Montreal Council of Women and Zonta for this very prestigious Award in the city that I love,  thankful for what has been and what is yet to be…… (Your names are all written around her so please come and touch your name later.)


Oh, if the lives of ALL women were recognized and celebrated in this fashion !


With this award, you have helped me look deeper into “the path of the immigrant woman” which I almost forgot  I had traveled.    I have learned more about who I am, who I have become and in so doing, I can now create the next steps of my journey.  It is the journey of ordinary women who have gone before me and who are yet to follow.     You have allowed me to locate myself in particular moments of my life, in moments which shaped me and which in turn I have been able to shape.   Every gasp of happiness, every tiny discovery, every heart-wrenching disappointment, forward, upward,  backward, to the side, off the path, has brought me to where I am now.  We know there are no shortcuts for us women to the rainbow.   There never have been.  And that’s where art comes in……..……


Art does not come from the mind  but from the places where we dare to dream.  It simmers in expansive oceans of our souls;  it lights up dark corners of our world;  it celebrates, it heals, it renews.  It is magic.   Through art, we are able to access others’ sufferings, to give them confidence and courage.      Art helps to create dialogue, to create a vision, to create greater understanding so that we can all, each and every one of us,  take on the responsibility to change the world for the better.



Written and delivered by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal – November 17, 2008. Ceremony filmed by Anurag Dhir.

What follows is the introductory speech by friend and Professor of Literature, Marianopolis College.


In order to say these few words, I reviewed the criteria for the Montreal Council of Women Woman of the Year Award and then, I understood perfectly why Cheryl Braganza was the choice for 2008.

I first met Cheryl a few years ago when she was suffering from cancer. When I visited her at home, she was so frail-- and so gracious-- lying on her sick bed, talking in whispers, but surrounded by the most vibrant paintings which reflected the woman behind the pain.

Today, what a transformation! Truly the 3 pillars of her life which have fostered this regeneration are her family-- her beloved sons and champions of whom she never stops talking: Andre, Carlos and Miguel, and her many cousins, aunts and uncles who have always cared for her. The 2nd pillar is certainly her community involvement. The 3rd -- her artistic life as musician, painter and poet.

Jackson Pollock the legendary abstract expressionist American painter once said, Each good painter paints what he is . Let’s change that right now to the generic “she”— each good painter paints what she is. When we look at a Braganza painting, what do we see? Woman-- in all of her myriad, sometimes paradoxical, but always recognizable aspects. There’s joy and wonder sometimes, frailty and beauty, majesty and power.

We also see a spirit of generosity in the lavish flow of colour and lines. This generosity is also evident in the way Cheryl interacts with the world around her. She has donated the use of her artwork to many community organizations in Montréal --such as Rights and Democracy; Centraide, Literacy Unlimited, the Jewish General Hospital Segal Center for Cancer Research, and most recently, McGill University’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office. Her paintings have been reproduced in the McGill Newsletters of the MCRTW (Research & Teaching on Women) and in 2007, 12 copies of her paintings were used to create a calendar in support of women in Afghanistan.

At one time, Cheryl volunteered at a seniors’ residence where her mother lived, teaching art. At another time, she co-coordinated the music program of the West Island Palliative Care Centre. Some of you may also know of her one-woman mission to bring art to the walls of this Centre. I’ll briefly mention the story because it so accurately capsulizes the spirit of generosity that is as natural to Cheryl as breathing is.

In 2002, when the West Island Palliative Care Centre was being constructed in her neighbourhood, Cheryl decided she wanted to offer a painting---Then she thought, why not give other artists the opportunity to do the same? So, in true Braganza style, she jumped in, placing ads in the Montreal Gazette and in other local newspaper, and in a short time, her basement was overflowing with artwork. In total, 140 artists contributed, far beyond her initial expectations.

Earlier this year, perhaps like me, some of you may have also popped down to the Salvation Army on Notre Dame street after reading the Gazette article: Music to rummage by: Pianist has turned Salvation Army thrift shop into a cabaret. As Cheryl played in the window, almost every day for a couple of months, I noticed people in the store with shining eyes, smiling and humming and coming up to request a song or to sing a song or two themselves. There was such a feeling of good cheer—like Christmas in July.

I have also seen her warmth and generosity first hand as she spends time with young people, most recently, the SAWA (South Asian Women’s Association) students at McGill. And on Thursday evenings at Griffintown Restaurant’s piano, there’s this tiny Asian lady, accompanied by 3 tall men on bass, drum and trumpet, playing her heart out. If you're in the area of Notre Dame Street and de la Montagne any Thursday evening around 7:00 p.m, why don't you pop in? Lots of fun! Good food! Great music!

Another aspect, so notable about Cheryl’s paintings, is the sheer accomplishment in terms of quality and number of works produced. Just this year alone, she has completed 50 paintings to date. She has exhibited on 3 continents, starting as a student in London in the 60’s. Braganza collectors proudly display her canvases in the UK, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Australia, the USA and Canada. Recently, she’s been invited to exhibit in a prestigious coffee table art book, entitled: International Contemporary Masters of 2009. Another distinct honour is the invitation to participate at the International Biennale of Contemporary Art in December 2009 in Florence, Italy for which she is presently seeking a sponsor as the cost is prohibitive.

To become such an accomplished artist, Cheryl works hard at her craft, sometimes painting from dusk to early morning. And because her life is also her craft, we see her attending a song-writing workshop, taking jazz piano classes, diligently keeping in touch with her friends from her early years and those from more recent times – many of whom are here today and have earned the designation of being her "Wild and Wicked Women" friends.

Finally, I think that what touches us most about Cheryl’s paintings is hope and the respect for life that we see mirrored there--in the Goan market-woman, sitting at the side of the road, looking squarely at the viewer, in the woman, startled by the wonder of a butterfly, in the mother and her children, dancing in celebration.

Why an artist as the Montreal Woman of the year? Why not? If, as has been said, a culture is only as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists. Then…of course! If as German composer Robert A Schumann remarked years ago: The object of art is to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, then, Cheryl Braganza, in all her many involvements, is using her life in the service of others.

The title of one of her smaller paintings Daring, Caring Sharing seems to embody her life philosophy and her Yes-we-can ideals. I think it fitting to end with a few words from one of her poems, written for a beloved aunt. These words are also, quintessentially, Ms Braganza, as many of us know her to be:

She is a shooting star, no not Bollywood
you know that sudden light that appears in the sky,
that startles and brightens up the darkness,
then disappears and reappears again and again and again…
She is Andante, Grazioso, Vicace all rolled into one…
She is Ulysses the restless traveler
floating on streams of clouds, boats, planes, rickshaws,
everything that moves back and forth in time
to seek, to pick, again and again and again….
She is embodiment of …a heart that is overflowing 
again .....and again ...... and again.  

This is the Montréal Woman of the Year, 2008, Cheryl Braganza.