Olavi, the horse that allows Ziline Pierre Peña Arias to ride, perform a series of magical and continuous acrobatics, performs delicate turns on herself, spreads her legs like wings to the sky and soars. She moves in a circle, performs a choreography of at least nine movements and then jumps to the plain in a minute, guided by her conductor and a lasso, she seems to fly, giving her heart and soul in each act. In Buenos Aires it is autumn and Ziline smiles. Her whitest teeth shine as bright as her pearls in the sun. She wears a headband that matches her hair perfectly.
Ziline and Olavi’s agenda for 2023 includes many national and international tournaments and they want to give their best to the Argentine Vaulting Team to which they belong. With only 14 years old, she shares long hours of training with the best athletes of the discipline, both in Buenos Aires and in her province: La Rioja. The only Afro-descendant in the team, she is proud to represent the region of the mirror mountains of the Andes, her home.
Ziline and Olavi have won medals and trophies for a non-traditional sport, which consists of coordinated acrobatics on a galloping horse (Olavi). She is grateful for the awards, but her greatest triumph, she says, was to find between turns a movement that excites her and makes her happy, but it is difficult for her to explain it in words.
This story was marked by death. She was only one year old when, on January 12, 2010, one of the worst earthquakes in the history of the world dynamited Haiti and punished its people. Ziline was living in the Rose Mina de Diegue orphanage in Port-au-Prince. There, along with other very young children, she felt the ground move with the violence of irreversible endings. Miraculously, the place was one of the few that resisted the eternal seconds that the tremor lasted. The rest of the neighborhood disappeared.
Patricia Arias and Gustavo Peña, in Argentina, were moved and in solidarity with the poorest country in America and found Osvaldo Fernandez, an Argentinean who was in charge of the orphanage where Ziline lived. They wanted to adopt. Then, they got Ziline’s picture. She was barely walking and had a look of sadness and abandonment. They knew that “it was her”, the daughter they had always dreamed of but had not been able to conceive naturally.
“We fell in love as soon as we saw her. She was still in diapers. Impossible to forget her curly hair and huge brown eyes. So small, so beautiful and so helpless,” Gustavo, Ziline’s father, tells about their first virtual encounter. “At the time of the earthquake, we had about 70 children in our care. Zili’ was already a girl with a dominant character and leadership,” Osvaldo Fernandez recalls from Port-au-Prince.
Ziline would have a family, the adoption process took a year and a half. They had to validate her birth certificate without signature and have the consent of her only relative, her paternal grandfather Pedro Pierre, who took care of her at birth in Belle-Anse, a humble fishing village on the Caribbean Sea. It was he who took her at the age of eight months from her home near the sea to the orphanage in Haiti’s capital. He had no choice: neither he nor her parents, both fishermen, could raise or support her.
Ziline was three years and eight months old when she was adopted and traveled with her adoptive parents to the place that became her new home, Argentina. The grandfather was also the one who said goodbye to her at the Toussaint Louverture airport in May 2012, two years after the earthquake and after numerous negotiations with lawyers and trips from her adoptive parents. She currently has no memory of him.
Once all these initial obstacles were overcome, Ziline’s adaptation was rapid. Her native language, Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and African languages, was soon replaced by Spanish with a marked ‘r’, the typical tone of that area of northwestern Argentina. His charismatic, sweet and audacious style won the affection of acquaintances and strangers alike.
After trying different sports in the garden, she chose horseback riding, lost her fear of horses and began to do pirouettes that led to her passion for tumbling. As a complement, she added artistic gymnastics to strengthen her muscles and improve her posture. “When she was 4 years old, she got on her favorite horse, Tambo Tiburón, and never got off again. In the blink of an eye she was already competing,” says Patricia, her mother.
They achieved the unthinkable for a girl who did not know how to ride, with ‘El Tibu’. Dexterity and innate strength, Ziline quickly stood out and began to win local and national tournaments. Before long, she was called up to the Argentinian Vaulting Team.
At only nine years old, Ziline flew with her choreographies to the South American Games in Sao Paulo to participate in her first international competition. She won first place in the duo category and second place in the individual competition. Two years later, she crossed the ocean and made her mark in other high competition tournaments in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Also in Ciudad de Leon, Mexico. Both she and the team obtained outstanding places in those places.
She was also Argentine champion in the ‘Children 1 Star’ category in 2018, 2019 and 2021, in the middle of that year she traveled to the World Junior Tumbling Games in Le Mans, France. “It was an amazing experience,” Ziline is grateful. The Argentine team was one of the few Latin American competitors. She returned full of experiences and friends. “It’s hard for us to pay for her training and travel, but we do the impossible for her to compete and be happy. She is noble, humble and a fighter. She is always willing to help and fights against racism and discrimination. She values very much the opportunities that life and sport are giving her,” her parents say proudly.
With extensive experience in tumbling, Yanina Alvarez, her current coach of the national team, defines Ziline as an athlete with enormous abilities and talent. “She works hard, concentrates and cares. She has character when faced with extreme situations and stress. She can go wherever she wants. Hopefully someday this sport will be Olympic and she will be there,” says Alvarez, who discovered Ziline in a workshop she gave in La Rioja and made sure that Argentina and the world got to know her.
In her adopted country, the athlete’s story of resilience reached the ears of film director Fernando Bermudez and producer Diego Diaz. In the middle of the pandemic, they contacted the Peña Arias family and asked them to film the documentary Ziline, between the sea and the mountains, which alludes to the landscapes where their daughter was born and grew up. With the support of the Argentine National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA), the 70-minute film is a reality and is scheduled to be released this year.
“It is the story of the tree transplanted in a different and dissimilar land, of growing overcoming adverse climates to one day bloom and know or discover that everything is possible from love. It is also about the opportunities that, in a fairer world, we should all have”, synthesizes director Bermudez the heart of the documentary.
Ziline now dreams of triumphing and achieving success with tumbling. He also hopes that his documentary will be broadcast around the world, especially in his native country, a country in the midst of a deep political, security and humanitarian crisis. She does not rule out returning there in a few years to visit the places where she was born and where she left. Osvaldo’s orphanage is still operating in Port-au-Prince and her grandfather, her biological parents and two brothers, one older and one younger, live in different towns. From them he will always keep his last name: Pierre. It was one of the first decisions Patricia and Gustavo made.
“As a little girl, she would ask me to tell her about Haiti to fall asleep and I would turn her story into a fairy tale in which she was the princess’ Now, as an adult, she reflects on the reason for so much poverty. It hurts her to know how Haitian children live. She recently told me that she would like to meet the mother who carried her in her belly”, Patricia shares. Sometimes, Gustavo adds, he secretly cries when he hears news of earthquakes that awaken ghosts in him. But he prefers not to touch the subject. “For now we don’t talk about the earthquake because it hurts him. We will face it when the time comes,” he assures.
“I live in the present,” Ziline says vehemently. In that present, this June he has measured himself with his choreography in competitions in Italy and Slovakia. The calendar closes in December in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That’s why training is an absolute priority.
It is in those moments when the heart beats strong and the adrenaline increases, the sadness is forgotten. Ziline smiles and lights up. She approaches her horse, “Olavi”, ready for a new challenge. She wears a leotard with the colors of the Argentinean flag. Like a mantra, an acoustic version of “Hijo de la Luna” by the Spanish group Mecano is playing. The clock starts and she begins her choreography. She has to make at least nine movements to achieve a good performance. It is the exact minute in which her two lives intertwine and balance.
Published by Emirates Herald, news and information agency.