words by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
I don’t remember meeting Yoly Miller. Or, maybe I do. Maybe I remember standing at the Akron Digital Media Center, and in some distant and vague recollection, Yoly is standing and holding a camera, one eye squinting and looking through the viewfinder. Maybe she’s wearing black, a color she’s often wearing for its ease and practicality.
But this is probably not true. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I met Yoly because for as long as I’ve known Akron, its arts and culture, its civic life and people, Yoly has always been there. She might be standing in the back of the bar, Templeton rye whiskey in hand, served neat. Or under the LED lights of a concert, black hair made green while a local musician plays the saxophone. Or on stage at a poetry reading, shuffling through hundreds of poems, trying to pick the right one.
In each of these memories, one thing is consistent: Yoly’s ability to weave in and out of rooms unnoticed. For those who don’t know her, her chameleon nature and quiet presence can seem at odds with her vibrant social media activity. In person, Yoly is often alone, navigating the fringes of a room, her face hidden behind her phone as she livestreams event after event. Online, her Facebook friends can follow her as she moves from art gallery openings to live concerts and theater shows.
Editor’s note: Yoly Miller has contributed to The Devil Strip in the past, and The Devil Strip often shares the videos Yoly livestreams at local events.
It’s not unusual to find Yoly, 51, at four different events in one night, wearing three different outfits. She’s flighty and she knows it, nicknaming herself Akron’s “Traveling Yoyo.” As she weaves in and out of the city she loves, there’s only one goal on her mind: Proving there’s plenty of fun to be had in Akron. That Akron isn’t dead. That Akron is both bigger and smaller than some might think.
If I catch Yoly between livestreams, she’ll rattle off the names of people and events I should know about. She’ll tell me stories about Akron I’ve never heard of. I’ve often called her Akron’s walking encyclopedia, but maybe she’s more storyteller than index. More ghostwriter than reader, often spending her free time watching the sunset at the top of the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s parking deck, or people watching, which is her favorite thing to do.
For over a decade, Yoly has been changing Akron’s narrative one video at a time. But who is Yoly outside of her livestreams, outside of her public persona and outside of the work she does in bringing people together?
After five years of knowing Yoly, I sought to find out.
Yoly was born in Juarez, Mexico. She may have been born on a leap day, but her mother has never confirmed this, and she celebrates her birthday on Feb. 28. Yoly spent much of her childhood traveling between Juarez and El Paso, TX. Her mother, Bertha, refused to get American citizenship for fear of losing her Mexican status, and her father, a white man from the U.S., couldn’t live in Mexico. This meant Yoly spent a lot of time between the two cities.
But this was the ’60s and ’70s. Obtaining a visitor’s visa was fairly simple, and crossing the border meant passing by the same immigration officers day after day, who probably remembered you.
It was so “flexible,” says Yoly, recalling people from El Paso crossing the border to Juarez to buy cheaper groceries. The cities felt inseparable.
“At least to me, as a child, there was no difference,” she said. “You had kids begging for food or money on one side and you had kids begging for food and money on the other side. I used to laugh because if you were in downtown El Paso, all the signs would be in Spanish, and if you were in downtown Juarez, all the signs would be in English. They catered to each other’s differences.”
Despite Yoly considering her family’s financial situation to be upper-class, Yoly portrays her childhood as “feast or famine,” and her relationship with her mom as difficult.
“We had no shoes, but we had these really cool fur coats,” she recalls. “In today’s terminology, the way my siblings and I were raised, it was neglect. My parents could afford two cars, they could afford meat at every meal, they could afford to buy furniture, but mom did what she wanted to do. And so if it meant she didn’t buy groceries, then she didn’t buy groceries.”
Because of these circumstances, Yoly says she was “kind of wild” as a kid, spending most of her time on the street by herself. Making friends was difficult for Yoly because her mom didn’t want her spending time with “poor kids,” and she didn’t necessarily like the rich kids.
Yoly spent her youngest years in the care of her aunts and didn’t start living with her mom until she was 4 years old. Today, Yoly and her mom “do not associate with each other” unless they have to. Yoly describes her mom as a contradiction in terms: “Beautiful” and quite the “charmer,” but the type of person you “stayed out of the way from.”
She extends some sympathy to her mother, who had Yoly at 17 despite “not wanting a child.” Yoly says Bertha lived in a Catholic family and a society that frowned on women not being mothers.
“If my mom was home, you never knew if she was in a good mood or she was in a bad mood,” she says. “If she was in a bad mood, you didn’t want to see her, you didn’t want to be around her. If she was in a good mood, she might have a dress for you, she might give you something to eat, but you never knew.”
Things would sometimes get so bad between Yoly and her mom that Yoly remembers being kicked out of the house at 6 or 7 years old and sleeping at the park for the night. Yoly describes this memory to me like she describes everything else from her childhood: With a casual matter-of-fact bluntness, even saying, “it built character.”
But despite the difficulty, Yoly does miss certain parts of her childhood. She misses running around with her siblings like “a tribe of wild kids.” She misses buying street food from local vendors with whatever pocket change she had. And she misses indulging in slices of chocolate strawberry cake from the local bakery.
Yoly’s sense of independence remains one of her defining traits. And though she’s fiercely self-reliant, her love for Akron’s arts and culture community is contagious. Anyone who crosses paths with her will see this.
But Yoly didn’t always love Akron the way she does now. And though she’s spent much of her life in Akron, she hasn’t always felt connected to the city. After meeting her husband, Joe, Yoly left El Paso at 25. They lived in Copley for a few years before moving on to Pittsburgh.
In Copley, Yoly often felt alienated from the community. Few people looked like her and Yoly “stuck out.” And because Yoly was a young mother of a child who “looks white,” people would stare and make assumptions. Yoly felt Pittsburgh was “too segregated,” but she was able to make friends.
A job change brought Joe and Yoly back to Akron in 1997, where they settled on Mardon Street in Merriman Hills. They had three daughters: Eliza, Zarah and Fabiana. They would later have four more.
Yoly says Akron was one of the few places that made her feel comfortable as a young mother and a woman of color who was navigating spaces where she constantly “stuck out” for not being white or Black. Additionally, Akron was fairly progressive.
“I could walk here. And not get followed in stores as much — as much. Not get talked down to as much,” Yoly says. “And it’s important when you’re raising daughters to be able to show them that women can be respected and have authority. And it was easier here.”
Even so, she could “see people staring” through their windows.
“I could see the curtains moving,” she says. “I understood when I said ‘hi’ and they didn’t say ‘hi’ back and gave me that glare, I knew what that meant. But it wasn’t overt. I could exist in it.”
Childcare was expensive, so Yoly decided to homeschool. She and the kids spent much of their time at the Akron-Summit County Public Library, the Akron Art Museum or hiking. She believes all their time at the Akron Art Museum is what influenced her oldest daughter to become a painter and a tattoo artist, and she says her seven kids are all now either artists or engineers.
These spaces offered the perfect playground for her kids, and though they were having lots of fun, Yoly often felt isolated from the community. Being away from her extended family was difficult. And the homeschooling cohort she and her kids were in was too conservative for Yoly’s liking. So she spent much of her alone time knitting, writing poems and expressing her creativity through the elaborate birthday cakes she’d make for the kids.
“I kind of joke sometimes that I had kids so I could have friends because there was nobody,” she says. “People worked during the day and in the evening, they just want to come home and have dinner and relax. They don’t want to socialize, especially if they have kids.”
From 1997 until 2012, Yoly settled into a steady routine. She traveled between her home, the library, the museum, and back home. She’s repeatedly told me she didn’t know Akron at the time.
But in 2012, things started to change when Yoly’s neighbors started complaining about potholes and how there was “nothing to do” in Akron.
Their apathy frustrated Yoly, and her argument to her neighbors was simple: Spend your tax money in Akron, and the money will go back to fixing the potholes in Akron. Their complaints annoyed Yoly so much that she started a Facebook group called the Merriman Hills Neighborhood Press where she would post about events in Akron.
But this was the internet in 2012. Facebook had only just taken off, and every event wasn’t on the platform yet. So Yoly began spending a lot of time — as much as four or five hours per day — Googling local events to share with her neighbors through the Merriman Hills Neighborhood Press.
Shocked at the time commitment and level of ambition directed towards finding local events to share with neighbors, I ask Yoly why she was so concerned about defending Akron’s civic life. She looks at me incredulously.
“It just bothered me,” she says. “Because growing up, it didn’t matter what the situation was. If it was a bad situation and you didn’t do anything, it only got worse. So why not do something [about Akron]? As a kid, for me, it was a matter of survival. But as an adult, I don’t want my kids to be lumps on a log. I want them to be able to think for themselves, act for themselves, find the answers.”
But sharing events wasn’t enough. Yoly started going to events almost every day, taking videos on her phone, and uploading them to Facebook.
“The videos were so bad. If you look at them now, they’re so corrupted. They’re pixelated. But it didn’t matter, for what we had and for the computers we had to look on, it was perfect.” she says. “It was literally, ‘Oh there’s a parade? I’m recording the parade.’ And my kids and Joe, they hated it because I would be like, ‘Don’t say a word. Don’t make a sound. I’m recording.’”
For a few years, Yoly cultivated a moderate following on the page, and people in Akron started to rely on her to know what was going on in the city. For the first time, she found herself regularly getting lost in the city — but says she realized it felt like “just a big giant snow globe.”
“I started going to places I’d never been before,” she says. “And I’d get lost. But then I’d find myself back where I started. It was like a big circle.”
In 2014, Yoly started volunteering for The Akronist, a community news website run by Akronites who are passionate about creating articles, podcasts and videos about their community. There, she posted livestreams, wrote profiles of local Akronites and reported on local happenings.
By 2015, something in Akron had changed, and new energy for civic engagement and art was cultivated. Yoly attributes this change to The Knight Foundation’s first Akron Art Prize, which brought together a community of people who were ready to make a change and collaborate with one another. Akron was buzzing with ideas, and everyone was ready to mold it into a better city. (Shameless plug: The Devil Strip was also created in 2015).
“There was an art culture before, but there really wasn’t a community. There were pockets, but things got more unique. And the connections got deeper,” she says. “I think once people realized they could get people to go out, more things started happening. It became a matter of, ‘I see that you can do it, so I can do it. I see that you can start a business, I can start a business.’ It’s like Akron was able to look at itself in the mirror and go, ‘Oh. I don’t look too bad. Actually, I look pretty good. I’m going to go buy myself a new dress. I’m going to buy a new lipstick.’”
As all of this was going on, “all of a sudden everybody was out.” And there was Yoly, standing in the back with her phone recording. Over the last four years, Yoly has created hundreds of livestreams. Though Yoly no longer actively updates the Merriman Hills Neighborhood Press Facebook page, she continues to document life in Akron for The Devil Strip and on her personal page. Her seven kids, now between ages 14 and 31, all live in Akron.
Yoly says she believes things in Akron have gotten calmer, and most people have found their communities — including her. She feels less alone than she did here a decade ago. Now, she feels inspired by the city. She has gone back to drawing, something she loved to do, and she continues to write poetry, which she performs throughout Akron. She also serves as the president of PechaKucha, a local speaker series that asks participants to tell their story using 20 slides, with only 20 seconds per slide.
“For a long time, I defined myself as my mother’s daughter. And then I was defined as my children’s mother. I belonged to the kids, I belonged to Joe, I belonged to my mother, but I didn’t belong to me,” she says. “I realized I could just go out and create my own community.”
Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Email her at email@example.com.