Empowering Communities: Art & Activism in the RGV

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

Border communities like the Rio Grande Valley are unique and must be lived to be truly understood. Our diverse landscapes, everything from roaring hills to lush beaches, and our vibrant culture enrich our communities with beauty and promise. However, part of the unique experience of living in the RGV is dealing with the very real consequences of oppressive policies and legislation. 

 

The RGV is a multicultural and mixed-status community with a heavy military and police presence. For this reason, legislation infringing on individual rights profoundly impacts our community, more so than other places. Lately, there has been an endless barrage of such legislation: Senate Bill 8, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and Senate Bill 4. Being tied to the constant news cycle and fighting against these policies can be draining. 

 

Luckily, our community is filled with organizations and local artists who understand this struggle. They are creating spaces where community members passionate about a certain issue can stand together in solidarity to continue the fight and allow their voices to be heard. 

Six people dressed in black posing for a photo at an art exhibition.
Artists and current residents of the Flower Shop Art Studio’s residency program. Left to right: co-founder Jesus Treviño, Cielo Zuñiga, Cecilia Sierra, Sarah Reagan, Sue Montoya, Samantha Rawls. Photo Courtesy of the Flowershop Art Studio.

Art as a Means of Empowerment

“When we connect with other activists and when we see the type of work that local artists are doing around feminism, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and about being an immigrant, we start to think to ourselves it’s important that we continue fighting because we are the resistance: the writers, the painters, the local artists, the curators,” said Nubia Reyna, community engagement manager at Planned Parenthood South Texas.

 

Reyna organizes events for Planned Parenthood that emphasize community engagement. One of the most recent was a feminist book club hosted at the Buho bookstore in Brownsville. The topics discussed at the meetings ranged from reproductive rights to LBGTQIA+ visibility. Community members came together to share experiences and collectively advocate for change.

 

Similarly, one of the main events Reyna is currently organizing is Planned Parenthood’s Annual Valley Brunch on April 14. The brunch features a guest who speaks on a timely issue facing our community. This year, author Sandra Cisneros, famous for her work “The House on Mango Street,” will discuss the importance of incorporating art into activist movements.

 

“Listening to someone who has been writing about hope is important because we can recharge our batteries to keep fighting,” said Reyna. “It’s sending that message to politicians and people who want to take away your rights that we are here, and we are here to stay.”

The brunch features the iconic author and, more importantly, the works and voices of local artists from the RGV. Artists working with the Flower Shop Art Studio, based in Brownsville, will be exhibiting pieces that speak on the themes of feminism and empowerment. 

 

“It is important to support local artists because they are the ones who represent this community. They are the ones that know what it’s like to live here. They are the ones who know what it’s like to grow up here and experience what it’s like to be in this area that many people define as not part of Mexico but not part of the US either,” said Reyna. 

Two people cheering with champagne glasses in front of a wall decorated with flowers that read “Planned Parenthood.”
In 2022, Planned Parenthood South Texas hosted its first Valley Brunch with guest speaker Paola Ramos. All the funds that are raised at the event go to funding their clinics in Brownsville and Harlingen. Photo courtesy of Nubia Reyna.

Changing the Conversation Through Art

“Art is very essential for activism. When you’re able to communicate that through art, people are able to resonate with it, see it more, and feel more part of it. It can bring to activism more powerful imagery and bring together the community,” said Samantha Rawls, artist and current resident at the Flowers Shop Art Residency


Rawls’s work will be exhibited at the brunch and features an installation of colorful figurines tethering from a fishing line. These figurines represent the interconnectivity of the experiences of women and femme-presenting individuals.

A woman standing next to her artwork, smiling at the camera.
Artist and current resident at Flower Shop Art Studio, Samantha Rawls. The piece next to her will be displayed at the Valley Brunch and represents the connectivity between women. Photo obtained from Sam Rawl’s Instagram page.
An installation of colorful figurines hangs from the ceiling.
Rawls’ work being featured at an exhibition being hosted by the Flower Shop Studio for its current cohort of resident artists. Photo courtesy of the Flower Shop Art Studio.

The residency, hosted by the Flower Shop Art Studio, provides a space for artists from across the country to explore the RGV and share their practices and perspectives with the community. 

“There are people who have always been intrigued by the Valley, or they’re from different parts of the Valley and they just never been to Brownsville, and it’s been really nice to show people what our community has to offer and give them the space and the time to enjoy it while they research and make their work,” said Cecilia Sierra, program coordinator at the studio. 

By creating this space and bringing artists from all over the country, the Flowershop Studio hopes to demystify border communities’ intricacies. In their work, many artists explore the issues facing our community, such as immigration, environmentalism, and patriarchal norms, and illustrate them in a way that resonates with people experiencing them and even those unfamiliar with them. 

Collaborative events like the Valley Brunch and the residency program are helping bring the community together and allowing them to learn from and stand in solidarity. In doing so, fighting the oppressive legislation that grapples with our communities becomes easier. 

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