956 Artivists

Ghetto Superstar: Persevering Through Adversity

Words by Abigail Vela

An artist named Octoabe pointing at the sky in a brown jacket in a alleyway in the RGV
Artist Octo pointing at the sky.

An artivist changes the world with their art. 

The term “artivist” is a blend of the words “art” and “activist,” first coined in a 1997 gathering in Chiapas, Mexico, of Chicano artists from East Los Angeles and Zapatistas, “indigenous rebels who rose up three years earlier to reject corporate globalization policies that threatened their way of life.” According to co-founders Steve Lambert and Steve Duncombe of The Center for Artistic Activism, artivism is said to have started during the Chicano movement in Los Angeles in the 1960s. However, they implied that artivism began even further back. Duncombe shared, “When you start looking closely, every successful activist movement involves creativity, culture, and innovation. What we realized in the end is that all successful activism is artistic activism.” Known artivists include Mujeres de Maiz, Guerilla Girls, Ai WeiWei, and Banksy.

956 Artivists is a new series that explores the relationship between art and activism in the Rio Grande Valley, where we connect with local artists whose work speaks of the culture and social movements that build our communities. These local artivists are actively shifting our perspectives and reshaping the narrative of the RGV.

“I’m Octo. I am a painter. I’m an artist, and I’m an artivist.” The first artist we interviewed for 956 Artivists is Octoabe, also known as Octo, who shares some insight about his upcoming exhibition, “Ghetto Superstar.”

 

Photo of two children covered up in thick jackets. There is snow on the grass and a Jesus and Mary statue by the bushes behind them in the RGV
Photo courtesy of Octo.

Growing Up in Poverty

Octoabe was born in Miguel Aleman, Tamaulipas. He shared his experiences living in the Valley where he was raised, “Growing up, people would always use ghetto as an insult. It was synonymous with being inferior or cheap or just low class and things like that, you know?” He shared, “It always bugged me, you know, because being from where I’m from, I didn’t grow up with much money. We grew up off food stamps; we grew up with one super beat-up car.” 

In 2021, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) reported that colonias in the RGV are “especially vulnerable” due to a lack of infrastructure, “high poverty, low public health outcomes and a high degree of political and economic marginalization.” 

The latest data from the US Census shows an estimated average of about 27.95 percent of people in Cameron, Willacy, Starr, and Hidalgo counties live in poverty, with the highest percentage being 32.8 percent of people in Starr County. 

Additionally, our impoverished communities are known to lack affordable and stable housing and struggle with food insecurity, among other factors. Octo empathizes and relates with how his parents grew up, sharing that his mother lived in the barrio of South McAllen. 

Octoabe in a brown coat holding a silver tray in a alleyway in the RGV with an acrylic painting depicting Saint Jude Thaddaeus in unconventional ways.
Octo holding one of his artworks, “Patron Saint of Hope.”

Octoabe's Journey into Fine Art

“One of my old teachers in middle school, when I was in eighth grade, showed me this documentary or this film by Banksy called, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” So I was super into street art, graffiti, all that stuff.” 

 

Octoabe’s art style has evolved from illustrations to creating fine art paintings on found and discarded objects, turning trash into artistic pieces of treasure, “I like working with wood a lot and found items, I’ll go to thrift, to the pulga, or on the side of the road; the other day I found a bike at this dumpster, and I’m using that for a piece.” 


He emphasized a moment that impacted his artistic journey, “Two summers ago, I took a trip to Houston. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston was hosting this collector’s MC Escher collection. It really inspired me to do what I’m doing now: getting into fine art, painting, drawing and presenting my artwork in a higher light.”

Photo of a young mother dressed in white, holding her baby Octoabe, who is in white and blue overalls.
Photo courtesy of Octo.

Who is the Ghetto Superstar?

To put it in perspective, “what makes a ghetto superstar is somebody who didn’t fall for the system that wants you to fail so badly,” Octo shares, “[someone] that didn’t get institutionalized, that didn’t die young and stuff like that, you know.”

 

Octobe’s upcoming exhibition, “Ghetto Superstar,” is an ode to his mother, with the central piece being that of her image scratched on glass from a car door, “That’s the ghetto superstar, you know, that’s the piece that the whole show revolves around.”

 

“Ghetto doesn’t necessarily need to be dirty or bad or anything like that,” he reflects, “I think it’s a beautiful thing actually because there’s a lot of unity in the impoverished neighborhoods… the people who have the least give the most.” 

 

Through the symbols of poverty and resilience also lies a religious edge. “I feel like Jesus Christ was a ghetto superstar, you know? He came from nothing, and he died for everything. You come from nothing. You start at the bottom, you start from the dirt, and it’s all uphill from there.”

Two hands holding a yellow shirt with black words that read, “IF I WORK HARD AT IT I’LL BE WHERE I WANNA BE.” made by Artist Octoabe in the RGV
Octo holding a school spirit shirt he made.
Artist, Octoabe holding a yellow shirt in a alleyway

Destigmatizing Ghetto in the RGV

Octo’s art has become an ode to the realities faced growing up in and living through poverty. “Ghetto Superstar” is meant to share these experiences and relate to the people who have and are currently living through it in the RGV.

 

“I feel to destigmatize that, you gotta show everybody that people are just trying to survive. Just because somebody’s poor doesn’t make them a bad person or criminal or anything like that. And I feel that’s a that’s a stigma that gets carried with being poor because you want something so badly, you’re gonna commit a crime for it.” 

 

Whether it be through found objects like a phone or a bike, his mother’s image on glass, or recreating how she would hand-make his spirit shirts for school, Octoabe is on a mission to showcase that there is beauty, strength and perseverance in poor, impoverished, ghetto. “It’s reflections of what life used to be then and what it is now, and everything that I feel my family and I had to go through to get to where I am now.”

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