Pulga Scene, picture by Josue Ramirez.

REFRAMING ACCESS TO ART IN THE COLONIAS

Words by Josue Ramirez, edited by Freddy Jimenez

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Growing up in a colonia in the rural outskirts of Los Fresnos in the 90’s and early 2000’s, visual art was not something that was readily “accessible,” at least in my experience. I had crayons, colored pencils, scissors and glue, the basics, and that was great. I remember a time in elementary school when I was basically taking commissions for hand drawn Christmas cards a dollar a pop. I knew I was a good “drawer,” as kids say, but I had a very limited thought of what “art” was. I imagined a paint palette, brushes, a canvas, and a person wearing a beret. So when I say “accessible,” I mean that I didn’t know what the concept of visual art was until middle school, really. 

Even then, it was mostly through my own exploration. Because I chose band as my one elective, I didn’t take an art class for a grade, and to this day I still haven’t. I learned by seeing examples of art in books and on the local TV programming. I had a vague idea of it but not an understanding. There really weren’t places nearby that offered any cultural or creative activity either; the closest community center was over 15 miles away. With no public transportation, there was no way my parents were going to let me bike to town on busy FM roads. Forget about getting online either, there is still no internet connectivity in my childhood neighborhood, but back then it was basically unheard of. So yeah, I’d say those creative resources were definitely sparse.

During my summer breaks as a teenager, I started truly diving into painting for fun and experimenting with mediums and materials. I utilized whatever I could get my hands on: old house paint, automotive spray paint, shoe polish, old markers that I managed to squeeze the ink out of – really anything that would leave a mark. I painted on old wood boards, cardboard boxes, and used my parents’ cuartito as a canvas. When all the old cabinets, trash cans, and the inside walls of the shed were covered, I painted the outside walls as well as the roof. 

In high school, I’d make the most out of extra curricular events by volunteering to paint the banners for the football games or pep-rallies. The reason being, I got access to butcher paper, the leftover paint, and brushes. My interest in art and my teenage angst combined, manifested into shoplifting art supplies from Micheal’s and Hobby Lobby; something I’m not particularly fond of, especially given that I have loving parents who would and literally have sacrificed so much for my development and growth. I hadn’t considered that potentially that was my teenage self coping with the lack of access to art and creative nurturing, among other things. To be honest, it took a while for me to connect the idea of access and equity (or lack of) to my lived experiences. It was not a part of my understanding of the world  because it was just how things were. For example, I didn’t learn that my neighborhood was a “colonia,” and all that it entailed, until my Mexican-American courses at the University of Texas. It was my time in college that allowed me to first learn about Mexican and Latina/o/x art in depth. I learned about muralism, grafica popular, the Teatro Campesino, screen printing, with perhaps the most striking artistic concept, for me, being rasquachismo. 

Fruit painting on truck by unknown artist.

Rasquachismo, as very generally described by Tomas Ybarra-Fausto in his work “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” is an “attitude rooted in resourcefulness yet mindful of stance and style;” a bicultural underclass perspective that is a direct response to the “material level of existence or subsistence.” Think tires that are reused as planters or aluminum can tabs repurposed as belts and purses. Altars made of bathtubs, payasitos, lowriders, the list goes on and on, everything familiar to me.   

I felt like everything I had done before had a name and it was truly art, not just an urge or past time. I became connected to a lineage of individuals who, like me, made do with what was around them, that made movidas for the sake of creativity. People who recognized their and others’ underdog sensibilities. It truly clarified and validated part of my identity and my art, because it made me feel valued and understood within the creative realm of visual art.

Rasquachismo, as very generally described by Tomas Ybarra-Fausto in his work “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” is an “attitude rooted in resourcefulness yet mindful of stance and style;” a bicultural underclass perspective that is a direct response to the “material level of existence or subsistence.” Think tires that are reused as planters or aluminum can tabs repurposed as belts and purses. Altars made of bathtubs, payasitos, lowriders, the list goes on and on, everything familiar to me.   

I felt like everything I had done before had a name and it was truly art, not just an urge or past time. I became connected to a lineage of individuals who, like me, made do with what was around them, that made movidas for the sake of creativity. People who recognized their and others’ underdog sensibilities. It truly clarified and validated part of my identity and my art, because it made me feel valued and understood within the creative realm of visual art.

I have since, for the most part, stayed true to that feeling of raw creative emotion. It not only drives my art and sensibility but makes me wonder: What would I have done with that information when I was younger? What impact would that validation have had on my artistry, work, and life path? Now as a Cultural Organizer with Trucha, I am in a position to act on that question, not for my sake but for teens living in the rural colonias today.

ARISE Adelante Youth at Carla Hughes Studio

 

This summer Trucha and ARISE Adelante collaborated through a Creative Support Project to provide arts programming to colonia youth during their 2021 Summer Sessions. ARISE Adelante is a faith-based community organization focused on empowering, engaging, and serving the women and children of the colonias in Hidalgo County. Part of their efforts are to support the education of the youth, including engaging them in the arts and cultural activities, such as folklorico and traditional crafts. To support their efforts, I developed and implemented an online and in-person arts programming based on the creative interest of students in the organization’s four centers.

 

The Creative Support Project connected with local artists to provide creative classes to the 20 ARISE Adelante youth. The sessions included a printmaking workshop where students learned about various printing techniques, like stamp making, relief, and screen printing. Students created textured prints utilizing everyday found objects around the home along with individual material provided by Trucha. The purpose was to consider our surroundings as tools for art making and to deconstruct preconceived notions of what art is.

The second workshop revolved around the art of the piñata, where students learned the history of the craft and of contemporary piñata artists, like Justin Favela and Giovanni Valderas. We discussed the perspectives that undermine craft in contrast to fine art and broke that down critically. Students participated in making piñata stickers with repurposed USPS shipping labels, and learned the technique to make a piñata collage. 

 

Artist Nansi Guevara held a figure drawing activity that went a bit further than the stick figure drawing. Students used paper and pencil – minimal supplies – to sketch with shapes and add movement to their drawings.

The final workshops consisted of an in-person studio visit with ceramicist Carla Hughes. With ARISE’s help, students were transported to Harlingen, where they made pinch pots and figurines. Carla explained the history of the craft of pottery making. The process of molding the clay, glazing the piece, and baking it. Students visited the studio twice: in the first class, they made their artwork. In the second, they learned Color Theory 101 and decorated the pieces. The lesson of the workshop was to consider how everyday utilitarian objects encompass art and creativity. The finished pieces were showcased by ARISE Adelante in an exhibition at their Support Center for the students. 

Through the Creative Support Project, Trucha challenges the narrative that art and creativity are inaccessible.

While creative resources are lacking, especially in rural communities and the colonias of the border, art and creativity are all around us, we all have the ability to be creative. Whether that creativity is given the weight and value as “art” is different. In addition to systemic barriers like the lack of transportation, the gap in internet connectivity and the practically non-existent creative resources (which definitely need to be addressed), perhaps the bigger barriers to accessibility of the arts are limiting and exclusionary western ideologies. 

Shifting to more inclusive frameworks might prove a more feasible, immediate and long lasting form of access to the arts. It could prove to be as life changing to young creatives as it was for me.   

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