Words by Alexandra Canchola
Edited by Josue Ramirez and Abigail Vela

A Page from El Cuahamil shows how zines and local independent publications were key in informing the public.

Creatives have long discussed their role in shaping the information they communicate, but do we consider where and for who creatives choose to share their talents with? As creatives, we must ask ourselves what role we play in the narratives surrounding us.

In 2017, I recalled experiencing a true contrast between my memories of growing up in the Valley and the way home was portrayed on mainstream media. At the time, McAllen was on the news a lot due to the topic of immigration being at the forefront of American politics. It’s where a border wall was being built, and it was even labeled “America’s New Ellis Island,” according to the New York Times. Headlines like that felt strange to read about my hometown, especially as I witnessed how political divisions took hold of our community. When I read about children being detained in cages, women being sterilized against their will with forced hysterectomies, and Pence’s ridiculous defense of the conditions at detention centers where teenagers lay dead for hours, there was a helplessness that weighed on me. It no longer made sense to me to remain passive and just read about what was happening at home. Sure, donating to nonprofits and social justice causes could potentially alleviate this strange guilt I felt about being born north of the border, but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to get involved and help in a way that felt more actionable, but how? 

In a 2020 survey by Working Not Working, creatives were asked what Top 50 Companies they wanted to work at, and the responses are what you would imagine: Google, Nike, Apple, Netflix, Spotify, etc. 

While I understand how our capitalistic culture has encouraged us to value brands like Google, Nike, Apple, Netflix, and Spotify, I struggle to grasp the connection designers have with the work they create for global conglomerates. If creatives claim they wield a lot of power, shouldn’t we use it for good? The survey did allude to a finding that I believe could alter the decision-making of creatives. When surveyed, 26% of creatives were most motivated by “creative independence.” There is no better place for creative freedom than contributing work for a campaign for social justice or with a local non-profit. 

This is a call for creatives to get involved and make work that calls for action from our community to put pressure on decision-makers. One way to do this is through independent publications like zines. This model of independent publications was born in the 1960s and 1970s when underground papers flourished, embedded in communities motivated by their political ideologies to bring about change. To create, write, and express what was not seen in mainstream publications. 

Independent publications were the primary news source for local communities performing the roles of watchdog and informer. They worked to increase and improve communications within the Chicano community and mobilize their readers toward action. The community-based Chicano press encouraged and educated their readers to engage in matters of politics, economics, heritage, history, and customs to drive their political self-determination and economic independence. These publications called readers to organize and fight for justice, subjectively and passionately focused on local concerns faced by the Chicano community. Throughout the Chicano movement, over 300 publications were designed and distributed, acting as an “internal organ” of communication and motivation for the 150 parallel activist communities across the United States.  Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we had El Cuhamil, which chronicled the struggles of the Texas Farm Workers’ Union mobilizing for social justice. It aimed to be the voice of Chicano people and utilized culturally familiar bilingual jargon to convey a friendly tone. 

The content relied on imagery to bring to life the political events of the time in a way that readers could easily understand. The cartoons of Carlos Marentes, El Cuhamil’s cartoonist for three years beginning in 1977, pointed out the absurdity of the working conditions by drawing on a rich and sophisticated tradition of Mexican political humor. Marentes used stereotyped characters like his farm worker with the hat and his bulging belly and bigote to make his argument. These illustrations follow the stylistic patterns of cartoonist Andy Zermeño from the United Farm Workers’ newspaper, El Malcriado. Like Zermeño, Marentes drew many caricatures of local political figures. In El Cuhamil, we see cartoons of Texas Governor Bill Clements and Mayor of McAllen Othal Brand, a vegetable grower who was notorious for mistreating his workers. In one of Marentes’ cartoons, he draws a farmworker on the ground, which has been beaten and bludgeoned by a Texas Ranger as he holds a “huelga” sign. It looks like the farmworker is being interviewed by a detective with a speech bubble “Tell me sir: have your human rights been violated?” Marentes had a way of making the ridiculousness of the situation visual. The cartoons showcase the community’s perspective and the struggles that plagued them. El Cuhamil serves as an example of a publication that worked to correct the disinformation or lack of information in the traditional white press or mass media portrayals of the Mexican American experience. Publications like El Cuhamil helped tell the complete story, giving the power of authorship to the people experiencing hardships firsthand.

Political Cartoons by Carlos Marrentes for El Cuhamil in the late 1970’s showcase policed brutality encountered by Chicanx protestors.

What is unique about a publication run by activists is while mainstream publications are concerned with reporting history, alternative publications are interested in constructing history.

Today, we have zines– a free format that expresses an idea, affordably printed forms of expression on any subject. Previously known as chapbooks, pamphlets, and flyers, they have existed since people with independent ideas have been interested in sharing thoughts and information via various modes of technology. Raina Lee, in “A Personal History of Zines” describes them as a “paper rebellion.” Anyone with a drawing tool and impassioned thoughts can make one. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, went to art/design school or not, or understand different classifications of typography; anyone can make a zine. Ideally, zines are made by someone with something urgent to say that isn’t covered in mainstream media.

An underground ethos has drawn so many marginalized communities to this free and flexible format. For example, punks of the late twentieth century embraced fanzines as a complement to their music. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, zines became synonymous with movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl. They are a format to speak openly and frankly about issues that may be otherwise muted or deemed too thorny, such as politics or identity, to create networks and open minds. At the heart of the zine-making ethos is subversion, freedom of thought, and a design-it-yourself attitude. 

Creatives do not need to take this work on alone. Partnering with organizations or collaborating with others is encouraged and allows you to draw on a myriad of experiences and voices. 

There are several contemporary examples of publications, primarily zines, that have drawn from Chicano independent publications as inspiration. For example, Isabel Ann Castro, co-founder of St. Sucia, a Latina/x feminist magazine, describes her experience creating a contemporary publication as a continuation of the Chicano publications from the 1960s, covering topics such as reproductive justice, education, gender identity, and immigration. Castro says, “Texas feels like a really awesome hub because we’re not on the East Coast or the West Coast. We’re kind of like, “Well, we’ll do our own fucking thing,” and ignore what’s going on over there. It’s fun.” There is a freedom to publish without approval, without the need for validation. 

A digital zine made by Alexandria Canchola for the RGV Equal Voice Network’s (now Voces Unidas) Know Your Rights Campaign.

Daisy Salinas, San Antonio-based Xicana feminist zinester, comments, “It’s like unlearning what gets to count as knowledge, so I’ve been unlearning that the whole time I’ve been publishing zines and not needing validation from publishing companies…in a zine, I can talk about what really matters to me without feeling like I have to compromise it”.

Claudia Zapata, who created ChingoZine in Austin, Texas, as part of a collective with James Huizar and Claudia Aparicio-Gamundi, described their experience as an opportunity to bring intersectional communities together with an accessible print publication that fits in the size of your back pocket. Zapata commented, “I was just glad that they (audiences) were gaining access to the art.” ChingoZine was an image-based zine that functioned as an alternative format of an exhibition. Zapata described their experience working as curator of Mexicarte Museum and the challenges of showing work of BIPOC young emerging artists due to lack of space. ChingoZine was an opportunity to share the work of Latinx artists. Zapata believes the positive reception of the project was because “It was everything that we (Chicanos) wanted and imagined.” Zapata would sequence out the images so visuals would speak to one another– there was a specific image narrative, thematic pockets from people that didn’t know one another. Zapata’s art history background gives them the additional perspective of understanding the impact a publication can make not only to the community but to the conversation of contemporary art. 

The History of Policing in the RGV by Guadalupe Pardo is an example of the contemporary use of zines and design for social justice.

Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we have events like Juntos Zine Fest to bring local creatives together and continue the tradition of sharing and conversing about issues that matter to the community. The zine, A History of Policing in the Rio Grande Valley, by Guadalupe Pardo (@wassloppyjoearealman) showcases the commitment local creatives have to publish work that impacts the community. Pardo commented that this work took them two years to complete because they “understand how important and pertinent these stories are. The legacy of policing and police violence in the RGV is one we are living right now.”

Contemporary zines like these feature a range of topics that cover the Latinx community; they are featured on university course syllabi, collected in households, in library collections, and archived in museums.

Guided by the central philosophy to empower and uplift marginalized communities, creatives can develop publications that communicate accurate information in a way that is accessible to a multilingual audience. By producing expressive, vibrant work rooted in co-creation, one can cut through polarization and create art that builds community. For over two years, I partnered with border-based immigrant rights network Voces Unidas. Together we developed engaging art material that addressed the most pressing immigrant needs, including immigrant detention during COVID and attacks on the public health system. This relationship demonstrated how artists can have a meaningful impact during times of community hardship. Art fuels people to act.

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