As I look back at Austin’s Latino cultural arts scene in 2019, I see how important perseverance and unity were to our comunidad this year.
Here are some 2019 moments that I’ll carry with me because each has taught me something about how we keep going and lift each other up along the way.
Art unites us
When 22 people were shot this summer at an El Paso Walmart, I saw how our community came together to create a Day of the Dead altar in honor of the victims.
Austinites contributed manpower as well as mementos for what turned out to be an impressive altar featuring a mural resembling the Franklin Mountains that surround El Paso. White crosses were placed at the mural’s feet along with candles, flowers, balloons, lotería cards and more. Signs displayed messages such as #fronterastrong and "Hate will not divide the borderland." It was a testament to the role art can play to help unite us and heal us even after tragedy.
At South by Southwest this year, I also saw how two young artists aimed to unite us in a different way. With the creation of the "Asylum Is a Human Right" exhibit, local artists Jerry Silguero and Yocelyn Riojas re-created a holding cell similar to those used by immigration authorities.
Visitors walked into a dimly lit 8-by-20-foot storage pod where an audio recording of a child recounting her time in a crowded cell could be heard. Going through the exhibit, it was hard not to imagine the hardships migrants face when placed in these cells called "hieleras," or iceboxes. Many migrants have reported frigid temperatures, overcrowding, no access to showers or toiletries and sleeping on the floors of these cells.
Cultura continues in the face of change
In a quickly changing Austin, it can be difficult to keep cultural traditions alive. But away from the city’s bustle in far Southeast Austin, 71-year-old Roberto Chavira does everything he can to preserve charrería, Mexico’s national pastime, for future generations. In the ranch he’s owned since 1977, Chavira hosts horse riding and livestock herding competitions, or charreada events.
It’s a sport full of ceremony, ritual and family. Chavira has seen charrería grow in Texas and beyond and hopes that even as toll roads and solar panel farms inch closer to his ranch, there will always be a place for young charros to ride and pass on the tradition that dates back to the 16th century.
For Red Salmon Arts, the nonprofit behind Resistencia Bookstore, preserving culture this year wasn’t easy.
After facing a significant rent increase in its former East Cesar Chavez Street location, the nonprofit this summer had to search for a new home. Over the years, the longest-running Chicano bookstore has overcome various challenges, including surviving changes to the independent bookstore industry, financial struggles, the death of its beloved founder and multiple waves of gentrification.
Securing a new location wasn’t just about keeping the nonprofit going. It was about ensuring that a safe space exists for the Chicano, Latino and American Indian community it serves. Throughout the decades, Resistencia Bookstore has served as a refuge of sorts for writers, activists, filmmakers and other creatives dedicated to social justice.
In September, the bookstore opened in its new Montopolis location, where it began a new chapter still rooted in its longtime mission.
Welcome and Farewell
Together we saw new community leaders step up and take the helm of critical roles this year. But we also bid farewell to longtime changemakers.
Among those we lost this year was cultural warrior Rudy Mendez. As founder of the trailblazing Ballet East Dance Company, Mendez brought the arts to underserved communities and helped guide generations of dance leaders. Mendez, 74, died on Cinco de Mayo.
His celebration of life was just as spirited as Mendez, who in 2006 was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. The memorial event at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center featured special performances dedicated to Mendez’s artistic work. This fall, the Mexic-Arte Museum also paid tribute to Mendez by creating a special Día de los Muertos altar in his honor. Mendez will be sorely missed.
With the departure of Mexico’s former consul general in Austin, Carlos González Gutiérrez, the city this year welcomed Mexican Consul General Pablo Marentes. As a former journalist, he was among the first Mexican reporters to interview then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. His diplomatic career has led to stints in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
For the consulate, boosting Mexican cultural arts in Austin serves as a bridge between countries and cultures. Every third Thursday of the month, the consulate partners with Cine Las Americas to feature a free Mexican movie. Earlier this year, it launched a permanent photo exhibit highlighting the contributions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Austin.
I’m continuously learning from all our creatives of color who hustle each day despite the obstacles. Can’t wait to see how our community will shine in 2020.