The Buena Vida neighborhood of Brownsville, Texas is one of the oldest and most culturally vibrant of the southernmost edge of the US/ Mexico border. There is an incredible strength of cultural resources in the community and many people are ready to start turning their creativity into small businesses. Taller de Permiso (Permission Workshop) is an activist and community led arts space and campaign which seeks to decode, re-imagine and make easier the permitting processes in the area for small informal business owners.
Collectively known as ‘Las Imaginistas,’ artists Celeste De Luna, Nansi Guevara and Christina Patino Sukhgian Houle, are a socially engaged art collective based in the Rio Grande Valley. The trio have worked together and independently attacking a wide range of community development issues including immigration, housing, women's rights, racial justice and education. “As first, second and third generation U.S born Mexican women, whose families made their livelihood by running their own small businesses, we know first-hand how sustainable, community led small businesses can shape families, neighborhoods and communities.” We caught up with the artists to find out why this project is important at this time, and in this location.
Permission to Dream, Act and Know
Our personal experiences directly informed the development of the project concept for Taller de Permiso (the name comes from the tradition of the bendición- to give one’s blessing).
In a time when many border residents are consciously or subconsciously feeling constricted due to our current administration, we wanted to find a way to express the idea of giving “permiso” to live out their dreams. Inspired by a series of charrettes, healing circles, art meditations and hands-on-workshops, Taller de Permiso is composed of three phases: Permission to Dream, Permission to Act, and Permission to Know. Each project segment works to explore different lenses through which to consider the idea of receiving and granting permission. The initiative will conclude with residents designing and issuing their own Community Member Issued Permits and performing their version of the future of municipal for residents and the City of Brownsville. By decentering municipal institutions as the only regulating entity with the power to distribute permission, Taller de Permiso, will consider how colonial frameworks inform traditional permitting processes. The gente (people) of the Buena Vida neighborhood are mothers, fathers, and relatives who work hard and have much to contribute. Taller de Permiso is a way to model and affirm to our community that we value the contributions of recent immigrants. That there is enough for everyone and together we can dream of more and not less for our community.
The Opportunity to Imagine
The project's first public event will launch in March 2018 with the beginning of the Permission to Dream Phase. In this phase Las Imaginistas will turn elotero (hot corn) trucks and front carrier bicycles into Sueño (Dream) Carts that will circle the neighborhood, inviting community members to imagine the future of their community together. These dreams will be hand-painted onto repurposed political campaign signs that will in turn root for a community, not a candidate. Though Permission to Dream is only stage one of three of the Taller de Permiso project, it lays a critical foundation for the work and processes that will unfold in the upcoming months and years through this collaborative community led economic development initiative. By highlighting, and amplifying the dreams of small business owners, mothers, children, students and elders in the region throughout this phase Taller de Permiso aims to celebrate the cultural and imaginative ingenuity of the region.
Working with our community
To be fully integrated with the community, we started the project by holding community meetings, art workshops, and listening hours when we would ask people about the neighborhood: what did they love and what did they wish was different. Some of the things that came up over and over again were how much people loved their community and the traditions there. There is a lot of creative ingenuity in Buena Vida. Many people told us that they had started to or wanted to start a small business but they had run into so many obstacles that they had given up on the process. Each member of our collective comes from generations of small business owners working in informal economies so this problem was really interesting to us: how could we use art as a tool to support informal economies? And as a collective of nepantleras interested in decolonizing the imagination, we also wondered how is the municipal tool of permitting a relic or byproduct of colonialism? We wondered how art could be used to rethink the permitting process and imagine new ways of relating to the concept of permission.
A more accessible permitting process
We want the permitting process and for municipal government activities to be more accessible to residents in the region. We want to support residents and the City in creating pathways of connection between constituents and elected officials. By co-creating platforms for civic engagement and building concrete civic engagement skills like increased capacity for research and by modeling suggestions for increased accessibility and transparency on the part of the government, (like translating government documents to Spanish), we want residents to feel that the city government is responsive to their needs and supportive of city growth that benefits the most vulnerable and historically marginalized residents. We want residents to know that their voices matter and how to report concerns to elected officials. We want economic development in Buena Vida and Brownsville to actively combat involuntary displacement of longtime residents. We will learn alongside residents to knowledgeably navigate, anticipate and counteract forces of exclusionary development. Buena Vida residents and the Brownsville Community will see the value in our community wealth and artisanal informal economy traditions and see it as a pathway for the community to imagine and construct more economic opportunities that align with their passion, talent, and ingenuity. Our hope is that residents continue to dream through their own talents and the city recognize its responsibility and role in fostering and creating an opportunity for all residents.
Investing in community cultural wealth
Brownsville is at an incredible moment in its history and it is a city ripe for the production of art projects that can support bringing new voices to the table to contribute to the narrative of its development. The valley is often cited as having some of the highest rates of poverty in the country. But what doesn’t get talked about enough is the incredible community cultural wealth of the region. By shifting the narrative from ‘there is nothing here’ to it being a place ripe for creative potential and opportunity, we support generations of youth and families that want to contribute to the communities that raised them. Many cities struggle to find ways to support economic growth in a way that is equitable and benefits their most vulnerable populations but we see Brownsville and the Buena Vida neighborhood as a community interested in exploring innovative solutions. With residents, activists, planers and educators we are building today towards a better, co-created, equitable tomorrow.