In the Rio Grande Valley artists and activists have worried about the impact COVID 19 could have on our community, and as the weeks roll on, we see the virus has not just taken people’s livelihoods, but also some lives.
Many people in our community already live in health and economic precarity. As a region lacking a public hospital and home to many immigrant and mixed status families, the Rio Grande Valley is often referred to as La Jaula (the Cage): to the east is the ocean, to the south is Mexico and to the west and the north are border patrol checkpoints. When residents need to see a health specialist they can be faced with the choice of a) being deported and receiving health care or b) going untreated and risking death in order to stay with their family.
The stakes here are high not just for the region but for the nation. Our community is one of farmworkers and food vendors. Many are out of work as a result of COVID 19 and struggling to pay rent and trying to balance economic need with good health practices. And though the consequences of this global pandemic are more severe in the US than in any other nation, messaging to help slow and prevent the spread of COVID 19 is failing to reach historically underserved communities. Patterns of neglect and unequal distribution of resources continue to rear their head during the management of this pandemic. Artists are especially skilled at identifying these gaps and working rapidly to address these gaps. They are at the front lines of communications.
Here in the RGV I see many artist-activists responding to the urgent community needs. This crowdsourced community messaging certainly should not fall solely on the hands of artists but it is important to recognize the on the ground work emerging in response to these dire times.
We Are Bringing the Joy (Beatrix Le Strange)
Beatrix Le Strange (aka Joe Collon Uvalles) is a dragtivist who is no stranger to addressing community needs through cultural strategies. In 2018 Joe created 'Drag Out HIV' while working for the Valley AIDS Council. The project trained drag queens to be community educators on HIV and was a great success, reaching more than 600 people with their programming.
Joe is using his social media platforms to elevate the importance of staying at home while also making social distancing fun. Joe/ Beatrix did a happy hour make up time during the first weeks of social distancing. This event elevated the importance of taking the Stay At Home mandate seriously while also creating new platforms for community gathering and attending to our very real needs for engagement with entertainment. The event demonstrated that everyone can be a creator of relevant cultural content and that cultural production can be an avenue for community gathering, even in times of individual isolation. When asked about why Joe decided to create the quarantine happy hour he said “I was starting to go crazy being at home and I knew others must be also. But I also knew it was important that we all stayed at home and stayed safe. I wanted to make a way to encourage people to do what we need to for our community without losing our minds. I wanted to remind us that we have the power to make things fun.”
We are Bringing the News (Imaginistas and Josue Ramirez)
As COVID 19 spread in the US the Imaginistas brainstormed how we could help our community. One of our key concerns was that the community we serve (mostly low income, women, queer folks, spanish speakers and immigrants) were not being reached by national and regional messaging on COVID. We heard that many in our community were confused by news on the virus, were not getting reliable or truthful news and were unclear on how serious to take the pandemic or what action to take. Imaginistas Co-Founder and Director of Design Nansi Guevara said “I was talking to people and realizing that there was confusion on really basic facts like why there was not a cure and how dangerous it was. I realized we needed to do something.” As a result our art collective decided to develop imagery sharing important COVID 19 basics that specifically targeted our regular audiences. Our team did outreach and research to understand the top information that needed to be distributed, worked collaboratively to develop the text and then our design team interpreted the content into imagery that reflected our community. The images were immediately popular with the folks we have been organizing over the last two years but they also proved to be useful for other regional NGOs frustrated by the lack of digital content on COVID 19 produced in Spanish.
Other artists in the RGV have also been taking leadership to create content specifically targeted at our community. Artist Josue Ramirez made an image of a closed fist covered in soap bubbles with the tagline “Wash Your Hands”. The image builds on the use of the closed fist in the RGV as a symbol of organizing which makes reference to farmworker labor rights in the region. Ramirez’s work makes hand washing a commitment to community solidarity.
We are Building Community (Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network)
The RGV has many artists who are ready to take part in making their community better and are looking for ways to get engaged in helping address the region’s most pressing needs. This week the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network (RGV EVN) launched the region’s first artist activist program with a call for artworks directly related to COVID 19. This Network of nonprofits recognizes artists as the leaders in shifting culture and is working with culture makers to both develop new cultural content directly related to community needs and to organize these culture workers during this time of economic precarity.
The two part EVN program is spearheaded by long time activist Bianca Castro with help from Neta and NALAC. Reflecting on the new program Bianca, who studied Mexican American studies at the University of Texas RGV, said “We know that our artist community needs to come together and organize and that we can make a difference here.” Over the upcoming month artists from the RGV will submit artworks about COVID 19 to help get out information about the virus to vulnerable communities.
If you are a RGV artist submit your work here, or for digital workshops here. This project is especially important as not only community members but also municipal and state leaders waiver in their commitment to safe practices during the pandemic. Locally generated cultural content to encourage healthy distancing even as businesses reopen is critical. Especially in a region like the RGV where so many, even without a pandemic, live on the brink of eviction and food insecurity.
As Imaginistas we think of all culture makers as artists and everyone as a culture maker. The framing of who calls their work art or who centers cultural production as a strategy for change is entirely in the hands of the individual. We work as Las Imaginsitas to show the accessibility and the power of these tools and to amplify regional cultural voice through the production of relevant content. During pandemic times we all have a role. The question is what role do we want to play, and how can that help what the times need?
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Christina Patino Houle is a co-founder and the Chief Architect for Las Imaginistas. She is the Network Weaver for the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network. Her writing has appeared in Shelterforce, the Texas Observer and the San Antonio Current.