Brownsville artist collective to receive $350K grant to support small businesses

Three Brownsville artists and educators will receive $350,000 in funding from ArtPlace America’s 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund. Las Imaginistas/Taller de Permiso is one of only 23 projects that will receive more than $8.7 million to execute their creative project.

Led by Celeste De Luna, Nansi Guevara and Christina Patino Sukhgian Houle, the project will “support and celebrate their neighborhood’s vibrant and ingenious informal economies,” as described in a statement. The project will “demystify and reimagine the current permitting processes for small businesses. At the same time, the project will also question historical and cultural norms of permitting. The project will center community cultural wealth, talent, and creativity and will be based in the Buena Vida Neighborhood.”

We interviewed the three artists to learn more about the project and the impact it will have in Brownsville, Texas.

Map of area the project will impact | Courtesy of Las Imaginistas/Taller de Permiso

Q: How did you all come up with this project?

A: All three members of our art collective had been working closely with partners in the Buena Vida neighborhood over the year leading up to designing the project. We had been talking a lot to residents and activists in the region and thinking about how we could use our skills as artists to advance justice and equity in the region.

As part of our interest in this question we held 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. There is an incredible strength of cultural resources in the community and many people are ready to start turning their creativity into small businesses. 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.

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The name ‘Taller de Permiso’ comes from the lovely tradition of the bendición. 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.

From left to right: Nansi Guevara, Celeste De Luna, and Christina Patino Sukhgian Houle

Q: What do you hope to achieve?

A: 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.

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Buena Vida will be valued educators and co-creators of arts and culture in the city and have clear and easy access to tools to imagine, advocate and strengthen new types of informal economies. 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.

Q: Why is a project like this important for an area like Brownsville?

A: 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.

Large art grants frequently are awarded to major urban areas but a grant of this scale can have an incredible impact in a smaller city like Brownsville. In a city made of up of generations of immigrants, Taller de Permiso will be here to remind us of our value and ingenuity and fight for the environment of opportunity that we deserve.

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Note: Nansi Guevara is a contributor for Neta. Celeste De Luna is the designer of Neta’s official mascot, the Tlacuache.