Four Generations @ Boca Chica Beach, Tejas by Sheila Vasquez, 2020.
“They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.”
"Someday / hey, hey / Boy, you're gonna pay 'cause baby I'm the one who's keeping score."
Today is March 2, 2021, and two white men of means (means meaning money, and money being power) made two proclamations for Texas.
First, the governor ended the statewide mask mandate, and, next, he declared that businesses are free to open back up at 100% capacity. This announcement comes as the pandemic is still flaring, and pitifully few Texans have been vaccinated.
A few weeks ago, right before Valentine’s Day, my dear comadre lost her husband of 37 years to the vicious virus just as the snow began to fall. And fall. And fall.
But according to the already-vaccinated man in charge, masks are no longer needed in public.
We are still recovering from a climate-defying snowstorm that paralyzed power grids all over the state, which induced such a deep freeze that there are San Antonians I know who still don’t have running water in their homes more than two weeks later.
Believe me when I tell you how tired many of us are. Even those of us who have emerged from these disasters relatively unscathed know it’s just a matter of time until the state fails us irreparably. And we know that all we have is each other.
We see this decision to fling off mask recommendations, and flout any semblance of caution, as yet another example of that same old hubris that has driven Texas history all along.
How they kowtow to big business and praise profit over everything. How making such an announcement so soon after a flubbed response to an unnatural disaster, and way before the pandemic is even remotely under control, is just… a distraction.
A reckless, nauseating distraction, but a ploy nonetheless.
The old bait and switch, more smoke and mirrors.
Today, too, a South African emerald mine heir-turned-tech-billionaire with his eyes set on colonizing Mars, made moves to rename the land at the tippiest tip o’ South Texas on which his space launch pad and factory occupy.
This sacred beach teems with life, it's a fertile delta where the Río Grande spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and it was previously pristine. An undeveloped swatch of sand and sea named Boca Chica by the first colonizers, which Wikipedia erroneously and somewhat grossly translates to “little girl’s mouth.”
As if this is just a chapter in his cheesy sci-fi novel, as if this is not our real-life homeland.
Unsatisfied with his land and sea grab, he desires a snazzier name for his space colonization hub. He wants to call it St*rbase, Texas.
It hasn’t officially happened, but you don’t have to be psychic to see the outcome: it’s almost certain that the yes-men of Brownsville will do as they’re commanded.
As if no other names matter, as if thousands of years, and sea turtles, and ocelots, and families mean nothing, as if that sacred stretch of water and sand is, when pu$h comes to $hove, only important as a blip on a rich man’s radar so that he may launch the only dreams that matter---his own.
He has the money, and all we have is time.
Colonizers gonna colonize.
I have way more to say on the matter, it’s a topic I have been researching and quietly writing about since Sp*ceX descended upon the Río Grande Valley in 2014.
But for now, I will proclaim to those feos that we are keeping our masks on until the day when it’s safe to show our pretty caras again.
I’ll tell them we’re not interested in Mars. Let ‘em know that this earth, our earth, and this Tejas, our Tejas, is where we’re staying.
Call it Boca Chica, rename it St*rbase, but long after we're gone, it'll just be where river meets ocean meets land. Again.
So it happens that on this day, I look deeply into the digital portrait Sheila Vasquez drew for me when she opened up her commissions sometime back in mid-quarantine.
I had seen examples of the digital portraits Sheila was knocking out, and when she announced commissions were open, I was inspired and excited to ask her for an illustration.
But first I had to dream up what I wanted.
from our DMs:
I would like an intergenerational matrilineal South Texas beach scene: great-grandma, abuela, mother, two daughters. Keywords: waves, sand dunes, palm trees, nopales, ocelot, brown pelican, yellow butterfly, sea oats, sand dollars. All this imagery is highly symbolic and important to our story.
I know that’s a lot, but I also know it’s gonna be an heirloom, so I am happy to pay you [twice what she was asking].
Mama got a lil grant! [blushing smiley face emoji]
Oh! And please include the most important creature of all: Kemp’s ridley sea turtle!
Days passed. Pandemic fog as usual, so that now, in March, it’s all fuzzy.
All I know is that in the back of my mind, for those days I was waiting, I knew Sheila was working, so I’d get that little electric fizzle in my panza whenever I’m awaiting a draft from an artist, when the ball is in their court, and the next step is the surprise of the grand reveal.
About a month later, I received the first version of The Sea Portrait. And I remember weeping. I miss the beach like I miss my welita. How I long to be together again.
Probably the most intense piece I’ve done next to the piece I’ve just finished for SWU. Thank you so much for trusting me to create this for you.
See, Sheila took my vision of a mystical reunion of my (grand)mothers, m'ijas, and me at our beach, and made it real.
She captured us in our element, surrounded by creatures of earth and sea and sky, and when I look at it, I see a prayer.
Maybe once I am ready to finally finish my collection of autohistoria that centers on my grandmother who died alone in her apartment on April 1, 2019, maybe...just maybe, Sheila’s portrait will be the cover of Bodies of Agua.
Boca Chica is where our stories launch.
No matter what they claim it’s called.
I’ve only spent quality time with Shelia once, but it was at an unforgettable occasion.
A few days before lockdown, my family and I sat next to her and her fam at the wedding celebration of our friends, Mona and Tone.
That magical night was brimming with love, and hugs, and most of us had never heard the term social distancing.
Under that particular patch of sky at Galeria E.V.A., we all rejoiced in family and community, and I love that it was Sheila’s face across from mine at the dinner table.
That night, I didn’t know that the world was ending, I couldn’t predict that She and I would soon crystallize our alliance over social media during quarantine, that we’d forge a digital, but tangible community, and that She would be the one to draw the family portrait of my dreams.
But it was her sitting across from me, it was She.
I hope we can work together again, and that someday we will break tortillas otra vez, with all the kids playing, the chickens bawking, the moms dancing, and the dads laughing.
Someday, maybe, when the only masks we wear are the ones of our own choosing.
Q: I ask this question to each artist I’ve interviewed, and now that I’m months-deep into this project, I think that is because I’ve maybe subconsciously chosen people with a similar background as mine, or so I’ve gathered, a certain working to middle class upbringing, where creative endeavors might have been a side hustle or a instinctual pleasure, not many of us had role models for forging a life out of art. Maybe that’s why I always feel compelled to ask this, first thing, so here goes: A lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome, feeling like we are not enough or that we don’t belong in spaces designated as academic or artistic. Working class backgrounds and capitalism in general don’t necessarily encourage artistic expression, much less pursuing art as a way of life that can actually pay the bills. Do you remember when you knew art was your calling? Can you tell us about your path from private to public artist?
A: I think the first time I felt an artistic spark in me was when I was eight-years-old on the playground choreographing a dance to Mariah Carey's "Someday."
No boombox, I sang a cappella.
I remember one time my stepmom caught me sneaking earrings and make-up inside a book in my backpack. Fast forward to 20-year-old She, who saved up all their tips to get a fender Stratercaster and a flat downtown with some gals.
I played my first gig over at B & D Icehouse, and the last band I performed in was Los Sheilaquiles, alongside my husband. Our last gig was at La Botánica for a St. Sucia show. Julian was just born, and I played with a broken foot and milk leaking from my breasts.
It's weird though because even though I was a musician for years, I never really considered myself an artist. It wasn't until just three years ago that one of my dear friends, Mauro de la Tierra, invited me to a meeting with an art collective called Black Sheep. I was going through a lot of depression at the time, and was happy when they welcomed me with open arms.
Since then, I have participated in four exhibits, curated a fashion show, and I’ve completed 100 commissions… and counting.
I was very thankful to be out from under dark clouds, happy to be seen, and healing through my creativity...then Covid-19 happened.
Q: Can you sum up your overall mission as an artist? How does your work tie in to your love for your culture and your city? Why do you do what you do, and what is your motivation? Can you tell us about any dream projects for the future?
A: My overall mission as an artist is to heal, whether it is myself that is healing or my clients. The art that I make for myself is my way of telling my story. It is my way to be seen and help others be seen.
After working with a collective these past few years, I've really grown to like working with others. I've always thought it would be cool to start another collective with a bunch of radical moms. I always say "We aren't born radical.” Or at least I wasn't.
I had to do the work, hurt and get hurt, to get to where I am now. It's my duty to do my part to break the cycle and raise my child to be conscious and loving of animals, the planet, and people. And fuuuuuck capitalism, and racists, and the system. And posers who do not speak up and are just complacent to violence on black bodies, women's bodies, and children.
Honestly THIS is my motivation.
Q: Which brings us to….the pandemic. I don’t know if you’re ready to reflect, much less read into how it went down for you and your fam, but we’re coming up on one year into it. For me, I was stunned and anxious, but I also didn’t have a choice. I had to do what my mom calls “riding the wave.” You ride it or it rides you, right? Tell us about Pandemic Sheila. What have been your saving graces? How do you stay strong for your fam while still taking care of yourself? How has the pandemic changed you?
A: Man, the pandemic, she is a scavenger. Watching all those zombie apocalypse movies and shows has definitely paid off! That, and being raised by a military man who taught me to be tough and efficient.
The first couple of months of quarantine were bliss after catching busses with a toddler to and from school, in an all kinds of harsh weather, I was stoked for a damn break.
Things were so overwhelmingly uncertain that I remained oblivious and watched all the seasons of Ugly Betty with my cute little family and just “‘laxed.”
Now a year into this, and things are definitely challenging. My partner works during the day while I stay focused on my son's virtual schooling. I'm not going to lie---it is very intense at times, but I am so thankful, nonetheless, that I am able to be here for my son during these times when many parents have to work and are not able to do that.
I've changed. I feel it, yet I am afraid to reflect on how I have changed because I know a lot of it was traumatic. I've lost a lot through death and friendships.
All I can say is that those that I love, I love harder than ever before. Also, weed helps me tremendously, and hot mint tea.
Maybe a lil chocolate támbien.
Q: Through all your styles, mediums, and experiments, it seems like your admirers can always recognize your work because your style is unmistakably yours. Can you tell us about your influences, particular artists and/or movements? Do you have any lifelong and more recent inspo (artists, movements, movies, music, etc.) that you care share with us…like, Sheila’s top recommendations to keep us inspired and uplifted?
A: I love my city, my downtown, my Westside, my Southside. Kendrick asked where your grandma stay, and I say "Off Gillette, SOUTHSIDE!"
After her death this past year I made sure to pay tribute to her and my ancestors. She called me her vagabond: “There you go with your guitar on the bus, my little vagabond!"
Ay, I miss her so.
Other than my city, I have so many inspirations. I'd say death, film, music, luchadors, and graveyards are my main inspirations.
Daniel Johnston has always been so dear to me; I took his death very hard. I'll never forget when I saw him in concert, it seemed as if he looked right into my soul when he uttered the words "this next song is for anyone who's ever wanted to die," and he then proceeded with the song "True Love Will Find You in the End.”
He was right.
I am so blessed to be surrounded by so many talented and passionate people.
I, for real, gotta give my props to Cholo Tears [Rudy Marco Herrera]. Cool story, he was my sous chef, and we made bread together, talked about art, and cool bands.
Also Isabel [Castro], aka Queen of Tacos Texas, has been a source of inspiration. When I first started doing art stuff a few years back, she lent me some real cool advice: "Just make shit you like!"
I really admire Ashleigh Valentine's work, and I have plans for a commission from her. Veronica Castillo [Galeria E.V.A.] has definitely given me so much. I am so thankful for her sharing her space and knowledge with my family. I have so much gratitude for her, for real.
A few more I admire: The MF wizard, Sundias, powdered wig machine, Dawn, Zerktronic, Daphne/Dario, Akaimi the artist, Cosmicgirlco, Edward Harris, Angela, Redjay, Riley and Musemoss, Death Cult, Mia, Marlin, Brandon, Josh, Glenn, Vince, Raven, and Mauro.
She's Baker's Dozen
1. Princess Nokia
2. Kim Deal
3. 1996's Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack
4. Luscious Jackson
5. The Slits
6. Celia Cruz
7. Daniel Johnston
8. Choir Boy
9. Liquid Sky
10. Julie Ruin 1997 album
11. Candy Man
12. The Gun Club- Mother Earth
13. Brazen Hussies- Imitation Me
Q: Talk to us about this commission. The Sea Portrait is one of my most treasured artworks for obvious reasons. How was this process for you?
A: I did a lot of studying for this project.
It was very therapeutic, and I learned a lot about oceans animals. I have this rule when I work on art, especially when it is for others, I have to be in a good place so that I don't pass any negative energy to the piece.
It's been a struggle to feel good in this pandemic, so some commissions took more time than usual.
My favorite part about this piece is having the honor to draw the generations. I was able to catch characteristics and expressions that your family shared.
The sea oats made me long to be young again, when I would visit my grandparents in Brownsville every summer.
I also really liked how specific you were when you requested this commission; I always say “I love a woman who knows what she wants.”
Q: You are a quintessential San Antonio artist. I am pretty certain that living here you have borne witness to the intense gentrification of the neighborhoods and shift towards transplants setting the tone as cultural tastemakers. How do you navigate the changes and mourn the loss of what was while still holding your own and not giving up? How do your upbringing and your homeland influence your art? What mark do you hope to leave upon the city? What is you advice for those of us who love our city and are old to remember the past, but who also live in the reality of the present, and want to create and work towards a future where local culture and history are honored, preserved, and never whitewashed to extinction?
A: This question is very intense, and honestly, I am nobody to give advice. I have most definitely seen all kinds of things. I've seen entire chunks of land with trees get plowed over for parking lots and banks.
I remember feeling the pain of the wood freshly chopped as I stood at a nearby bus stop. I've seen a group of houseless folks stare straight up at a wall of an apartment complex built up out of nowhere.
But, the one that sticks out the most is Chihuahua Lady.
Everyday, I would walk down Grayson to catch the bus on Broadway to get to work. I would pass by these cute little houses and daydream about owning one someday.
The one on the corner was particularly special. There was a sweet lady with curlers in her hair, smoking a cigarette outside, watching her tiny TV on her porch every morning. I swear she had like twenty chihuahuas.
I would walk by and she would give me that southern nod and her doggies would come to the fence wagging their tiny tails, some of them yipping ferociously. I loved that part of my routine.
Eventually, I moved to another part of the city to attend cosmetology college, but when I came back a couple of years later, I was so shocked to see a huge apartment building built right next to Chihuahua Lady's house.
As I turned the corner onto Grayson, my heart dropped. A dog park was built right where her house used to be. It was just a private spot for the residents of the fancy apartments to take their small dogs to poop in.
Mierda replaced her.
This is a vicious cycle that we are caught in, and the only advice that I can offer is to hold onto your memories and celebrate them. Paint them on walls! Write songs and poems about the past and present and recite them like mantras.
Preserve every piece of you because they can't erase us all.
Mother, Lover, Sinner, Creator.
Learn more about She's doodles and paper maché masks @wildhoneypot
foto by Lacy Valentine, 2021.
Copyright © 2021 Bonnie Ilza Cisneros - All Rights Reserved.