On a rainy Thursday afternoon, a group of eight women gather inside a small studio on 14th Street in Brownsville. The door stands open to allow a breeze to flow through the small space where organizers with Las Imaginistas, in collaboration with local vendors and Border Workers United, have been developing a new plan for Brownsville’s economy.
The collective founded by Christina Patiño Sukhgian Houle, Celeste De Luna, and Nansi Guevara in 2016 seeks to reframe the role of low-income vendors in Brownsville who have been largely left out of plans to generate economic growth both in Brownsville and across the Rio Grande Valley.
The women gathered in the building that houses Taller de Permiso — or “Permission Workshop” — which inside is filled with ongoing crafts, plans, and other creative projects — from a small-scale model of downtown Brownsville, to hand-written plans taped to the walls, to wooden ornaments carved and painted to resemble fruits.
One vendor sits at a folding table chatting with other imaginistas. As crowns, they are wearing floral wreaths made of brightly colored paper. The woman who makes them, Dina Nunz, proudly shares that each one takes a full day of labor.
The women are joined by Blanca Delgado, an organizer with Border Workers United, who explains that the collaboration between the labor rights organization and the arts collective developed from work surrounding wage theft and vulnerable workers, and the need to educate the community in a hands-on setting.
Immigrant workers, day laborers, domestic workers, hospitality workers, and those who labor in industries like agriculture or small retail and grocery tend to be the most vulnerable, she explained, adding, “Those are the areas where workers are most vulnerable because they have low-income, because they have little or no education.”
That’s why Houle, De Luna, and Guevara identified the Buena Vida neighborhood as an area where the collective could make change — as one of the lowest income communities in town, there was need to work with residents to identify concerns and imagine how things could change.
Many of the families in Buena Vida are mixed-status families, Houle said. Many were getting tickets from the city for operating businesses without proper permits.
This struck the collective as counterintuitive given that the average income in the neighborhood, according to the last census, was approximately $12,000 for a family of four. Tickets could be $200 or more.
Houle said, “And they still felt like it was their best path for economic sustainability. That indicated to us that there was a real problem.”
Mobile vending, for which there is currently no city code, leads to the ticketing of local vendors who take to the streets with their own products, which Houle said has not always been the case.
“There’s really a disconnect between what the law permits and what the community needs,” said Houle.
The local permitting process for a small vendor is complicated to navigate, said Rubén Garza, an Edinburg-based artist and writer who joined the project in 2018. One of the primary challenges is the language barrier — the fact that information was available only in English.
Any vendor looking to get permitted has to navigate multiple processes across different municipal organizations.
“That information is not really available anywhere — we figured out that process by investigating with our vendors,” Garza said.
Garza once met a woman who rented an area and constructed a snack stand. She met every requirement, except that upon inspection, it was determined that her space needed to be double the size.
“She made the investment already. And she didn’t have use for that extra space. But, it had to be a minimum size and she was under that. She was not allowed to run that business,” he explained.
Or, for example, vendors who wish to use the market setting — as in city-sponsored events like Charro Days — must prepare food on site even if it might be easier and safer to prepare food in a home kitchen, away from the elements.
And so Las Imaginistas dreamed up a project seeking to change city code to give vendors the means to run small businesses and in the process, to question the colonial framework of the permitting process as it exists today.
“There’s a hierarchal entity that has the authority to mandate what is allowed, how our bodies exist in space, what can be manifest. But then there are receiving bodies that just absorb that mandate,” Houle explained.
“Who gives permission to whom and how can we upset some of those traditional orientations of colonial framing? Dreaming is something that’s very important to immigrants. What are the practices of dreaming that can allow us to change our city?”
Vendors — divided into three teams — include Judith Antonio, meals and snacks with corn for mobile markets; Priscilla Flores, ancestral connections to herbs and plants; Maria Mejia, fine needle point and sewing work; Leti Martha, handmade artisanal jewelry and scarves; Ana Laura Garrido, empanadas, dulces tipicos, mermelada; and Maria Elstner, hats, bags ,and alibrijes in collaboration with Oaxacan vendors.
Dina Nunz makes handmade paper flowers; Lucilia Gonzales collaborates with family in Michoacan to make textiles; Lolita Chan makes stitched textiles, and Mayra Silva uses her family’s background in honey making to create new, Valley-inspired flavors.
Other vendor work includes printmaking and drawing, by Cecilia Sierra; ceramics and vessels by Cecilia Guzman, as well as contemporary paintings and illustrations by Carla Santian.
Food vendor Judith Antonio said that at locations there is not always access to water, or a refrigerator, or heat for cooking. “We have to adapt to what we are presented,” she said. “Permits, a place to sell or products and economic help is sometimes needed.”
Antonio, who works with corn products, wanted to start a business and decided to make tostadas, opting for their simplicity. Like other vendors, she would like to expand and evolve as an entrepreneur and a person who has dreams.
She said the best way to accomplish this is for vendors to be out in the community where they can interact with residents, families, and learn about each other and the work.
“I would like to make a shout out to the City of Brownsville to please support us and get involved so they can see what we have to offer Brownsville. We need more support so we can be highlighted,” finished Antonio.
Fellow vendor Priscilla Flores is still planning, imagining a business through use of her own history and values for the betterment of the community around her. She works with herbs both for their taste and their healing properties, and she also makes oils.
She envisions using her work with plants to remake foods in a healthy way. “It’s not just for me but for everyone — with your knowledge and the things in your garden, you can do it too,” she said.
“Participating with other imaginative people is exploring your own creativity. It’s a magical encounter with things that were hidden. And you can bring back things that were left behind,” she said.
Elsa Cavazos and Blanca Delgado translated for this article.