In the Gulfton neighborhood in Southwest Houston, 60% of the nearly 50,000 residents are born outside the United States, bringing languages, cultures, and traditions from across the world.
Twelve colorful murals encompass Gulfton, painting vivid pictures of the stories held within the community. For each mural on the Gulfton Story Trail
— designed by nonprofit Culture of Health, Advancing Together (CHAT) — local street artists interpreted poems from Gulfton students to give a voice to the community through powerful artistic statements.
One mural representing a poem written after Hurricane Harvey was painted by Alex Arzú, a visual artist who was born in Germany to Honduran parents and raised at the Fort Sill military installation in Lawton, Oklahoma. A resident of Katy who once lived in Gulfton, Arzú said he was approached by CHAT’s founder and executive director, Dr. Aisha Siddiqui, to participate in the project.
“[Siddiqui and I] quickly vibed because of the area and the culture, and then also... her being an immigrant and me having immigrant parents. I very much related to how navigating America could be very, very difficult,” Arzú said.
Arzú’s Harvey mural is just a few blocks from one painted by Sylvia Blanco, who moved to Houston with her family in the 1990s from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Blanco said she enjoyed collaborating with students and bringing art to the Gulfton community.
“While I was painting, I had a lot of people come up to me [who] were really happy to see murals being painted, because they felt a little forgotten,” Blanco said. “It was nice to have something going on that brought attention to the community.”
Arzú and Blanco are two of six artists who spoke about their experiences living and working in Precinct 4, and how their Hispanic identity and heritage have influenced their art.
Journeys to art in Houston
With family origins in Puebla, Mexico, painter Yannina Taboada has lived in New York, Los Angeles, and Puebla, before moving to Houston 27 years ago. Taboada started doing art in high school after the culture shock of moving to the United States.
“Middle school and the beginning of high school was really chaotic for me,” Taboada said. “I went from living a normal life in Mexico to coming here to the U.S. I was culture-shocked, and then [there were] influences good and bad, so I started doing art to get out of that.”
“As I got older, that really made me happy. [Art] helped me express my feelings and traumas of losing family and changing environments,” Taboada said.
Taboada said her experience as an artist in Houston can be difficult because she said she doesn’t fit into the mold of what a Mexican or Chicana artist is supposed to be.
“My work is very different from other artists here in Houston. I feel like when people talk about Hispanic artists, or Mexican artists, they want to see catrinas and floral designs, and that's not what I do,” Taboada said.
Arzú and his family moved to Katy in 1998 when he was 15. Arzú is Garifuna; Garifuna people are descendants of an Afro-Indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Arzú said he was accustomed to diversity from being raised in an Army family, but that attending the University of Houston for architecture was the first time he saw diversity within the Black community.
“That's always what intrigues me about Houston - you're always learning about new cultures, no matter what you might have thought,” Arzú said.
Before moving back to Katy, Arzú moved to Gulfton for a “fresh start.” He enjoyed the diverse community because he was able to walk around, speak Spanish, and try foods from all over the world.
“[In] places like Gulfton... people can come from all over the world [and] can actually maintain our identities with our people,” Arzú said. “To me, Houston is home. I've thought about leaving to a lot of different places, but cultural identity is very important to me.”
Blanco, who currently lives in the East End, held several jobs before becoming an artist. Describing herself as a “late bloomer,” Blanco began her artistic journey within the past seven years after receiving a paint set for her 30th birthday.
“That gift pretty much changed my life. As soon as I started painting, I just felt a very strong connection to it … I decided to teach myself how to paint ... and made the decision [and] embraced it,” Blanco said.
Cynthia Isakson, a current resident of the Bellaire/Meyerland area, is originally from Buenos Aires. Isakson said living in Houston for the past 20 years as an Argentinian has allowed her to “see a bigger picture.”
“Before, my place was Buenos Aires - not even Argentina, just Buenos Aires. And now we're [in Houston] 20 years after … [and it] became part of my place and my home,” Isakson said. “Since it’s my home, it’s the home of my sister, of my brother, of my nieces, my parents. It's like a bigger house … I'm proud that I live in a house in Houston where you can eat fruit from Argentina, [or eat] milanesas, empanadas, [and] dulce de leche."
Viri Ramos moved to Houston from Monterrey, Mexico 15 years ago. She described Houston as a “home-away-from-home", and said she loves going to Long Point and eating at the restaurants there.
“I love that I make connections every day where you pass by someone and we speak Spanish … it's an immediate connection that you don't feel with anybody else. It's like we're in this together, whether it's in HEB, whether it's at [NRG] Stadium — anywhere you go,” Ramos said. “Even though we're all different [and] we're all on different ships ... we are all still away from home.”
The most recent of the six to come to Houston, photographer Carlos Ocando moved to Katy from Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 2014. After attending college in Venezuela for electrical engineering, he decided to pursue photography.
Ocando said Houston reminds him of Maracaibo because of the oil industry and the ranches, and that Katy’s small-town vibes have inspired his photography. Living in Katy with just his wife, with whom he owns a photo studio, Ocando said he has sought to build community through the art world.
Ocando said he enjoys going to all the Venezuelan restaurants in Katy, and “loves plantain on everything.”
Art and identity
Many artists said their families inspired their decision to begin a career in art and continue to influence their work today.
Isakson said when her son was born 30 years ago, she began making a family tree to teach her son about their family. She said she has about 10 generations hanging on her wall with pictures, dates, and professions.
“[Photography] is my way to introduce you to my family,” Isakson said. “I have several series about [my family], and what I value the most [is] the connection between my family members … The best way [to tell stories], or the only way I think I know how, is through photography.”
Ramos creates puzzles from her artwork.
Ramos’ artistic journey began ten years ago with the birth of her son, in whom she wanted to instill pride in Mexico as he grew up first-generation in the U.S.
“Growing up and being in Mexico, I know what Mexico is, and I'm very conscious and very confident about it,” Ramos said. “But not until being here [in Houston] and seeing that [my son] would not grow up with that … same love for Mexico … , that I saw paint as a tool for me to translate the love and show a different side of [Mexico].”
One of her first paintings was of El Chapulín Colorado, a popular superhero from a 1970s Mexican sitcom. She began making puzzles out of her artwork to ship to people across the country, sending them to states such as Maine, Oregon, or Idaho. Ramos said she loves the feeling of knowing that people will have “a little bit of home” when they buy her artwork.
“Many people don't buy artwork because it's expensive, so they'll go to IKEA and buy Marilyn Monroe. And now for the same price for a puzzle, you can have El Chapulín,” Ramos said.
Ocando enjoys traveling around Houston to take photos.
Apart from drawing on family as an inspiration for their art, some artists said they invoke aspects of their heritage in their work. Ocando, who originally began photographing primarily in black-and-white, said he now draws on his roots in Venezuela to add color.
“Color is everything over there … [With] the music and the food, there's a lot of intensity over there, especially in my hometown. The locals, the natives are called wayús o guajiros ... Guajiro art is very colorful, and there's has a lot of symmetry on it, Ocando said..”
Blanco's mural in Gulfton.
Blanco said her use of color and symbolism comes naturally to her.
“I don't really think about it too much. It's not like I'm like, ‘OK, what can I do to make it this way or not?’” Blanco said. “I think it's just part of our culture ... [to invoke] colors, traditions and the emotions of just being Mexican,” Blanco said. “We use maybe some cactus or flowers or certain animals or skulls... and the way we use [color is] just what differentiates the art. [With] the individual paintings, you can tell."
Blanco’s newest mural at Ed White Elementary School in Sharpstown tells the story of refugees and immigrants, and reflects the difficulty of uprooting family. The story is told on two walls: the first wall represents the time before the move, and the second represents the future.
“I can relate to [this mural] a little bit because ... we had our whole family in Mexico … and then all of a sudden you're in a new city now. You don't know the language, you don't have any friends, [and] you have to pretty much start over and trust that your parents did the right thing.” Blanco said, adding that she thinks her parents made the right decision. “We've thrived because of the opportunities that we have had... and now we’re good. We're in a better place.”
One of Taboada's paintings.
For Taboada, she said her art is a way to start conversations about issues in her community.
“In our community and our traditions, [there’s the idea that if] you’re a woman, you have to be quiet, ‘más callada, te ves más bonita’ - you look prettier if you're quiet,” Taboada said. “I've always been a free spirit, [and] I have family members who think that's too much sometimes. [But] we should be able to express ourselves. So a lot of my work is about sadness, of losing family, of trying to be able to speak for younger kids and traumas that they don't let you speak about."
Arzú's artwork on a basketball court.
As for Arzú, he said identity is beginning to play more of a role in his art as he learns more about his heritage. Arzú said it was only five years ago that he learned his great-grandparents didn’t speak Spanish. After a trip to Honduras, his uncle told him that his family learned Spanish in school.
Arzú reflected on the history of the Garifuna people – in the early 17th century, Spanish ships carrying enslaved West Africans wrecked off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. There, the enslaved Africans sought refuge and intermarried with the indigenous Arawak and Carib people, becoming the Garifuna people.
A century later in 1796, the British forcibly exiled around 5,000 Garifuna to the Honduran island of Roatan. Only half survived the journey. Arzú said the Garifuna diaspora reached Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and stretched in the 1980s to places like New York, Houston, and New Orleans.
“What I do love about my culture is even after all of these exiles and displacements, all the language and culture is still maintained,” Arzú said. “You hear about the natives of America and see a lot of cultural identity being lost. I think it's special that there are cultures that try to preserve those things and celebrate where you come from."
Reflecting on Hispanic Heritage
Each artist spoke about different relationships to their Hispanic heritage, as well as what the word “Hispanic” means to them.
Ramos said her friends from Mexico tell her that after leaving Mexico, she became more Mexican.
“You don't know what it is to be away. You're prouder of it, it's more identifiable in you, and it makes you more unique. You miss it more, you value it more, and you want to make it more evident,” Ramos said. “[I love all of it] - the happiness … the ability we have to take everything with lightness and with a sense of humor, the culture, and the network we create - we're very united in helping each other … I don't think that there's anything that has made me who I am more than that.”
Ocando said he loves the connection and warmth of people in Venezuela, and that his Venezuelan heritage has allowed him to have a “more global vision” throughout his life.
"In Venezuela, we have our Hispanic heritage from Spain. But at the same time, we're very involved with the American culture because of the oil companies that came in the in the 40s and 50s to Venezuela,” Ocando said. “[Maracaibo] was not as diverse as [Houston] of course, but it was a very diverse city. [Being Venezuelan] has allowed me to have a broader picture of what life can be.”
Isakson touted her strong Argentinian accent, and said it is the first topic of conversation with others due to its uniqueness.
“The language, the accent, the way we eat, the way we move, the way we relate, the way we gather — there are always people at my house, and I love that. I grew up like that,” Isakson said. “So you don't have to call me to come to my house - you just come, and there's always food … And when things are not that good and we have problems, we’re together too."
Taboada said that growing up identifying as Mexican or Mexican American, she hadn't heard and didn’t understand the phrase “Hispanic Heritage.”
"What does that really mean? That we speak Spanish? That we go to church, and we [practice Catholicism?]" Taboada said. “‘Hispanic to me is just a little box you check, like we have Spanish blood in us - that's it.”
She said she tries to bring awareness to the issues in the Hispanic community that she said aren’t talked about during Hispanic Heritage Month.
"It’s not just about colors and God - it's about healing. I feel they like to sugarcoat our culture,” Taboada said. “I love my culture - it's the best thing ever in my life. But at the same time, I feel like we need to talk more about those issues that affect everyday kids in Mexico and here in the United States, because mental abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse - it happens everywhere. And our culture just doesn't like to speak about it. And I feel like we need to speak about it more [for] the next generation.”
Arzú's mural on the side of a building.
Arzú said he’s proud of all parts of his Garifuna heritage, and that he only receives reactions about being Black and Latino in the United States.
“If I'm in Honduras, even if I'm the only Black person, I don't feel weird. But in the United States, if I go anywhere and I'm the only Black person, you can feel a little bit weird. But I think it is a cultural construct made in America for the most part, and other countries adopt that through media,” Arzú said.
To Arzú, the “Hispanic” categorization reminds him of his Arawak heritage, which he said was used in colonial reports to refer to a group of people who spoke a similar language.
“I think that it is becoming a continuous battle with us in America - how do we unite when there's all these things trying to divide us?” Arzú said. “I don't think that that is a Hispanic thing. It's an everybody thing where we need to be a lot more accepting of who we are and other people and learn from those cultures and actually interact with the cultures."