How Austin’s Latino cultural arts scene helped heal, inspire in 2017

Dec 27, 2017
Tamir Kalifa
A group of young Latina women perform at a quinceañera celebration on the south steps of the Capitol to protest a Senate bill designed to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Austin’s Latino cultural arts scene ebbed and flowed this year with the end of chapters and beginning of new ones.

Our music community mourned the loss of 24-year-old rising accordionist Anthony Ortiz Jr, who died in the summer after a 10-month battle with cancer. Austinites showed their love of the musical prodigy at the annual Day of the Dead celebration at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, where he was honored with altars, a mural and a special performance by his family’s band, Mariachi Corbetas.

We also saw a bit of old Austin disappear with the closing of El Gallo restaurant after 60 years on South Congress. Longtime customers knew that if they wanted to catch a performance by a Tejano music legend, they could stop by on Tuesdays to see Manuel “Cowboy” Donley. On the restaurant’s last week, the National Endowment of the Arts’ lifetime achievement recipient showed up to play one last time.

But the Latino community also marked many significant milestones. Austin’s Mexican-American cultural center celebrated its 10th anniversary. When it opened a decade ago, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center realized a longtime community dream that some thought would never happen. Now, the center is developing a new plan in hopes of expanding the facility.

Spring brought us another important milestone when the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary. “We were here before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and will be here long after,” festival director Jean Lauer told me before their May festival. Thanks to an ambitious team of cinephiles two decades ago, Austin now has a place to watch hard-to-find films that shed light on the Latino and indigenous experience.

As we look back at 2017, I’d like to share some moments that inspired or taught me something about Austin’s vibrant Latino community.

Art, music and culture help heal communities

Too often this year, I found myself writing about relief efforts after disasters that ranged from Hurricane Harvey to a Mexico City earthquake that killed more than 155 people. But after each tragedy, I saw how crucial music, arts and culture is to helping communities heal.

In September, after that 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck central Mexico, I saw how the Mexic-Arte Museum organized a donation drive of medical equipment, tools and nonperishable items for the affected families. Creatives like photographer Tania Bustillos and a group of additional photographers from Ideology Photography, the Photo Bus ATX and Photography by Laceymarie made portraits for museum visitors and directed proceeds toward relief efforts.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria crippled Puerto Rico, I saw how local bands like Brownout resurrected their cover project Brown Sabbath for a special benefit concert to raise funds for the island that still doesn’t have full electricity. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center continues to offer resources for those displaced in Austin by the hurricanes while they continue putting on workshops, musicals and shows to help affected families move forward.

Role of cultural arts in immigration debate

Fear, shock and sadness ran through the Central Texas immigrant community shortly after Inauguration Day. From federal deportation raids in the Austin area to Gov. Greg Abbott signing a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, immigrant advocacy groups have pushed back.

During many of these protests, rallies and demonstrations, I’ve seen how cultural arts play an important role in showing resistance and telling the stories of the people affected by these laws. From screenprinters to DJs, musicians to muralists, Latino artists of all kinds came together this year against the immigrant backlash.

To defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers young immigrants permission to live, work and study in the U.S., advocacy group Jolt organized a unity concert featuring artists such as Grammy award-winners La Santa Cecilia and San Antonio-based rockers Girl in a Coma.

And when Texas teens denounced Senate Bill 4, they staged a quinceañera-themed protest of the ban, wearing their puffy gowns and tiaras on the steps of the Capitol in the middle of summer. The teens performed a choreographed dance routine that ended with their fists in the air.