Taller de Permiso, which means both “Permit Workshop” and “Workshop of Permission,” helps the informal economy in a Texas neighborhood thrive by redefining the very idea of “permission.” An alliance between three artist-activists who make up Las Imaginistas and the people of the Buena Vida (“Good Life”) neighborhood in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico, the project encourages economic development of the low-income neighborhood. Its focus: supporting the efforts of neighborhood entrepreneurs who sell street food, clothing, and other goods, often without official permits from the city—permits that can be difficult and costly to obtain. The artists, Celeste De Luna, Nansi Guevara, and Christina Patino Sukhgian Houle, are helping Buena Vida residents develop microbusiness ideas, understand the permitting process, and grow in self-confidence and self-assertion, with the aid of art.
“Brownsville being a border city, there are a lot of immigrants in the region, and microeconomies are incredibly important for their economic well-being—but also for sustaining the cultural legacies that they bring with them from all different parts of the world. So we thought that by looking at permitting and small business development for microeconomies we would be able to find a really rich intersection: how art can support community development and quality of life in the region.”
—Christina Patino Sukhgian Houle.
De Luna, Guevara, and Houle met when the three worked together in downtown Brownsville on the Activating Vacancy Arts Incubator, a 2016 NEA Our Town creative placemaking project, the first Our Town project to be funded in the Rio Grande Valley. Houle administered an artist residency as part of the project, which brought artists and local residents together to create artworks focused on the political, social, and economic life of the valley, and De Luna and Guevara were two of the resident artists selected. As they collaborated on the six-month downtown project, they became aware of the Buena Vida neighborhood, adjacent to downtown.
The neighborhood was in the process of implementing a Choice Neighborhood grant from HUD, so they had already done an incredible amount of community organizing, according to Houle. “We were really excited by the fact that Buena Vida had identified these core concerns,” including the need for better housing, youth programs, educational opportunities, transportation, and access to jobs, says Houle, “and had a really robust civic engagement from the community, and that made it a wonderful partner.”
Originally, Las Imaginistas laid out the two-year, Artspace-funded project in three phases: Permission to Dream—various modes of brainstorming for creating and supporting informal businesses; Permission to Know—information gathering about the permitting process; and Permission to Act—a series of actions.
“What’s actually happened,” says Houle, “is that we’ve extended the dream period and decided that instead of each section being a kind of a finite entity, it makes more sense for the three phases to weave in and out of each other. We want to emphasize the vitality and the importance of dreaming as something that you continue to return to.”
- Permission to Dream
In 2018, Las Imaginistas launched a “Dream Parade,” in which Buena Vida residents marched with signs announcing and depicting their dreams for the future of their community in general and for the future of businesses in their community in particular (photos, right).
“We sang songs, traditional activist chants that we rewrote specifically to be about people’s dreams,” says Houle. “That was incredibly exciting—and successful, I think, in creating further visibility for the project and then also helping people to think about dreaming as a radical action and as a community resource.”
More dream gathering and “harvesting” is planned for the duration of the project, including idea gathering by means of traditional eloteros (grilled-corn food carts) repurposed as “Dream Carts” and circling the neighborhood to invite input from community members.
- Permission to Know
In this phase of the project, launched in 2018, young people have become reporters and information gatherers, interviewing the city manager, other city officials, and other stakeholders about the permitting process. Digging through newspaper archives, they’re investigating the background of vending laws in Brownsville. They’re also working on a podcast and two videos that will showcase their findings.
A cohort of participants also completed La Cocina Alegre, a program of the Sustainable Food Center, as well as business training.
- Permission to Act
This phase, which will launch in 2019, features a mobile library stocked with information gathered from the project’s investigation of permitting. Also planned is a market where microbusinesses incubated throughout the project can sell their wares, and a “listening space” where residents can speak with a city official about how permitting and related laws impact them.
“The listening space is also aimed at helping people understand the process of changing laws and how individuals can express concerns,” says Houle. “We’re not lobbying for changes in the law—we can’t do that with this project. But we do want to make officials aware of laws that are impeding the vitality of the neighborhood and the region.”