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Carmen Lomas Garza Teaches Children to Celebrate Their Culture in New Exhibit

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By Elaine Barnes

Coordinator, Alumni and Donor Communications

KINGSVILLE (September 10, 2019) — The John E. Conner Museum at Texas A&M University-Kingsville will host a grand opening for their newest exhibit, En Mi Familia, inspired by the art and storytelling of Carmen Lomas Garza, alumna. A VIP opening will be held Friday, Sept. 13, at the museum. A limited number of tickets, priced at $50, are still available. The ticket includes a walk-through of the exhibit with Lomas Garza, a fun hands-on experience and refreshments. 

Tickets for Friday’s event may be purchased by calling 361-593-4338. 

The exhibit will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14. Lomas Garza will be at the event from 2 to 4 p.m. The En Mi Familia exhibit revolves around four areas, each based on one of the artist’s paintings. Each of the stations is interactive including making tamales, dancing to music and cooking a barbecue.

Building a foundation

From the beginning, Carmen Lomas Garza, ’72, wanted to teach. Born in Kingsville in 1948, her parents instilled in her a sense of community, the belief in protecting their cultural heritage and the value of a college education. “My parents were always adamant that all of us go to college,” Garza stated, “It didn’t matter what we wanted to study, but they always drummed it into us – think about what you want to be when you grow up.”

In many ways, art surrounded Garza throughout her childhood. She observed her mother, a self-taught artist, as she painted. Her father, once home from World War II, learned how to work with sheet metal. “Anything to do with physical work, building and construction – all of that – he was always able to solve the problems he observed,” Garza recalled.

Starting a new chapter

Garza was grateful that Texas A&I University provided the avenue she needed to pursue a degree in art education. “We were so lucky that we had the university here in our town. Fortunately for me, I could get a degree in art education and use that as ground work and a platform to spring off to support myself,” she said.

Her determination stems in large part from a decision she made at just 13 years old. “I wanted to be a professional artist,” Garza highlighted, “And I also made the decision that I would probably not have children, because I could see from having to help take care of my younger brothers and sisters that it takes a lot of energy, devotion and sacrifice to raise children. And I knew that to create your artwork takes about the same kind of thing.” She became immersed in the fine arts department, soaking up as much experience and knowledge as she could, eager to succeed.

Student work

Garza worked at first as a kind of student assistant, cleaning out lockers and resupplying the different studios as the university. “It was really good training because it let me see how much work it takes to have studio spaces available to you. There’s no fairy tale image of a studio-it’s hard work to keep it maintained,” she said.

Her degree also required she spend a year teaching in a classroom setting. It was the classroom in which Garza became hyperaware of the cultural issues rising around her. “At the time, there was a lot of awareness going on and the Chicano Movement was going really strong,” she explained. “The school where I was teaching had a very high percentage of recently-arrived Latinos from Mexico and Central America who didn’t speak English and only knew Spanish.”

Many of her students struggled to understand her instruction, and Garza instinctively wanted to help. “They would whisper to me asking in Spanish what I was wanting them to do. But speaking Spanish was prohibited in public schools all over Texas. And because I was speaking Spanish to my own students, I got in trouble with the school administration.”

Bridging the gap

Trying to bridge the communication gap further, Garza inquired about allowing her class to listen to music other than the country music played over the intercom. Garza was told she could only turn it down or turn it off – so she improvised. “The kids wanted to hear the music they wanted to listen to, so I turned it off and told them to bring their own records. I borrowed a record player from the library, and nobody brought anything for the first several days. Then finally, a student brought in an album from Carlos Santana – and that was it,” Garza explained.

The son of the superintendent happened to be one of Garza’s students. The young boy jumped up, ran out of the classroom, all while screaming that Garza wasn’t allowed to play “that Spanish music.” The administration was quick to reprimand Garza. “They told me one more, and I’m out of there. And if I got kicked out of the school during student teaching, that meant I couldn't complete my course requirement, and I wouldn't get to graduate.”

Just a few days after that incident, students walked out of the school in protest, inspired by the rising Chicano Movement. “I couldn't stop them, none of the teachers could, and I told my students that I couldn't physically hold them back. That’s all I said.” At noon, Garza took her lunch across the street to a picnic table, where she ate lunch every day. However, the protesting students had congregated in the area. “They’re chanting, and they’re all talking to me and I’m listening and eating my lunch … and right there, the superintendent drives by,” she revealed.

Garza’s teaching privileges were revoked at the school by the superintendent, who even threatened to call the police as she pleaded for an opportunity to explain. The art department at the university thankfully showed her more mercy, and she was reassigned to another school – but she was no longer trusted to be alone in a class with students.

A solid experience

The experience solidified in Garza her art’s purpose.

“I decided I wanted my artwork to address and focus on the Mexican American community. And I wanted us to celebrate our history, our culture, our music, our art, our dress, our language-everything about us.”

Cherished childhood memories were the means in which Garza would pursue that cultural celebration. What began in high school as pen and ink, turned into printmaking, then etchings, lithographs, until eventually, Garza decided to paint, just as her mother had. Her confidence in her artwork grew as she explored the best ways to bring to life the heartfelt stories of her youth.

Getting creative

Garza’s creation process usually begins with a simple word or phrase – such as empanadas or las posadas – that ignites a sweet childhood memory. “When I remember something, it becomes like a canvas in my brain,” she illuminated, “Being the oldest of my brothers and sisters, I watched a lot, and all of it stuck. So I can just compose these images based on real, hardcore memories, and then take some artistic license to bring things in and make it a more cohesive story.”

The most gratifying aspect of her artwork comes in unearthing the shared memories and traditions of her culture. “People who may be familiar with our culture, or have something in that work that is familiar to them because of their own culture, end up celebrating it. They find they can talk about it, project into it their own experience, history and celebration. It becomes a platform for them to talk to each other, and that, to me, is the greatest gift.”

Garza’s art career grew tremendously, reaching audiences far and wide, until it eventually extended back into the classroom through the creation of her children’s bilingual books. Published by Children’s Book Press - a nonprofit publishing organization in San Francisco – the books illustrate Garza’s own family stories. It was a risk for the publisher – who had originally contacted Garza to illustrate the story of somebody else – but it was one that paid off tremendously.


“I told my stories, just like I tell my stories with anybody. They recorded it all, then they transcribed the interview and edited it until it was very small, because you had to have the English and the Spanish translation on one page,” Garza said, “Which was excellent for them to do. It made it highly utilized, for both English as a second language or Spanish as a second language.” The illustrations also taught about art – Chicano art, specifically. “So the first book, ‘Family Pictures,’ became a top seller.”

There was an increase in sales that correlated perfectly with the migration and expanded population of Mexican Americans into the northern states of the U.S. The books resonated with many children and families, and their impact was so substantial, a school in East Los Angeles reached out to Garza, asking to name their school– the Carmen Lomas Garza Primary Center – in her honor.

It was a gesture that culminated Garza’s fight to create art that did her culture justice. Each stroke that she paints with her brush is backed by cultural pride. And through her illustrated books, children are learning to celebrate all that they are – where their family comes from, and the languages, traditions and culture that they’ve brought with them – without being silenced.


Category: Arts/Sciences , General Univ , Events

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