Nico Avina is a prominent Boyle Heights artist and activist, co-founder of Espacio 1839 – a space that operates as a gift shop, art gallery and a public recording studio.
At the beginning of the school year, in August, Boyle Heights Beat teen journalists interviewed Avina about his art, his connections to Boyle Heights and his community activism.
The interview was edited for length and clarity:
BHB: What inspired you to create Espacio?
NA: I’ve been silk screening for over 25 years. I’ve been printing shirts for a very long time. I used to wholesale T shirts to all the local malls. And it was cool to see our stuff in other cities, but we wanted to make sure that we had the T shirts where we were printing them, which was here in Boyle Heights. So me and my wife eventually opened up a shop on the corner of Fourth and Mott called Teocintli.
Prior to that, we had another little shop. I started vending. I started having a 10 x 10 space at East LA Community College, which allowed vendors to set up in front of the college, and I would set up there and sell T-shirts. Eventually I got a little spot. There was a record store back in the day, called Trash City Records, and they allowed me to have this sort of closet, converted into a store. It was going well, but we needed a bigger space. That’s when we opened up Teocintli on the corner of Fourth and Mott.
Teocintli was our first face within the community. I was performing spoken word. I had a couple of teachers that were friends at Roosevelt, so we would do a lot of our workshops, teaching kids about spoken word.
The market crashed in 2008. We didn’t survive, like many other stores. We had to close that space down. And when we were ready, again, we decided to open up Espacio 1839. For us, it’s important to create autonomy within your community, but also create spaces within your community. We feel that the fundamental theory of an organizer is to facilitate space and that’s what we do at Espacio. That’s why it’s called Espacio. It’s “space” in Spanish. We facilitate space for artists, for poets, for writers and podcasters.
BHB: Was it hard for you guys to bounce back and restart?
NA: You know, when you do something that you really love, even if you fail, you get up and you do it again. That’s pretty much what it was. When I was wholesaling T-shirts to other stores, it was generating our self-sustainability, but we weren’t in charge of what was happening within those stores. Having your own space, you’re able to hold yourself accountable and be responsible with what you do with your space and I think that was important to us.
It doesn’t need to be a physical space. When we closed down in 2008 because the economy crashed, we couldn’t afford to keep the space open. I was talking to a friend of mine who had just gotten back from Mexico and he was saying that in rural areas in Mexico, when they don’t have the buildings or the structures to teach, they find the biggest trees where there’s shade and that’s what they use as a classroom. In essence, he was saying, we don’t need a physical location to do the work within your community, we can reclaim public space. So we could use a park, we could use a corner, it’s up to us if we want to.
But the store helps us give back to the community. We have a little radio room in there. We provide the microphones, turntables, cassette players, everything for people to have a podcast. We don’t charge. It’s free for anybody in the community. And the only reason why we’re able to do that is sustained through the sales that we have within the store. So as long as the community comes and spends money with us, we are able to give back into the community. Same thing with the little gallery space. We have two walls where we display different artists from the community every month and we’re able to do that, because we have our doors open. So for us, it’s giving back.
BHB: Do you think social media could play a role in getting [Boyle Heights] stories told?
NA: Of course. Yes. I don’t think that we’re using it to that capacity yet because every single phone right now has the capability of recording, so you could actually do your own podcasts from your phone. You just download an app , start your own podcast, you could film on it, upload to YouTube. Boom, there you go. So yeah, I think that we do, we just haven’t been told of that importance.
BHB: Are there ways that you yourself impact the community using social media?
NA: I think so. I’ll post my art on social media and some of my art that deals with gentrification, displacement, criminalization, stuff like that has been used by collectives in Arizona and Texas, in Madison, in Miami and New York. I’ll get pictures like, “Hey, we printed this out from your, you know, from your stuff, and we used it at our protest.” As a matter of fact, one of the paintings that I did, and I posted on social media is actually part of a traveling exhibit right now by the Smithsonian and it’s in Washington at the moment. It’s actually two. It’s actually a poster that I created and the poster was influenced by the Chicano movement, Anti-war in the 1970s. And also, I did a Virgen mural, but the Virgen instead of having her hands like she’s praying, she’s actually holding a letter of being displaced, an eviction notice. And so, those two images are actually in a traveling show by the Smithsonian right now and they’re in Washington.
BHB: Do you aim to change people’s perspective through your art? Was that always the aim?
NA: Well look, I feel that art – and this is based on the indigenous ideology – that everything that we create has energy. And so it’s the artist’s job to encapsulate that energy. Now, you also have the choice, you could just create art to create art, or you could use your art to amplify the voice of your community. And so that’s sort of what I do with my art. I see social issues that are going on, or things that are affecting our community, and I create art around that. I don’t always do that, because I like to joke around once in a while, so I’ll create some stuff that is not always 100% social issues. But I do like to amplify the voice of my community with my art in certain things.
I do that with my poetry too. My poetry talks about social issues. So my art reflects social issues and social struggles and I like to speak up on those things as well, so I kind of feel that art does play a role in that and it always has. If you look at social struggles and social movements globally, it’s always been art on the streets that tells folks the sentiment of the people.
BHB: How do you feel about graffiti in the community?
NA: I mean, I like it. For me, personally, it’s sad that people get killed over it. I’ll give you a perfect example. If you cross a bridge that connects Boyle Heights to downtown, it’s considered the Arts District, and what do you see there? You see graffiti, you see wheat pasting, you see murals, you see everything. And it’s used to attract folks to come in. People get paid to do this stuff. You’ll see it on the sidewalks. You see it on the street poles. You see it everywhere. And it’s glorified.
What happens when you cross the street back over here and you see a 15-year-old writing graffiti? They get arrested. What happened to Jesse Ramirez down the street? Fifteen-year-old got shot by the LAPD. So there’s a difference in how art is looked, depending on where you’re at, and that’s the sad part. You cross the bridge, and it’s glorified. You cross the bridge back, and it’s criminalized.
I know old school graffiti writers that are teaching graffiti to more affluent kids, people from Beverly Hills, from West Hollywood, they’re teaching 12-year-old kids how to do graffiti because their parents know that that’s art. I know fools that are making bank teaching affluent kids. But here in our community, it’s criminalized. We need to get the negative stigma away from it.
BHB: [We know] you’re a dad. What is your hope for youth in the community?
NA: I hope that the youth have access to the things that we didn’t. I think that each generation starts changing, right? Did you guys ever hear about the ’68 walkouts? The Eastside, the four high schools, and the reason why they walked out was because we didn’t have access to the universities and all that stuff within our educational system. I think that now within our communities we’re having some of that access, but I don’t think that we have full access.
First of all, the most important thing is I hope that they’re happy. And I hope that they have access to the things that we didn’t have access to. Unfortunately [because of] our class structure, we don’t have access to a lot of things. And I hope that programs like [Boyle Heights Beat], the fact that it’s giving you access to actual reporting and access to the cameras and interviewing, I hope that there’s tenfold of this for the youth.
BHB: What inspired you to become an activist?
NA: You get fed up. You see injustices and you just speak out. I think that once you become aware of those things you start speaking out. How unfair the system is, systemically how we’re being oppressed. And the more that you learn, the more that you get angry. Anger is a gift. But it’s how you use that anger. You got to make sure you keep it under control, you advocate for the people and you speak about these injustices.
For example, the more I learn about the community, the more upset I get. Gentrification is one part of it, but the environmental injustice that we have within our community is really messed up. You love this community, but then you start questioning, do you want your kids to grow up in this toxic environment? I’m pretty sure y’all are aware of the Exide battery recycling plant, right? And the amount of lead that is within our community. And the fact that the government doesn’t clean it up.
The fact that this battery recycling plant was open for over 50 years, and continued to do that… If this neighborhood was more affluent, that would have stopped Those kinds of things get you upset. Then you start learning about the pollutants coming from the freeways. And you realize, “Okay, that could cause asthma, it could cause cancer, it could cause all this.” And then you start looking, you’re like, “Wait a minute. 90% of the elementary schools in Boyle Heights are next to a freeway. These kids are breathing this every recess they come out. How is this fair?”
“You get fed up. You see injustices and you just speak out. How unfair the system is, systemically how we’re being oppressed. And the more you learn, the more you get angry. Anger is a gift. But it’s how you use that anger. You got to make sure you keep it under control, you advocate for the people and you speak about these injustices.”
BHB: Would you say that you turn that anger into your art?
NA: I do in a sense, and it was part of my unlearning. I grew up in a toxic environment. And so I would deal with anger in a way that I ain’t too happy about now, violently, I would get mad and I would sock a wall. And it took a lot of unlearning, like a lot of getting rid of that toxic masculinity that I grew up with, to realize that there are other ways of expressing your anger or expressing how you’re dissatisfied. And yes, art has been one of those tools for me to be able to express myself.
Poetry is another one. Spoken word and poetry is another form of me releasing a lot of the stuff that I feel or the anger that I felt, in a sense. Some of my poetry, like sometimes people would be like “Damn, that fool was mad.” I don’t know if I ever decided [to become an activist], but I know that we have to speak up. We have to.
BHB: Do you think that compared to when you were young, that we now have more people educated on the toxicity in our community, willing to fight back against it?
NA: I think we could. I mean, Exide is closed now. It actually took the community organizing and mobilizing for that to be able to happen. The Wyvernwood apartments are over here by Sears, [on] Olympic. I think it houses over 6,000 residents. Not that long ago, they were trying to displace all those residents to demolish those apartments and build high rises there. And you had homeowners that were okay with it. They were like, “Oh, yeah, it’s going to raise my property value. My house is going to be worth more, and they’ll get rid of all the cholos over there.” But for us, we were like, no, that’s 6,000 residents from our community. It’s really unfair. Besides, the environmental impact that it was going to cause was going to create more pollution, it was going to create a lot of these things, right?
Once we were able to educate the homeowners, through artwork [and] information on social media, the homeowners realized, “You know, what? It’s also going to affect me, and it’s going to affect my family. It’s going to affect my grandkids, because of the amount of pollution.” It was going to be 15 years of construction and all that stuff. Then they decided they weren’t. So I think that information is key. And I think that artists do play a role in getting that information out there.
BHB: Has it been difficult for you to love your culture, but also acknowledge that there’s a lot of bad within it?
NA: It depends. I love my culture. The more I started diving in further into the culture, into the indigenous space within the culture, what I call indigenismo, [the more I gained] the knowledge of self, the knowledge of who I am and the role that [our ancestors] played. And a lot of these toxic traits [like masculinity] actually are imposed on us by settler colonialism.
Do y’all realize that our names are slave names? My last name is Avina. Avina is a Spanish last name. I have no ancestry in Spain. My mom is a native. My mom is an india from Jalisco, but that means that my grandparents were slaves to an Avina family. So our last names are no different than African American names here that are Washington, Jefferson. The only difference is that the slave owners that owned us were Spanish. The slave owners who owned them here were English. So a lot of those traits are imposed on us. That’s not who we were. My kids don’t have my last name because the only thing attached to that last name is toxicity that was imposed on us.
I was talking about poetry. Poetry was highly relevant within the Native communities in Mexico and Guatemala, Centroamérica. you had great poets, you had trade, you had agriculture, you had math with the concept of zero, you had timekeeping that was exact. That was our ancestors. So those are things that we have to relearn and we have to unlearn the toxicity within our community that is sort of imposed by that ideology of supposedly greatness, which is not greatness.
BHB: You opened [our] minds to a lot of things within the community and the culture.
NA: Yeah, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff in that community. When you have kids, you’ll realize that a lot of times it’s not the behavior you need to focus on, but the why. A lot of times kids misbehave when they need attention. So instead of focusing on the actions, you will focus on the why. And that’s how we have to be with our community as well. There’s a why. If people were acting a certain way, within our community, there’s a why. They’re probably angry. They’re probably upset. They’re probably tired of the injustice and they don’t know how to communicate and they end up communicating in a form that we may not view as suitable, but we also have to understand why.
That’s how I feel about the whole gentrification issue. Y’all probably heard that there were people writing “F… White Art” on the galleries. There were people confronting people telling them “get out of here” and breaking windows and stuff like that. And some people might be like, “Oh, I don’t agree with that.” I don’t agree with that, either, but at the same time, I understand why, I know where their anger is coming from. I know where their frustration is coming from. Maybe they wouldn’t take the avenues that I would have taken, but we have to understand the why.
Graffiti is the same thing. A lot of times, youth or graffiti writers will do things that I wouldn’t personally do, but I got to understand [that] they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the accessibility. Imagine if they had an actual space where they could actually create their art pieces, and they would be seen. Why do they write over murals? Do you know why graffiti artists write over murals?
BHB: Are they trying to suppress the message?
NA: They want to be seen. If you have a mural and then you have a white wall, and the graffiti writer writes on that white wall, what’s going to happen? It’s going to get buffed out quickly. But if they write over a mural, the city cannot buff out murals, because murals are protected. So the graffiti writing is going to stay there longer than it would on a plain white wall. So there’s a why. This kid wants to be seen. This kid wants to be recognized, so it’s not that he’s trying to disrespect your mural. It’s just also that he has no connection to the mural anymore, because that artist is no longer relevant or prevalent in the community
They won’t write over other muralists that they admire or look up to, but they’ll write over a mural that they have no connection to, because they want to be seen, because they know that the city can’t buff out murals anymore. So there’s a reason why. I may not agree with it, but I know why they’re doing it. So we have to understand those whys too. Obviously, they need access to spaces. Obviously, they want to be seen. They want to be known. So there’s a reason behind it. There’s a reason behind their behavior.
BHB: Thank you for your time.
NA: Well, thank you for having me.