Chicana artist Carmen Lomas Garza grew up watching her mother paint, particularly the lotería tablas that her father would frame under glass and use to play bingo, and she decided she wanted to make “the same kind of magic.” Garza, who was born and raised in Kingsville, has touched many lives through her art, which ranges from children’s books to metal cutouts. The University of Texas’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection has recently opened its collection of Garza’s archives as part of the center’s seventh annual ¡A Viva Voz! celebration.
An avid people-watcher, Garza paints most of her images from memory, using only her own observations of family and cultural events as inspiration. She doesn’t do location sketches; instead, she tries to “look very carefully.” Her work, however, is driven by more than just daily life. She began painting as a way to deal with the racism she had experienced while growing up in South Texas. Garza encountered the Chicano movement during her first year of college at Texas A&I University (now part of the Texas A&M System). When Kingsville high school students were participating in walk-outs against the conditions of the public schools and farm workers were marching in protest through her hometown, Garza, whose grandparents were migrant workers, saw her opportunity. “It gave me a lot of courage, and it gave me a voice,” Garza says. “I saw that I had a place, that my artwork would have a place in the community, that it would be valuable, that it could make a difference—and it’s been true.”
This heritage and her childhood memories are more important to Garza than any other force in her work. “The artwork is like a piece of my heart,” Garza explains, “and it goes out first to the Mexican-American population but then everybody else who can relate to it.” Images such as Tamalada and Quinceañera reflect scenes that not only come from her own experiences but also, she hopes, from the experiences of anyone familiar with Mexican-American culture. And the stories speak to any viewer.
“The most rewarding thing is to very secretly watch a family in front of one of my paintings, talking about what they see,” Garza says. “Even teenagers, who at first are aloof and look like they’re bored, can’t help themselves and are drawn into the images. It’s just a delight seeing that. They are illuminating the story that is in my paintings.”