Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust Exhibit Launch

Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust

Toronto Media Arts Centre | 32 Lisgar Street | Toronto, ON

Sept. 27 – Sept. 30, 2018

Opening Reception: Thurs, 27 Sept 2018
Doors Open: 6:00PM
Welcoming Remarks: 6:30PM

In digital spaces and beyond, women of colour are taking charge of creating new representations and documenting personal histories that resonate across diasporic experiences.

On September 27th, This is Worldtown reveals the full work of seven emerging media-makers taking charge in telling new stories about migration, space, healing and love at our group show, Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.

The Behind the Dust series is a portal into a world that is curated and created by Women of Colour, showing the possibilities of imagining beyond convention, and “behind the dust” of inflammatory and one-dimensional portrayals of communities under fire. As a collective, the media-makers are Muslim, Indigenous, Black, Women of Colour conveying in-depth visual stories about their communities, celebrating the fullness of experience in all its layers. What does it mean to visiblize these experiences? How are we learning from the past and creating for the future?

Come and celebrate new forms of storytelling, shifting and changing old and tired narratives at Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.


Tickets are free and available via Eventbrite.

We are grateful to the Inspirit Foundation and the Olive Tree Foundation for their support of this event.

This event is open to all.

@thisisworldtown #TIWTtalks #BehindtheDust

Spotlight: Liz Ikiriko on Decentering Whiteness and Redefining the “Archive”

This month, we highlight Liz Ikiriko, an independent curator, photo editor and currently the art director for online media arts journal – The Ethnic Aisle. She has been immersed in the media arts community in Toronto for the past 12 years and has worked on national publications Toronto Life, Macleans, Canadian Business, AWAY magazine, among others. As a curator, she has organized exhibitions with BAND Gallery, Wedge Curatorial Projects, Sheridan College and the National Music Centre. She’s juried and reviewed portfolios at Ryerson University, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival and Flash Forward Annual. Her curatorial work is centred on the practice of care, addressing hidden histories and foregrounding platforms for underprivileged artists. She is currently an MFA candidate in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University in Toronto.

How did your media-making career start?

I always loved photography since I was pretty young. I did my Undergrad in Photography in Calgary. When I was there, I knew I wanted to live in Toronto and shoot editorially for music and magazines. I really wanted to focus on editorial portraiture and when I got here, I started working on a few series and stories. It was a really hard slog, being a freelance photographer. I was shooting live events and doing a portrait series and other gigs at the same time, but I couldn’t see how it was going to consistently pay my bills. It was a real hustle.  So I started looking at other avenues and how magazines are put together and realized there’s this role called the photo editor and it seemed like a great gig. I talked with Dr. Kenneth Montague about my interest in photo editing and he connected me with his friend who worked at Toronto Life.

I interned with her and then after that I started working at Macleans. When she quit, I was hired as the photo editor at Toronto life  where I would hire photographers and work with them on concepts and developing features, and I’ve been doing that for 12 years now. I’m also the art director of The Ethnic Aisle, which began in 2011.

Image from “Earth is the Queen of Beds,” 2018.

Can you talk about some of the common themes in the work that you’ve curated?

I think that my transition has been kind of gradual, but I’ve gone from being a photo editor to focusing more on curatorial work because I found that within photo editing where you’re part of a larger group of people, there was less opportunity to focus on the content that I was most passionate about. So curating gave me the opportunity to feature work by artists of colour. And being able to support bigger platforms for artists to be showcased was becoming more and more important to me. I just felt there were so many artists that I saw that were barely scraping it together and having a really difficult time finding the right galleries and spaces to show their work. The consistent thing through my curatorial practice is being able to work with predominantly African artists and artists of the diaspora.

Can you talk about the inspiration behind Light Grows the Tree?

Light Grows the Tree is a project that documents a community of black artists, writers, curators and collectors in Toronto. I wanted to do this portrait series that would be a first step into identifying the Black arts community in Toronto. Even with the 50 people that we photographed, that was just the tip of the iceberg. I had also wanted to focus on it being inter-generational, so that we would see artists that were working 25-30 years ago and doing work that was often poorly recognized or not recognized at all. I feel it’s so important to honor that history because I think that their challenges were so much greater as well.

Once we completed it for the website, I realized this can’t just live online. It’s too big to not have it be an actual show. Julie Crooks who is the curator at Band Gallery, was incredibly gracious in offering the space to us. So that’s where we had our show. I was really happy. It was really amazing for the opening. There were over 80 people there and the response was really wonderful. We also started a separate website altogether because I do see this as a first chapter. I really do want it to continue and grow.

Preview for “Light Grows the Tree.”

Could you talk about why you called it Light Grows the Tree?

I was having a hard time with the title and I was talking to Denise Balkissoon and it was one of the titles that she pitched. I just thought it was so perfect because I loved the idea. I wasn’t focusing on the specific artwork that each artist made. This was a portrait series of Black artists. And it was important to me to identify the artists, not necessarily their artwork at this point. That’s another show altogether. I think there is, at times, a separation between generations that needs to change. We’re only going to learn more if we can cross all these different lines. So it’s the idea of giving attention to these artists, fortifying our community.

Do you see this art is a way to talk and your art in general as a way to talk about representation and the importance of archiving?

I think that’s something I’ve been really spending a lot of time with in terms of looking at the archive and how the archives have been done previously and what needs to be done. Even just speaking to a number of artists who would mention certain artists that I’d never heard of before, and then trying to find information about them online was very challenging.  I think that’s a real challenge, and speaks to a lot of colonial issues. I think it’s important to be able to figure out a way to expand the archive and make it accessible to a wider audience.

Image is from a work-in-progress by Liz at the Summer Institute.

Why do you think it’s important to have not only these physical spaces but digital spaces as well for a women of color artists to share their work?

The online content is redirecting away from the archives that has had all these barriers in terms of how we access them – that haven’t been there for us. You know, I was speaking with a number of artists about how they would be looking for work or they would contact an archive looking for work by Black artists or Black subjects. And they’d say, “I don’t think we have anything like that.” And they did exist, but they just didn’t know how or where to look. So I think that this is a way of sidestepping that archive and creating a place that we actually have access to.

I also think it’s a great time to be challenging what we define as an “archive.” I was talking to my friend who said that hair braiding is an archive. She said that these are cultural forms where we are teaching generations how do something, and it is knowledge that is passed through generations and through time and history. And so I’m kind of anchored by that idea of how we pass knowledge on and that it doesn’t necessarily exist within this idea of the archives of library, this center that houses colonial practice.

Could you speak to the importance of a reclaiming narratives about diaspora communities?

It’s so important. I am Biracial – Nigerian Canadian and I grew up in Saskatchewan. At the time, it was rare for me to see anyone that was Black and/or biracial. I feel the stories that I tell – my own stories – I didn’t see them. Recently, there’s been more movement, which has been really exciting and I think that’s because I’m in Toronto. I think that things are changing in the prairies and all over Canada. We need to see our own stories reflected. I hear that so much lately, but it always surprises me how dominant culture doesn’t necessarily do that or even recognize how few stories by diaspora artists and Indigenous voices are being told. There’s so many more stories that we need to hear and see. We still got work to do.

Image from “Earth is the Queen of Beds,” 2018

Aside from being an artist or an active member in the arts education community, can you describe the work that you do as an arts educator?

Oh yeah. It feels still new, but I think I’m really aware right now of inhabiting institutional spaces and creating places where students can see a woman of color teaching them. I feel like I do have a lot of knowledge that I’m happy to share with photographers specifically. There are a lot of skills that I’ve gained along the way and I’m really excited to be able to share that with young artists.

What issues do you hope to change or address through your work?

I get most energized and excited when I focus on the communities that I’m a part of and that I know are sustained and supported by the work that I do. The work that I try to focus on is decentering whiteness. I’m focusing on positioning women of color and Indigenous voices at the forefront, looking at how we can learn from under acknowledged practices and knowledge systems, and figuring out how we can support each other in a more communal way. That’s the change that I look for. When I think of my curatorial practice and my life, I hope that they are seamless in terms of building a world around me that I am excited and happy about.

Welcome to the Gyallery: A Toronto Exhibit Celebrates Black Female Photographers & Black Women

By Leyla Jeyte

On April 6, 2017 Gyalcast in partnership with VICE Canada held an evening that celebrated black female photographers in Toronto and their subjects – black women.

Photographers (L-R) Brianna Roye, Setti Kidane, Martika Jabari. [Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
On April 6, 2017 Gyalcast in partnership with VICE Canada held an evening that celebrated black female photographers in Toronto and their subjects – black women. The show, called Gyallery, was inspired by the #GYALCAST, a popular Toronto collective of Black women creatives. Featuring three, locally-based black female photographers, the show centres on female black identity in Toronto. As noted by the curators “[t]he beauty of Black womanhood has influenced nearly every aspect of culture from music to politics. In spite of this, they’re rarely given proper recognition for these contributions and yet still they remain resilient. Black womxn are sisters, mothers, friends and so much more to each other and the world around them. Through the ‘Gyallery’ we will explore and showcase their power, beauty, strength and grace.”

I walked into Geary House, an event space in west Toronto, that was packed with beautiful people drinking and dancing to tunes served up by DJ Dre Ngozi @drengozi. The event sold out in one day, blowing away the expectations of the organizers and showing the need for spaces like this in the city.

As a black, female photographer myself, I appreciate what Gyalcast is doing. They are not only highlighting black female photographers, but also putting the lens on everything that black women are, uncovering layers that go beyond beauty and resiliency into what is “magical and majestic” about them. Each of the photographers had their own interpretation for black womanhood – in friendship and the intimacy within it, in celebrating the skin we live in and just how real we are in our power despite myths.

Here are some photos from the night, and the talent of the women — Brianna Roye, Setti Kidane and Martika Jabari — who brought the theme of black female identity to light through their work.

[Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
[Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
[Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
[Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
The three featured photographers Brianna Roye, Setti Kidane and Martika Jabari briefly spoke about what black womanhood means to them, and how they convey that in their work.

Roye, Kidane and Jabari pose for a selfie. [Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
Brianna Roye. [Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
Setti Kidane. [Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]
Martika Jabari [Leyla Jeyte/This is Worldtown]

Movement in tradition: how mothers and daughters relate to the Sudanese tobe.

Photographer Ebti Nabag noticed how second generation Sudanese women in Canada had a complicated relationship with the Sudanese traditional garment, the tobe. Her sensitive photographs of mothers and daughters in their most comfortable states is a testament to changing traditions in the diaspora between generations.

It’s truly an intergenerational story that speaks about the mother daughter relationship, tradition and dual identity tied to the the tobe.


This is Worldtown [TIWT]: Can you explain a bit about the tobe and the role it plays in Sudanese identity?

Ebti Nabag [EN]: The tobe meaning “bolt of cloth” is the national dress for women in North Sudan. Sudanese women are expected to wear the tobe once married. The 15-foot long material comes in many colours and patterns. The style of tobe that is selected by the woman is governed by the age of the female, and the type of occasion she is wearing the tobe to. A young, newlywed female at a social gathering is more likely to wear a vibrant, heavily beaded tobe, while an elderly woman might feel a subtle colour and stitched design is more appropriate.

The tobe represents modesty, it represents womanhood; marriage and fertility, it is an indicator of economic status depending on the style, and embellishment of the design, or lack of. Above all, the tobe is patriotic and is the most valuable gift to gift a Sudanese woman after gold.

TIWT: How have you found the tobe to have been adapted in the diaspora?

EN: The garment has adapted differently: to the mothers the tobe is a reminder and a link to Sudan. The tobe is freely donned by the women in the community centre, at weddings whether Sudanese or not, and social gatherings. It is a piece of home that they can have with them anywhere they go. Seniors tend to be the only ones who are seen wearing the tobe in public spaces such as the mall, restaurants etc.

As for the daughters, the garment t is worn occasionally during weddings, or formal parties. For them there is an extensive thought process behind the decision to wear a tobe.  

TIWT: How did this project come about? Why did you want to document the connection mothers and (second generation) daughters have to the tobe?

EN: This projected originated in my personal experience. My mother constantly asked my  sister and I for our opinions on which tobe to wear for her outings, and how to match it. It first started off as a chore, but later opened my eyes to how important the tobe is to my mother.

While I was finding out how valuable this garment is to my mother, a friend of mine was getting ready for her wedding. My friend was not pleased with her mother spending a large amount of money purchasing tobes (plural) for her. She preferred [her mother] bought her something she would actually wear. It was then clear to me that our connection to the tobe is quite different than our mothers.

TIWT: How is this connection different from their mothers?

EN: Our mothers embrace the tobe and see it as fundamental to the identity of a Sudanese woman. The mother’s connection to the tobe was fueled by their experiences growing up in Sudan. When women were given the right to education, the tobe was the thing that protected the modesty, and integrity of the woman as she traveled from home to school. The tobe is what linked the woman from the domestic space of the home to education and work. While some might view this as a way to regulate and control women, I believe most women viewed the tobe as their ticket to public spaces, and continued to celebrate the garment. The tobe also served as a platform for women to express their political views. The process of naming each new style of tobe was an indicator of women being active participants in Sudanese society, a society that tried to exclude women from a rapidly changing Sudan. Example ‘The Diplomatic Corps,” “The Political Corps,” , ““The Sound of Music” (1960s”.

For the daughters, Sudanese heritage does not occupy a large portion of their lives. Growing up in Canada allows them to embrace a dual identity, in this case Sudanese-Canadian, can play a role in the decision of embracing the tradition or rejecting it. Identity is a very nebulous dynamic—a fluid idea, that can be linked to generational change and relocation.

TIWT: Who were the women who participated? How did you find them?

EN: Being an active member of the Sudanese community helped me start a conversation about this tradition and get my questions answered. During a community gathering,

I would ask a group of women a question such as “how would you feel if your daughter didn’t wear the tobe after marriage?” Women would then chime in with their remark. I had similar conversations with the younger women using the same discussion technique. It was then easy for me to ask the mothers and their daughters to participate in the project.

TIWT: Is there any story that stood out in particular as portraying the pain of loss in the diaspora? (i.e. losing tradition, losing identity).

EN: What stood out the most to me is the fact that the essence of the tradition has been overshadowed by the [status symbolism] of the tobe.  A fashionable tobe in Sudan can range anywhere from 127-212 Canadian dollars. During my 2015 visit to Sudan, I heard a woman ask the owner of a tobe shop if he knows of any second-hand purchasers for her used tobes. The owner replies, “No, but you can donate them to this store around the corner.” Upset the woman replies, “Donate what?, they’re in great condition and some are only worn once.” To my surprise, the rest of the women in the store weigh in on the conversation and their shared dilemma. This luxury market has worked its way into benefiting from the tradition and while doing so it divided the women in social events.

In terms of in the diaspora, one of the last discussions the mothers and daughters had was around the longevity of the tradition. The daughters were asked if they will pass the tradition down to their daughters. It was interesting to hear them say yes, it is something they will do their best to pass down. After all it is their roots. The mothers on the other hand were doubtful of its longevity with future generations, in and outside of Sudan.

TIWT: What is your own personal relation to the tobe?

EN: My personal connection to the garment is my mother. Seeing a woman in a tobe is an automatic reminder of my mother. Without my mother holding on to this tradition and including me in her tobe selection process I would not have any connection to the tradition. Her tobes are what is valuable to me. This is my relationship to garment now. It might change in a few years, it might not.

TIWT: You’ve previously photographed the tobe in abstraction, can you speak a little about why you’ve chosen to do that?

EN: I began the project by producing abstract images of the tobe. The photographs are captured in a way that exalts the tobe. They strip the tobe from its context to show a beautiful abstraction unbound from meaning. It is photographed against the sky, isolated from any human elements. This helped divert any presumptions that a viewer can have if the tobe is worn by a Sudanese woman and is then an obvious cultural symbol. Photographing it as an abstraction gives the audience the freedom to interpret the garment in any way they wish. My first photographs of the tobe were created to capture its beauty, something that we—the younger generation—tended to overlook. The images became a conversation starter for the piece by raising questions about what this garment represents and why first-generation Canadian women have a tenuous relationship with the tradition.

The conversation between the mothers and daughters was loaded with information and contrasting views about the garment, that is why I wanted the images to be unbound and free.

TIWT: What were some of the most surprising things you found about this?

EN: The colonial exchange between Sudanese women and manufacture Tooal, Broadhurst, and Lee based in Manchester is something that stood out to me. Sudanese women bragged about having their tobes made in London, or Switzerland. In the late 1950’s Tooal, Broadhurt and Lee solicited suggestions of tobe names from members of the leading activist group, the Sudanese Women’s Union. This colonial exchange resulted in names such as Aspou Al-Mar’a “Woman’s Week.” Manufactures went through great lengths to anticipate the desires of their distant customers and the women anticipated high quality material tobes, and new fashion trends.

Photographing an intimate take on love’s reality in Nairobi, Kenya

Leyla Jeyte, a Somali-Canadian photographer explains, in her own words, the motivation behind her series of portraits of women in Nairobi, Kenya aiming to uncover “Love’s Reality”.

Love’s Reality is a new photo series I began to shoot in Nairobi, Kenya at the end of 2016. The project was born from conversations I’ve had with friends on the subject of love, how each of us struggles with the messiness of forming and keeping relationships. The term Love has been simplified and overused to the point of becoming a cliché. Yet, we’re still grappling with the profound complexity in how fragile and empowering it can be.

Through this ongoing photo series, I want to explore the interconnectedness of love’s simplicity and complexity by showing the intricate and diverse ways of how we as black women define love and how we want to experience it. In the current love terrain of swipeland dating apps, love has become a battle for who cares the least; obscuring our abilities to be vulnerable and authentic in how we express our feelings and connect. What do we do as women to hold on to our own truth for the love we know we deserve when what we’re dealing with is this idea of intimacy without commitment? Because in the words of Frank Ocean “we’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you.”

The photos below show four women that I either approached or were introduced to me by friends. I had no previous interactions with any of them, so there was little I knew of their history or personality. We connected purely over the project. I wanted to work with women that were either strangers or acquaintances because in doing so I believe there is another layer added to the project; that of candidness in all its shapes. And in turn, a moment of reality.

Prior to the photo shoot, the women were asked ‘how do you define love?’ and ‘what is one word you would use for the kind of love you want for yourself?’ The women were then told to embody and express the word they decided on while their photo was being taken. There is a set of three photos for each of the women accompanied by their responses to the questions in their own words.

This project is about being loved, wanting to love and all that resides in between captured through the faces of the women that share a piece of themselves.

1. Priscillah. Honest.

Physical communication, one on one. That’s what makes love. Without it I would not know the person I’m with.

Honest is the kind of love I want, be honest. You don’t like my hair today, kindly tell me your hair sucks. I piss you off, I want you to be straightforward about it. Let’s cut the bullshit and go straight to the point. When it comes to him I want to know where he stands, it doesn’t mean I have to change. It’s not a controlling thing I believe it is just a point of honesty, I don’t want him to pretend. Let’s say we are married and we start lying about small things and the small things become the big things and now we can’t even control it because we don’t even know where it started.


2. Michelle. Overwhelming. 

It’s personal, it is spiritual, it is sexual, it is deep. You have this feeling about this person to the point where you get profound ecstasy when you see them. It’s like rainbows and sunshine. It can also cause a lot of hurt because you expect so much from this person and when this person doesn’t live up to it, it hurts you harder.

Overwhelming because there is too much mediocracy happening. I want to be overwhelmed all the time, like ‘oh my god’. I’ve seen love and I’m like you’ve got to do it right; you don’t just go into a relationship saying I’m compromising. I want overwhelming love, it takes over you and you can’t even control it. I want to be shocked that he is okay with me as me.


3. Mariam. Happiness

Intimacy that is love, two people who are connected.

Happiness because I just want to be happy and keep on smiling. No arguments, no fights. Your love should be the first person that comes to you, no other person should come first than the person you have a relationship with.

4. Mamijo – EXCITES

Love is [when] you care about their happiness more than your own selfish reasons and you’re willing to more or less sacrifice yourself for them. Not in the sense of ‘I’m going to kill myself’ but I will go out of my way to keep you happy even though I don’t necessarily agree with what you want to do.

It’s a feeling, I want a love that always excites me like a surprise. The things that mean the most to me are a bit of both. It’s kind of like a balance between big things and small things.

Capturing the Quiet Grace of Undocumented Women in America’s ‘Colonias’

By Shaghayegh Tajvidi

Visual Journalist Shaghayegh Tajvidi documents her journey through the heart of America’s Colonias — the land where undocumented migrants band together to survive. 

By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown

It’s early September and we are driving on a highway in the Rio Grande Valley in the very south of southern Texas, en route to a colonia for the first time. The word colonia literally translates into colony, though in Spanish it simply refers to a neighbourhood.

We wanted to speak with those residing in these neighbourhoods, which dot the harsh, isolated terrain between two states.

Cacti and abundant palm trees make for easy window gazing – until we cross a massive regional surveillance blimp and soon after, the windshield collides audibly with thousands of butterflies migrating to Mexico. My colleague’s expression is composed, but I feel an instant jolt. It’s a juxtaposition that invokes the violence of borders, one splattering monarch after the next.

I promise, this is not a story about powerlessness.

Our political discourse speaks endlessly about immigration, and undocumented peoples, but rarely from undocumented peoples themselves. So, we set out to hear testimonies from those indigenous to the land, who are forced to live in squalor in America. This contrast depicts life in the colonias, except they are fighting back.

Texas has the highest concentration of these settlements, which began to pop up in the 1950s. To this day the relationships between residents and developers remain complex and unstable. Think: (often) white landowners renting substandard housing and infertile land to migrant populations living in extreme poverty. Family incomes are far below the average of Texas’ border counties ($16,717 in 2015) and unemployment levels are eight times the state rate, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve.

Homes are built in violation of codes, out of cheap and DIY materials, meanwhile developers can repossess properties with ease. Thousands of colonias exist in Texas alone, and are, like their 500 000 residents, off the grid.

Often, there is no sewage, electricity and they lack basic services like garbage collection. For waste management, families band together to commission trash collection with little or no assistance from local governments. Similarly, they’ve organized for street lamps, which some communities have been successful in gaining, while others continue to mobilize.

In Colonia Los Olivares, the community fights for roads and street lamps. Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
In Colonia Los Olivares, the community fights for roads and street lamps. Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown

Colonias sit on the very fringes of counties, and outside municipalities. They are impossible to get to without a vehicle, and with many neighbourhoods still pushing for paved roads, it is only a matter of time before the vehicle hits a ditch. Calling for assistance can be risky business, as being caught without documents can be far more consequential than dealing with a flat tire.

But with this despair comes a determined set of women leaders who are are strategizing, organizing meetings and demanding justice.

As several of these organizers tell me,“we are stepping now into the light.”

Rosa Garcia, 56, in front of her home in La Frontera Estates #3 [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
Through ARISE, Rosa Garcia and members lead the fight for clean water and environmental justice [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
“I hope to God I can find a more permanent place for my trailer,” Rosa Garcia tells me, on the drive to her home in Donna Lake.

“I’d prefer to find somewhere close to Alamo or Donna, because that’s where I know I can help the most people.”

She moved to colonia La Frontera just over a year ago and has been a community organizer for the last 16 years. Throughout this time, much of the organizing has been with ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) though Rosa’s mobilization efforts began not long after her arrival to the US from Reynosa, Mexico, 24 years ago.

“I’ve gone knocking on the doors of 350 families to see what services they need and if they want to participate in programs. Wherever I live, I get involved with the community.”

Rosita never quits. She cleans homes, bakes and sells goods, finds odd jobs in schools and community centres, and when nothing works, puts up garage sales.

“The real story here,” she leans in, “is that I’m a single mother of five.” She points to the neighbouring trailer, in which her daughter’s family lives.

“I’ve raised these five children without [support from the state] and yet I pay my taxes.”

Flor Martinez takes pause from Bingo night to share her story [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Everybody absorbed in play in Colonia Mi Sueño [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Nestled near his family, a child too young for board games invents his own fun [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Yolanda Reina, organizer and part-time bakery worker, says community morale is higher after joining LUPE [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
“I have a strong base of people to mobilize,” says grassroots leader, Eva, of Colonia La Fruta. “Organizations often come to me for help.” [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Bingo night in Colonia Mi Sueño brings everyone out.

The dense heat of the afternoon has finally subsided, allowing families to gather around picnic tables in the yard. Hot nachos are in high demand among participants of all ages, who are absorbed in both conversation and play.

This night is not just about recreation. Through modest game fees, the community is raising funds for their LUPE membership (La Union del Pueblo Entero), which they believe has been transformative for their empowerment. A total game changer for morale.

I settle at the back of the yard, where a few women graciously pause from their boards to speak about their lives.

Among them is Flor Martinez.

In a calming cadence, she recounts how residents of Mi Sueño fought years for street light installation – a major victory after a grueling five-year struggle.

“The darkness brought a lot of problems. We couldn’t see. Robberies happened, children couldn’t play or be outside freely. They couldn’t see the school bus arriving. It was dangerous.”

Having won light fixtures, they are now pushing for drainage.

The urgency for sewage could not be more evident in colonias that lack it. Even light rain culminates in disproportionate flooding around the neighbourhood, never mind the aftermath of torrential downpours Hidalgo county is sometimes subject to.

The lack of basic infrastructure means kids get sicker here, Flor says.

“They can’t exercise because there isn’t green space close by. All these issues, they’re connected with each other.”

Flor and her children live in a house with two other families to keep housing costs at a minimum; her annual income of three thousand dollars doesn’t stretch far. Despite the difficulties, she could not be prouder of her community’s resilience.

She’s certain the pressure is finally putting the people of colonias on the radar of public officials.

Emma Alaniz and family moved to Curry Estates sixteen years ago and were the colonia’s first residents [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
It is 104-degree heat when Emma Alaniz invites me into her home.

She has lived in Curry Estates for nearly two decades. It is where she raised her four kids.

All but Roberto, now aged 28, have moved away.

“They had a happy childhood, they would run outside with their dogs. The entire colonia was their playground. We were the first ones here.”

From a distance, Curry Estates could be a neighbourhood in any corner of the country. It has paved roads and some beautiful abodes, such as Emma’s. What we are looking at, she tells us, represents years of struggles, which are ongoing.

When Hurricane Dolly hit southern Texas in 2008, colonia residents bore the most extreme brunt of the flooding.

“[In its aftermath] I saw kids playing outside and realized that the contents of our septic tanks were also rising and mixing into the flood water… where the kids were playing. It worried me,” she recounts.

The disaster brought some members of the community, including Emma and her husband, to their first meeting to discuss drainage systems. “For me, mobilization started that day.”

She turned her home into an organizing space. Six people showed up to the first house gathering – a triumph. Over the next four years, meeting attendance grew. They rallied relentlessly in front of the commissioner’s court.

Eventually the commissioner caved. The county would move forward with sewerage plans for the colonia. For Emma, the accomplishment also served as a big epiphany.

“This work has taught me that we should have the same rights and same access to services as people do in cities. We’re stepping out of the shadows now.”