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Adding to the painter's woes, the neighborhood around his White Oak studio has morphed from a significantly Hispanic, low-income barrio 20 years ago into a hotbed of gentrification. When the rent went up this spring, he couldn't afford it. He's now between studios and is scarcely painting. He lives in a windowless former liquor store on Houston Avenue, where a single bottle of Kahlúa sits on a shelf near an old Morales Latin Dance Party record.
With good cause to be bitter, Espada nonetheless blames himself for his sales slump. Dance has been an important influence in his work, but he quit the hobby in the 1990s because of health problems. And in 2001, his close friend New York artist Mark Lombardi committed suicide. Espada's work became more minimalist. It feels reflective and less youthful and unruly. Driving his red pickup down Allen Parkway recently, he seems to be grappling with how to connect his work to his life's readjusted reality. "I've got to find that special art," he says, "reactivate my talent, my uniqueness, my visuality."
Houston's Latino arts scene has been similarly down and out. Besides Espada, most gallery owners are hard-pressed to name even one well-known local Latino painter. And they're stumped as to why. Spotty interest from the MFAH is hardly a sufficient explanation. Cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and even San Antonio are hotbeds for Latino artists, despite lack of supportive major museums in some cases. And the Houston area has produced a respectable share of nationally known artists who aren't Latino, such as the Art Guys, Manual and, of course, Robert Rauschenberg.
Much of Houston's shortfall is to be blamed on the city's demographics, says University of Houston Latin American art professor Rex Koontz. Compared to Latinos in San Antonio and Los Angeles, who have lived in those cities for generations, most of Houston's Hispanics arrived more recently. Many come from rural areas in Texas such as the Rio Grande Valley. Unlike the wealthy Cubans who settled in Miami, they tend to be low-income and uneducated. "They are more recent immigrants, who don't necessarily come from cultures that have connections with contemporary art," Koontz says. "All of that has to wind its way through the system."
At a recent exhibit for young Latino artists at the east side's Talento Bilingue cultural center, for example, a bohemian Hispanic teenager is attracted to a Kahlo-like painting of a woman next to a rose. "I love this one so much," she says to a friend, "but my dad would be like, 'Are you hungry?' "
Latino teenagers would have picked up on visual art more quickly if Houston took arts education seriously, says MFAH director Peter Marzio. "You have to realize, first of all, that in the city of Houston, you cannot get a master's degree in art history," he says. "It is also possible to go through the entire Texas educational system and never once take a visual arts course, from prekindergarten to post-Ph.D."
Given the obstacles to success in Houston, Espada might have found more enduring patronage elsewhere. Other painters featured in the MFAH's Hispanic show benefited from moving away: Kingsville-born painter Carmen Lomas Garza relocated to San Francisco, where her paintings of tamale-making parties and other Texas scenes sell well. And the peripatetic Roberto Juarez bounced from his hometown of Chicago to Rome and New York, where he receives wide play in the cities' galleries.
Yet despite Houston's shortcomings as a destination for Latin artists, the flow of creative energy is shifting. Houston is becoming a trans-American crossroads -- and no longer just for oil, shrimp and the clothing section of Wal-Mart.
In the Arte Las Américas Gallery, which occupies an old brick house, the air conditioner fights a losing battle. Owner Jorge Luis Jiménez is drenched in sweat, probably due in part to shock. More than 200 drink-swilling visitors have squeezed into the little-known art space, and hundreds more are lined up down Richmond Avenue. His new exhibit, "ConsulARTE," is an unexpected hit.
Part of the show's draw comes from its suspense. Diplomats representing 25 countries mingle with artists and wild-haired bohemians, while judges scrutinize an international collection of paintings and prepare to vote for a winning nation.
A Colombian diplomat pats the drenched Jiménez on the shoulder. "This is the first time that anybody related to art really paid much attention to give us real support, promoting our artists, promoting our cultural expressions and values," says Hernan Arizmendi, the country's consulate general. "So Jorge Jiménez is maybe like the Cristóbal Colón of Houston art."
At a minimum, the event is a vindication for Jiménez. He opened his gallery in October 2003, selling a 50-50 mix of works from emerging Latin American and local Latino artists. "We are just starting to get off the ground," he says, "and the reason for that is because this new generation of Hispanic professionals is making it happen."
White-collar Latinos show up in droves. Santana Gonzalez, who works for the Global Gas division of ChevronTexaco, talks with Mexican painter Magdiel Perez. He's looking for ways to connect culturally with Latin America, both for personal reasons and to bolster the company's image. "If we do business with a place, we are interested not only in our own education," he says, "but also in providing cultural opportunities for people within that country."
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