Chela Makes Art Because It Doesn’t Ask For Papers
Much of what Isela Meraz has done in the U.S. has been to challenge a system that requires her to show papers. Art is one of those things. In 2014 though, art became more of a tool for self preservation. That’s when she started drawing in the sketchbook that she says saved her life.
She showed me the sketchbook in her studio, a place she always wanted to have but didn’t actually think she could.
“I always dreamed of having a space to do my art but I had to think about money. Now I have DACA and I’m able to work but before, everything was more uncertain,” she says, as she expresses her gratitude to La Muñeca, a Phoenikera artist who invited her to share the studio with her and another artists.
Chela (as her friends call her) got to the U.S. when she was 8. She crossed through El Paso with her mom, dad, brother and sister. They stayed in El Chuco for a few days, then made their way to La Phoenikera. They landed in the West Side at her grandmother’s house.
She started going to Cartwright School and she remembers drawing the illustrations from the Ramona book series. For her book reports she’d draw the main character and write a little bit about the book but when she presented that in class they teased her because they thought she traced them. “That would bother me so much and I would tell them ‘no, I didn’t trace them!’ but they didn’t believe I knew how to draw.”
She learned more about art when she was around 10 years-old through her art teacher who had a mustache like Salvador Dalí’s.
At home, Chela’s interaction with art was through lowrider magazines. There were always stacks of them at her house because her uncle would bring them over. “People submitted drawings and they published them. Those were the best, the work was so beautiful!” Those magazines are the reason she uses Old English letters (AKA cholo letters) in some of her art work now.
I met Chela back in the mid-2000s but not as an artist. I knew her as a badass music promoter in La Phoenikera. She had a company called Mundo Rojo Entertainment and was bringing bands to the city that fed the musical cravings of rockeros and fans of independent music. Bands like Zoe, El Gran Silencio (the band members stuffed their faces with Chela’s mom’s gorditas de azucar) and Panteón Rococó. I met her when her hair reached her shoulders and it would fling side to side when she indulged on the dance floor.
I didn’t know then that she brought those bands to our city, Yes to contribute to the music scene, but mainly because she loved those bands and couldn’t go down to Mexico to see them live. Funny all the things a border fucks with.
For some time, Chela felt like she hadn’t accomplished anything. This person who other promoters looked up to didn’t feel like the events she organized, the talent she brought, the music she introduced us to amounted to much. Mind you, she is responsible for taking the Phoenikra band Babaluca to L.A. for the first time, where they gained popularity. Babaluca’s lead singer at the time is Grammy award-winner, Carla Morrison.
It was in 2012 that these defeatist thoughts roamed Chela’s mind. She had been active in the Undocumented and Unafraid movement and had recently returned from riding the Undocubus.
Immigration raids were raging in the city, she had applied for DACA but it was denied and her mom said to her “don’t get a job. The raids are happening right now and your DACA was denied. I don’t want something to happen to you and they deny it again.” She was in a rough place for a couple of years.
In 2014, many, years after her childhood depictions of Ramona, she started drawing on a sketchbook she bought one time that her mom sent her to Michael’s to get crafting shenanigans. “My mom sent me to the store with 20 bucks and when I saw that the sketchbooks were on sale for $7, I thought ‘I hope my mom doesn’t ask me for the change because I’m gonna spend the rest of the money on this.’”
That’s the sketchbook that saved her life. It served as a catharsis for what she calls her undocudepression. Every time she thought about something negative, she turned to art. “I found some sort of comfort. It started teaching me things that nothing else around me was teaching me.” Chela is a completely self-taught artist.
She started drawing every night. She looked for pictures on Tumblr and saved them on her phone for later projects. Then she started drawing people, something she had avoided in the past when she used to delve in acrylics (Oh yeah, as a kid she saw Bob Ross and wanted to paint like him…we all did!). “The way I was looking at things changed completely, not emotionally but with my eyes,” she says. “I was looking at someone and I could already see myself drawing them. Like, I see you now and I already know your face…I see the lines.”
To Chela’s surprise that same year she started drawing, a friend of hers who owns Espacio 1839, a gallery in L.A. asked her to have a show at their place. Chela didn’t think he cared for her art because he hadn’t “given it a little heart on Instagram.”
“I took three or four weeks to answer hoping that it would be too late and they no longer wanted me,” she says laughing. “At the time, my work was really personal. I made it when I was super sad and now people were going to see it.”
They still wanted her though. In 2015, Chela had her first solo show in L.A. and it was special. She went all out. She printed t-shirts because she got a really good deal from Sam Gomez (Phoenician Clothing and The Sagrado Galleria), she had prints and she gave out stickers to everyone who went up to talk to her during the show.
Chela wanted for everyone who walked into the gallery to be able to leave with something. She thought about people like her, who might be undocumented and unable to work but might have five bucks in their pocket.
“To me, that was very important because for us, the kids from the hood who dream of studios and dream of having our art displayed somewhere, art has not been something we’ve been able to possess. It has been something that has saved us from ourselves.”
Since then, Chela’s also had a sold out solo show here in La Phoenikera at Abe Zucca Gallery and made illustrations for the book Nómada Temporal by Luis Ávila. Now she’s preparing pieces to be part of a show called “Las fronteras nos dividen, pero el arte nos une” with four other Phoenikera artists (Gloria Martinez-Casillas, Giovana Aviles, and Carla Chavarría) on September 2. The event will take place starting at 6 p.m. at The Sagrado Gallery located on 6437 S. Central Ave.
She’ll be featuring portraits of six women. “They’ve played a big role in my life as a person who keeps growing and loving and understanding my queerness. It is with them that I’ve always been able to see myself just as I am.”
Chelas hair no longer reaches her shoulders, it no longer covers up her face when she dances, although she still takes all of us out to dance when we’re at the same party. She also no longer feels unaccomplished, she feels like an artist. “I feel really good. I feel like it’s very me.”