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Ángela García wasn’t planning on becoming an artist. She entered college in the pre-med track, intending to go into a medical career. But then she started taking art history classes. And she kept taking them, despite still being in the pre-med track.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t like this. Maybe I don’t like the sciences as much as I thought I did. And I’m really interested in this art history curriculum.’ So, I switched over at the end of my sophomore year,” García said.
Now she’s a senior art history major at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, with several large-scale art projects under her belt, having rekindled a passion for creative work from her childhood.
“I used to do painting when I was younger but I kind of fell out of it for a while, especially in high school and the beginning of college. I got into collaging, which is the main medium I work with, at the end of my first year of college,” García said.
García is inspired by art that can improve communities.
“There was this one class that I took spring 2019 that was called ‘Public Art Across the Border.’ It dealt a lot with public art projects, specifically along the U.S./Mexico border, but also public art in general in different places and how it can affect, help, and impact communities that get to see it and interact with it,” García said.
This led García to her largest art project─ one that made a difference for people’s health.
The Rio Grande Valley Free Fridge Initiative
This past summer, García helped start the Rio Grande Valley Free Fridge Initiative in her hometown of McAllen, Texas (85.3% Latino).
The region where García is from has a rich culture and history. The Rio Grande Valley is made up of four counties — Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron — where Texas and Mexico meet. The region has a diverse landscape, growing economy, and vast cultural heritage.
But the predominately Latino population suffers from poverty, food deserts, natural disasters, and rising cases of COVID-19. Yet Texas state officials often overlook, underfund, or forget about the 1.4 million people who live there.
That’s why mutual aid projects like the Free Fridge Initiative are established.
A community fridge supplies free food and household supplies to people who have limited access to fresh groceries. Depending on the organizers, a community fridge may have specific requirements of what kind of foods they accept, such as the San Antonio Community Fridge that focuses on providing plant-based, nutritious foods. The only limitations on the fridge in McAllen were not to have raw meat or alcohol, according to García.
Community fridges are growing in popularity, especially in recent months to address the food insecurity in low-income communities of color brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Latino families are especially impacted by food insecurity.
“Free fridge projects have been kind of popping up around the nation and the state. I had seen some in San Antonio and Austin and then farther out in Brooklyn and even I think North Carolina, so just kind of all around the nation,” García said.
García was eager to help out her community in McAllen. She got involved through responding to an open call on Twitter from a McAllen local gauging interest in starting a community fridge.
“Their name is Andrés Garza; they’re the main organizer of the RGV Free Fridge Initiative. They put out an open call on Twitter, first of all, trying to find a fridge, then kind of just recruiting volunteers to help with the fridge. So, I messaged them and told them I would love to be the artist that helps decorates this fridge,” García said.
Designing the Fridge
García had to do a bit of planning to come up with the design.
Before the team had located a fridge to use for the project, she wasn’t sure what kind of a design would be the most functional. Once they got ahold of a fridge, the plan for the art began.
“At first, I wanted to do something that was related to here where I live. There are a lot of palm trees here, and this region is also known for its citrus,” García said. “I was thinking maybe I’d just do a giant palm tree on it. Or maybe I’d do a giant pair of grapefruits or oranges on the door. Or even something like a lotería card on the side. But I was like no, that seems a little bit too played out. I feel like that’s been done a lot already, so I want to try something completely different.”
In the end, she ended up being more inspired by 1960s art.
“In general, it’s kind of a sun with these really colorful regions on the doors and the bottom part, the freezer door, is just a bunch of psychedelic looking flowers. And then on the side, the rays of the sun continue with grass on the bottom,” García said.
García created the collage with a wheat paste made of small pieces of construction paper, with the process taking her about a week. She shared the finished collage on her art Instagram page, @angelascollages, which gathered a large outpouring of support.
The Fridge Grows in Popularity (and Faces a Problem)
Within a week of finishing the fridge’s collage, García and the Free Fridge Initiative volunteers set up the fridge in the McAllen Food Park, next to Diego’s Food Truck.
“It took about three days to set up the fridge in its location before we opened it to accepting donations from the public,” García said.
After the official opening to the public, people could access the fridge 24/7. Volunteers from the Free Fridge Initiative monitored the fridge throughout the day, visiting it two to three times a day to clean and sanitize it.
During its first week, the fridge ran out of food and needed to be refilled multiple times. The public response to the fridge was overwhelmingly positive, according to García.
“So many people in the valley asked how they could contribute at the site or financially,” García said.
However, after a week of having the fridge up and running, the city of McAllen asked them to shut it down.
“It was originally at a food truck here in McAllen, but the Chamber of Commerce asked that it be removed due to concerns about food temperatures and that type of thing. It had only been there for maybe a week or maybe even less than that, so we were still trying to get coordinated and get things set up,” García said.
The team had made sure the area was properly sanitized and safe.
“We always had sanitation materials there, we had gloves, we had anti-bacterial cleanser so that there wouldn’t be cross contamination. Everything was required to be either sealed or very adamantly labeled,” García said. “But we were still forced to move from that location.”
García suspects the area where the fridge was located might have raised concerns about loitering.
“The fridge was put there purposefully because there are a lot of people experiencing homelessness who are around that area, so we wanted to make sure that it was in an area that was high-trafficked, where people could be able to access it,” García said.
Despite the difficulties they originally faced, García remains hopeful.
The team has plans to move the fridge to a new location. They’ll soon make the location announcement on the fridge’s official Instagram page.
How Can I Start a Community Fridge?
García recommends to anyone interested in starting their own community fridge to get active on social media.
“It’s definitely not easy, but it’s definitely not impossible. I think social media is easily the best way to get connected and the fastest way to reach a lot of people, because that was where fridge planning started. We used Twitter to find a fridge. We also used Twitter to find someone to build an enclosure or a shed for the fridge,” García said.
Besides social media, García recommends gathering a large group of volunteers willing to help out.
“It just takes coordination. Obviously, it’s not a single person job. You need a lot of people and a lot of volunteers,” García said. “The amount of volunteers we have isn’t a lot, it’s maybe 20, and we were still able to pull this project together pretty quickly, maybe in like a month.”
What’s next for García?
While she’s still involved to an extent, García has taken a step back from the Free Fridge Initiative to finish her degree in art history.
Now she’s thinking about how to continue making art that can help her community.
“After finishing the fridge project, I considered doing public murals somewhere, whether that was here [in McAllen] or wherever I end up. I might want to stay in San Antonio after graduation. I don’t really know yet. After that, I was really into doing more and planning more public art projects for the future,” García said.
She wants to be involved in more art festivals, like the San Francisco Zine Fest that she showcased several collages in.
“It was awesome. To be at a California-based festival and talk about issues related to this border region that isn’t as well known or obviously as big as a city as San Francisco? I definitely want to present my work to bigger audiences and audiences that are willing to listen,” García said.
García aspires for her art to tell the story of the Rio Grande Valley.
“I think it’s really interesting how artists go through different eras and phases in their work. Like for Picasso, there’s his blue period. Different works of art stand for different points of time and pieces of history,” García said.
“In that, I have this very romantic view of my own work and seeing its progression through time. Like I made this when I was this many years old or when this happened in my life or when this happened in history. But I think it would be cool to have my work be a symbol for this region. Like people see my work and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Valley Art.’”
García hopes that someday art from the valley will be recognized nationally.
“The valley is definitely overlooked just in general, and definitely from an artistic point of view. A lot of times, valley artists that do make it big, only make it big after they go to New York City or Austin. I think it’s partially because a lot of the cities that make up the valley are small cities. Even though in general, the entire valley’s population is really large, it’s made up of several small cities, which doesn’t put it as much on the map as giant cities would,” García said.
“And also because we are predominately Latinx and poor and partially undocumented. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make great art, you know?”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.