Big picture: CDCB’s new mural celebrates Brownsville

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If this wall could talk, it would have begged for a new mural.

The fading, two-tone “Every Step Counts” mural on the southeastern-facing exterior wall of the CDCB building at 901 E. Levee St. downtown wasn’t hideous by any means, but it wasn’t particularly eye-catching either.

Brownsville artist Cecilia Sierra’s new “Unidad y Alegria” (Unity and Joy) mural on the same wall, on the other hand, totally pops.

Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of CDCB (Come Dream, Come Build, formerly the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville), said the nonprofit organization had been in the market for a new mural to replace the old one, which refers to an old CDCB program. Also, lately the nonprofit had been allowing local artists to use space that CDCB was renting across East Levee Street, he said.

“Nansi Guevara was doing a show and needed space, and we had the room,” Mitchell-Bennett said.

That led to talk about replacing the old mural and things went from there, he said, with CDCB staff ultimately choosing a couple of different local artists to interview and exploring questions such as, “What do you like about living in Brownsville?” and “Why is home important to people?”

“We really didn’t want it to be like a commercial for CDCB,” Mitchell-Bennett said. “That really wasn’t the point at all. … Everything starts at home. How do you just tell a story of where you live? The artist came back with a couple of images and then the staff voted on which one they liked the best, and that was the one they chose.”

“Unidad y Alegria,” borrows from ancient Tree of Life symbology in colorfully depicting familiar symbols of Brownsville — family scenes, tranquil resacas, citrus, nopales, a great kiskadee, Charro Days flowers and don’t forget the beloved tlacuache (opossum). The “trunk” of the tree is a vintage wood frame house with a columned porch — a common sight in the Valley’s oldest residential neighborhoods — bearing the house number “956” above the door.

“For me, it was what’s downtown like?” Sierra told The Brownsville Herald recently. “I wanted to pick just community in general. It’s just a depiction of who we are. Like even with the skin tones. I was trying my best to show variety. … It means a lot for kids, especially, to see themselves.”

Above the peak of the roof of the 956 house are a heart and monarch butterfly, representing love, or the Sacred Heart, and hope, she said.

“It kind of also touches base with DACA and immigration in these very subtle, soft ways,” Sierra said.

The “tree” is set against a dazzling sea of yellow, made even brighter by the full sun bearing down on a recent cloudless day. The mural faces a parking lot and is visible from more than a block away, no nearby buildings to obstruct the view. The work took two months and was completed about a month ago, with the final coat of clear sealant to protect it from UV rays just applied.

Sierra designed the mural on a computer, then projected it onto the towering wall. From there, it was essentially “paint by numbers” for her and the artist team of five she hired, she said.

“I think it’s more efficient personally, paint-by-number,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in that.”

“I think it’s great,” Mitchell-Bennett said. “I look at it and it captures everything I like about Brownsville, and I wasn’t in any of the conversations. … I was really happy with what they chose, what Ceci chose as well. … There are a lot of great (local) artists doing some good stuff. We really wanted to highlight a local person in Brownsville.”

He credited artists such as Guevara and Josue Ramirez with McAllen-based Trucha RGV for their work cultivating other young artists in the Valley. Mitchell-Bennett said he was surprised to discover that one of Sierra’s charcoals (an ocelot) had been hanging on a wall in his home for years, something he’d picked up at an art fair once.

“I had no idea that it was her until I saw the painting here on our building,” he said. “I’m like, wait a minute. I went back to the house and I’m like, oh, that’s the same person.”

Sierra, part of the nonprofit Frontera Arts in Bloom, which runs an artist’s residency dubbed “The Flower Shop,” is a mixed media artist and freelance illustrator who considers herself a professional artist, despite a side gig as a cashier. While she comes from a creative family, Sierra is the first member of her family to pursue art as a career, she said.

“I’m very grateful that they’re very supportive of me and encourage me to do what I want to do,” she said. “It would be thanks to them, obviously, with their support.”

Sierra said she’s happy to see more murals coming to downtown, and is ready for the next big project.

“I would like to do it again if it comes up,” she said. “I’m very open to it.”

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