Above: Bianca Encinias has made El Chante into a community space, boutique, and much more. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
BIANCA ENCINIAS SITS ON A BLACK LEATHER COUCH in the art gallery of El Chante: Casa de Cultura, the community space she founded in downtown Albuquerque in 2010. Paintings by local artists surround her. Behind her, the entryway to the house showcases colorful bunches of handmade corn-husk flowers for sale.
“I come from a pretty grounded family, although we were low-income,” she says, referring to her childhood in Albuquerque’s South Valley. She was the first in her family to be born in the city—her relatives were farmers and ranchers in northern New Mexico. “That’s really my goal with El Chante: How can we create and model those spaces of healthy living for families and children?”
Encinias, who is also the executive director of Historic Bridge MainStreet, South Valley, a grassroots economic development and neighborhood revitalization organization, stresses the importance of creating an alcohol- and drug-free place in an area of town known for its bars and nightclubs. Upstairs at El Chante, she dedicates a sunlit room to a children’s library and playroom. There’s also a library and the Librotraficante Book Club for adults.
Twice a month, El Chante also sponsors Low Writers, a free writing workshop hosted by former Albuquerque poet laureate Manuel González. In 2019 and 2020, El Chante partnered with the Arte Escondido Project to showcase local artwork on Central Avenue streetlight banners.
Jeanette Baca, a 2020 Arte Escondido featured artist, says that although many collaborated on the project, Encinias made it happen.
At the start of the pandemic, Encinias found herself thinking about the fact that Latinx women are among the lowest-paid people in America. “For women of color, we self-sacrifice a lot,” she says. “How do we claim back our space in economic development?”
One solution came to her while working from home with her two sons, ages 13 and 9. She needed an artistic outlet, and figured other moms might, too. Encinias bought a screen-printing machine for El Chante, and she and others began sewing and printing T-shirts, tortilla warmers, and purses to sell in the boutique. “We had just created a website right before covid hit,” she says, “and learning how to silkscreen and put together our own imagery really got us to focus on online sales.”
Encinias had already been selling handmade items by local Indigenous and Latinx artisans through Home Girls Mercado events, which expanded from six vendors in 2019 to 30 in 2021. As the pandemic challenges continued, the efforts of the Mercado branched into Home Girls Unidas, a way for the women to stay connected through weekly online check-ins.
Art gallery shows went online as well, so artists could keep making money. “She allows me to have that space to express my art freely, but also to make a business out of my art,” says Kirbie Platero, an El Chante artist in residence.
“She has the unique ability to educate others and remind us of our history, while simultaneously ensuring that we continue to have the resources we need to thrive in the future,” says Monica Trujillo, a volunteer at El Chante. “She truly personifies the beauty, community, culture, and resilience of New Mexico and its people.”