Erika Lopez is a proud queer Chicana from one of Houston’s oldest Hispanic neighborhoods. She loves filming, getting her hands dirty, and, most of all, combining her queerness with her Chicanx culture through the art she showcases in her online clothing store PorVida, which translates from Spanish as “For Life.”
PorVida offers customers quality T-shirts and pins featuring images from Lopez’s childhood, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe and drawings of her friends.
“I love creating art and being able to work with my hands,” Lopez says. “I also want to be there for my community. I love doing whatever I can do to involve both [Chicanx and queer] communities.”
Lopez’s love of community started while growing up in Magnolia Park, where she often saw neighborhood gatherings such as food banks and toy drives.
“Somebody was always giving back,” Lopez says, recalling how a man named Pancho Claus would don a red and black zoot suit every Christmas and ride his sleigh (a colorful lowrider) to schools to give toys to her and other kids.
“Growing up and seeing Pancho Claus always stuck with me,” Lopez says. “I want to be that person who gives back. Even though I’m struggling and it’s been hard, that’s my goal.”
While her intersecting identities (and her memories of Pancho Claus) inspired her to create PorVida, Lopez says she got the idea to start her online clothing store during a difficult time in her life brought on by Hurricane Harvey.
Harvey poured one trillion gallons of water across Harris County over a four-day period, according to Harris County Flood Control District reports. Lopez remembers how the storm turned Magnolia Park into a flooded hellscape. Her apartment, which she shared with her mother and grandmother, was no exception.
“It usually flooded at the apartment complex, but only at the entrance,” Lopez says. “It was never that bad, but Harvey just really hit hard.”
She remembers leaving her room to check on her neighbor’s residence. Her apartment floors were dry when she left, but by the time she returned, water had rushed into her home, confusing her mother and grandmother.
“My grandma, having dementia, had no idea what was going on,” Lopez says. “My mom and I were like, ‘OK, let’s try to just bag up everything and put them in high places. Let’s save whatever we can.’”
Lopez remembers lifting her dog out of the waist-high water, putting her monkey, Nikko, into his travel cage, and wrapping up her most important material belongings: her computer and her RuPaul doll.
After hours of waiting for help, a couple in a small canoe floated by and agreed to take Lopez and her loved ones to dry land. While Lopez’s grandmother and pets sat in the narrow boat, the couple, her mother, and Lopez swam alongside the boat for 35 minutes until they reached the main road where it wasn’t as flooded. Then they stayed in a hotel for two weeks, until the owner forced them out.
“The hotel already had rooms booked, so they basically started kicking everybody out,” Lopez says. “It was the saddest thing ever, because the owner was just being so rude about it and was like, ‘Y’all need to leave.’”
The family ended up staying in a motel for nearly two months before moving into a new apartment, where Lopez’s grandmother suffered a stroke and remained bedridden in a hospital for a month and a half until she passed away. A month later, her pet monkey died of pneumonia.
“Harvey is such a sensitive subject, because I feel like that was the downfall of my most favorite things—my grandma and my monkey,” Lopez says.
Lopez had always shared a room with her grandmother, who would watch Lopez paint on nights when she couldn’t sleep. The two would stay up, keep each other company, and listen to Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, two Mexican singers her grandmother idolized.
“After my grandma’s death, I was going through depression and anxiety,” Lopez recalls. “I wasn’t creating anymore, because I felt those memories were attached to her.”
But from that darkness came an undeniable creative fire that ignited and burned bright in Lopez—a light that guided her to art and, ultimately, to her online PorVida store.
One day, struck by inspiration, Lopez decided to quickly sketch her friends and transfer the doodles to T-shirts with her friends’ help. Lopez built a DIY screen-printing machine and created shirts in her dining room. Once she printed her shirts, she decided to make pins and went on to contact pin manufacturers and distributors.
After opening her clothing store, event organizers in Magnolia Park reached out to Lopez’s “very queer and in-your-face type of brand,” she says. Traditionally masculine Chicanx people attended these events and visited the PorVida tent, where Lopez would tell them the story behind her shirts, and what it means to be queer and Chicanx. Her message often struck a chord.
Event-goers thanked her for sharing her experiences and offered their own in return. People connected with her by talking about their own LGBTQ relatives. She was also approached and supported by other LGBTQ neighbors.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m not out yet, but it was nice to see the Pride flag in my neighborhood,’” Lopez says. “It’s nice when I get to vend at events that aren’t necessarily queer events, because I get to start conversations with people that normally wouldn’t have these conversations.”
Lopez says she didn’t start PorVida to make money for herself. She plans to give back to her communities with the new designs she is selling online. She even promised her friends that she would donate to the queer community whatever money she made on the T-shirts that featured drawings of them.
She also aims to work with artists from Magnolia Park, create pins inspired by her childhood community, and give the profits back to her neighborhood.
“I want to do so much more with PorVida,” Lopez emphasizes. “I want to help people out. I want to have my own little events where I can use all my money for good, because if [I’m creating] queer [Chicanx] representation, I want to actually use it [to support that community].”
When asked what advice she has for beginning entrepreneurs, Lopez says they should conduct research before agreeing to do business with manufacturers and distributors. She adds that entrepreneurs also need to learn new skills and only go into businesses that they’re passionate about.
“Stay motivated, stay optimistic,” Lopez says, “and don’t give up.”
For more information on PorVida, visit porvida.tienda
This article appears in the June 2020 edition of OutSmart.