Fabian Debora stood on the railing of a busy I-5 Freeway, just beyond Hollenbeck Park, watching the cars zoom by. Blood spewed down his mouth and onto his water-soaked shirt — consequences of the manic escape from his mother's home where she had discovered him doing meth.
Haunted by his children's faces and the hurt he had caused, he fled in shame to this spot, where he planned to end his life. Voices shouted in his head, beckoning him to do what he had come to.
“The voice said, 'You worthless piece of shit, kill yourself,' and it's starting to sound scary and its sounding like a demon…and it's getting louder and louder and I just said 'Ahhhh I don't want to hear this!' I ran across the freeway. First lane, second lane, third lane. There was no turning back.”
Debora's story nearly ended that day. It is a story laced with sadness and loss, tragedy and regret. But most of all it is a story about an artist's mission to heal himself, help his community, and bring attention to the forgotten area of Los Angeles — his home neighborhood, Boyle Heights.
Here depictions of religion and the local culture blur together. Driving east, cars bounce over train tracks past signs in Spanish. Murals of Aztec gods and illustrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe decorate walls throughout the cityscape. The Mexican majority celebrate both the symbols of ancient civilizations and the Catholic faith.
The roots of this community are clearly depicted in Debora's work, currently on display at the “Boyle Heights: Arte Vida y Amor” exhibit at Avenue 50 and in show “Bridging Homeboy Industries” at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College through March 23.
Debora creates his images by drawing on his experiences growing up in the housing projects and falling into gangs and drugs. He says he hopes to break down stereotypes about gang members and to illustrate the role culture plays in this community.
He often uses religious symbols in his work, including depictions of the Virgin Mary. In one she is portrayed painted on a wall, pictured in front of a shirtless man. His face is hidden as his head bows toward her. “Los Angeles” is tattooed across his back, interlaced with symbols of gang culture: a gun, rolling dice, and leering clown faces, commonly understood to represent “laugh now, cry later.” On his neck “Mi Madre” is tattooed in small cursive writing.
In another, a young girl — Debora's daughter — represents the Virgin. Her head is covered in the traditional blue, and she is illuminated against the backdrop of the clouded city.
“If I can use those religion aspects to communicate to the audience, they can say, 'Oh, wow. That's a homegirl as a Mary,'” he says. “It is giving a different interpretation and it removes the stigma [of gang members]. And that is my mission as an artist.”
Debora speaks articulately in low tones with a deep voice that is occasionally broken by a full laugh. His jet black hair is pulled tightly into a bun and tattoos on his arms peek out from behind a long-sleeve shirt as he gestures with ringed fingers. “Art is more than just a painting,” he says. “Art saved my life, literally.”
In the projects, beige buildings, each with fading “No Trespassing” signs, are distinguishable only by the different numbers that mark them. Muffled mariachi music is carried on the breeze that caresses clothes hanging on lines. Bony cats stalk through parking lots, interested in the delicious cooking aromas.
Debora was five when he moved there and soon after turned to art as a coping mechanism. During times of turmoil and domestic disputes he would slip under the family coffee table and escape. “I would hide under there with my notebook, pencils, crayons, whatever I could get a hold of, and I would create my own worlds” he says. “That's when I found out that this gift of art gave me meaning and self worth.”
Debora would spend his adolescence under the bridges of Boyle Heights, making his mark on the concrete canvas of the L.A. River. He describes being left with little hope after his father died from a drug overdose, and he was pulled into drugs and gangs.
Though he spent the next ten years in and out of jail, he continued to be grounded in his gift. “I went from a kid doodling, drawing, to tagger, creating graffiti art in the L.A. River, to gang culture doing tattoo art and prison art. I knew that's what was keeping me sane.”
He would often take solace in the murals marking the walls of his community, and was influenced by the artists who created them. “It connects me back to when my grandmother said the Virgin Mary will never leave my side,” he said. “I see her in all the murals. It is a good connection and it allows me to lift my spirit in the moment.”
Throughout this time, religion played a complicated role in his life. Taught to value faith and tradition by his grandmother, Debora turned to Catholic symbols only in times of need. He recalls relying on the sign of the cross for protection before committing crimes and praying to God he'd get away. He admits that this faith was in many ways superficial.
Religion is prevalent in Hispanic gang culture, he says. It is not uncommon for young men in the community to get tattoos of the Virgin Mary or to carry rosary beads.
“It just means that we have some sort of hope,” he says. “By carrying the Virgin Mary we still believe in that, and the mother who is going to continue to watch over us regardless of what action we are playing a role in.”
Debora did not find his faith until that day on the freeway when he nearly took his own life. He can still see the semi truck as it surges toward him. He can conjure the feelings of regret he had as he rediscovered the will to live, halfway across the freeway as the cars whizzed by.
He ended up clinging to the center divider, saved from the terrible decision. “I look up and see these sun rays,” he says with a subtle smile. “And I felt the peace, the love, the serenity.”
Debora began rebuilding his life that day. He went to rehab. Along with overcoming drugs, he overcame the negative feelings he had fostered for himself and the judgment he had been harboring. “I started to follow the truth of who I was.”
These are the ideas Debora says he hopes to communicate in his art. He uses the symbols of his physical journey — the projects watched over by the Lady of Guadalupe and the underbelly of the Boyle Heights Bridges — to illustrate his personal one. Now he has crossed over those bridges and he hopes to help others follow him, in both directions.
His work contributes to the mission of Homeboy Industries, where he now works as an addiction counselor, to break down barriers between former gang members and others so they can find faith in themselves “As an artist I want them to accept us so we can become us,” he says.
Debora's work is at “Boyle Heights: Arte Vida y Amor” at the Avenue 50 gallery through March 30, and at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College for the show “Bridging Homeboy Industries” through March 23.