An encounter with Boyle Heights artist Fabian Debora

Latinx artist Fabian Debora shares his life struggles and the art journey that led him to establish the Homeboy Art Academy

A photo of a man standing next to an art mural.

Boyle Heights, LOS ANGELES — Fabian Debora was running across the 5 South Freeway in Boyle Heights. Sirens and helicopters were blaring around him. Maybe they were only voices in his head. Those same voices told him to run, but a Chevy Suburban SUV was bearing down on him. Debora realized he was about to get hit. Twisting his body in anticipation, he shouted his last words to the skies: “My kids!” He felt the impact, but it was not that of a truck. It was a gust of wind, which saved his life.

Debora had attempted suicide two times before this sprint across the freeway, driven by the methamphetamine-induced voices in his head. But this was different. Sitting on the center divider after completing the crossing, he felt intensely happy. This, he attributed to a higher power.

It was this spiritual awakening that prompted the recovery and the art career that would follow.

Growing up in Boyle Heights, Fabian Debora had a rough upbringing. But as one of few to make it out, he dedicated himself to helping others do the same by teaching what brought him peace and happiness: art.

“You can use your imagination or your gift of art, in this case, to escape a reality,” he said.

His notion is to use “the power of the arts for healing and transformation.”

Debora first discovered the magic of art as a child in the Aliso Village housing projects.

“Growing up there, I discovered a lot of artistic merits, meaning hip hop culture, you know, graffiti art, you know, breakdancing, pop locking,” he said. “But of course, gangs were at the center of all this.”

Life at home offered a similar duality.

His parents, Mexican immigrants, struggled to find employment. Under pressure to provide for his family, Debora’s father began transporting heroin from Juarez, Mexico to Los Angeles.

“Now, of course, that didn’t sit well with my mother,” Debora said. “But again, what do you do when you’re financially deprived and you come from poverty and you feel like dead end after dead end after dead end? Then, my dad said we got to survive.”

At first, there was money.

But then his father, Jose Humberto, began to tap into his own supply, and, Debora said, he was no longer the “loving, caring, understanding man.”

Predictably, he would see time behind bars. When he was out, Debora said there was violence in the home.

“Never did I ever see my dad treat my mother in that way, you know?” Debora said. “So, it was very tormenting to me and shocking, like, what the hell? You used to love my mother? I think that led to abandonment and neglect, you know, which kicked up low self-esteem, a lack of confidence.”

To escape trauma at home, Debora used art.

“I used to go and hide under a coffee table, and I would pick up my notebook and create my own worlds to escape my reality,” he said. “And at that moment I felt good. I felt embraced. I felt confident. I felt my worth. And so, I held on to that gift. And for me, that was my coping mechanism.”

Drawing cartoons like He-Man and Popeye, or endless beaches, allowed Debora to create positive images to combat external and internal struggles.

In school, art was his primary focus. Forget class, he said: “Two plus two equals four, four plus four equals a drawing.”

This attitude resulted in numerous trips to the principal’s office, and when one teacher ripped his artwork just before eighth grade graduation, Debora threw a desk at the teacher, leading to expulsion.

Debora said this moment of invalidation would have destroyed his art career if not for Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, who, after learning of Debora’s expulsion, sent him home to draw something. This was new to Debora.

“For the very first time. I’m not being punished and penalized for what I love to do,” he said. “[Father Greg Boyle] actually saw my gift of art, my gift, and he returned it back to me.”

But Debora still wasn’t ready to embrace his gift.

He smoked his first joint as a 12-year-old, and soon after, started using alcohol. After alcohol and weed, he tried PCP and then LSD, then cocaine, then crack cocaine.

In search of any sort of supportive familial unit, Debora joined a gang, and at the age of 12, began to fall into the juvenile justice system.

“I started to become my father and the person that I was so resentful towards,” he said. “I just became like him. And now, here I am, making a life, putting my mom through hell as he did. Same thing. Same story.”

Now, Debora was an addict. He had a child, Fabian Jr., in hopes that would help his turmoil, but because of his addiction, the mother took him away after six months.

Feeling “abandoned, neglected and rejected,” a familiar childhood feeling, he said, Debora spiraled into full-blown meth addiction.

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “And I thought that I was doing something on meth, you know, painting, creating, which was bullshit, and I wasn’t doing anything but getting high and hurting people.”

Man holding a child

He met his future wife, Elizabeth, when he was 25, and she was 16. Struggling with a full-blown meth addiction, Debora said he put her and eventually their children through emotional hell.

“I didn’t want to be a bad person or [hurt] my children. I never wanted to do that, but methamphetamine didn’t give a fuck,” Debora said, adding, “When you are on drugs, it’s insanity. You don’t care and you’re a selfish pig.”

Debora struggled with guilt and shame, knowing he was hurting loved ones with his behavior, just as his father had done.

This pushed him to attempt suicide three times.

The final try was that sprint across the freeway.

Afterward, Debora went back to Father Greg Boyle, who offered him a position at Homeboy Industries. After six months of rehab at the Salvation Army, Debora emerged clean and sober.

Only then, he said, did God let him use his artistic talent.

After a decade with Homeboy, he established Homeboy Art Academy to use art “to help folks redirect their lives—most importantly, to connect to their true self.”

Artwork of an individual holding a sword and stepping on a snake

Eduardo Chavez, one of the “homies,” or students, attends the academy daily. It is one of the only places he can go while on house arrest. He sees Debora as a role model.

“I mean, he’s been in prison, I’ve been in prison, so I can relate to him, and I respect him for that because, you know, shit is not easy,” he said. “He gives us, like, hope, like, oh, if he’s done it, I don’t see why I can’t do it.”

Debora understood the importance of helping others through teaching when he created The Academy. All the same, Debora’s own artwork remained his most powerful tool.

“Art is not just a thing of exploration for me; it’s a responsibility,” he said. “And the responsibility comes with returning the whole image of the gang member back to his reality by removing those stereotypes through our identity, culture, religion and gender spirituality.”

“When I paint, I paint for [myself] with the understanding that someone else is going to find themselves with my imagery.”

Alicia Cantun, another homie, said Debora inspired her to go back to school.

“Coming here, you find yourself,” she said. “I was always, like, mad at the world, but coming here I started healing little by little…”

Debora aims to inspire others, but he still has big dreams for his own career. Debora said he hopes to go on a sabbatical for a few months and figure out how to connect Renaissance-era artwork to the culture of Boyle Heights.

He said all he needs is someone to walk into the Art Academy one day with $3 million.

“I dream so big that people think I’m crazy, but that’s okay. I don’t give a fuck cause it’s my dream, not yours, and I can dream. It’s free.”