Sister, SixChel: Dina Chavez
Independent fashion designer Dina Chavez of SixChel photographed at home, by Delcia Lopez for The Monitor.
Dina Chavez holds a pillow steady on her lap; fingers scarred from late night sewing gently stroke an embroidered sunflower. Sunflowers — her sister Erica’s favorite, now a symbol of a promise kept.
Dina’s is in the same Pharr, Texas home she’s known since the eighth grade. High school cheerleading and quinceañera portraits decorate the walls, brimming with an affectionate, youthful glow. At 35, it’s not where she expected, but it’s where she wants to be – it’s where she needs to be. Erica’s 17-year-old son Christian heads out to baseball practice. “They have the same eyes,” she says, reminiscing on the peaceful gaze that lives on through her nephew.
‘IT JUST FELT LIKE THE WORLD WAS ENDING’
Her label SixChel (Six being her astrological number and Chel abbreviated for the Myan goddess Ix-Chel) was on the rise as she prepped for a 2011 Austin Fashion Week showcase, traveling between South and Central Texas for appointments and studio upkeep. She was used to her mother’s daily check-ins, but there weren’t any calls when Dina initially learned of Erica’s diagnosis, Uterine Cancer. “It just felt like the world was ending,” she said, of those early days faced with her sister and constant encouragement.
Fulfilling the role of primary caretaker, Dina’s the type of hands on creative to “throw myself into it,” dedicating herself to Erica the only way she knew how, fully and completely. “I just felt that I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice, I wanted to.”
Between surgery and chaotic airports, they sought a quiet, unshakable calmness in each other. “We had that time together, just me and her,” she says, treasuring a lasting bond that radiates in golden bursts throughout the house.
Dina pushed forward with the help of her designs. Erica seemed to be getting better, she wasn’t in pain; she was working; it was a spark of hope igniting the courage needed to fight through a creative block and get back into the safe havens of work. Collaborating with a trusted few back in Austin, she kept herself and her business steady.
“That’s the way I kept busy,” she said – utilizing her career for clarity, processing, and at times, an escape from reality. “It kept me from thinking of what was going to happen.” But she had to think about it; because during the first week of December 2012, Dina came home to the news that Erica’s cancer had returned. In her gut, she already knew; Erica had no serious side effects other than hair loss. “It was too easy”, she said. It was just the beginning.
Treatment visits grew, and the two were now traveling to Houston once a week. She didn’t stop caring for her sister; she didn’t stop working; and she couldn’t allow herself to grieve. What would happen if she did?
“I didn’t give myself a chance to soak in what was happening, because I didn’t want to,” Dina said. She took an opportunity designing a Grammy red carpet dress for punk frontrunner Kimberly Freeman of One-Eyed Doll, finding herself driving to The Rio Grande Valley after a styling session, only to board another plane the next morning; Valentine’s Day.
“I’m not going to let anything make me quit. I’m going to take care of my sister, I’m going to do both,” she says of this last minute decision. “I think we always had an understanding of who each other was and are as a person. She knew I wouldn’t give up — we knew that about each other.”
“She would put on a smile just to show us that she was okay,” says Dina. But Erica was tired. “That was her last treatment,” she said, trusting sibling intuition. “I saw her dying – I had to carry her, brush her teeth; dress her. She literally couldn’t put her feet on the floor anymore. I knew at that moment I was bringing her home to die.”
The house tried to stay positive, though Erica knew her cancer was growing. She developed jaundice and was in a comma for two weeks; so Dina spoke her heart, and promised to take care of Christian. “I had to tell her that,” she said. “I felt that I had to say it, so she could hear it — so she could be at ease.”
Erica passed on March 19, 2013 at 37, with her family together, the way they were; the way they are, the way they’ll stay.
‘HE IS HER, SO MUCH’
“Christian never really saw her sick,” said Dina. “What could he do? How much could he take and how much could he see?” For now, he stays close to Sophie, their Cocker Spaniel — a source of protective comfort reminding the teen of his mother’s long, curly blonde hair. Erica was a single parent, and nurturing him is a group effort.
“He’s the son I never had,” said Richard Chavez, Christian’s grandfather, remembering a baseball he placed inside Christian’s bassinet at just a few days old. “I guess it worked!” Dina jokes, evidenced by a corner full of his trophies by the entrance.
But grief comes when you least expect it, raw and real.
“I wanted a miracle, why didn’t we have a miracle?” asks Erica and Dina’s mother, Hermelinda. It doesn’t take her much time however, to see a miracle in her grandson. “We didn’t know that we wouldn’t have Erica, but we have Christian.”
“He is her, so much,” Dina says; because for Dina, holding onto Christian means holding onto a sister she isn’t ready to let go, not yet.
‘ALL OF THIS SADNESS, THERE’S BEAUTY IN IT’
After a stagnant healing process, she finds solace in the “organized chaos” of her mother’s dining room, converted into a studio that she hasn’t been able to clean, embracing pilling materials and vivid memories.
“I’ve never had a day where I can’t get out of bed,” Dina says with persevering serenity. I know I have to go on, especially for Christian. She pushes me.”
SixChel’s newest sketches have evolved from the structured, darker pieces of her past, a coping mechanism harnessing vulnerable emotions of Erica’s diagnosis, to the modern romantics reflected in Alice and Wonderland; identifying with Alice Liddell, the fairy tale’s muse who too lost a sibling.
Hints of sunflowers appear on her inspiration board, a sign she’s on the right path. “That’s her really connecting with me,” she says. Dina’s 10 piece collection will debut over a two month period, first during the Top Austin Model runway competition finale March 30, then another Austin Fashion Week in May. “All of this sadness, there’s beauty in it. That’s what keeps you going.”
Note: As a fundraiser for members of the Rio Grande Valley who are currently fighting cancer, a poker tournament and silent auction will be held Thursday, March 27 at the Valencia Event Center in McAllen. This year, funds will go to five recipients in prelude to what will begin the Erica Renee Chavez Foundation, a scholarship for a student who has or had a parent battling cancer. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This profile was originally edited for newspaper format by Rio Grande Valley based The Monitor on February 13, 2014, and seen in its entirety on Fashionabled beginning March 13, 2014.