tk tunchez exemplifies what it means to be a mother, a creative and a human being.
By Cy White, Photos by Annie Ray. Styled by Asma Parvez, with inspiration from Las Ofrendas, Nordstrom and Target. Hair by Victoria of Styles By V. With cut and coloring by Fielding Biggs. Makeup by Michelle. Shot on location at Fonda San Miguel
Clouds. Heavy and pregnant with expectant rain. There’s a chill in the air, a sort of flirtation with a storm that has the small Austin Woman crew and our cover woman, tk tunchez, on edge. The tension is evident in the way the photoshoot begins. tunchez is a bit self-conscious. As you do; women often have a hard time understanding their elegance and beauty, especially when it comes to being on camera. The first two outfits aren’t doing much. “You don’t have to love it,” our photographer, Annie Ray, insists. “But are you okay with it?” tunchez concedes that the outfit, number two on this dreary mid-morning, will suffice.
The pictures are taken; the next shot is prepped. After a brief conversation, she comes back out, a vision in cream and light fabric. A flower crown, one of the many creations she birthed and has sold in her apparel shop Las Ofrendas, adorns her head. She takes her seat in a hidden alcove, nestled in a round archway that houses a soft cushioned bench. Suddenly, she transforms. She is no longer tk tunchez, shy creator seemingly a bit uncomfortable in front of a camera. She is Venus, a work of art exuding the unmistakable womanhood and feminine grace of the goddess of love and beauty.
All the radiance of tk tunchez is in her smile. She’s warm and honest when she gifts the world with it; flirtatious and unapologetic when she looses a cheeky grin. She has an infectious energy that enraptures anyone who’s blessed to be in its presence, making all who meet her fall head over heels for the woman. It’s remarkable, then (though unsurprising), that so much of that radiance eclipses personal life struggle.
This isn’t the story of a woman who triumphed when the odds were against her, though there is a bit of that. Rather, this is the story of a woman, a friend, a mother who embraced the twists and turns of life and at almost every opportunity allowed her heart to lead.
As with every living thing on earth, tk tunchez’s story begins with a mother. In fact, her whole life story is a true study in the many shades and shapes of motherhood, the many paths that lead a woman to find her true calling and the acceptance of self that pushes someone to embrace every aspect of who they are.
She was born in Guatemala, a young girl surrounded by nature, earth, water. At the age of 8, she was adopted and brought to the States. Unsurprisingly, her upbringing was quite different from what she had as a young girl in Guatemala. “My mother was French-Cajun Creole. My dad was Armenian, first-generation, and my mother’s family was from Louisiana and Texas, Houston,” she says. “We lived in the Northeast, and then I grew up outside of Boston, then Western Massachusetts. But I always felt like the culture within my home was different than the culture everywhere else around me.”
Growing up in a suburb of Massachusetts, tunchez never quite settled. Her spirit continued to wander. Her wanderlust, needless to say, led her to some interesting places. “I was a runaway,” she reveals. “I was 13 years old when I ran away for the first time. When I was 14 years old, I stopped living with my parents. I lived in the hood. That subculture was very impoverished, and there came all the things that come with that.”
This independent spirit propelled her in directions that perhaps she didn’t expect, but as with everything, she led with her heart and allowed love to enter the conversation. As it turns out, love had the loudest voice in the biggest decision she’d had to make in her life up to that point. She had just turned 17 when her first child, Noalanii Karakashian, came into the world. At a point in life when most girls are still trying to figure out who they are, tunchez let her heart guide her.
“I think that people really discredit teen motherhood,” she says. “I’m not encouraging it, per se, but I do want to say that some of the most powerful women I know in the world were teen mothers. I think going through that experience definitely makes them grow up really young, obviously. It forces you to make big life decisions and be mature in ways that people who don’t go through that experience don’t have to be.
“Having children at a very young age, I think people are always like, ‘Oh, it’s something you had to overcome,’ or like, ‘It’s something that you had to contend with.’ For me, it was like, yeah, it added something to my life; that was the responsibility that I had to take on at a very young age. But it also taught me a lot of the life skills I learned from being a mother and having to mitigate systems that weren’t set up to support me and mitigate systems that were actually set up to defeat me, like the welfare system.
“We were homeless, you know,” she continues. “We experienced things that were really hard at very young ages, and my children were there with me. I think that gave me the power to power through and learn how to build community and learn how to build relationships and prioritize my people and make sure that our needs are taken care of, create stability. Even business wise, make smart financial decisions; I had to do that to survive.”
These are certainly not the aspects people take into account when they think of someone becoming a mother before they graduate high school. The stigma of teenage motherhood is heavy with judgment, ridicule and a general lack of humanity. What masquerades as concern is really a means for people to further discriminate against those they don’t understand. However, tunchez never once doubted her journey, not with her children. By the time her son J’vaughnii Karakashian came into the world, tunchez was well into her life as a creator. Motherhood, after all, is creation. It’s a ripping apart of the physical body to enter into the spiritual realm of birth, creation, life. With everything she’s ever done, tunchez has been guided by her urge to breathe life into something.
Just as with her decision to become a mother, love led her to Austin. That, too, was a road twisting and turning in unexpected paths and crossroads. “When my dad passed away, I decided that I wanted to learn more about my family,” she says. “I grew up coming to Houston every summer once we had moved to the U.S. So [when]I decided I wanted to move, I was like, ‘I’m gonna move to la familia. I want to get to know this side of my family history because my granddad doesn’t live there anymore.’ He passed away, and everyone I knew there had already passed away. But my spirit felt compelled to move there.
“So I decided that I would move to Texas. I had my children with me; my daughter was going to college and was 16. We sold everything I owned except for one little box. I was getting in the car [and said], ‘When my spirit says stop, we’re gonna stop, and that’s where we’re gonna live.’ We drove all the way down the East Coast into Florida, up, across. I almost stopped in New Orleans. But then I was like, ‘I’m nervous. My son is queer. He’s Black. He’s flamboyant. I don’t feel like the cops here are really friendly to any of those things.’ I’ve heard horrible stories. So I kept driving, and we got to Austin.
“We got to Austin, and my son was like, ‘Hey, in two weeks I have to start school. You have to figure this out.’ So I agreed to stay here. I had visited before, so I knew a few people, and they were moms. So I decided we can try it for a couple years, and if I don’t like it, then we’ll move again. We came, and I enrolled him in school, and he finished high school here and he moved back right away. He was like, ‘I hate it here. I hate the South. It’s too hot.’” Her laugh is open and kind. “I wanted to give him a chance to figure himself out.”
That being said, a heart-led decision isn’t always an easy one. “I really had a hard time,” she admits. “Felt like it was very culturally white; I didn’t feel comfortable, and it wasn’t what I felt like I was looking for. So I actually moved to San Antonio in this search to find where I belonged. I was there for maybe three or four years, and we did some great things there. I actually started making markets in San Antonio, built some really beautiful friendships there.”
In the end, though, tunchez found herself calling Austin home. For better or worse, it was a place of great creative spirit. Love brought her here, and her desire to make it a place that truly fostered what it means to be a creative keeps her here. Thus, the creation of Frida Friday.
“It was really important to me to do justice by Austin,” she says. “I would visit [my ex-partner’s]family, and they would tell me the story of what it was like for them. They were five generations here, to now be displaced from place to place. Frida Friday became this quest for me to make community, but also create a space for people who couldn’t find their community, or needed an outlet to build community, for the people who have been from Austin as well to take up space again.
“For two years, we were exclusively all women of color,” she continues. “I got a lot of not lovely things from people who were not from within that community. The wildest ones were telling me that it was ‘reverse racist’ or, you know, just really not getting what we were trying to do. But after two years and talking to some of the vendors that had been with us consistently, they were like, ‘Well, we would really like for our neighbors and our community to be here.’
“I also had this big eye-opening moment where I was like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m creating a space for women of color. But I’m a queer woman of color, and they want to be inclusive of gender-variant people, non-gender-conforming people, trans folks, folks that are two-spirited, which I identify as. To be able to be all of who I am in those spaces. So I changed the trajectory of Frida Friday at that time.”
Like most artists, tunchez struggles with the line between art and commerce. After all, art is nothing more than the soul’s need to breathe. The body is a vessel and is limited in what it can do and perceive. The soul, however, is limitless. It is, in essence, energy forced to exist in a prison of bone and tissue. It needs a playground, and art is the manifestation of that restlessness. When trapped within the confines of capitalism and consumption, a great schism forms between spirit and human that can cause one to question where to go.
“I’m not creating a market to build an empire. I’m creating a market to offer an extension of my brand to support other creatives. It’s been really interesting to go through that journey because it was never set with the intention of trying to build this big, huge thing. I still don’t even see it that way. I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re just a little operation. We have two or three people we work with on our team; at the most we’ve ever been five.’ But really, we’re me, my daughter and usually we have one or two other people that are working with us part time. I don’t know that people have ever really seen that.
“I feel like I’m in this big transition of trying to figure out what’s next and where I want to go,” she says. “What feeds me, and what nurtures me? What am I doing in Austin? I just bought a home in August. I didn’t come here to stay here, but now I’m here and I own this home. Now I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m investing?’ I’m trying to figure out where that investment really is. What brings people to Austin? What’s going to help us build a city identity and a community identity and keep us invested?
“I see so many people of color come here and leave. They’re like, ‘Okay, I’ll be here for like five years, and then I’m gonna leave,’ and they don’t stay. They don’t stay because…” She pauses, for a moment to really bring her complicated thoughts about Austin together. “I think we’re doing way better,” she begins again. “I think in the last two years, we’ve really done a lot of cultural investment. But in a lot of ways the city has provided us a space that hasn’t centered around BIPOC people or queer people. We’ve had to do a lot of that heavy lifting on our own. So it can be tiring and exhausting.
“As wonderful and exciting as it is, it’s also like, ‘Dude, I’m fighting with institutions to get space that I shouldn’t have to [fight for].’ Then once it becomes a thing, then they want in. It’s hard, and it can be heartbreaking, but it’s also awesome to witness and be a part of.”
She’s a teacher, this woman, this mother. tunchez is naturally gifted with the ability to embrace, heal and inform. She wants those around her to succeed. That’s the human in her, the natural-born lover of life who seeks only to bring life into the world and make it worth living for those around her. This is never more poignant than when talking about her children. In a world that is still so cruel to those who don’t fit a “norm,” tunchez has struggled to ensure she’s made a safe space for the ones she loves the most.
“Well, I think with our family, it was what came first, the chicken or the egg,” she says. “I was queer and I was out to myself when I had J’vaughnii, but I wasn’t out to the world. I was still in mainly hetero relationships, and I would have, you know, a girl that I was like hooking up with or something,” she says with a chuckle. “But I didn’t understand myself as a queer person.” tunchez’s openness with herself did, however, create a space for her son to be completely free to express himself from a young age. “I’ve two very vivid memories of him,” she says.
“I remember him as a little boy wearing heels and boas around the house, and a mother knows. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s queer.’ I think you can do that and not be queer, and you don’t need a gender construct. But that was not the feeling for me [about J’vaughnii]. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re queer.’
“I also remember I was putting on makeup with my girlfriends, getting ready to go out, and him sitting on the side of the tub watching us do our makeup. He was enamored,” she says with affection. “It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I have a crush on you.’ It felt like, ‘Oh my god, what is this world?’ I came out specifically because I was like I can’t live this dual lifestyle where I’m in these hetero relationships. Not that they weren’t authentic; they were 100% authentic. But I felt like [for J’vaughnii], he needs someone to show him that it’s okay. It’s okay for you to be who you are.
“So I feel like it kind of was like, what came first the chicken or the egg? Is it because he came into the world, so I came out? Or did I come out, and then he felt comfortable enough? Because he knew by the time he was 8 or 9 years old. He was expressing, ‘I think I might be a girl.’ He doesn’t identify as a man. Then being like, ‘Oh, okay, I’m queer.’ In the community where we live, I went to bookstores, and there were queer-friendly books, queer-centered programming. The work I’ve been doing in community from the time I was 18 years old has been about BIPOC people and queer people. That is what I do.
“So it was really about ‘This child needs safety.’ I don’t know that I’ve been able to provide him the kind of safety that he needed in his life. We don’t live in a safe situation for queer people. I don’t know that we can provide a safe space for queer people in this world to this day. Sometimes, I have to check out of that, honestly.”
Her words come from a deep place, a spiritual well that overflows and spills into the living world. As she speaks, her eyes shine with unshed tears, the truth behind everything she says leaping out of her like a sudden tear in a raincloud. A tear drops softly to the table in front of her, but her voice is strong.
“In terms of family, I think that’s something that I’ve had to learn a lot this year. I was an adopted child, and I was adopted into an interracial family. I didn’t see a lot of reflections of myself in the world when I was growing up. The comfort of home is very abstract for me; the concept of family is very abstract for me. What I had to realize was, in terms of mothering, I have to mother myself, first and foremost. Then I can build community and build sisterhood. And obviously, I am an actual mother to children. Or adults now.” Another honest laugh.
“I’ve had to draw a lot of boundaries to protect and take care of my inner child. To be like, ‘No, you can’t deplete me of all my energy.’ It doesn’t matter who it is. You don’t have rights to me 24/7. You don’t have rights to all my creative insight. I have to replenish myself, and the little girl in me deserved and continues to deserve to have a mother that protects her and takes care of her.”
This is the strength of a mother. Tears, a healing balm, springing forth from a woman with a soul like a tsunami. An urge to protect the sanctity of her children’s right to live in their truths propels tunchez forward. Living in her truth as a queer femme woman of Mayan heritage, she refuses to deny any part of herself, and encourages her children to do the same. J’vaughnii is a proud and out Black gay non-male identifying person who won’t allow his light to dim for anyone. Noalanii is a loving, indefatigable mother of a 3-year-old angel who’s neurologically divergent. tunchez’s children love boldly and without question, a lesson from the mother who dared to live her life according to what her heart told her, not what society wanted to force her to believe about herself.
“I think one thing I learned from watching Noalanii parent is…” A thoughtful pause. “My grandbaby is chronically ill and terminally ill and neurologically divergent. His capabilities are very much like a little baby. Can you imagine being in little baby mode for three years? Noalanii is just an amazing mother.” The sheen of unshed tears returns to her eyes, but again the voice is strong, proud. “She has created for him the opportunity to feel safe. When I think about it, being a parent, really, your job is to create a space that feels safe. Nobody told me that, and my parents didn’t prioritize that. I didn’t know.
“So many of our children don’t have that. Even if you provide that for them in their homes, they don’t have it when they go into a world that literally hates them because of who they are. We want to create these institutions and worlds and creative spaces that welcome children and ask who they are and allow them to be who they are. That’s the big mother energy that I want to bring into the world. You get to show us who you are, and you’re perfect. Clearly I’m still working on that in myself. I’m still learning that for myself, still creating that space for myself.”
In the natural lighting of Fonda San Miguel, tunchez’s creative spirit comes to the forefront as soon as she dons her cream-colored skirt and seats herself like Venus atop her seashell. This is tk tunchez. She lives and breathes in this ethereal existence; we all see it the very second she takes her seat. From that moment on, the sun bursts through the melancholy of the morning, bringing forth a golden afternoon. The rays are hot, bright. With each subsequent look, tunchez becomes more and more the woman she always has been: bold, fearless, leading with love.
She is a champion of mothers, of womxn, of humanity. tk tunchez is a champion of light, of creation, of beauty. To riff on a quote from another ethereal mother, Björk, she’s Venus as a mom.
“I think part of why we’re all so committed to making an impact in this city as BIPOC folks is because we literally need each other to live and thrive. That is all about making familia.”