Basilia was preparing tortillas by the comal. The armed men took her husband out, and she knew that they were going to kill him, for his screams could only be of the kind of pain infl icted on someone who will not survive such violence. Her son was fearless and offered himself to the armed men as an exchange for his father. In his inexperienced youth, he imagined it possible that the army would keep his father alive at the trade of his own life. He was taken out, and some of the men got into the house. They gang-raped Basilia. Those men left, and another group got in. They raped her again and again. The men ate the warm tortillas by the comal. Because the moon was bright, she could see the faces of the men, the shadows of their large bodies entering the house like ghosts. Basilia knew that they had harmed her son terribly when she could no longer hear his screams. They left Basilia for dead, thrown on a pile of firewood. Basilia thought that they would set fi re to the house, to her few belongings, to herself. She wanted that. She wanted to die together with her son and husband. Until today, Baslia does not know what happened to her son’s head. The rest of his body was found. His head has disappeared. This uncertainty brings Basilia a sorrow that she describes as incalculable, a river of dark oil, a stone hanging from her neck into her insides stopping her from breathing. We stood in a circle holding hands. What else could be said? Camouflaged military airplanes and helicopters populated the mural, people hanging from a tree, with no fruits or fl owers. The central part of the mural had become the “sad area” with a dark background and a spiral that absorbed life, an endless tunnel of sorrow. They painted weapons and destroyed houses.
The women decided to paint a circle representing themselves holding hands, giving each other power, making a “belt” of strength in which the bad memories would not harm them any further. They painted themselves with attention to detail, transporting their garments, their headpieces, and the most delicate embroideries of their huipiles.
They laughed, and they helped one another, asking for suggestions and looking at each other as if they were looking at mirrors. The sad memories would be contained within the restricted area. Outside the circle, conformed by the connected women, they painted what they hope for their children and their communities. The psychosocial workers from ECAP spoke about the importance of this process, pointing out how unusual it is for wounded women to relate to their own images with self-respect and self-appreciation rather than with guilt or shame. The rendering of a positive self-image, they explained, constitutes a necessary step in a long process toward personal and communal recovery. The art process was allowing the women to see themselves in a role other than that of a “victim.”
This mural painted on canvas in order to allow it to travel acquired landscapes extending left to right, corn plantations, pine trees, gardens and butterflies, a shinning sun, a noncontaminated river, and children playing close by. In November 2008, the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City invited this group of indigenous women artists to present the fi nal mural. In front of an audience of 300 people, the women talked about their personal histories, explaining each and all aspects of their mural. They used the rendering of their past as an urgent demand for justice in Guatemala. No one should be allowed, they suggested, to forget what had taken place during the 40-year-long armed conflict. In an e-mail dated March 3, 2009, Olga Alicia Paz, ECAP psychosocial worker, told us that the mural had traveled again. This time it was exhibited at the National Palace (Palacio Nacional), the site of the government of Guatemala.
President Alvaro Colom met with the indigenous women artist who spoke to him in their indigenous languages, pointing to areas of the mural that, as a wordless book of history, narrated their pain, their determination, and their demand for justice. Olga Alicia Paz writes, Compañeros y Compañeros, esto es sorprendente! Hay situaciones por donde metermos y lograr algun cambio, una denuncia y, quien sabe, si mas adelante la justicia. Compañeros and Compañeras, this is surprising! There are some situations from where one can go through and make a change, a denunciation, and who knows, maybe in a near future, we could arrive to justice.
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Juarroz, R. (1995).Vertical poetry: Recent poems. Kingston, WA: White Pine Press.
Claudia Bernardi is professor of community arts at California College of the Arts, San Francisco/Oakland, California.
She is also founder/director of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, Perquin, Morazán, El Salvador.
She is also affiliated with the Artists in Residence, Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, Virginia.
Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to Claudia Bernardi, California College of the Arts, San Francisco/ Oakland, CA.