It is the time of rains in Morazán. The mornings are, generally, warm and sunny. At noontime, the sky starts getting threateningly dark and before one has a moment of doubt, an astonishing storm seems to break the universe in pieces.
One of those storms is taking place at this very moment. The sky is dense and purple and the force of the rain rushes into the house making me feel that it is raining as much inside as it rains outside.
It is beautiful, intense and surprising every time.
I have started writing a report few days after I arrived, on May 31, but it is hard to keep up with each day in Morazán, because a single day feels like multiple days, multiple challenges, many demands.
We started the second year of life at the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin with a remarkable challenge and a unique historic opportunity: the painting of a mural on the church at El Mozote.
Recovering Memory at El Mozote:
In the 25th year anniversary of the massacre at El Mozote we are painting a mural in the very same location where in December 11, 1981 more than 1,000 people were slaughtered. In addition to the painting of the mural we are recovering the original building where the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team exhumed 143 victims of which 136 were children.
In the last few weeks, I found myself in the inconceivably situation of standing in “the Convent”, the very same building still showing part of the North/ East original floor where in 1992 I stood and unearthed the remains of massacred children, this time conversing about art, about memory, about a legacy of remembrance and hope.
Don Florentin, a community leader noticed me being silent and moved. He asked me with the directness of the people of Morazán:
“What is what you see?”
“ I see a terrible past, Don Florentin and I also see all of you, this community determined to welcome art where there has been so much damage. It is a wonderful gift for us, to accompany this process.”
Don Florentin was quiet for few minutes and said:
“They killed the land here. We are thankful to you and the other artists for helping the land to live again”
( Aqui, nos han matado la tierra. Nosotros les agradecemos a Ud y a los otros artistas por ayudarnos a que la tierra viva otra vez”.)
I try and, generally, manage to be discrete about the overwhelming sentiments that accompany me every time I work at El Mozote. I seem to have at all times equal amount of sorrow for the terrible memories and of gratitude for being able to measure the unique opportunity that developing this art project means to me.
I have no doubt as I am writing these lines that this project is the most important art project I have ever done. Or probably ever will do.
After having taken part in the exhumations of the massacre at El Mozote in 1992, I felt tangibly that everything in my life had changed. My art, the way of measuring pain, sorrow or joy. El Mozote became the most important event, the most pivotal center of my life. The exhumation and the ramifications of the investigation is only one aspect of its magnitude. El Mozote is an “epic” with its enormous complexity of the human species. It was the closest to hell I had ever been or hope to be. But there were also, and thankfully, characters in this epic, that rescued me from falling in an abyss, people of unimaginable courage that brought me back from hell.
El Mozote is a rendering of “Humanness” with all of its magnificence, its tragedy, and its inconceivable sorrow, its palpable evidence of the human capacity to cause damage, of violence and carnage and ultimately, death.
In meeting the survivors of the massacre I also learned that there are people who manage to remain dignified amidst unimaginable sadness.
Now, 25 years after the massacre and 14 years after the exhumations, I come to experience yet another aspect of this epic: the recovering of memory and the communal transformation through art.
All what I have done in 30 year as an artist, everything that I believed art can do inspired me to act and develop/ implement art programs in communities. The most persistence militancy as an activist that I have performed and the most tender poetic aspect of my own artwork, all comes together as a reaffirmation when painting this mural at El Mozote.
It is a gift of unimaginable proportion.
A persistent sentiment of gratitude comes upon me, upon all of us who are having the unique chance to be part of this process.
The painting of a mural at El Mozote was a project talked about since 1992. It never came to fruition because of the many tensions in the life of the community that repopulated El Mozote in the 90’s. Dispute of land, poverty, struggles originated in local politics are some of the reasons for which the community was never able to concur about the creation of a mural.
Needless to say, a mural under the above-described circumstances would never be a “pretty painting on the wall”. Rather, it would become a political, social and communal statement.
Arambala is a community located few kilometers west of El Mozote where two wonderful women, Sister Anne Griffin from Scotland and volunteer Joanne Hopper from England, have done for years a remarkable job of diplomacy and activism among the people of El Mozote. A success of their tenacious and loving work is to have the community come to an agreement upon the creation of the mural with the excuse, or the deadline, to observe the 25th year anniversary of the massacre in December of this year.
Sister Anna and Joanna are creating a mural using the technique of mosaic in collaboration with the community of El Mozote on the South walls of the church. It is a loving work of very large proportions. Anna and Joanna, together with the community leaders are creating a garden of recordation and reflection in the adjacent area to the building of The Convent and a rose garden in the inside of the original area of the building, the very place where 143 people were murdered.
The first week I arrived in Morazan, in a meeting in which most of the cultural agencies of the North of Morazan took part, Anna and Joanne told me about the pending project of the painting of a mural at El Mozote. They wanted the School of Art in Perquin to paint it! I was stunned, but ultimately, very honored and happy. It was a prosperous time because six students from California College of the Arts (CCA) were to arrive for a three weeks Summer Abroad program and it would be an ideal project to include them and carry on together.
The CCA students arrived on June 11. That very day of their arrival we went to El Mozote to have the first community meeting. We introduced ourselves as the artists that came not to paint the mural, but as the artists who were going to interpret, facilitate and help create the ideas of the community. The local leaders of the community expressed with no hesitation their vision: – They wanted the old church, the small building adjacent to the church called “The Convent” and campanile that existed before the massacre – They wanted the inclusion of the portrait of Israel Márquez, a beloved and respected member of the community who perished in the massacre of 1981 with everyone else. – They wanted the landscape and the customs and traditions of the people of El Mozote and reference of how they lived before the massacre. – They wanted the youth represented and the vision the adults have for them, being education and safety, two of the most important aspects.
We suggested that we would have a meeting with the youth the following day. About 25 students from the local school came to talk to us. We asked them what their vision for the future was? What did they want for themselves? They answered that: – They wanted images of the old hamlet before the massacre – They wanted images of themselves studying. They spoke about their desire to have a bilingual high school in El Mozote, to learn English and be prepared to go to the university. – They wanted a park that would be safe and beautiful for the children to play at. – They wanted support for young pregnant girls/ women who, at this moment, have no support or health assistance.
The CCa students and I were impressed listening and witnessing the vision that the adults have for the youth and what the youth want for the children.
It occurred to us that if we were to ask in our countries, namely US and Argentina, the same questions, adults probably would say that what they most wanted was a better car, a better home, a trip to an exotic place. In asking youth what they may want, we imagined that the answer could include a brand new car, a new audio system, clothes, a new computer.
In this poverty-ridden community where most services are lacking and where nothing can be taken for granted, the adults and the youth are deeply committed to a better future that includes education, safety and health.
It is important to clarify that there is no running water in El Mozote. There are two communal wells that serve, with many limitations, the supply of water for the community. There is no health unit, no dispensary. There is only one elementary school for the region at El Mozote serving children from Jocote Amarillo, La Joya , Cerro Pando and near by hamlets. The poverty is palpable. El Mozote from the time before the massacre is always remembered and described as an economically independent community where people, mostly peasants and all civilians, cultivated and work the mescal, extracting from it a fiber called “enequén”, from which they made rope, hammocks, etc. They would take those fabricated items to sell or exchange to many different markets in the area becoming in this way a self sustained community.
Where there was once a developing and flourishing community, there is today a phantom of poverty and desolation.
An aspect of the meeting with the youth that deserves to be presented here is that I asked them how many of them had family members in the US. In a group of 25 students, all of them had relatives in the US. Despite the fact that they do not want to imagine going to the US, they talked about crossing the border as unavoidable fact.
This is the tragedy and the bankruptcy of the post wartime: In El Salvador today, over 450 people exit daily to the US, willing to endure hunger, bad and illegal treatment while crossing the border and enormous hardship. They throw themselves in that madness of danger because in their own country poverty and hunger seem to be an irrevocable fact.
Something to have in mind when we hear about the “great success” of the TLC.( Tratado de Libre Comercio/ Free Trade Agreement). Not free, no trade and , certainly , agreement amongst very few: the ones who never need to cross borders.
The painting of the mural
In the process of community mural painting, the first step is to gather drawings and ideas from the community. And in this case, since everyone seemed so clear about what they wanted, youth, adults and children drew local plants, animals, visions for a new park, while the adults came to remember together how the old church looked like, where was it located compared to the Convent building and to the campanile.
The next day we started drawing on a surface of around 15 m. x 4 m. Huge!
The CCA students: Norma Navarro, Pam Hampton, Helena Perriot, Jenna Wittenberg, Chelsea Heicks, Daniel Panko and Amelia Beremen together with the local wonderful artists Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero and Rosa del Carmen Argueta and myself, started applying the main ideas of the community on the North wall of the church.
– A waterfall turned river, a river turning mountains and coffee plantations. – Above the door, a young man and a young woman with a laptop learning the History of El Mozote. – Don Nacho, a man who had never done art but who has turned into a local revelation, is painting a sugar cane crusher, a “trapiche”, – A woman and a boy work spinning a wheel creating a rope of mescal – Agriculture, landscape, the mountains of Morazan – The old church, the Convent building and the campanile, as people remember them from before the massacre – The portrait of Don Israel Márquez, a generous man who had donated land to create the church and the school and who perished with everyone else in December of 1981.
Children, adults and youth helped in the creation of this mural that started taking form and color.
We worked intensively! We would depart every day at 6:30 from Perquin, take a local transportation called “el pick up” and we would be picked up by Sister Ann or Sister Joanne, from Arambala and, finally, we would arrive at El Mozote at around 7:00 am. We painted until midday or later under an enormous sun or until the rain chased us off.
The CCA students were to depart on Friday, June 30th. On Thursday June 29th at mid morning we saw a lot of children coming to the church. At first, I thought that one of the professors was bringing a class. But! There were so many children!!!!! It seemed that all the school was there! They all entered the church under the guidance of Sister Anne and Joanne.
When we were called in, the children were standing, their faces radiant and their small voices singing to us in gratitude for the mural.
At the time of the exhumations, when we had already exhumed many children, I had a recurrent dream that brought a complex alliance of sorrow, of hope and an unthinkable tenderness: I saw a lot of children in the very building of the Convent where we were exhuming, singing. They were standing and radiant, they were peaceful and singing.
Fourteen years after the exhumation I saw the dream come true, in the very place where the massacre had happened, I was now, listening to their beautiful voices, seeing their bright faces and smiles.
I sobbed. Everyone did. Not in sorrow but in owe, in astonishment, in gratitude to have lived this long as to be able to witness this new “layer” added to the many layers of human challenges that El Mozote has always proposed to anyone who transits its vicinity.
The dream became a reality, wrapping me in immensurable warmth, in tenderness and hope.
That day when we finally left El Mozote it was almost dark and there were many fireflies/ luciérnagas. It is odd, because there are not many fireflies in the area. They only seem to appear at El Mozote.
People say that they are the spirits of the dead, unable to depart and still living in the community.
The CCa students left Morazan with the promise to come back. Claudia Verenice, Rosa del Carmen and I, together with children and adults of El Mozote continue working for few more weeks until the project will be totally completed.
CCA Art workshops
Besides the monumental “ouvre” of painting the mural, the CCa students were so wonderful as to organize and carry on workshops in the late afternoons.
Pam Hampton: conducted a workshop on animation(“Blender” program), to 18 children in the mornings and 18 in the afternoons, ages 10 to 14, at the local elementary school, Escuela Panamericana.
Norma Navarro: conducted a workshop of book making and one of woodcuts and printmaking.
Chelsea Heicks: presented a textileproject, “Back strap loom”, and it is important to mention that the entire population of this workshop were boys!!!!!!
It was fantastic to see young men weaving!
Helena Perriot: in collaboration with Chelsea and Pam worked with a collaborative mural painting on paper with 30 children ages, 3 to 12. The mural hungs in the Casa de la Cultura and it is the glory of that space.
Janna Wittenberg: being an architecture student, Janna focused her artistry in the sculptural recovery of the original building of the Convent. She designed ironwork inspired in the life and history of the people of Morazan. The ironwork will be placed as demarcation to identify the original surface of the building where the exhumation took place in 1992 and where so many children were found.
Daniel Panko conducted classes of theory of color and figurative painting
Amelia Berumen who joined us in the last week and who was here last year was a wonderful contribution to the group and she assisted in many capacities during the workshops and the painting of the mural as well as the very valuable task of being an interpreter. This task she shared with Norma, Daniel and Pam.
Thank you CCA students!!!! You were great and people of Perquin are deeply appreciative of your efforts and art expertise.
The School of Art of Perquin between December 2005 and May 2006
I arrived to El Salvador in this second year of the life of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin on May 31. During the first semester of the year, January- May, I was in the US where I taught three courses at the California College of the Arts and I also responded to an invitation to teach a course at Mills College.
To situate ourselves in time and space, it should be said that despite the long list of art projects accomplished last year (including seven murals, art classes, art workshops, public art and urban interventions) and the unquestionable welcoming that the community of Perquin and other communities of the North of Morazan have shown to us, The School of Art and Open Studio was not able to secure a strong funding for 2006.
I am very thankful to two institutions that supported us last year and continue to support us this year:
We initiated the year 2006, with funding from: – The Potrero Nuevo Fund, Thank you, Christine Pielenz and Bill Laven!!!!!! – The San Carlos Foundation, Thank you, Davida Coady and Tedd Jailer and friends from the San Carlos Foundation!!!!
We may not have funding but we do have many “angels” who have worked very hard in trying to get leads for funding, who have organized searches and followed possible funding possibilities.
Amongst these angels, many should be named and thanked here:
Michael Barger, Miguelito, who I have known only for few months but who has become a devoted Ambassador of Walls of Hope, our beloved school
Suzanne Palmer: is a friend of Miguelito and Jeff and she has been very gracious and generous at opening her home for a Walls of Hope event.
Jeff Fohl through whom I met Miguelito. Jeff was here last year and moved by Perquin has been able to put us in contact with potential funders.
Lucero Arellano and Ada Carrillo, are dear friends from the California Arts Council, part of the support group from Sacramento. Lucero and Ada organized a fundraising event to get funds to buy art materials
Cat Bucher whom I met here in Perquin last year and who teaches at Austin College in Texas, was kind enough as to assign a student, Page Rutherford to write a grant in our behalf and they did get the grant which was used to buy art materials. And! They were wonderful enough as to bring the art materials to Perquin in March during the annual visit to El Salvador
Joseph Curtin, a dear friend for many years was very generous with a personal donation.
Tish and Milan Momirov (whom I met through Miguelito) were very generous with a strong support that helped us a lot in the last months.
Diana Campoamor, Hispanics in Philanthropy, after not seeing Diana for many years, we have reconnected and she rushed a donation to us that was crucial for us in the last months.
Lynne Mauser Baine: always wonderfully helpful and willing to imagine new visions and possibilities for our school.
And “Angels” that have donated funds, materials and ideas through Intersection for the Arts.
Tatiana Reinoza and Justin Perkins are our beloved Techno Angels. It is thanks to them that we have a web page: www.wallsofhope.org
Because of the limitation in funds, this second year of the life of the School of Art and Open Studio could not support the presence of Valeria Galliso which is a great loss, but we trust that, perhaps, we could recruit her next year.
Thanks to the funds provided last year by Doña Carmen Broz we have been able to create paid positions for a year on behalf of Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Rosa del Carmen Argueta, Dina: America Argentina Vaquerano and Rigoberto Martinez.
I have no words enough to say who wonderful they are! These young local artists who did not have any previous training in the arts before last year nor did they have experience in managing a school, are absolutely fantastic! They were able to continue with the life and activities of the School of Art while I was in the US between January and May, they confronted the change of local politics, they negotiated the assigned space and, most importantly perhaps, they maintain the “mystic” of our school alive. We conform a strong group of artists devoted to teaching art to the people of Perquin and the North of Morazan.
These four local artists continue to be integral part of the life of the school and I am working very hard to secure funding for their salaries paying them a dignified $8 (eight dollars) hourly rate.
Local Politics in Perquin
May 31 was a Wednesday and that very day, as I was arriving to Perquin after half a year, I could detect many changes: On March 12, 2006, there was a change of Mayor. The previous Mayor, Miriam Chicas, had been a strong supporter of the School of Art. In fact, Ms. Chicas was one of the political leaders who, in 2001, asked for the creation of the school. Last year, the Mayor and the Mayor’s Office supported the School and Valeria and I, in many ways and it always felt to us that, in part, the success of the school was related to the partnership between local politics and the School of Art.
Last year the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, was created, scrupulously on the bases of “non partisan” politics, meaning that everyone and all would be welcome to our classes, to the public art projects, murals, etc. We are proud to state that people of all political and religious ideologies, of all social and economic strata were and are part of the school participants.
It is unavoidable, however, that the School was born under the sponsorship of a Mayor from the FMLN (Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional/ Farabundo Martí for National Liberation) party.
What would happen now with a Mayor from the opposite party ARENA? (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista/ Nationalist Republican Alliance)
Fourteen years have elapsed since the end of the war but the polarities of ideologies remain with hostilities, pursue of power characterizing a challenging aspect of the Salvadoran post war period.
There is a precedent in this town regarding hostilities at the time of a change of Mayor and how art was affected. In 1992, I painted a mural on the front walls of the church of Perquin. Even today, people come from far away to see it. Sadly, visitors arriving to Perquin after 1996 have not been able to see the mural. In 1996, an FMLN Mayor was removed after a questionable electoral process and an ARENA Mayor was placed in power. One of the first initiatives of that new Mayor was to paint over the mural of the church. Not only that, he also ordered to paint over the murals painted by the children of Perquin. I was devastated when I heard what had happened to the murals that we so dearly painted. It still pains me every time people ask me about the mural of the church.
The preoccupation I had regarding what would happen with the school and the art created last year was well founded.
Another challenge was that the Casa de la Cultura/ the Cultural House, which served as the space where the art classes were taught last year was closed in March. La Casa de la Cultura is a government agency that, since last April 2005, does not have an assigned director. Last year, we were able to establish a good relationship with the Interim Appointee, Manuel Enrique Martinez who, kindly, gave us the keys of the building for free and uncensored access to teach classes, conduct workshops, etc.
On Friday, June 2, I had a meeting with the new Mayor of Perquin, Mr. José Rosa Argueta. Although this was an informal meeting, it appeared to me that he was genuinely interested in the school. Mr. Argueta is not from Perquin and that may mean that he does not know or is not fully aware of the extent of the School of Art and its insertion in the life of this community.
The conversation was cordial and I emerged from this first meeting more at ease, imagining that the many murals that we painted last year would remain intact. And in fact, as so far, they are intact.
On Monday, June 5, I contacted Mr. José Francisco Vázquez, who is the head of all the Casas de la Cultura of the North of Morazan. He suggested a meeting that took place in Perquin and from which it emerged that:
– The local institutions appreciate and support the School of Art. – The Casa de la Cultura, despite the fact that still does not have an assigned director was going to be open for us. – That they recognized the limitations we have about space and that they would like to suggest an expansion of our current location into a new area that they would rebuild and fix up for us.
The result of this meeting exceeded our expectations! The following day we initiated the classes and workshops at the Casa de la Cultura!
When Valeria and I left in December last year, we knew that this second year of the life of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, would bring many challenges. And, indeed, we are confronting them, hoping that the biggest obstacle which is funding will, somehow, be remedied to imagine a long life for a our beloved and wonderful School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin.
In the meantime, exactly a month and a half after I arrived to Perquin, I can report that art continues to flourish, that children, youth and adults are becoming artists in the North of Morazan, that the mural at El Mozote is looking marvelous and that after this project is completed, we have invitations to paint murals at the Youth Center of Quebracho, the elementary school of Hatos 1, in Jocoaitique, we are painting the stage design of the dance groups for the Winter Festival in August and we will start with the creation of a portfolio project of prints created by the survivors of the massacre at El Mozote.
At the end of July, Penelope Price, film director, (“Artist of Resistance”/ “Pasa un Angel”, will arrive to Perquin to conduct video workshops with the youth of the North of Morazan.
In October, Inés Talón, textile artist, will arrive to Perquin to develop and teach textile and weaving workshops to the women of the North of Morazan.
In October, although not confirmed the date, Erik Ehn, Theatre director and Dean of the Theatre program at Cal Arts, will be arriving with a group of play writing students.
In November, CCA students who came last year , may be arriving for another visit and to teach art workshops.
On December 9, will be the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the massacre at El Mozote.
It will be a wonderful second year at the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin.
Thank you for your friendship and support.
With love and hugs to all!
Perquin, July 14, 2006