Guatemalan Street Art and the Search for Peace

While I was in Guatemala this winter term learning and studying the aftermath of the Civil War we spend an afternoon walking around the capital, Guatemala City, looking at different types of street art. Many of the pieces were done by a radical youth group named HIJOS. It is an acronym meaning in spanish:  Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio and in English: Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence. This group exists in those parts of Latin America that were plagued with military or governmental dictatorships and state sanctioned violence. These sons and daughters of the “disappeared” in Guatemala call for justice for the actions of the military.  In terms of the justice war principles that we’ve discussed in class- the Guatemalan government does not pass the test. They showed no restraint or proportionality during their attack on the leftist guerrilla resistance movement that started in the 80’s. There was no reason for this war. The military, founded in its racist view of the indigenous Mayan people as well as their greed for land, proceeded to destroy entire communities and rob the people of their land. There is no justification in any religious or non-religious text for genocide and systematic killings, such as those that happened in Guatemala during their 36 years of bloody civil war. Around 200,000 people died, most of them poor peasants and indigenous. Furthermore, in their art, HIJOS calls attention to the past and its memories. HIJOS wants to raise awareness through its provocative art about the death of their family members as well as how the indigenous people were treated and are still treated.

HIJOS art tried to be deliberately in your face. Moreover, by making their art public, on almost every wall on some street corner, HIJOS continues to hold the government, the military and the US accountable for the parts they played in the bloodshed. In the first images, you clearly see the big foot with an American flag leg stepping on the skulls- this call direct attention to the US culpability. I think this art asks for a conversation about the past so that the people can move on and heal for these events, it calls for justice and to bring Guatemala’s government back to moral line. Art has the ability to highlight faults but also seek to open up the conversation. Guest speaker Claudio Giacone also spoke to the need to break out of our buddle by cultivating a context for conversation that can lead people to peace and friendship. In places like Guatemala where distrusts and violence continue, recognition needs to happen. Then the country can move toward warm peace, based on friendship. But first the conversation has to begin and the bubble of silence has to be broken. That is where the art comes in: it breaks the silence. Furthermore, Giacone spoke to the healing powers of art- creating art can be a way for the maker to heal as much as it is for the viewers healing as well. Part of what HIJOS does is to allow a group of children who have suffered the unbearable loss of their parents or loved ones, to use their own voices and own pain to be expressed through images. One last image I would like to point to, is in the first mural how the hands of the dead are raised in resistance. This reminds me of what we spoke about in class a few weeks ago, that in both Islam and Christianity there is the principle of the sanctity of life. This principle, though perhaps not intended by the makers, underpin what I see as the demand for respect for human life. HIJOS will not allow the conversion to be silenced, they will keep Guatemala in a state of cold peace.