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¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 6: Repression and Emancipatory Art in Guatemala

An event organized by Caja Lúdica

El Arte no Calla!,” a monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato invites a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.

Episode 6: Repression and Emancipatory Art in Guatemala

In our sixth episode, ARC sat down with the representatives of two artistic, cultural, and human rights organizations based in Guatemala. In the first segment, Catalina Garcia* reflects on the community-oriented activities of Caja Lúdica, an organization that develops processes of collective emancipation and healing in urban and rural communities through the arts. In the second segment, Lucia Ixchiú of Festivales Solidarios discusses the attacks suffered by her independent collective as a result of their commitment to Indigenous peoples’ resistance and their outspoken criticism of extractivism and territorial dispossession.

Catalina García of Caja Lúdica

Alessandro Zagato: What does Caja Lúdica do as an arts and human rights organization? That is, what is your vision?

Catalina Garcia: Our aim is to create spaces for peaceful living and sharing in neighborhoods and communities through education and development processes that are based on a playful methodology of participatory action and transformation. Our aim is to introduce art into classrooms, families, and communities; contribute to nonviolence, the recuperation of self-confidence; and promote social relations based on affection, respect, and solidarity. Art is the excuse to generate spaces that help us re-signify our perception and imagination, promote critical thinking and contribute to the reconstruction of a social fabric based on human rights, gender equality, nonviolence, and historical memory. It is more than 20 years since we developed this project together with our network in Central America.

A.Z.: What role can art play for human rights in a region shaped by violence and repression, one that has lived through an armed conflict and deals with widespread trauma?

C.G.: An important role that art can play has to do with the defense of life, the reconstruction of life imaginaries, and of the way we relate to each other. Art is important when it comes to supporting fundamental rights like health, life, and individual and collective expression. In a country that was silenced, violated, and where people’s life is shaped by fear, art can play the role of disinhibiting, connecting with profound parts of the self and with your closest territory––your body. Art also allows us to co-create and bring up proposals that benefit community work and our own living conditions. This year we have been developing virtual processes with teachers and women from the municipality of Huehuetenango, working on sexual and reproductive rights, because during the pandemic gender violence has soared. We have also been working on the topic of emotional management, which is so important in times shaped by the lockdown and social distancing. Art can offer us new perspectives on life, including hope, new practices, new ways of resolving problems, and of course awareness. 

“In a country that was silenced, violated, and where people’s life is shaped by fear, art can play the role of disinhibiting, connecting with profound parts of the self and with your closest territory––your body.”

— Catalina García

A.Z.: Concretely, what types of methodologies do you employ and what type of response do you receive from the groups you engage with?

C.G. A key part of our methodology consists in starting from practice with the aim to enhance creativity. It is an approach based on our bodies and sensibilities, aimed at rediscovering one’s self, one’s own process of identity construction. It also relates to the idea that gender is constructed – therefore we break with stigma, norms, and roles that were imposed on us. Starting from this process of awareness, people can envision and decide what they really want, the way they want to live, and how they want to develop. A playful methodology helps people to express their feelings and to recognize them. With the distances and logistical barriers that the pandemic has imposed on us, we have tried to do all this through virtual platforms. Previously, we were always doing practical and face-to-face community work, starting from the necessities and specificities of each group we approached. Theater has always been an amazing tool to engage with people and develop our methodologies. Indeed, it allows attitudes to change, it breaks the barriers of fear and it enhances capacities – with the result that young people start speaking more and more openly, women become empowered, and human relations become more healthy and respectful.

A.Z. A last question has to do with the pandemic, which has radically changed the way we work. Starting from your experience, do you have any recommendation for other human rights organizations and artists?

C.G.: I think we need to be highly creative and look for any possibility of co-creation available under the present conditions. We need to not lose communication with people in a time where interpersonal contact is more important than ever. In a time where everything is losing its magic, we do not have to lose the opportunity to bring people together in spaces of communication. Sometimes people experience a lot of silence, separation, and anxiety, so it is important to generate spaces where people can manifest their feelings, where they can play and take advantage of new opportunities to use their bodies. We need to be resilient and have a practice of comprehension and love, to get together and vibrate together. We need to facilitate encounters that make us feel like we are not alone, through awareness and care.

Seventh anniversary of Festivales Solidarios
Lucía Ixchiú of Festivales Solidarios

Alessandro Zagato: Could you tell us about the activities you have developed with Festivales Solidarios, and about your working perspective?

Lucia Ixchiú: Festivales Solidarios is a collective from Guatemala composed of artists, women, and men of Indigenous and mestizo origins. We work on different topics such as historical memory, the defense of territories and environments, repression, and political prisons. This last point closely relates to the genesis of our collective, which was created in 2013, as many of us were active in the students’ movement. On April 4, 2012, the Guatemalan Army massacred the community of Totonicapan, directly attacking our Indigenous organization “48 Cantones.” After that tragic event, we decided to create a space for denunciation. We decided to support the Indigenous movement, denouncing violence and political imprisonment through the arts. We focused on the criminalization of Indigenous peoples, especially those defending their territories, and on mother earth. Initially we were doing artistic interventions in the streets. In time, we started to be contacted by Indigenous organizations asking to support them in different ways, including the organization of campaigns and festivals in rural and urban areas. It is also important to mention that we are a self-managed collective. This has been difficult, but it has also given us plenty of freedom with respect to our activities and the topics we want to deal with, which are obviously opposed to the status quo.

“This country knows no other approach than violence, and we want to construct an alternative from a different place: from the arts, music, photography, and color. Fighting from a different place than pain and suffering means decolonizing thinking, decolonizing action.”

— Lucía Ixchiú

A.Z.: Your denunciation and awareness-raising activities have attracted new attacks and repression, especially since 2016, and in particular during the pandemic. Could you tell us about these recent attacks?

L.I.: Photographers, designers, documentarians, and communicators compose our collective, and of course, we are also journalists and artists. In 2016 we were detained on the road to Santo Domingo Xhenakoj as we were driving to a festival on water and territorial defense. This is a region where power wanted to impose the construction of a big highway, supported by one of the biggest concrete monopolies of Central America, with paramilitary groups operating all over the territory. Luckily enough, we were freed and not injured. Over the last year we were victims of a process of defamation and prosecution by government officials close to President Jimmy Morales who were operating in a context of extreme corruption and personal ties with military powers. This year, we know that with the pandemic, the situation and life conditions of many people have deteriorated and violence and impunity have risen. As we were documenting a story on global warming and illegal logging, we went to the mountain of Totonicapan where there were people engaging in this illegal activity, and five of us were attacked. When such things happen, it is always serious because the level of impunity is extremely high in Guatemala, and these loggers are protected by power. This is the reason why we keep fighting. This country knows no other approach than violence, and we want to construct an alternative from a different place: from the arts, music, photography, and color. Fighting from a different place than pain and suffering means decolonizing thinking, decolonizing action. In the beginning, we were not aware that our approach would produce individual and collective healing.

A.Z.: This is such a difficult and profound task! How do rural communities react to your work and how do they engage with art?

L.I.: Initially it was quite difficult because of colonial and religious influences – including the trauma of war – to explain to people that we wanted to fight from a different place, from the arts. Moreover, the existing social movements criticized us for not taking things seriously – in their view - because we were working with arts and music. In 2014, the anti-mining resistance movement opened its doors to Festivals Solidarios. We really value face-to-face work and interaction, because we believe that it is not the same thing to speak about territorial and environmental defense from a city. For us, it is important to get together and live firsthand what people are actually experiencing. Thus, we started doing art, denouncing mining and informing about the anti-mining struggle at the same time. The historical experience of the conflict from the point of view of those communities made us reflect and work on historical memory. However, it is important to highlight that this was not our own preconceived initiative; it came from an explicit demand by those communities. We have organized more than 300 festivals in the country. We take care of transportation but then we eat, sleep and share with each of those communities. Indeed, art is profoundly political, allowing us to produce different types of relations. All work is a collective effort of constructing things from a shared alternative space.

A.Z.: You mentioned the historical context of war that has shaped the region. My last question has to do with the possibilities of art in terms of raising awareness and healing – can art play this role?

L.I.: Yes, and I confirm this since I was 14. I love music and especially rock and it has saved my life in many phases. Painting, singing, I do as a tool of liberation and healing – and we have seen that this works collectively, too. Indeed, many communities told us that they had never celebrated the anniversary of a violent event – like a massacre for example – with music, and they often thank us because that makes them feel happy. In our view, this has to do with the right to joy, the right to laugh and heal – starting from our own bodies but also in territories that have been oppressed, deprived, and violated.

*Our sincere apologies, as the internal text of our CMS does not currently supported accents on the letter "i." We will resolve this issue as soon as possible.

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