Mural project brings together residents of all ages to celebrate local history
“You were doing what?” insisted the customs official on my reentry to the United States.
“Just as I said, painting. Not business,” I affirmed for the second time before finally receiving my stamped passport. I was skirting the need to explain as it could only create more complications.
Three weeks. Three sites. Two murals completed and a third in design.
Along with fellow Bay Area artist Cristian Muñoz, we were invited by EcoViva and their partners in El Salvador to create murals in three rural communities in the Lower Lempa region this April through the Community Mural Project.
More than brushing colors and forms on walls, this was a deep dive into the complex and searing history of the people who have reclaimed the Lower Lempa as their home. Once the site of intensive monoculture plantations controlled by a few wealthy families, the productive farmland of this coastal area was redistributed as part of the peace agreements that ended the Salvadoran conflict of the 1980s. The land and its surrounding waters now support thousands of families who live from small-scale mixed agriculture, dairy farming, and fishing. Wedged in between homes and small farms are large tracts of commercial sugarcane crop – as problematic for the environment as cotton was in previous decades.
Proud, resilient, strong, resourceful, kind, generous, visionary. These are a few of the adjectives that hint at the quiet determination that has enabled the residents of the Lower Lempa to continue rebuilding after more than a decade spent in exile from civil war, and later devastating earthquakes and repeated floods. Padre Angel, founder of the community El Angel, titled his local oral history Tierras pagadas a precio de sangre – Lands Paid For With Blood. This is no exaggeration.
It was our task as public artists to give visual form to these memories so that older generations could be proud and younger generations could understand and appreciate the struggles that have profoundly shaped their families and communities.
WEEK 1: Orientation. Research. Beginnings. Art Classes.
I arrived a week ahead of Cristian, which gave me the opportunity to meet with all three of the designated communities and organize the first mural at La Coordinadora, the headquarters of the Mangrove Association and an active community center in Ciudad Romero. The two other mural sites were in the communities of Tierra Blanca and El Angel.
We began by convening meetings in each community to learn more about them and understand what they wanted to depict in their murals. Rather than focus on the impressive environmental achievements of the communities, each group opted to focus on their distinct histories.
We felt humbled by their uncomplaining resilience through many challenges, including the gang violence that has gripped El Salvador and created an atmosphere of insecurity even in quiet communities like these. Thanks to a coordinated response the word is “todo tranquilo” now, but people are still tucked into their homes by dark. War, exile, resettlement, natural disaster, social conflict – each new challenge seems to have produced ever greater social solidarity.
WEEK 2: Painting and more painting at La Coordinadora
With a design in hand, we used a projector at night to trace the image outlines onto the wall. A work flow established itself organically. A small crew of young adults arrived each morning to continue painting with support and direction from Cristian and myself. The regulars included Marcos Evangelista, Victor Gomez, Esdras Amaya and Amílcar, Chico.
As lead artists, we had chosen to represent the different programs of La Coordinadora in the form of individual characters and while we tried to maintain a simplified graphic style, there were still challenges for novice painters, details that they cheerfully embraced. In the end, the painters were tremendously proud of their first efforts. “I never thought I could do this!” was a frequent comment.
The La Coordinadora mural took one week to complete, which felt like forever and not enough at the same time. Finessing could have gone on indefinitely.
WEEK 3: Tierra Blanca & El Angel
The mural in Tierra Blanca was constructed on a wall of Doña Isabel’s home, which is a frequent site for group meetings. Cristian took the lead in designing the second piece.
This community had very clear ideas and images during the initial meeting. They produced a sketch that described a destructive earthquake and a difficult period when some families found it necessary to live along the railroad tracks in makeshift housing. This was followed by community organizing to construct storage tanks for potable water and the arrival of electrical power lines. Through collective action, the residents of Tierra Blanca were finally able to build casas dignas, dignified housing.
Doña Paula, a community leader from Tierra Blanca, was near tears when she later phoned to thank us for their mural.
With just three days left in our schedule, our coordinator David found time to connect us with Padre Angel, the Spanish priest who organized funding to provide new land for the families who had lost their properties to flooding along the river. The community is named for him and his portrait will be featured in the third mural of this series.
A second meeting with the women of El Angel proved to be a complete reversal of the first tight-lipped gathering. They could not stop chatting, gossiping, joking, and laughing loudly. They were quite clear about their desire to represent a simple and deeply satisfying life caring for their gardens and their farm animals, as well as acknowledging the difficult past. Their community has few children, so it will be mainly adults participating.
During the closing celebration we were warmly welcomed to return. No cabe duda! No doubt!
Back in the U.S., reflecting on our experience, we ask: “If these murals help to complete a part of their past, how could new murals open doors to the future? In addition to the pleasure of painting, how could more formalized visual arts training provide opportunities for creative outlet and leadership development for the youth of the Lower Lempa? Could there be a niche within the economy for animators, graphic artists, illustrators, portrait painters and more muralists?” Rich food for speculation.
We wish to thank you, our supporters, for your good faith and generosity! We hope that this account confirms what a great investment we all made. This has been one of the greatest experiences ever!
To help us cover the cost of bringing these talented Bay Area artists to El Salvador, or to support future arts and youth initiatives like this one, donate to EcoViva today.