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Murals v.s. Memories of Massacre

New America Media, Feature//Video, Words//Photos//Video: Josue Rojas Posted: Aug 06, 2008

Editor's Note: San Francisco artist Josue Rojas helped townspeople paint a mural at the site of one of the most gruesome massacres in the recent history of Honduras. Now he wonders if California can export more than its gang culture to Central America; perhaps it can export its artistic culture too.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Fall 2007 A mural is in progress. Outbursts of laughter and the rattle of spray cans resound against a wall. The sun reaches its highest point, beaming on the young artists below. Once again, we're painting the usual suspects: Estria, a group of kids and me.

I know this scene well, except in a very different context. Instead of being created at the exterior of a public school or rec center in Northern California, this mural is being created at the site of a massacre in a remote rind of San Pedro's Chamelecn at the very spot where three years earlier nearly 30 people lost their lives; infamous in Honduras and the rest of Central America as a place of death.

On the night of Dec. 23, 2004, in the place where we stood, 28 innocent men, women and children were gunned down as they rode the bus 35 home from Christmas shopping. The killing was attributed to "Maras" or gang members. A note was left behind at the site, in which responsibility was taken by local gangs though all the evidence (ballistic and otherwise) points towards paramilitary action.

This event was the catalyst; soon after, nothing in policy or public perception toward youth would be the same. Partly due to this event, in Central America public opinion has been irreconcilably swayed against anything remotely resembling gangs and consequently, the baby thrown out with the bathwater is any brand of misunderstood youth culture.

So you can see why I'm both happy and weirded-out by the sight of it graffiti as art in the place where one of the most gruesome massacres in recent Latin American history happened.

Sadly, whether in the public sector, clandestinely, or in jails, executions and extrajudicial killings are not uncommon. In Central America people are dying delinquents right alongside innocent young people. Estimates have placed the daily death toll in countries like El Salvador as high as it was during that country's long civil war.

In the Bay Area, we're familiar with violence and rising death counts. But not on this level. Not with this intensity or frequency.

As I see the kids' faces light up as they rattle the spray cans (many for the first time), my mind swims in irony as I remember a line in a book by Kurt Vonnegut I read: There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead.

Oakland, California, March 2008

In a warehouse on the border of Oakland and San Leandro used as a headquarters for businesses started by graffiti artists, Estria Miyashiro, master muralist and entrepreneur, takes a moment to give me some words. He stands in the corner of the warehouse in front of Oakland graffiti writer Vogue's aersosol rendition of Mike "Dream" Francisco (a local slain graffiti legend) as we speak.

Estria summed up his experience in Honduras. We discussed what it must be like to be young and marginalized there.

Video: Estria is interviewed about the mural project

Art was my gang prevention: my non-violence. It was fairly easy to present the concept of conscious community art (aerosol or otherwise) to kids in Honduras largely because they're already into "all the things that the displaced gang members (deported from the United States) have brought there. They're into the aesthetic. But they don't really understand why."

Since the massacre, the crackdown on gangs has escalated and Mano Dura, or "Iron Fist," laws (the upgrade of which was welcomed by the public due to outrage at the Chamelecn massacre) "gave all of Central America carte-blanc to start killing off all the gang kids," Estria noted.

Judging by their counter-productivity the question rises whether these laws were really intended to solve crime or to criminalize the poor. It truly is a violent legacy.

"There's no tolerance," Estria said. "It's basically a low-level genocide where they've been killing hundreds of kids a year in each (Central American) country." Thousands in the region.

Estria explained that on the mural he worked with some youth who were all participants in San Pedro's Jha-ja (Jovenes Hondureos Activos Juntos Avancemos, or "Active Honduran YouthMoving ahead together"; colloquially pronounced: "Haw-haw") one of the few non-profits geared towards gang and violence prevention. As Estria put it, it is "a program that tries to get youth out of gangs. Basically save their lives, find them a direction in life."

Estria and I set to work with them on the Chamelecn wall. We wanted to honor the people who lost their lives there. "Our concept was 'arte es la vida' ('Art is Life')," Estria stated.

We just wanted people to reclaim the space, and have it be known as a place of beauty, not death.

People really flipped. They didn't care whether or not it was a spray paint mural, or that it resembled graffiti. The mural's message came across and the people ate it up. The community and the kids who participated in its creation owned it. "For this mural to be that widely received, as a community muralist, as a community artist, it's as good as it could get."

"If I could do projects like that for the rest of my life, I would have the most successful life," Estria told me. "'Cause it's not really about money it's about your work counting for something."

And so it goes.

San Francisco, California, July 2008

I'm loitering at a news office, mooching off the wireless, checking my email.

A little envelope icon at the top of my screen. A line from Honduras: the local papers have had a field day. Apparently, the kids of the Chamelecn haven't stopped. They've been steadily creating this whole time. Mural after mural they're constantly making art and it's all conscious themes.

I'm ecstatic. The clip reads: "Murals show the two sides of the city." I nearly choke on my bagel.

"These figures represent the violence that threatens our communities" David Cruz, Jha-ja's mural coordinator told La Prensa. David worked with us on the Chamelecn wall.

"We are representing the face and the cross that is this place. We see the beauty of our city as well as the suffering by the residents of the marginalized neighborhoods."

If California gang culture can be deported and thrive in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, I wonder if likewise, could it be that creative California progressive community culture can be exported?

I don't know. But it's worth exploring.

" Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a masscare, and it always is. Except for the birds." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

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