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Rendering Redemption -- Art School Heals Guerilla Town's Wounds

YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia, Video, Words/Photos/Comic: Josue Rojas//Video: Ben Flanigan and Josue Rojas Posted: Aug 22, 2006

Editor's Note: Born of massacre, revolution and revelation -- the art school at Perqun, El Salvador uses pottery, photography, video and drawing classes to remember and redeem. Flanigan is a filmmaker. Rojas is an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

They burned the people, they set the house on fire then they came for the children They killed the children at night. I listened, but dont think that its easy to listen as the kids, your own children die... and to be unable to do anything.

Rufina Amaya -- Sole survivor of the Massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador.

Perqun, El Salvador--My first memory of America: It's December 1981. My second birthday. Im sitting on a wet diaper with my legs crossed next to other children in a half circle around a Christmas treeeagerly waiting as nuns hand out gifts.

My mother has begged a group of nuns who run a small daycare to watch her youngest son for the only price she can afford -- nothing. They agree and now my mom can clean houses and feed her four sons.

My family had left El Salvador for San Francisco a few months earlier.

At the same time, in El Salvador, an elite American-trained battalion of the Salvadoran Army entered the neutral town of El Mozote in the rebel held red zone of Morazn. They lined the people up and forced them into the town church. When they left the next day virtually the entire civilian population of nearly 1,000 men, women and mostly children are dead, making the massacre at El Mozote, one of the most horrific human rights violations in the history of the Americas. I share my birth date with the date of the slaughter at El Mozote.

This is a streaming MP4 video - you'll need Quicktime 6 or later to view it.

The neighboring towns people of Perqun took up arms and fought fiercely against the Salvadoran Army when they learned of what happened to the people of El Mozote. For 12 years, as the Cold War fueled the civil war that tore through El Salvador and brought death to 75,000 Salvadorans, both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments officially denied that the massacre occured, keeping the truth hidden from the world.

Only when a group of Argentine forensic anthropologists in collaboration with the U.N. Truth Commission came to El Mozote, months after the signing of peace accords in 1992, did the real facts about what happened emerge for the rest of the world.

Among the young experts from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit was the Argentine-born, Bay Area-based artist Claudia Bernardi. She has gained worldwide acclaim for her work in both the arts and human rights fields.

Claudia was at El Mozote when the Argentine forensic team exhumed the remains of a little boy, his clothes behaving as a bag for his bones. In his tiny pants pocket they found a red, plastic toy horse. Another day they found the dress of a little girl, which contained her bones as well as a shopping list written by her mother Eggs. Tortillas. Milk. Every day the team worked in El Mozote, more exhumations brought new findings and the unfolding of the story of what had happened there.

Among this, Claudia and the Argentines found mounting ballistic evidence proving American arms and training were put into action at El Mozote for the mass murder of hundreds of civilians. The bullets were for the American M-16 and made in Lake City, Mo., two years prior to the slaughter.

After the forensic teams work was done, the bodies where given proper burials and a memorial was erected.

After a days work at exhuming bodies, Claudia let off steam by working on her art under the watchful eye of the residents.

In 2001 the mayor and the leaders of the community asked if we could create a school of art, says the artist and activist. In 2005, responding to the communitys request, Claudia, with the help of a handful of young art students, established a free art school and open studio in the town of Perqun.

The school of art was not my vision, it was the community's. Thats why it is so powerful, Claudia said.

Five years and dozens of art projects later, its an understatement to say that this unlikely school is a hit. People from towns miles away rough the terrain on foot, enthused about the days art lesson. The classes are jam-packed with farmers and former Guerrillas and their children.

Printmaking classes, drawing classes, jewelry classes, photography classes, video classes -- everything that we artists can produce as an offering, the community takes.

We have a community of people that believe dearly that art matters. They have understood art as a priority because they see what happens with it, Claudia said.


Now I'm back in El Salvador's high country to work with Claudia at the art school. Im fascinated by how the people here were willing to fight and die for what they believed in -- putting their families on the line. These folks didnt have a single ally in the world. No friends except for the cover of bush and the hardness of the mountains.

My thoughts are interrupted by the art I see on the walls -- the town is exploding with art. Kids making their own cartoons, veteran fathers weaving brightly colored textiles, old mothers making murals.


In doing art, one has to make an effort, no one else can do it for you, Claudia says. "A cycle is broken."

Father Rogelio, the priest of Perqun, says art "is very important because its a way of reconciling ourselves with ourselves and of reconciling ourselves, after the conflict, with other people.


I've just returned from using the towns only Xerox machine, where I made handouts for a workshop I'm leading. The topic: caricatures and comics.

I didnt realize this at the time, but the people in my class who draw each other and laugh about exaggerating their facial features were enemies during the war.


Sebastian Torogos is a veteran fighter and the songwriter/singer for a local folk- band, Los Torogoces de Morazan. The group of brothers, from a musical family, moved around guerrilla held territory during the war, spreading a revolutionary message through their charming mountain cumbias.

Today, Sebastian sees art in Perqun as documenting memory.

You dont see everything; there is something more that cant be seen," says Sabastian. "You have to search for it. That is the role of art, to search for something more than what our eyes can see."

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