Volunteers: Carlos Loarca, Betsie Miller-Kusz


The Payasos Mural Project in Guatemala lasted 3 weeks, and during this time, we worked at three different locations: El Refugio and Nujuju (homeless street boys shelters, administered by Casa Alianza) and el Basurero (the dump, working with Cuarto Mundo, a human rights organization) in Guatemala City. We created 5 different murals with the street boys and children of the dump in this sort time. This is an incredible amount of painting, but can be justified because it filled the need for a healthy and expressive activity for these children, the poorest of the poor, who had such a strong desire to paint.

It was amazing to watch these kids work. When they were painting, they were totally absorbed in what they were doing, oblivious to their terrible surroundings. Our mural process was that we met the first time to orient them as to what we would be doing. We showed them the video ‘Anatomy of a Mural’ and explained how we would be making the murals, and followed with a discussion of possible themes for the mural walls.

The second time we met with each group was a design session. We distributed paper, crayons, marker, pencils and chalk, and asked them to draw whatever they wanted. We then used these drawings to organize the mural design, using a grid system (‘Dynamic Symmetry’) to place their drawings in the overall composition. All of the murals reflected the common elements in their drawings: mountains, trees, houses, fields, airplanes, and in the children of the basurero, people. This composition formed the basis for each mural design.

In the third session at each site, we began work on the walls: cleaning and scraping, priming the walls with white, transferring the lines of the design, painting the murals, and the final varnishing of each wall. The kids helped with all of this as we provided the orientation for the process, working alternate days at the different sites.

The conditions in each place were different, because of the different situations of the participants. El Basurero was the most difficult; the wall was at the end of the dump, at the boundary where the garbage is brought in, and it rained almost every day. The foul smell, the mud and filth, the dogs and vultures and tons of garbage; it was difficult to believe so many humans could live there, and to reach the wall, we had to walk through the pestilence of their living quarters. These were filthy dwellings, shacks made of wood, cardboard, corrugated metal and junk from the garbage. At the entrance were squatters and women reading to some of the children. As we progressed in, we would pass old men and teenagers, addicts to the ‘pegamento’ or ‘goma’, the heavy glue, which they sniffed day and night to deaden the pain of their surroundings.

The exciting beginning here was when the kids made their first drawings, and the first day they painted on the wall, making the same images which children paint everywhere in the world. We also included the teenage addicts in the project, and though they were difficult to work with, the Cuarto Mundo group was a very great help in approaching and controlling them. On one occasion, one of the teenagers climbed the ladder to paint his design, and then realized that both his hands were occupied, one with the paint, one with the pegamento. Surprising all of us, he chose to drop his glue and keep his paint, and he worked, totally involved, for about 15 or 20 minutes. This was his choice!

We worked with about 25 young children, and about 15 teenage addicts. One of them, Carlitos, about 4 years old, wanted to paint, so we gave him a brush and before we knew it, he was jumping up with his brush, to paint on the wall, over and over. He will stay in our minds forever. The last time he appeared to say goodbye, he was walking with his own, terribly oversized shoes, but they were each on the wrong foot, and it was hard to even call them shoes.

Another child, Gladis, wasnít allowed to paint at first, because of her sore toe, her foot wrapped in a filthy rag. She sat and watched, and the next day, was back to participate. After that, we couldnít stop her as she created houses and trees and helped with the mountains. Another boy, Oscar, painted an entire landscape, ìel campoî, the countryside of his dreams. They painted airplanes and cars, and trees and grass, all the elements missing from their own poor lives. And, of course, the teenagers included some tags and gang insignia, but it was generally pretty mild. They were equally interested in painting the mountains and the sun, and making their own little houses and cars.

The Basurero mural, a great accomplishment, was about 15 feet high, and about 60 feet long, painted with mural paint on cement. The result is a richly colored, beautiful wall, visible above the mounds of trash and garbage, created by the community of the Basurero. Even the mothers and fathers came to talk with us, and we were serenaded by an old man, singing romantic songs composed for us as we worked.

The mural at Nujuju was probably in the most ideal surroundings, a farm for the Casa Alianza boys, located near Antigua, in the beautiful countryside. Here we could work with more leisure, as there were fewer boys, and all of them interested in painting for hours and hours. One of the boys, Juan, was extremely frightened at our first drawing session, not knowing what to draw. He said he wanted just to do a design, which was a very abstract square, cut in 4 parts, and surrounded by curved lines. Once he began to paint on the wall, he painted the same design, and then we suggested he add a tail and a string , to turn it into a kite flying in the mountains. He surprised us with his request to paint another one, so there are two beautiful kites, flying in Nujuju and in Juanís mind. This boyís body was covered with cigarette burns when we first met him. He couldnít smile and would barely talk, but by the end of the project, he was hugging us, laughing and talking, and painting endlessly.

Two brothers, the Paredes boys, also painted and painted, as did Oscar, another young homeless boy. They treated us with great respect, and also showed great affection for us as the days passed. The ìeducadoresî (caretakers) at Nujuju watched all of this with interest, and finally requested that we allow them to do another wall, so we began the process again, working with another group of boys, and teaching the educadores how to organize such a mural and paint it on their own. We also left many jars of paint and brushes with them, in hopes they would continue.

Our murals at ìEl Refugioî, a street boysí shelter run by Casa Alianza, were also a great challenge. There were about 40 boys, from several different shelters, who worked with us on three murals.

The first mural was located in the dining room, on a large wall with a fireplace. Using this in our composition, we created the shape of a Mayan pyramid, with mountains and countryside passing through it, and the hearts of all the boys as a border. Again, we designed the mural, cleaned and primed the wall, transferred the design lines, and then had them paint in their own ideas; houses, cars, trees, lakes, roads, mountains, sky, clouds, and the hearts. It was incredible to see these boys work with such interest and expression; at times you could not hear any noise, they were so involved. (And usually these boys ran through the Refugio, kicking, screaming, shouting, playing in a completely undomesticated manner.) We were upset, however, that several boys were not allowed to participate because they were being punished. We felt this project was a form of emotional therapy for them, and should not simply be used as a reward for good behavior.

In el Refugio, we worked with a 15 yr. old boy, Marlon, who immediately expressed his interest in the Mayan culture. We assigned the central area of the fireplace for his designs, and he became very territorial. Marlon was disabled, and couldnít climb or walk easily, but he was very tough and very proud of his work. Walter, on the other hand, was not allowed to paint, as he was assigned extra chores for bad behavior. We spoke to the educadores and he then painted every day with us, eagerly awaiting us at the locked front gate. Oscar offered to copy the logo of Payasos Sin Fronteras, with a magnificent result, and another young 8 yr. old copied the Casa Alianza logo, giving it vivid new colors. There were many, many successes with these boys, and again, they treated us with great respect. We included all their names on the wall, but most of them couldn’t read or write, so we traced the letters and they copied their names.

The second mural in el Refugio was painted in the hallways surrounding the entrance patio. Here we didn’t need preliminary drawings, just the indication of the mountains and landscape, and the boys went right to work. We could see they understood what they were doing, and by this time, they were very famiar with the materials and process.

Our final mural was painted out on the street, on the walls at the main entrance. Here we used our own design, painting a ‘tree of life’ and human protector figure within it. Leading into the tree, the boys painted their own hands, using bright colors for the outlines and backgrounds. The owners of the restaurants and businesses across the street were very impressed, first, that we would actually work with such boys, and secondly, that we were training them to do something they could use for their own future. They thanked us, as did many of the passers-by on the street, as we were working.

Since all of the projects spanned a period of three weeks, we could gauge the progress of the boys as they worked. The final week, there were some newcomers to el Refugio, and we could see the difference in terms of their painting skills and imagination. It was difficult to incorporate them at the same level as the other boys, and they seemed kind of lost.

The final day was a talk to summarize what we had done and why. The boys were very receptive and attentive, and they added their own comments about the project. They were all extremely happy at what they had accomplished, and hoped there would be future projects soon.

As muralists of these projects, we felt they were a complete success. Both of us as muralists had worked with children for many years, and so we knew they would love strong, bright colors. We gave them the benefit of our own best experience and knowledge, as well as firm, yet kind, discipline, and we used the best mural paints available, so that the murals will last for many years.

Our strongest impression, (and in that society, the most shocking) was that these were kids, human beings like kids everywhere. They were smart, streetwise, and attentive because of their own past lives; they learned very rapidly and their eyes and hands were always moving. They treated us with respect because that is how we treated them. We did not see them as criminals or outcasts, but as the essence of humanity. This was for all of us an experience of great moments and remembrances, which will stay in our hearts forever.

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