(This is a telling of the mural-making process in the prison in Zacapa, Guatemala. I wrote these reflections as an Aritist on Call for BuildaBridge International.)
“Where have you come from and where are you going?” This is the questions that the angel of the Lord asks Hagar, an Egyptian sex-slave, in Genesis 16. She had just fled her bondage in the home of Sarai and Abram to escape the abuse that she suffered there. One wonders, why did the angel of an all-knowing Lord ask the question? This encounter of “asking and telling” along the road moved Hagar to name God: the God who sees me. Hagar, a foreign slave, is the first human in the Old Testament who give the Lord a name. This moment of being seen is what the female gang-members imprisoned in Zacapa, Guatemala wanted to paint. Hagar’s story resonated with them; what is it like to be truly “seen”?
I have been living and working in North Philadelphia doing art projects in the community setting for the past three years. Having spent the first 17 years of my life on a farm in West Virginia, creating artwork with my neighbors in North Philadelphia is a cross-cultural experience for me. Doing creative projects in other countries is whole new level. When I decided to study Spanish in Guatemala, BuildaBridge put me in touch with several organizations with which to do community art projects while I was studying: Estrategia de Transformacion, El Barrio 4 Christ, and Escuela Integrada. I am grateful for the generosity of these organizations. They usherd me into the sacred space of the relationships that they have worked hard to foster through their work. I was able to paint two murals: one with female inmates in Zacapa and one with middle and high school-aged students in Antigua. These projects expanded my experience beyond the “student/tourist” presence to a place of relating to folks living in Guatemala as we created art together.
When I first met the 14 female gang members imprisoned in Zacapa that I was to paint a mural with, I met mothers, daughters, girlfriends, wives, and grandmothers who were being reunited with their families. Pastor Joel VanDyke and Prison Chaplain, Ignacio Sanchez had rented a school bus and gathered together the families of the 14 women. We rode the bus for three hours chatting with the families about how excited they were about the reunion. Two kids I talked with hadn’t seen their mom in over a year. These particular 14 women were taken from the women’s prison in Guatemala City and moved to Zacapa after they were responsible for the brutal murder of a woman from another gang who was mistakenly jailed with them. They were placed in an old dining room in the prison and were left to make their beds under the tables in one common space and deal with the heat, flies, and smell of sewage which seeped out behind the wall of their outdoor patio. It was in this space that we ate together, shared family photos, and began to ask one another, “Where are you coming from?”
Two weeks later, I returned to Zacapa with Ignacio and a ministry intern from the States, Nikole, to paint the mural in three days. I began by reinforcing my approach of community art projects: This is YOUR space. You participate in the design of a mural that goes on a wall that you see everyday. Thankfully, prison is not a permanent home for most inmates and this prompts the question of what legacy prisoners want to leave behind; what would they like other inmates to view, ponder, and respond to? These questions brought us to the story of Hagar. We began our design process with a private drawing activity where I asked the women to draw that which they perceived as hidden from the Lord either by intention on their part or aspects of their lives that are filled with pain because they may seemingly remain unseen by anyone who cares. I reminded them that the angel of the Lord invites the activity of telling. This was a moving time where some women wrote letters to God, drew pictures of loved ones that were murdered, or filled the page with words related to their life experiences. Gathering together again, we got busy designing what Hagar’s encounter on the road would have looked like in our Guatemalan landscape. After some quick sketching and mixing colors, we began to paint.
One interesting confrontation came about when one woman in her 50’s, “Caty” (not her real name), advised me to remember to add tears to Hagar’s face. The other women gathered around the rendering responded strongly that no, that was not right. Hagar was encountering the Lord; there are no tears. Caty pointed out that the angel told Hagar to go back to her slavery with the couple set to birth the nation of God’s chosen people who had and possibly would continue to abuse her. She said that the presence of the Lord doesn’t take away all pain here in this life; this life is hard. She spoke from many rough years of experience. We resorted to a majority rules decision of no tears. The majority of the women held the sentiment that they didn’t want to look at a crying woman everyday. And we moved forward.
Within this group of female gang members, “Dulce” (not her real name) is the leader. Throughout the mural process, the other women would visually check-in with her before they moved forward on anything that I had directed them to do on the wall. Dulce spent a little time on the wall but was more interested in her girls getting a chance to paint. At the beginning of this second day, Dulce showed me a drawing that she had done on a piece of sheet about 2’ x 2’ and asked me if I had time, would I copy her drawing on the other wall so that they could have something to paint after I left. Time? I was pretty much convinced that finishing one mural in three days was an impossibility let alone have some extra time for drawing! However, I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the fence with this woman. As Dulce does, the other 13 follow. Taking a bit of a risk, I pointed out that she had drawn it beautifully once small on the sheet; she only needed to draw it bigger. She was strongly opposed to the idea that she could do the drawing; she was no artist! I pushed a bit and demonstrated with my broken Spanish how to use a tape measure to scale up a small drawing using points of reference. Then I went back to work, worried that I had pushed too far. Time passed; me and 13 other women worked steadily on the mural while I watched Dulce out of the corner of my eye. She mostly stared at the drawing with her face scrunched. Finally, she went to the wall with the tape and pencil. 20 minutes later, she came and asked how to mix colors. We mixed side-by-side, creating now TWO murals in three days. As colleagues, we worked steadily, consulting each other on color choice and shade/highlight details. Slowly, a few of the women began to assist Dulce in her mural. Our excitement increased as the murals took shape and began to impress the artists themselves with the beauty flowing from their own hands.
Nikole, the ministry intern, was designated the documentarian of the project and shot some lovely pictures of our collaboration. Upon completion, Dulce requested a photo shoot of her with her finished mural as well as a group shot with the Hagar mural. And many, many photos were taken with Chickys, the dog that lives with them in prison who is featured riverside in the mural.
As I have returned to Philadelphia to jump back into community arts here in my neighborhood of Hunting Park, I’m thankful for Nikole’s photos. I remind myself of our last group discussion which we had when I left the prison. I told them that I hoped they would spend time each day looking at our telling of Hagar’s encounter. She knew that she had been seen by the Lord. I with my friends in Zacapa will continue to consider tellings that we may have to offer each day to our God, to each other, even tellings that we may need to speak to ourselves.