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In Guatemala, Saulo Hernandez is using art as a pathway to peace

Saulo Hernandez in front of a mural in Guatemala
Photo: Selvin Curruchich / AFSC
Saulo Hernandez in front of a mural in Guatemala
Photo: Selvin Curruchich / AFSC
Saulo Hernandez in front of a mural in Guatemala
Saulo and three of the murals he helped young people create in Guatemala. Photo: Selvin Curruchich / AFSC

Saulo Fernando Mazariegos Hernandez, 31, is a mural artist who lives in Colonia Santa Isabel II Villanueva, a poor community on the outskirts of Guatemala City where violence is common. Saulo is a member of ONG Familia, an AFSC partner organization, who has been active with AFSC’s Local Peace Networks (LPNs) for three years. The LPNs help reduce violence by giving people—especially youth—opportunities to reflect on root causes of conflict and take action to transform their communities. The following is an excerpt of an interview with Saulo conducted by Joel Simón, a field officer with AFSC Guatemala , conducted this interview with Saulo on February 5, 2016.

Joel: Good evening Saulo. To begin with, can you give us your full name and age?
Saulo: My name is Saulo Fernando Mazariegos Hernández, I’m 31 years old.

Joel: Why did you decide to get involved with the work of American Friends?
Saulo: Well, AFSC came to the community looking for young people and organizations that worked with youth to develop a project with them.

Joel: What are examples of the work you have done with AFSC?
Saulo: Trainings in educational establishments, artistic proposals for youth in educational establishments and with young people who do not belong to an educational institution. We rehabilitate abandoned or lost spaces in the community, paint murals, and spread messages about developing a culture of peace. We also organize festivals to develop a culture of peace within youth and to awaken the artist we each have inside.

Joel: When you talk about artistic works or activities, what kind of art is being developed?
Saulo: We paint murals on the public walls of educational establishments. We also have theater presentations, stiltwalking, and generate collective artistic proposals with the goal of promoting many activities.

Joel: What have been the most successful or important activities, the ones that engage with the community?
Saulo: It could be what we develop in public spaces; the murals are some of them. And each year more people attend the festivals. Each time there are more people who present their artistic proposals and more people who go to watch. The other could be the workshops, where we train more young people in public and private educational establishments.

Joel: How would you rate the importance of these activities? Because success can be evaluated on how many people attend, but the importance would be the impact it generates in the population. Independent of the success of the activity, it could be important because a certain theme was covered, for example.
Saulo: I believe that part of the importance is, on one hand, that more people get involved and people you didn’t already know get to know who you are, your work, and what you are doing. They understand that you don’t have an economic interest in doing this work but instead the work helps make a change through little actions that create change in the community.

Joel: Can we say that art helps you make a connection with the community?
Saulo: Yes, indeed! Let me tell you something that happened to us with a mural we worked on. I told someone, “Look! We made that mural,” and they told me, “Yes, I knew it was you.” How did they know? It was like we had a bit of fame because of what we do, what we transform, the evolution we make possible.

Joel: That is interesting. How does the art promote peace and justice? And especially, how do you use it in your work here in Guatemala?
Saulo: I use it as part of the freedom of expression of each individual, because sometimes people label us as “artists,” and sometimes people say that some are artists and others are not. I believe everyone can express themselves through art, even if we are not professionals or we haven’t studied art. We need to support artistic expressions such as murals and graffiti and drawings because through those graphic arts we can spread and leave messages. And they can last longer. In the community we have made several murals and the message is still there, it’s still standing, and each person interprets it their own way. That is why we support the mural making, because I feel that through the murals we can talk without the necessity of being there talking personally to each person. But through that piece of art we can talk and spread a message.

Joel: What is the main idea or the most relevant content that you transmit through murals?
Saulo: The most relevant idea is the culture of peace, freedom of expression, and the identity of the community, of our origins, Mayan culture. We use a lot of colors because we are colorful people and we noticed that colors transmit many things such as emotions, sensations. We also use colors as a way to reach more people who are attracted by the use of colors.

Joel: Do you perceive art as a method or tool to achieve justice and peace?
Saulo: Yes! It is a tool because it is useful to us. Many people associate it with us and they say, “No! We don’t know how to do it like you!” But there isn’t anything that says what is art and what isn’t. The important thing is that we like it and the final result is aesthetically pleasing, and if we feel we reached other people that makes us stronger!

Joel: What kind of artistic expressions are on display during the festivals?
Saulo: Singing in many forms, including rap. Part of the importance of the festivals is that we create links with young people. Part of what attracts them is that they want to listen to things that go against what their parents tell them. The things that parents don’t like is what they, the young people, listen to the most, but it is something used to spread messages. Rap, dance, break dancing are all examples of how youth express themselves in the community. That is why we give them those opportunities for them to practice—the graffiti, walking on stilts, juggling, clown presentations, sports and extreme sports, and some risky artistic presentations with fire, which gets a lot of attention. There is a great diversity. Film is also being used and we get proposals from people that work in documentary film making, alternative films, and photography.

Joel: There is something that caught my attention. You mentioned that some people don’t consider what you do to be art. How do you defend, justify, or position it as art?
Saulo: I believe the expressions we use, whether it is dance, theater, singing, or graphic arts, they’re all how we express ourselves as people. It’s about feeling fine with what you’re doing, and you do it and share it. People like it and we grow stronger. And it’s something that keeps evolving. Some time ago, I didn’t believe I was good at drawing or that I could make something nice. But then you read and realize that some creative expressions are not liked by people because they are not formal or there isn’t any parameter like, “This is this way and this isn’t!” It’s the freest way of expression, doing what you like to do without having to please anyone!

Joel: It’s like being out of the established canons of the academic community!
Saulo: Yes, you interpose yourself. Before, for example, who told Michelangelo what he did was art? He simply like it and did it, and it made him stronger. He said that for him that’s the final truth. It’s the same with each person who is an artist, for example Afraín Recinos, who's a great painter, architect, and sculptor, also had his opponents.

Joel: But you’re talking about people who had the opportunity to study in an art school. What happens in communities where people don’t have that chance?
Saulo: Then I believe you do it because it’s what you like, because you think it’s worth it. And you develop your ability, make it stronger, and continue promoting it. And there are people in your community that like it.

Joel: But there isn’t a name yet for these kinds of artistic expressions—the juggling, the graffiti. They have specific names, but nothing more general that encompasses all of them. It isn’t something like, let’s say, classical ballet or painting on canvas.
Saulo: Several variants exist. For example juggling is part of the circus arts. Rap and break dancing are part of hip-hop, same as graffiti. It is all actually part of some art categories.

Joel: I agree! But it’s within the framework of alternative art because it doesn’t come from a school or academy and doesn’t conform to the established rules.
Saulo: Yes! As you say, it is an alternative form of art because you don’t graduate from an academy or school of art.

Joel: You’re right. But also there aren’t options for us, because it’s difficult to get enrolled in an art school.
Saulo: Yes, it’s true. In this community there aren’t any art schools and if there were any, they would be expensive because you would have to buy your materials, pay for classes, and all that. In the work we do, we provide the equipment and materials, and also the space to work in to create your art. But we don’t impose a pattern on you, instead we promote freedom of expression.

Joel: You’ve answered questions very similar to this next one, but what do you think is the value of art as a tool to promote peace and justice?
Saulo: (laughs) I don’t know if I understood the question correctly! I believe that the value of art is in the love with which you get things done, because it shows the commitment you have in what you do and through it you reach more people.

Joel: I consider this next question personal: What is your objective with this? What are you doing with AFSC's support?
Saulo: The work I’ve done with AFSC related to art is what I like the most. It’s a way to support and contribute to my community. To a certain extent, I’m supporting artistic expressions and giving that opportunity to others. AFSC has given us that chance. We see we can strengthen this work and through the support we have received we generate more opportunities to get more young people involved. With AFSC’s support we can reach more people. That strategic alliance strengthens and supports art with young people in high-risk communities like this where artistic endeavors are necessary. For example, we’re establishing a recording studio. Why? Because then the studio will be available for young people to come to record and to promote art. Even if I don’t sing or play any instrument, I learn to produce to help the singers to record or improve certain aspects of their songs. Just because I don’t do it [sing] doesn’t mean that I don’t like it. The idea of working together with AFSC is to support and strengthen the capacities of the young people.

Joel: What are your future plans for the work in Guatemala?
Saulo: I think there are many plans, like to keep strengthening the festival, generating these contributions as art academies in the community, and linking it all with the culture of peace . We want to strengthen artistic expressions, to give that power to young people and maybe give them some way to sustain themselves because we know in Guatemala you can’t survive by doing art, so you have to generate other sustainable projects which you can trust in because they can be offered as work for young people. This is something AFSC is supporting us with.

Joel: You talk about strengthening art with young people, but how can you achieve it? You already mentioned the festival, but as far I’m concerned it’s more than that.
Saulo: We have also the workshops, where we reproduce the knowledge in educational centers. We also work in the streets to spread the word about the artistic proposals and to spread the culture of peace and human rights. Through this we look for changes we can make as people, attitude changes, to reach more people and strengthen the artistic impulse that everyone has.

Joel: Good, thank you Saulo, that’s all.