From Colombia to Guatemala: Carnival Takes Back the Streets

For centuries, carnivals throughout Latin America have given revelers the chance to enjoy a brief suspension of a typically rigid social order. A group of activists have been using the carnival model as a collective weapon of peaceful transformation against violence, fear, and silence. From Colombia to Guatemala, the carnival is taking back the streets one block at a time, and what began as a carnival procession has turned into a movement.

March 2, 2009

Boom! Boom! It was the end of the eighties: Medellín, Colombia. The city was then known as the "murder capital of the world." The fear on the streets was palpable; many chose to hide behind closed doors. The lives of the city’s youth in marginalized barrios were especially precarious. Armed thugs recruited or targeted them, and the media stigmatized them as criminals, assassins, good-for-nothings.

Boom! Boom! The sounds ricocheted between the narrow alleyways of the poor barrios; they could have been bombs or grenades, no one knew. People in the streets were yelling. But this time, the racket outside came from a driving drumbeat. And the yelling: "They were cries of delight – children in the streets. People began to open their doors," remembers Julia H. Escobar.

A comparsa in Guatemala. (Courtesy Christian Aid)

The noise came from a grand comparsa making its way through the streets. In Latin America, comparsa refers not only to a carnival troop of music and dance, but also to the carnivalesque procession itself, a collective and public mobile street festival with music, mythical and caricatured figures, rituals, dancing, and singing.

In 1989, Julia Escobar, Doryan Betoya, and Luis Fernando began organizing comparsas as a way of taking back the streets of Medellín from the violence and fear inflicted by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and narcotraffickers. "We were in the middle of the left and the right," says Escobar. "Art offered a language that was stronger."

Together Escobar, Betoya, and Fernando founded the group Barrio Comparsa, and within a decade 47 groups sprang up in Colombia implementing Barrio Comparsa’s methodology, which Escobar defines as “action, participation, transformation.” Working with Medellín’s youth, popular sectors and visionary public officials, Barrio Comparsa contributed to a new civil society that embraced the city's traditions of popular culture and arts, appreciation for festivity, and public celebration.

Barrio Comparsa quickly became a bright spot amid the violent gloominess that had overtaken the conflict-ridden city. The Barrio Comparsa movement took on a life of its own and continues to rattle the barrios of Colombia. The ten years Escobar and Betoya spent transforming the streets of Medellín into mini-carnivals made them well-prepared for a coming and unexpected turn in their lives: post-conflict Guatemala.

In 1999, Doryan Betoya visited Guatemala, attracted by the Maya culture. He arrived three years after the signing of the Peace Accords. Amid the silence, fear, and racism that dominated Guatemalan society, Betoya saw an opportunity for artistic engagement. He called Julia Escobar – his compañera and colleague – inviting her to Guatemala to learn about the Maya culture they had studied in college, explaining they could engage the hopes and spaces promised, but never delivered by the Peace Accords.

Caja Lúdica

Upon arriving, Escobar and Betoya saw their chance. Guatemala was commemorating the 1944 October Revolution and the "democratic spring" cut short by the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the reformist, elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. They contacted the organizers of the "Blue October Festival," offering to open the event with a grand comparsa. The organizers of the commemoration, José Osorio and Renato Maselli, also shared a passion for popular, public art and social engagement, so they eagerly agreed. With just 20 days to organize the comparsa, the Colombians began holding workshops for some 200 enthusiastic youth, who came from diverse groups: Pro-Joven, Arte Urbano, churches, social clubs, and even gang members looking for a way out. In a span of just weeks, these youth were transformed into skilled performers: stilt-walkers, acrobats, make-up artists, costume-makers, and actors.

Stilt-walker applies her makeup before a performance. (Courtesy Christian Aid)

The comparsa was such a hit at the commemoration that Escobar and Betoya joined up with Osorio and Maselli to found Caja Lúdica, a group with the same goals and methodology as Barrio Comparsa in Medellín. The youth performers from that first comparsa became Caja Lúdica's core "cultural promoters" and the heart of the movement over the next decade.

The comparsa style resonated with Maya traditions of public processions, music, and caricature through costume and performance. Caja Lúdica flourished out of this cultural resonance, the methodology of action, participation, and transformation, and the sociopoltical context of post-war era. Caja Lúdica now includes some 25 groups and 1,700 people in urban and rural Guatemala. It joined forces with like-minded youth-centered arts groups in Honduras and El Salvador to form “MARACA,” or Mara Centro América. "Mara" is the colloquial name for street gangs in Central America, but the word also means "people." The use of mara is intended to restore an ideal of “maras” as youth-based community organizations rather than targets of authoritarian government crackdowns of mano dura campaigns. The MARACA effort has joined with a Central American arts network that extends through Mexico to South America through groups like Caleidoscopio Mesoámericano and Red Latino de Arte y Transformación Social.

From Festival to Movement

Young people who participated in the workshops for the Festival of Blue October began asking Caja Lúdica to come to their communities, to their social groups, to their schools. "We went to … the most problematic barrios of the time," recounts Betoya. Yet leadership, not violence seemed the most important characteristic of the barrios. As Samuel "Sammy" Ochoa, one of Caja Lúdica's founding youth explains, “In the barrios there are always visionary people – people who want something different [for their community], who want another kind of life project, and who organize to make that project a reality.”

A comparsa in Guatemala. (By Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens)

In no time, Caja Lúdica had several dozen young urban leaders who were taking what they learned to other communities. This "multiplier effect" is part of the brilliance of the Caja Lúdica project. Escobar notes, these youth "motivate, and are part of the creative process. They create bridges between communities and themselves and educate people within these communities."

As in Medellín, Caja Lúdica offered youth and their communities a way to recover their streets. Sammy Ochoa clearly remembers when a comparsa arrived to the poor barrio of Mezquital in Guatemala City: "I saw how this transformed the barrio – a gathering filled with drums, happiness; People on stilts. Everybody in the community marveled at this world. ”

After a year of workshops, Sammy and a group of about fifteen youths from age 12 to 22 formed their own group: “Rhoje,” or creative spirit. Sammy proudly recalls, “From there we started a program of pure street theater. We gave presentations in the streets, workshops in the streets, art exhibits in the market, poetry readings in buses. We took over the barrio – and we knew it."

So did everyone else. While parents and police took a dim view of Rhoje, initially stigmatizing them as druggies or gang-bangers, Rhoje gradually gained respect. It wasn't long before Rhoje became a much sought-after asset in the community. “The Church would say to us, 'let’s do something together'; the political groups of the barrio would say, 'let’s do something together.' The police would say, 'let’s do something together.' And pretty soon the whole world wanted to discuss things with us and to develop cultural and artistic activities,” says Sammy.

Into the Countryside

In 2001, the UN Development Program issued an appeal to Guatemalan civil society for proposals for initiatives that would help promote transparency and help build the foundations for reconciliation. Caja Lúdica’s proposal was among the 19 accepted from a pool of 140. The proposal involved working in rural Maya communities that were some of the most devastated by the armed conflict – areas of massacres, of peripatetic “communities in resistance,” and of returned refugees.

Luis, 18, has been involved with Caja Lúdica since he was 11, when he was living on the streets. (Courtesy Christian Aid)

Through contacts with the UN, Caja Lúdica found a thriving network of NGOs committed to social reconstruction with established networks in rural departments – Las Verapaces, El Quiché, and Huehuetenango. While youth leaders provided entrée into Guatemala’s marginal barrios, the infrastructure of the NGOs – as well as some initiatives and spaces created by the Peace Accords – allowed Caja Lúdica and its youthful “promoters” to transcend Guatemala’s urban centers and reach out to rural Maya communities.

Meanwhile, Caja Lúdica’s comparsas had gained increased media attention, and rural communities began to contact them – sometimes literally knocking at their door. Rural teachers formed the core of leadership in the countryside. One teacher came from a community of returnees in a remote area of the department of Alta Verapaz. His community had been completely abandoned by the local and national government, and he came wondering if the children he taught could really learn after suffering the traumas of war and abject poverty.

He described the children as withdrawn and curled into fetal positions. They wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t look into each other’s eyes, and wouldn’t hold hands. The simple delight of a short performance offered at the start of a workshop began to break down these boundaries. Breathing exercises brought the children together into a circle where they held hands. But the wonder of watching Escobar and the cultural promoters mount their stilts and perform instilled a desire to follow their "act." The performance created excitement, developed self-confidence, and generated a desire for more among the children.

Soon communities were forming independent groups using the skills learned from Caja Lúdica to mount their own comparsas and performances. Now, as in Medellín, Guatemala also has a cultural and artistic movement that has taken on a life of its own, creating a distinct social consciousness. It's a small but important step in healing the deep wounds of a tragic conflict.

Violence and death persists, but as one young man in Guatemala City, where the extrajudicial killing of youth is part of the rhythm of daily life, concludes, "The consciousness of art has everything to do with life … to create art is to defend this space of life.”

Watch Caja Lúdica's promotional video:

Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens is a NACLA Research Associate currently based in Central America.

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