A short ride heading west on the metro from the center of Caracas is the Agua Salud station, which serves as a major entrance into the 23 de Enero parish. The surrounding area is always a busy place, with lots of vendors selling all sorts of products and small buses lined up waiting for riders. A striking first impression is the diverse visual images painted on walls and buildings.
Street art plays an increasingly vital role in revolutionary Venezuela: It is a mode of political expression, a form of popular education, and helps build a collective historical memory. Few places show this more brilliantly than the walls of 23 de Enero with its combative spirit inscribed on almost every corner.
23 de Enero has long played a pivotal role in Venezuela's turbulent political life. When the area was built in the 1950s, it was first christened "December 2," taking its name from the date General Marcos Pérez Jiménez took power with his military junta.
Jiménez ruled with an iron fist, while the junta stole millions in public funds, depriving Venezuelans of basic services. A popular insurrection, supported in part by disaffected military officers, overthrew Jiménez on January 23, 1958. The December 2 district played a key role in the uprising and was subsequently renamed 23 de Enero in homage to the courage shown by so many its inhabitants. Today, 23 de Enero includes some 40 different barrios with a total population of well over 200,000 inhabitants.
Since those turbulent days of early 1958, 23 de Enero has gained renown as one of the most radical urban areas in all of Latin America. In the words of one local resident, "Because of its combativeness and spirit of struggle, this urbanization has always been viewed by all our governments, except for the present one, as a ‘zone of subversion’ or a ‘red zone.’"
The depiction is not surprising given 23 de Enero's widespread popular mobilization during various critical political junctures: protests against police repression during the mid-1980s, confrontations with army troops during the uprisings of February 1989 known as the Caracazo, votes in support of Hugo Chávez in elections, and the thousands who poured into the streets to demand President Chávez's return during the coup d’etat of April 2002.
More than forty collectives have coalesced in 23 de Enero, including the Colectivo Alexis Vive (the Alexis Lives Collective). The collective is named after Alexis González, an activist raised in 23 de Enero who spent five years in Nicaragua participating in the Sandinista rural literacy campaign. During the massive street demonstrations of April 11, 2002, demanding Chávez's reinstatement, military troops shot and killed Alexis González. Several members of the Alexis Vive Collective are versatile street artists whose work has gained international attention. Their bright paintings are readily visible in several barrios of 23 de Enero.
The artists of the Colectivo Alexis Vive exhibit their political views through street art. Common are simple statements in support of President Chávez, such as chants or phrases often used at pro-government rallies: “Uh, Ah, Chávez No Se Va!” (Oooh, Aaah, Chávez is Here to Stay) or “Con Chávez Todo, Sin Chávez Nada” (With Chávez Everything, Without Chávez Nothing).
The collective encourages residents of 23 de Enero to be involved in political decisions affecting their communities. Articulating such a position is logical, given the thousands of individuals who have struggled to have their voices heard during the parish's 50-year history.
Community involvement has helped residents achieve community-driven goals, such as creating educational programs or addressing the major problem of garbage collection. The artists of the Collective Alexis Vive have effectively aligned local concerns with a national agenda. Communal councils, an integral component of the Bolivarian Revolution, have aided this process. One sign (above) erected near the headquarters of the collective reads “Alexis Vive Carajo: Avanza hacia la Consolidación del Poder Local” (Alexis Lives, damn it: Advancing Toward the Consolidation of Local Power).
The Collective's art is heavily imbued with anti-imperialism. In recent years, critical depictions of U.S. policy in regions outside of Latin America have proliferated. Some paintings denounce Washington's financial and military support for Israel and its disregard of Palestine. Other artworks rail against the war in Iraq: One work (left) painted on a wall by a gas station reads: “Su guerra no ha mundializado el miedo” (Your war has not globalized fear). More subtle forms of cultural imperialism are also commonly analyzed.
A prominent topic involves the techniques employed by reactionary television and media companies to spread anti-Chávez propaganda. And numerous paintings emphasize the benefits of community radio. These small stations have sprung up in several barrios of Caracas and receive financial support from the government.
Some of the art simply offer words and images for reflection. On a wall near the Agua Salud metro station passed by thousands every day, the Radio Arsenal graffito suggests "ideas" and "consciousness" are today's most effective weapons.
The material gains of the revolution and other relevant social issues are also sources of inspiration. Some of the art celebrates the role of the government-funded Barrio Adentro health care program, the benefits of playing sports, the danger of drugs, and the need to assume personal responsibility for one’s actions.
Several murals reinforce the importance of serious study and education, but place the emphasis on pedagogies of social emancipation. The Alexis Vive Collective calls for education that instills a socialist consciousness that contributes to the Bolivarian Revolution. Such sentiments have given impetus to the Boliviarian University system proposed by the Chávez government. In a huge mural, one message calls for the "construction of an insurgent" and "revolutionary" pedagogy.
The Chávez government is often criticized for trying to impose a socialist project on Venezuelans from above. The collective rejects this critique, countering that residents of 23 de Enero have been – and remain – a constant source of progressive ideas from below.
The collective insists that initiatives surging from the urban underclass are a critical pillar of the Bolivarian Revolution. The sentiment is summarized in a mural depicting Che Guevara scrawled with the phrase: “El Socialismo se construye desde las bases: Consciencia Vive” (Socialism is built from the grassroots; Consciousness Lives).
The Collective's work instills a deep sense of historical memory. Given the long history of police violence inflicted upon the residents of 23 de Enero, artists often pay homage to the commitment of marginalized folk. Portraits remind residents of local heroes from the barrios of 23 de Enero that have met violent deaths on the streets of Caracas, such as activist-poet Sergio Rodríguez, who was killed by security forces, and Kley Gómez, an activist shot by criminal thugs.
The struggles of Afro and Indigenous Venezuelans are highlighted through such icons as the black hero of independence Negro Primero and the sixteenth century Indian leader Guaicaipuro. Famous figures in the history of Venezuela, including Simón Bolívar, Manuela Saenz and Simón Rodríguez are placed alongside other revolutionary icons, such as José Martí, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, activist-singer Alí Primera, and Salvador Allende. But the art also celebrates political movements more generally, including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Buenos Aires and the Basque independence movement from Spain.
The artists pay tribute to the courage and ideals of these individuals and groups. By focusing on what might be called a people's history, the artists shed light on the fact that struggling Venezuelans are not alone – and never have been.
Through this revolutionary art, 23 de Enero's sense of community has been strengthened, its sense of place enhanced. Artists representing the Alexis Vive Collective have played an important role in articulating the combative “spirit of 23.” Astute observers of the world around them, they have proven adept at linking local concerns to urban, national and international issues, sharing their perspectives and ideals with all who encounter their inspiring art.
Dale Graden teaches history at the University of Idaho. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar to Venezuela in 2008.