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July 1, 2015

‘You Have To Go To The Streets’: The Evocation of Memory through Street Art in Guatemala and Argentina

Written by Kate Bailey

Remembering the recent past in a collective form - whether it be the collective of a family, a community, or an entire country - often is a turbulent issue; divisions emerge over how incidents are portrayed and how individuals involved – those being remembered and those doing the remembering – are presented. This is especially prevalent in regards to violent pasts: questions arise over the fate of the victims of violence, where responsibility lies, whether justice will be served, how those who suffered will be compensated, and whether those who died or were murdered will be memorialized or even remembered. In recent years, the countries of Guatemala and Argentina have endured extreme incidents of state orchestrated violence. In Guatemala, civil war raged for thirty-six years, finally coming to an end in 1996. In Argentina, the military junta enforced extreme measures of repression between 1976 and 1983. In both countries today, there is division over how these violent pasts should be remembered and how its victims should be memorialized. While there have been government initiatives in both countries to try and reconcile with the past – although the extent to which this process of reconciliation acknowledges the culpability of the state is questionable – individuals have taken it upon themselves to create markers of memory throughout Guatemala and Argentina, in a bid to evoke the memory of these past incidents of violence and subsequently prevent them from being overlooked.

These markers of memory have taken various forms. In Argentina, spaces associated with the violence that occurred during the ‘Dirty War’ have been transformed into spaces of remembrance. The ESMA building was originally a Navy mechanical school; under the military junta it was used as a prison and torture centre. It now serves as a physical reminder of the violence that occurred, and is used to house a human rights museum and the National Memory Archives.[1]In Guatemala, the Metropolitan cathedral in Guatemala City has twelve columns located outside the main building. On each of these columns is engraved the names of those who died or were disappeared as a result of the civil war. While these markers of memory have their advantages and do evoke memory within those who see them, they are only accessible to a restricted audience. Although the columns outside the Metropolitan Cathedral do offer an alternative narrative to the one projected by the Guatemalan government, their impact can only extend so far: the columns themselves are subtle, rather than eye catching, and although the cathedral is located in the centre of Guatemala City, for those who live outside of the capital, there is no possible way they can view them. Memorials such as the ESMA also face difficulties regarding representation: satisfying all those who want to add their voice to the process of remembrance, while also creating a memorial that will be coherent and accessible to those who visit it.

Street art is another method that has been engaged with in order to achieve this evocation of memory. Individuals working alone, or groups working collaboratively, have illustrated the streets of these two Latin American countries with artwork that relates to the violence endured in an attempt to stop these pasts from being forgotten. Street art invades public spaces and forces the memory encapsulated in the artistic form onto the witnessing populace. Due to this open and accessible nature, it is arguable that street art is an ideal method by which to evoke memory on a wide scale. Unlike the ESMA building and the columns outside the Metropolitan cathedral, street art is not fixed to one particular location and is not static. It can change with ease and be produced in multiple forms, allowing all those who seek to have a voice in the process of remembrance, a chance to add their own interpretation to the narrative surrounding the past. This paper will discuss the effectiveness of public street installations or performances at evoking memories concerning Guatemala and Argentina’s violent pasts through three examples: Daniel Hernandez-Salazar’s “Street Angels”, which involved the positioning of photographs of angels in different locations around Guatemala City; Fernando Traverso’s spray painted silhouettes of bicycles around the city of Rosario, and Regina Galindo’s public street performance, “¿Quien Puede Borrar Las Huellas?” (Who Can Erase The Footprints?) in which the artist walked between the Constitutional Court and the Presidential Palace, leaving behind her a trail of bloody footprints.

Violent Pasts in Argentina and Guatemala

Although work such as Galindo’s “¿Quien Puede Borrar Las Huellas?” are reactions to more contemporary events - in this case the announcement in 2003 that Efrain Rios Montt, the former president of Guatemala under whom genocide occurred, had been accepted as a presidential candidate - the larger conflict and emotion that is being expressed relates back to these incidents of extreme violence and repression that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.

Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’ began in 1976, following a successful military coup that ousted Isabel Perón from power[2]and replaced her with General Jorge Videla, the Military Junta’s president. Argentina was on the verge of total institutional breakdown when the military took power in March 1976: the result of “a long process of decay.”’[3] Since 1930, when General José Uriburu overthrew the constitutional government of Hipólito Yrigoyen, Argentina had been in a state of political flux; there were nine coups attempted, some that were successful, and two rigged elections; these administrations lasted for an average of ‘two years and ten months’, with one government in 1943 lasting only two days.[4]When the Junta subsequently took power, they gained possession of an Argentina embroiled in internal conflict. They were determined to transform Argentina into a country that echoed their conservative, militarized, and Catholic views, and reverse all changes implemented by former President Juan Perón. In their own words, spoken during their trial in 1985, leading military officers claimed they had taken over the government to stop the triumph of communist subversion.[5] Under Juan Perón, elected to power in 1946, wages had increased, new Unions had been formed, women gained the right to vote, and job security was practically absolute; changes that had pleased the workers of Argentina, but largely upset employers and agriculturists. In their attempt to rid Argentina of Perón’s influence, the Military Junta inflicted years of terror, violence, and oppression on the Argentine populace, and murdered and made disappear some 22,000 to 30,000 people.[6]

Civil war erupted in Guatemala in 1960, following the successful removal in 1954, of the then president Jacobo Árbenz. Árbenz was a progressive president, who sought to introduce agrarian, land, and economic reforms that would better serve the majority of the population in Guatemala; in eighteen months he had successfully distributed land to 100,000 peasant familie.[7] However, while those who became recipients of land were content under Árbenz’s leadership, individuals whose land had been expropriated were not. Over the four years of his presidency, hostility increased and in the United States, fears that Árbenz was transforming Guatemala into a Communist state were raised. In 1954, with the backing and support of the United States, Árbenz was removed from power in a bloodless coup.[8] Following this, guerrilla groups began to appear in Guatemala, formed of individuals who disagreed with new government policies but, due to restrictive state measures, had no opportunities to voice their opinions and potentially influence change. One guerrilla manifesto of the 1960s explained: “Because peaceful and legal forms of struggle do not exist, there is only one road that remains open: to fight counterrevolutionary violence with revolutionary violence”.[9] In 1982, Efrain Rios Montt seized power of Guatemala in a successful coup: a military general, he was determined to remove the ‘subversives’ from Guatemala by any means necessary, and developed a counter-insurgency strategy based around the expression, ‘if you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea’.[10] Rios Montt unleashed a campaign of brutal and sustained violence against the population of Guatemala, particularly the Mayan population. This explosion of extreme violence on the highlands of Guatemala, and the systematic killings which took place, are ruled to have been acts of ‘genocide’. Throughout the thirty-six years of conflict it is estimated that over 200,000 Guatemalan people were killed or forcibly disappeare.[11]

Regina Galindo: “¿Quien Puede Borrar Las Huellas?” (Who Can Erase The Footprints?)

There are similarities to be drawn between the violent pasts of Argentina and Guatemala: the exceptionally high levels of disappearances; the involvement and domination by military regimes; and, in the aftermath, the want to remember what occurred and those people who were victims. While memorials have been created in both countries, arguably the process of remembrance has developed further and more openly, and occurred on a larger scale in Argentina than in Guatemala. Thus, not least in Guatemala there is an evident want, that is also very visibly expressed through works of street art, to create personal markers of memory; presenting, interpreting, and challenging the memory of the violence and the official discourses presented by governments, which would otherwise be deliberately suppressed by the state.

In Guatemala in particular, works of street art converse heavily with current politics due to the absence of a regime change and the influence and power that Rios Montt and members of the military still wield.

In 2003 it was announced that Efrain Rios Montt had unanimously been selected as the presidential candidate for the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG); this was despite the constitutional ruling that former dictators may not run for presidency. Crowds were also booing and jeering him when he turned up to vote at a school in Guatemala City.[12] Regina Galindo was living in Guatemala City at the time:

‘I cried out, I kicked and stomped my feet, I cursed the system that rules us. How was it possible that a character as dark as this would have such power with which to bend everything to his will?’.[13]

It was this anger, and a desire to share and amplify these feelings, which led her to create the piece ‘¿Quien Puede Borrar Las Huellas?’ In this performance Galindo dipped her feet into a basin of human blood, before she walked the route from the Constitutional Court to the Presidential Palace, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind her. The footprints were ‘in memory of all the victims of genocide in Guatemala’, a literal reminder to all who saw them of the blood that had been spilt.[14] Galindo successfully made visible the ‘stains of [Rios Montt’s] military actions upon the nation, kept out of view or washed away in collective memory’.[15]

What makes Galindo’s piece effective is not only the extremely provocative material that she used – real human blood as opposed to a visually similar alternative – it is also her use of space – creating a deliberate connection between the seats of power in Guatemala and the spilling of blood. Through the combination of materials, symbolism, and rooting in space (leading to the Presidential Palace), she evoked the past and tied it to the present and directly to Rios Montt.

As well as being performed, “¿Quien Puede Borrar Las Huellas?” was also recorded and photographed, and these images were spread widely, along with the message that Rios Montt’s candidacy was objectionable. Galindo was especially keen that these images were extensively shared, in order to remind as many people as possible of the violence Rios Montt was responsible for.

The people, with little access to education, are easy to mislead with promises and the little gifts that politicians hand out during election campaigns. The official party, to which Ríos Montt belonged and belongs, made a huge effort and had all the power to reach the Guatemalan minorities, who had difficulty connecting the actual Ríos Montt (the presidential candidate) to the past dictator-president who was guilty of the greatest crimes against their own people, their own blood. Every effort was necessary, any help at all, it was all needed to shout out the truth, by whatever means.[16] Galindo’s bloody footprints forced those who saw them to recognize the implications that forgetting the past could have for the future.

Daniel Hernandez-Salazar: Street Angels

On April 26th 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi, the director of Guatemala’s Historical Memory Project, was assassinated. This was just two days after he had presented the results of the investigation organized by the Catholic Church into Guatemala’s violent past. Daniel Hernandez-Salazar was inspired by this action to start a project known as ‘Street Angels’, in which posters of angels were plastered on the walls of Guatemala City. In 1997, Hernández-Salazar had created a triptych entitled “No Veo, No Oigo, Me Callo” (I Don’t See, I Don’t Hear, I Remain Silent). “The first angel, hands covering his mouth, cannot speak. The second angel, hands covering his eyes, cannot see. The third angel, hands covering his ears, cannot hear."[17] In 1998 Hernandez-Salazar had created an additional lone image, which he then added to the triptych to create an entirely new sequence of pictures. The image was entitled “So That All Shall Know”, and when combined with the triptych created a series entitled “Esclarecimiento” (“Clarification”). “The fourth angel, hands cupped around his mouth so that the trumpet of truth may resound, shatters the silence and unleashes the forces of memory."[18] These images were later chosen to decorate the front covers of the four volumes of Guatemala’s Historical Memory Project, “Guatemala: Never Again”.

Hernandez-Salazar published “Clarification” as a poster, as a promotional piece for the publication. The poster was hung throughout the country, but it was the fourth angel that captured the public imagination and communal spirit. It ‘became an icon that people appropriated, an icon that would come to represent the rejection of impunity, the demand for historical clarification, and the struggle for social justice.'[19] After the Bishop was assassinated, a demonstration was organized two days later: the image of the fourth angel, ‘So That All Shall Know’ was carried by many of the people taking part. Hernandez-Salazar stated:

“That moment for me was very important because I realised how important it is to express yourself in a public space. And I think I became aware in that moment, that the collective unconscious dwells in the streets, in the public space, not in the museums. So if you want to really address a lot of people or society, you have to go to the streets. Or to public spaces."[20]

It was after this, that Hernandez-Salazar began to produce multiple copies of the image, on a larger scale, in order to paste them onto the streets of Guatemala City; this was ‘Street Angel’.

“So That All Shall Know” was transformed by the reactions of the people involved in the demonstration, and Hernandez-Salazar’s subsequent decision to use it to indicate spaces of violence, from a work of art to a symbol and a statement of both remembrance and confrontation. Hernandez-Salazar installed these large reproductions in areas around Guatemala City that were associated with the conflict and its protagonists; opposite a military base; on the outside wall of military headquarters; and in front of the monument to the Heroes of Independence:

I selected the spaces because they were connected with Gerardi and his struggle, or connected with the perpetrators of the war, or connected with the countries, particularly the US, who supported the coup d’état against Arbenz in the fifties, and after that, coup d’état was like the start point of all the repression, and the war, and the abuse that came after, so I always remember the responsibility the US has here, so I install the angel next to, for example, the US embassy, as close as I could... and then next to military bases, next to Gerardi church.[21]

Through these installations, Hernandez-Salazar claimed spaces around the city, forcing remembrance of the violence, but also of the lack of action following its conclusion. Although the spaces that the images were placed in were connected with the violence, the presence of the image reinforced the past of that space, and in doing so appropriated it; the military base was transformed from being just a military base, to a powerful marker of the site and space where violence had occurred, and where perpetrators still lurked. As Miguel Flores Castellanos notes, ‘the location of the artistic action connect[ed] place with history, memory with remembrance; the angel insists that nothing is forgotten.'[22] The symbolism that was, and still is, entrenched in the ‘So That All Shall Know’ image, meant that the pasts of these sites were evoked and made visible, and prominently so. For those who knew the importance of the image, and what it had come to represent, its appearance at locations around the city created new spaces of memory, markers of past events, associated with the conflict.

Fernando Traverso: Bicycle Silhouettes

Fernando Traverso grew up in Rosario, Argentina, under the regime of the military junta. In the late 1970s, more than 350 people were disappeared from Rosario; some of whom were members of the Argentine resistance. Members of the resistance frequently used bicycles as a means of transportation; when they were ‘disappeared’, often all that remained of them would be their abandoned bicycle, propped up against a wall, outside a home, or against a curb. ‘Often the first evidence that someone had been taken away was finding his abandoned bicycle.'[24] Traverso based many of his pieces around this image of the abandoned bicycle: it serves as a powerful image from the past, not only reminding the viewer of the violence inherent at the time, but also of that disappeared persons absence. Traverso’s first project that made use of this image of the bicycle was the stenciling of 350 bicycles around the streets of Rosario. The bicycle silhouettes were sprayed painted onto the walls of the city and they.[25] appeared almost as shadows, and served as a metaphor for absence. By positioning these silhouettes as if the bicycles have just been left, Traverso makes the questions about their owners’ whereabouts, their time of absence and possible return, highly contemporaneous. He thereby also powerfully alludes to the inconclusive and open-ended nature of the disappearances themselves, and the multitude of uncertainties that were originally connected with them. The silhouettes remind viewers of the lack of information and secrecy that still surrounds the disappeared to this day and also reinforce the liminal position of the disappeared: suspended between living and dead, and physically undiscovered.

Traverso’s work is similar to Galindo’s and Hernandez-Salazar’s, in that they all make significant use of space. By re-creating these bicycles around Rosario, Traverso reminds those who see the silhouettes that the disappearances occurred there. They certainly are a well-known phenomena that took place throughout Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’, however, they were also a form of violence that this city experienced firsthand, in various, concrete spaces and places. This distinction should not be disregarded if “A site’s catalysing potential is latent [...] until some person or group [...] calls attention to and interprets what happened there."[26] By creating these silhouettes, Traverso is doing just that: he is drawing attention to the past violence that happened in these particular spaces, and subsequently evokes memories of Argentina’s violent past and challenges official narratives. Doing so, he also evokes memories of a violent landscape that once existed.

Although these are just a few examples of street art from Guatemala and Argentina, they clearly demonstrate that the strength of street art as a means of evoking memory within a population lies in its ability to be seen and accessed by a wide cross section of people. Street art has the advantage of being located in a public space, where it may be sought out, but more often than not is stumbled across accidentally as individuals pursue their daily lives. As a more genuinely democratic form of expression, dialogue and intervention, in street art “[...] the real control over messages comes from social producers."[27] It is also effective at evoking memory due to its ability to pinpoint locations or spaces where episodes of violence previously occurred. This is easy to forget in a city where violence played out, especially if there are no significant buildings that are associated with violence, as is the case in Guatemala, or even, as with Argentina, where smaller incidents of violence occurred at a community level. Street art, when positioned and placed with intent, can alter how individuals view a city and its particular spaces: populations begin to remember, or notice again, the spaces in which violence occurred.

Kate Bailey is currently a PhD candidate at the Department of History, Lancaster University, where she researches memorialization in Guatemala.

[1] Alfonso Daniels, ‘Argentina’s Dirty War: The Museum of Horrors’, The


[2] There is debate regarding when the ‘Dirty War’ began, with some arguing that it started well before the military junta came to power, during the instability following Juan Perón’s removal from power in 1955.

[3] Paul H. Lewis, Guerrillas and Generals: The ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina (Praeger Publishers, Westport, 2002), p.3

[4] Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the legacies of torture (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998), pg.5

[5] Lewis, Guerrillas and Generals (Westport, 2002), pg.2

[6] Anil Mundra, ‘Solving the Dirty War’s Mysteries’,

[7] Piero Gleijeses (1989), ‘The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 21, pp 453-480

[8] Stephen M. Streeter, Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954-1961 (Center for International Studies, Ohio, 2000), p.23

[9] Streeter, Managing the Counterrevolution, (Ohio, 2000), p.245

[10] Lauren Carasik, ‘The Long Arc of Justice in Guatemala’, Aljazeera English, (Accessed 25/04/2015)

[11] The Center for Justice and Accountability, ‘Guatemala: Silent Holocaust’, (Accessed 25/04/2015)

[12] Tim Weiner, ‘Guatemalan Voters Reject a Former Dictator’, The New York Times (November 10th 2003),

[13] Francisco Goldman, ‘Regina José Galindo’, BOMB- Artists in Conversation,

[14] Written Interview Regina José Galindo, conducted by Katherine Bailey, 11/02/2015

[15] Ara H. Merjian, ’ Regina José Galindo: Piel de Gallina’, Frieze,

[16] Francisco Goldman, ‘Regina José Galindo’, BOMB- Artists in Conversation,

[17] W. George Lovell, Angels, Conquests, and Memory in ‘So That All Shall Know’ (University of Texas Press, 2007), p.6

[18] W. George Lovell, Angels, Conquests, and Memory in ‘So That All Shall Know’ (University of Texas Press, 2007), p.6

[19] Miguel Flores Castellanos, Icon of Memory, in ‘So That All Shall Know’ (University of Texas Press, 2007), p.25

[20] Oral Interview Daniel Hernandez-Salazar (2014) Interviewed by Katherine Bailey, 24th October.

[21] Oral Interview Daniel Hernandez-Salazar (2014) Interviewed by Katherine Bailey, 24th October.

[22] Miguel Flores Castellanos, Icon of Memory, in ‘So That All Shall Know(University of Texas Press, 2007), p.26

[23] Katherine Hite, Politics and The Art of Commemoration: Memorials to Struggle in Latin America and Spain (Routledge, Oxon, 2012), p.90

[24] North Dakota Museum of Art, ‘The Disappeared’ (Milan, 2006), p. 58

[25] Hite, Politics and The Art of Commemoration (2012), p.90

[26] Rebecca J. Atencio, Memory’s Turn: Reckoning with Dictatorship in Brazil (University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2014), p.103

[27] Chaffee, Political Protests and Street Art (1993), p.4

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