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Portraits of Strength

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Issue: 36 Section: Arts Geography: Latin America, Quebec Montreal, Guatemala Topics: visual arts

May 4, 2006

Portraits of Strength

The women of Panzós

by Moira Peters

Women are leading the demand for justice in Panzós. photo of Marlon Garcia Arriaga's painting: Pedro Sousa
Panzós, Guatemala – May 29, 1978. Early morning. Eight hundred people gather in the town square. Their land, homes and crops have been expropriated by the Guatemalan government and given to the International Nickel Company (INCO) in mining concessions.

9 a.m. The mayor of Panzós arrives to address the crowd. He makes a sign and the military, which has the square surrounded, opens fire. 35 people are executed and 40 are injured. Those trying to escape in boats drown in the Polochic River. In total, 53 die.

May 31, 1978.
Headline in leading Guatemalan newspaper: "Mob of two thousand farmers attack military detachment at Panzós."

Montreal – May 18, 2005.
I am sitting in a small, bright room on the fourth floor of edifice Le Belgo. The floor-to-ceiling windows are open and I can hear the traffic on Ste-Catherine Street. The walls bristle with huge portraits, columns of photographs, and typed banners that document a Canadian mining company's implication in the massacre in Panzós, Guatemala in 1978.

Marlon Garcia Arriaga is a short, impeccably dressed young man. His exhibit is titled "Panzós, 25 ans plus tard..." The Guatemalan painter and forensic photographer explains why he has brought his artwork to Montreal.

"When the massacre happened, I was ten years old. At that time, state violence was intimidating, but this was the first time the army was unselective in its slaughter. Men, women and children were shot, clubbed and stabbed without reason. It was all over the papers for weeks. The teachers at my school were very left-wing; they pasted up news articles every day, all over the walls of our hallways.

"When I visited Panzós years later it was to photograph the exhumation of the victims of the 1978 massacre. I visited the town many times, and it occurred to me that I was amassing lots of information, and that I could possibly do something useful with it."

The massacre at Panzós may have been the paradigmatic act of violence in Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict, which officially ended in 1996 with the ratification of the Peace Accords. During the war, 200,000 people were killed or disappeared and 1.5 million displaced during a series of military dictatorships. The vast majority of the victims were indigenous subsistence farmers. Central to this time of violence was the control of land, coveted by foreign corporations for resources like bananas, sugar, nickel, and gold.

INCO, a Canadian Corporation that was recently given a failing grade by Report on Business magazine for corporate social responsibility, was the interest being defended when the population of Panzós was mown down by its own soldiers. This message comes through loud and clear in "Panzós, 25 ans plus tard..." and, seeing and reading the evidence in a cheery Montreal gallery, I feel the appropriate shame and outrage at what my people did to Marlon's people. Marlon focusses his lens on a different injustice, however; a more local bifurcation in the story he is compelled to articulate: the exclusion of women from documented history.

Dominating the exposition, 8x8 foot portraits, mostly of young women, glow in mellow orange and pink.

"My education was centred on the European painters of the 17th century. I studied the enormous paintings of Napoleon, for example. This was a way to pay homage to a great man - to do a big painting of him. Of course, I am Guatemalan, and so I prefer yellow and orange and blue to the greys and browns those European painters used." Marlon and I think this is funny.

"Do you know that when authorities or journalists wanted to quote witnesses to what happened in Panzós, they only ever asked men?

"Do you know that when I visited Panzós, I would take rolls and rolls of film? Hundreds of rolls of pictures I took at Panzós. And when they'd be developed, and I'd have the negatives laid out, all I saw were photos of women. Women, women, women, women, women!

"Women have the traditional right to ask compensation for the deaths of their husbands and sons and brothers. It is women who lead the demand for exhumations, reconciliation, and justice."

I turn my attention to the woman standing in the corner of room 312 with her chin in her hand. Her brown skin glows against the yellow tank-top tucked tight at her waist into her long heavy skirt. She stares at a tree's reflection in a lake that ripples where seeds fall into the water. Three crocodiles slide around each other at the edge of the lakeshore, and three hummingbirds break up the green-and-blue painting with their red wings outstretched. Among the crocodiles float tiny reflections: four military helicopters, their red lights flashing. The woman carries an empty bucket.

"A woman named Mama Maquin led the march in Panzós the day of the massacre. She was there with her daughter and grandson and granddaughter. Only the granddaughter survived. This is her..." Marlon points to the painting of a woman with high cheekbones, her black hair piled against the sky. "She is a leader in her community now."

By bringing us closer to the protagonists of his story, Marlon entices Canadians to appreciate and respect the people whose world we share. "Together, our histories make one history, but with two distinct faces. We are two peoples implicated in one genocide, with two distinct images of the opportunity to be human. Making who you are and who we are more visible will continue to be an essential theme of my art."

"Panzós, 25 Years Later...," Marlon's exhibition in English, was displayed at the Sky Dragon Community Development Co-operative in Hamilton, Ontario, April 12-23, 2006. A committee of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network hopes to bring "Panzós, 25 Years Later...," and the artist, to the Maritimes later this year.

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