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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Guayasamin and the suffering of Latin America (ive)

ECUADOR | Monday, 2 February 2009 | Views [7226] | Comments [2]

A Panel from Guayasamin´s Age of Anger

A Panel from Guayasamin´s Age of Anger

“It's such a shame how they treat their country.”  

I'm sitting on a bus in Colombia with an American couple in the seat behind Miral and I. There are never other Americans on the bus with us in Colombia. The wife in the couple reiterates, “It's such a shame.” We're driving a stretch of highway (which in Colombia is more similar to an average one-lane road in the United States) on the northern coast through what would be beautiful marshland – the kind you'd see in the Southern US. But there are big stretches of mass amounts of litter. Piles of plastic bags are everywhere. Not surprising – if you buy a gumball in Colombia they'll put it in a plastic bag for you and respond in disbelief if you say, “No necesario.” The piles of litter also include plastic bottles. Candy wrappers. Chip bags. Big piles of all of it. I remember seeing smaller piles of litter on the sides of highways as a young child growing up in New York – but such scenes are pretty non-existent in the US now. The woman is right. It is a shame. It is sad that this garbage is polluting what would be beautiful marshland. It is sad that plastic litter seems all too common throughout Colombia. Even on our gorgeous pilgrimage hike to the top of Cerro de Monserrate in Bogota, Miral and I found the path was startlingly littered with plastic refuse. But why the condescending intonation? “It's such a shame how THEY treat THEIR country.” As if to say, it's such a shame that these people are so primitive and ignorant to the fact that you shouldn't pollute your land.

Funny. Where did these “primitive people” get the idea that purchases should be placed in plastic bags in the first place, and not slipped into their hand-woven shoulder bags as is? Where did they get the idea that gaseoso (soda) is a better drink than hand-squeezed jugo de frutas (fruit juices – made from the sweetest of fruits - which, luckily, still abound on the sidewalks everywhere)? Why is it that they are switching from their traditional guayaba-paste Bocadillos candy wrapped in banana leaf (delicious, by the way) to candies that look and taste like the ones I grew up with? Why is it that they are passing by the plantain chips being fried fresh in the street for a bag of nacho flavored tortilla chips from the supermercado or big box store? This is what happens when “cultures” become “markets” for Western corporations and their products. And plastic garbage strewn about is what happens when it is much more profitable to sell the goods than to provide the technology to manage the consequences of the cultural shifts created by the lasered marketing.

I often think that the way the nations of the Northern Hemisphere treat the Southern nations is akin to the medieval King, directing the doings of a vast kingdom from behind the protected palace walls. There is concern for what the dictates mean to the precious ones within those walls, but (at best) ignorance and (at worst) disdain for what it means to those in the far reaches of the kingdom. Within the palace walls is modern civilization – outside are the barbarians who will never be civilized. As Kings mistreated their far-off subjects, so too does the North mistreat those who are outside of immediate range. In this information age in which so many of the barriers between civilizations and cultures have begun to be pierced, it is astonishing to me that this old, sad worldview seems to have reached global proportions. That it so pervades the Western/Northern mindset. “It's such a shame how they treat their country...”

This mindset opens the doors to even more excruciating consequences. When nations, cultures, peoples encounter horrors, we in the North continue to see them as primitive barbarians who have somehow brought their suffering upon themselves. When we see people rioting to obtain food, we easily blame backward or power-hungry home governments. When we see disease spread, we easily blame a lack of initiative to develop modern health care. When we see people committing genocides, we easily blame a lack of value for human life. This is true despite the fact that, of course, famines, plagues, and genocides are a part of our own, in some cases recent, history. Modern psychology explains this bizarre explanatory phenomenon as a Fundamental Attribution Bias – the tendency to see our own troubles as the result of external circumstances and to see the troubles of others as the result of their internal flaws; the truth of this bias has been replicated ad nauseum. Such rationalizations are incredibly self-protective, allowing us to avoid looking in the mirror at the history of how the West has related to the world. Raping and pillaging are words that are not too strong. When individual people are raped and robbed of their dignity, many will suffer posttraumatic stress responses and other forms of severely debilitating pathology – some to the point of vast changes in their personality. I have become intimately familiar with these effects in the abused and neglected children I've spent so much time with these past ten years. Rather than really explore the deep societal roots of this abuse and neglect, people prefer to explain away these problematic children as, “Kids who weren't raised right. What can you do but put them somewhere where they can't hurt anyone?” So why am I surprised to hear people respond in such overly simplistic ways to the problems of people in the Southern Hemisphere.

Anyone who has adopted such primitive ways for coping with the realities of the world will have them instantly pierced should they encounter the work of Oswaldo Guayasamin. On our first full day in Quito, Ecuador, after several days of bus travel from the Northern Colombia coast (and wonderful stops in Silvia and Popayan, Colombia), something drew Miral and I to a museum of his collection and his work – and to an accompanying center, La Capilla del Hombre – the Chapel of Man. I'm not sure why we went there our first day – Quito has so much to offer. We had found a great little hotel in Quito Historica. Quito's Old City has an indescribable aura that I instantly fell in love with – part Cartagena, part Jerusalem. I wanted to walk its narrow streets and explore its cathedrals, plazas, government buildings, and other gems that are on full display from everywhere in this rolling city. I also wanted to explore the Mariscal neighborhood in the Quito Moderna – the New City – described as a haven for international outdoor-minded people (In reality, read as: a haven for young Westerners with money to burn – the area ended up insanely catered to Americans and Europeans hitting the Andes, Amazon, and, of course the Galapogos. The fact that the place was dotted with English-language signs, Karaoke bars, multi-flat-screened TV sports bars, and both dance clubs and strip clubs gives you some idea...). The reality is that we went to the Guayasamin museums because they were not too far from the site of the orientation session we needed to attend for our Ecuador volunteer experience (which begins on Monday!) – but sometimes you know that the ostensible reason was just a way for the Universe to direct you somewhere you needed to be.

 We climbed several steep blocks to reach the first museum. Quito is built into the sides of several volcanoes – and built into is not an understatement, as the city ebbs and flows and curves with the natural contours of the hillsides in a way that makes a very modern city seem almost organic. Our introduction to the museum was ordinary enough. Apparently the artist had a large collection of Pre-Columbian and Colonial art, and the first two rooms displayed these pieces. English-speaking tour guides helped us develop an appreciation for what we were seeing – particularly the guide in the Colonial room who radiated her own fascination with and pride in the differences of the religious paintings in The Quito School, as compared to religious paintings from nearby Peru and far-away Europe. The Colonial room was filled with starkly contrasting sweetly loving homages to Mother Mary and her infinite compassion for the baby Jesus and the world, and extraordinarily gory crucifixes of the kind that could have inspired Mel Gibson in his movie making.

We (which by this point included our new friend Tyler, a paragliding enthusiast from Portland, Oregon, we'd met during the guided explanation in the first room – super nice guy) then entered a room of Guayasamin's own art. The first piece as we entered was a series of about twelve paintings hung close together in two rows. Each panel depicted almost skeletally drawn humans in various states of despair – each one containing simply a face and hands offering various expressions. Some hands reached out accompanied by an anguished face – others covered faces of fear – others seemed numb - and others simply seemed to plead. Taken together, the piece was mind stopping. Stunning in its ability to capture through oddly-shaped caricatured drawings of people, the intensity of human anguish. I later found out that the series is entitled La Edid De La Ira – the Age of Anger. The panels were intended to reflect individual experiences of the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi concentration camps, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the operations of the CIA in Central and South America, and the tortures and genocides committed by dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.

In a juxtaposition paralleling the Colonial room we´d just exited, a few pieces further into this room were depictions of human embraces – most of them between mother and child. They were also drawn in odd-shaped caricatures, with most of the people portrayed having two sides to their face, each with different coloration and shadowing. These pieces were equally intense in their ability to capture human emotion – this time, the incredible preciousness of love shared between human beings. Each one of his pieces was utterly magnetizing – confronting the viewer with pieces of themselves and of their own experiences that seemed impossible for another human being to both know so intimately and be able to reflect so accurately. I looked around – Miral still stood in dumbfounded disbelief before the first piece. Tyler was snapping shots of another piece as he exclaimed, “Wow! This is so intense.”

Who was this artist? Who could create these pieces? I hadn't read anything about the artist going into the exhibits. But the question arose almost instantly after beginning to return from the all-encompassing world of his art. Almost as if on cue, Miral handed me a flyer about Oswaldo Guayasamin. The basics. Guayasamin was born in Quito in 1919 to a family of modest means. His mother died in his youth and the large family experienced severe poverty. He was told by school teachers that his fascination with art over knowledge would cause him to never amount to anything. His father was extremely disappointed that Oswaldo did not pursue a career in medicine. He experienced extreme violence in his early life in Quito, including the death of a school friend to a stray bullet during a period of unrest. Over the course of his early life, he experienced the Depression of the 1930s, the Mexican Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War. He decided that no particular political party was correct in these conflicts and crises, but that poor people were oppressed and suffered in all of them. He dedicated his life to solidarity with oppressed peoples worldwide, to fighting for an integrated Latin America, and to Peace. He completed a degree in fine arts and won many, many awards for his works.

As  he was nearing the end of his life, Guayasamin began work on La Capilla del Hombre, which is located a few blocks from the sight of the first museum. He was also an architect, and he designed the space – including the profound dome which steals one's attention on entry, depicting suffering peoples reaching for a central sky-light. (He was also a jewelry designer, sculptor, and poet - he may be most famous for having written, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I saw a child with no feet.”)

His hope with La Capilla del Hombre was to pay tribute to the human being. He never saw its completion. Within it, he included paintings from his three main phases of work – the age of anger (all black and white pieces expressing grueling suffering); the age of hope (no less painful, but with color added); and the age of tenderness (a late-life reflection on the uniquely powerful love of mothers for children). Within this temple, he has captured the shared human experience of suffering and love in its most extreme forms. The feelings evoked by his painting of a mother desperately holding out a starving child are almost a summary of the experience.  

Guayasamin felt that there was a strong bond between the peoples of Latin America, Africa, and Asia in their uniquely profound suffering, and focused the works on these groups. A series of three panels depicting a Latin American child, an African child, and an Asian child are beautifully heart-breaking. (He certainly could have included the Native minorities of the North American and Australian continents in that group, as well as certain European groups, like the Romanis. Notably, the only European in the art on display is a representation of Jewish suffering.) But his focus was quite clearly on the long history of suffering of the Latin American peoples – from the days of brilliant civilizations being fully destroyed by the Spanish, to the modern tragedies of dictatorship and catastrophic US manipulation.

Visiting La Capilla del Hombre is like visiting Yad Vashem - Israel's Holocaust memorial. You can't leave without tears in your eyes, pain in your heart, and a mind blown open in wonderment at this peculiar situation known as human history. From Buddhism I have learned deeply the lesson that my own personal pains provide profound opportunity to know as my own the agonies of others – to not just sympathize, but to have some potential to fully realize that “my” heart of sadness is one and the same as “their” hearts of sadness. So, as a human with the agonizing and atrocious sufferings of the Jewish people embedded in my bones from a lifetime of exposure to stories and images, I walked from La Capilla del Hombre with a deepened sense of kinship with the people whose land I am currently exploring, a sense of unity with the most marginalized and most beaten of Life's children, and desperate appreciation that there was never an Oswaldo Guayasamin, M.D.

It is an aching shame how we treat this wondrous blessing of precious human existence.




Well, I don't know where this woman was in Colombia, perhaps it is just Bogota, but I have been several times in Medellin and you can literally eat of the streets. Even near the Metro-Cable where the stratus 1 people live is clean down every street. These people , I believe, really care about their city. I have been down the roads to Cartago and Hardin, raods to Parke del Cafe and an amusement park I can't remember the name of now and nowhere did I see any bags floating down the streets, or plastic bottles lingering on the side of the roads. I remember commenting that some of these cities and their people could teach us Americans a thing or two about being clean. I mean, if anyone can take the word clean for granted, it's the Americans. We have street sweepers, so why not throw your wrappers in the street, if the wind doesn't blow them away somewhere, the sweepers will get them, eventually.

  D.J.Thompson Jul 10, 2010 11:41 PM


A beautiful, thoughtful essay, thank you. Just a minor addition. In the last line of the second paragraph, you mention the suffering caused by the Spanish and "the modern tragedies of dictatorship and catastrophic US manipulation." Let's be clear: the dictatorships of Latin America were CREATED by the U.S. in concert with oligarchies and multinational corporations. That IS the "manipulation" as you call it. Pointing out the U.S. role in Columbia and Latin America's miseries adds a profound irony to the theme of your piece that reveals so well the attitudes so many U.S. citizens have toward Latin America, one sadly uninformed by their own government's role in the atrocities.

  Ann Nelson Aug 14, 2018 7:03 AM

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