By Sidd Joag
This past July, I traveled with a journalist, German Andino, and the subject of his new graphic novel, Pastor Daniel Pacheco. We visited Rivera Hernandez, a colony of 59 barrios located on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula and, statistically, one of the most violent urban areas in the world. For several years, Pastor Pacheco has been ‘cleaning up’ his barrio by mediating negotiations and ceasefire agreements between rival gangs, using his influence to accompany people to safely cross enemy turf.
It was dark out as we neared the turnoff into the barrio. I was told to roll down both windows in the back seat and German puts on the overhead light. We are to make ourselves clearly visible to the ‘flags,’ young gang members who patrol the borders of the barrio on bikes. When they see any unrecognized or unsolicited visitors in their territory, they immediately alert the ‘muchachos’ (their older counterparts) of the trespassors. Entering the barrio, you quickly make out the graffiti of MS13, who along with their main rival, 18th Street, control the vast majority of Rivera Hernandez. We were able to pass freely only because we were with the pastor.
Pastor Pacheco’s barrio appeared quiet and peaceful. This was unexpected considering the warnings I had received and the entry process. The relative security we enjoyed was the result of Pastor’s peacebuilding efforts and the respect he commands from the gangs. We pulled up in front of a large green house with roll down gates and a large side yard. I am told this house was used as a torture chamber by the gang. Two years prior, Andrea Abigail Argenal Martinez, a 13-year-old girl passing through the barrio, was thought to be a rival gang member. She was abducted and tortured — neighbors could hear her screams for three days — before she was murdered and buried in the backyard. This was a turning point for the pastor: he decided the violence had to stop.
Invoking the wrath of God, Pastor Pacheco forced the gang to abandon the house. He then began a ‘purging,’ first cleaning the blood-stained walls and then inviting youth from the community to play football in the yard. The hope was that, gradually, youth would see the house as a safe space. The pastor had brought us in to participate in this ‘exorcism through art making’.
German Andino has been traveling to Rivera Hernandez with the Pastor for the past two years, initially to gain access to gang members he needed to interview for various news outlets. However, after witnessing the process of community reclamation he began documenting the Pastor’s work itself. He felt committed to telling a story not just of poverty and horrific violence but of redemption and possibility.
His approach is ethnographic: visiting the barrios regularly, always with Pastor Pacheco, to gradually becoming recognizable to the locals. The process is labor intensive, but has allowed him to carefully document fragments of personal stories and community history to piece together a cohesive narrative. Andino never uses cameras because of their tendency to be intrusive and revealing. Instead, he draws portraits of gang members who, excited to be captured in ink, are drawn into conversation.
At first, I was nervous, being an outsider and from the U.S. invited to work in a barrio whose current harsh reality is a direct result of U.S.’s War on Drugs. The dark history of the house was troubling as well.
How could Andino and I create images that would not undermine the brutal history of the house or those that dwelled in it? We decided not to paint figuratively or attempt to deliver a fixed message but instead add a new perspective to the space. We wanted to contribute to the larger cultural transformation the pastor had initiated. We wanted to ‘avenge’ Angela’s murder with color, form, composition and balance. Moreover, we wanted to create something that would invite questions and conversations as well as to encourage the community to consider creative forms of action.
Every day that we painted, neighborhood folk stopped and kept us company, sometimes with cups of coffee and tamales. Though Andino had visited the barrio on numerous occasions, he felt his interactions had been one-sided, ‘taking’ stories from the community but never leaving something behind. Our work together – an unlikely collaboration between an exorcist, an ethnographer and an artist — was the first such opportunity.
My initial hesitance abated as I spent more time in the barrio. Perhaps outside energy was needed for a community paralyzed by decades of habitual violence to begin the healing process. Abandoned houses, iron gates, razor wire, gang graffiti, dangling sneakers, stray dogs, and dilapidated roads are the landscape of the barrio. Without safe community spaces; constructive, life-affirming activities; and open, sustained access to the outside world, neighborhoods entrenched in violence and fear increasingly turn inwards. This limits their sense of possibility in effecting positive change in their immediate surroundings.
In isolated places like Rivera Hernandez, where the rule of law does not apply, creative expression offers a platform for new forms of communication within and between communities. Altering the visual landscape can serve as ‘primer’ for individual and collective imaginings of positive social change. Investing in the creative expression of communities at risk and the efforts of change-makers like Pastor Pacheco are possibly the best solutions.
Last week I received a photo of our work from German Andino. The text below read: “The house is full of people since we painted there.”
Sidd Joag is a NYC-based visual artist and works as a consultant with ArtistSafety.net (formerly freeDimensional) supporting artists, culture workers and communicators at risk globally.