Wall Murals, Conflict, and War: Preliminary Thoughts by Bill Rolston

An article I wrote originally Published by Rodeemos el Diagolo

A conversatorio held by Rodeemos el Diálogo at the University of Los Andes

19 October 2015

Professor Bill Rolston from the University of Ulster talk to ReD about political murals at the University of Los Andes. Bill, now retired, spent 35 years lecturing on sociology and transitional justice. Beginning in 1981 he took an interest in political murals as he liked how one could take a complex political idea and make it recognizable. He says he loves the art even if he hates the politics.

A lot of his interest is centered in his home country of Northern Ireland, but he has also studied street art in Chile, Gaza, Iran, and other countries. The Leverhulme Trust is supporting his investigation of street art in Colombia and he has now done research in several Colombian cities.

Before moving onto specific images, he qualified that graffiti was not as important to him as art. Academics are more attracted by the explicit messages found in art rather than intricate “tags” of graffiti artists; “old lefties” such as himself need things to be explicit.

He gave examples of murals with clear political messages around Bogotá, including one that had the number of victims of forced displacement and another with victims of the UP (Patriotic Union leftist party) as well as several images found in and around the National University. However he found the art of indigenous cultures in the Candelaria less authentic. He said the “exoticism” of these was more pronounced than the politics.

He finished Bogotá by admitting that his rejection of graffiti doesn’t work in Bogotá. Street artists in Bogotá have a reputation throughout Colombia of having it easy. Bogotá hasn’t had the massacres –its artists do politics from a distance. However, Bogotá is the only city he found in which a grafitero had been killed. Diego Felipe Becerra was 16 and was shot by a policeman who claimed he thought Diego had been armed robber.

We then moved to Cali. Bill displayed a famous mural by Museo Libre de Arte Publico de Colombia which had series of naked women outside a subway station. The diversity of the women was seemingly saying that although women are not all the same –don’t just “throw them in as one group” – they all still have equal rights. However, Bill used this opportunity to point out how murals can sometimes become a “white noise”. Of the 20,000 people who walked by that mural every day, how many of them would pick up on that message of diversity and equal rights?

We began Buenaventura with a picture from the humanitarian space of Puente Nayero. After a brief history of this humanitarian space Bill showed an enormous mural displaying the history of Buenaventura. From there we went to Toribio; Bill said it was his favorite spot for street art. Inside the town, with its links to the Nasa indigenous people, he found indigenous murals to be political as opposed to the exoticism of Bogotá. There were examples of indigenous resistance with corn as a central symbol.

While there weren’t many murals In Mocoa, there were some supported by women’s rights groups. Bill contrasted that with Barrancabermeja, where he found murals more influenced by the struggle between unions and paramilitaries. Cartagena was quickly passed over, with very little murals of note, to Mampujan where he found political messages related to paramilitary violence. Every city in Colombia has a unique political situation, and therefore the political murals are very particular to their city.

We finished in Medellin, which has a thorough influence of hip-hop. While it may appear at first to be a smaller version of Bogotá, it is a different place to work. As there is a greater level of paramilitary presence in Medellin, the graffiteros need to be a bit more discreet than in Bogotá. Here is an example from Comuna 13, which had suffered Operación Orión:


We then started a vivid discussion. The first question was on similarities and differences between Colombia’s street art and that of Norther Ireland’s. Bill’s conclusion is that every country is different –even cities within Colombia are different. The politics of each context determines what street art appears. The one common factor is that political murals often deal with memory –a fact specifically pronounced in Colombia.

There was a question on his mobility within Colombia, and he praised the help and support of Colombian academics, without which he would not have been able to do this project. We also talked about local government’s relationship with street artists, and how there was some support in Bogotá after the death of Diego. Another member asked about anti-North American murals in Colombia to which Bill replied he couldn’t find much specific anti-North American murals.

Another participant asked: how do we learn to “read murals?” Bill’s response was simple: you learn from the people who are able to read them. It centers in symbols. For example, in Gaza the most common symbol is a key. The keys represents keys to homes of Palestinian villages displaced by Israel. The key, therefore, represents memory, repression, and the hope of returning to use the keys again.

Another posed the question if murals had changed in Northern Ireland after the peace agreement had been signed, and if he had noticed any changes in Colombia. Had there been a pivot to the future? While in Colombia he hasn’t seen anything, Bill urged us not the think literally. The same symbols appear during and after conflict, but their meaning becomes redefined. He gave the example of Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland, whose image was transformed from “support the war” to “we haven’t given up on Bobby Sands, come with us (into the peace process)”.

We briefly touched on murals opposing the peace process, or if there was graffiti of the right. While graffiti is normally associated with the left, you can find right-wing graffiti. The dividing line between victims and perpetrators isn’t always clear; often, the perpetrators feel, or have felt, victimized in some way. Should they be allowed to put messages on the wall? Ultimately, from the conflict comes a new type of battle –a battle over memory, over victims, all taking place in public space.

This idea was expanded upon with a question on the weaknesses of the Northern Ireland peace process and how they might relate to Colombia. Perhaps the idea of memory wasn’t treated so thoroughly during the peace process, and for that reason conflict has been lingering. Perhaps, but Bill believes that normally when you move away from war you move towards a “meta war”, a war over memory. Therefore, we concluded that after a war, there is a conflict over what the conflict was about, and murals are one avenue through which this battle is displayed.


Servicio Nacional del Aprendizaje

My new English class in the Colombian vocational college SENA (Servicio Nacional del Aprendizaje) filed in and took their seats as my the educational coordinator introduced me. I had decided to teach English in the SENA because I wanted to work with a new population as well as move to Colombia. I was fine with my boss talking to them as long as she wanted- I always get nervous before first classes. She then stopped abruptly, gave me the floor, and left the room, leaving me alone with my new class.

I collected myself, took a second to analyze how I should proceed, and began to teach. Teaching is like a car accident- it happens fast- and you have little time to come up with what to say and how to say it. I utilized the whiteboard to communicate who I was, where I was from, and my teaching history before moving into my name game activity. After five minutes of waving my arms up and down, pointing at the stage, and miming a circle, I was able to corral the group of 18-21 year olds into a circle.

“Say your name and one English word that begins with the same letter,” I instructed and then received the ‘blank stare’ of incomprehension. “Teacher Tom,” I said to demonstrate and the students let out an “Ohhhhhhhhhh,” which means, “at last I understand.” We had fun, all the students participated, and I was able to learn their names. The English classes at SENA are compulsory and I had been afraid I would find myself with unmotivated, undisciplined students. But they have been excellent.

I came to work for the SENA not only so I could continue my work as an English teacher in Latin America but also so I could work with a new population as I had previously only taught business English. The SENA was created in 1957 on the heels of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s military government and at the dawn of the Frente Nacional and was charged with providing professional training for workers and youth in industry, business, mining, and ranching. Rodolfo Martinez Tono was head of SENA for its first seventeen years of existence which has since expanded into fields such as biotechnology, agribusiness, even fashion design while remaining 100% free for students. While the SENA is open to all Colombians, most students come from lower socio-economic levels and are between the ages of 17-24.

A high school diploma is required for enrollment into the different training options. These which include technico, a year-and-a-half program, technologico, a two year program, and complementarios, which are short term programs. In 2014 SENA enrolled 7 million students, 19.8% of all higher education in Colombia, although only 1 million of those were enrolled in face-to-face training classes while the remaining 6 million had online courses or short term programs.

There are 116 SENA “centers” throughout Colombia, and are present in every department (province). Each center has a focus, such as gastronomy or hotel management, and all centers have autonomy from each other. I work in the Centro de Electricidad, Electronica, y Telecomunications (Center of Electricity, Electronics, and Telecommunication) in a SENA complex in Bogotá called the Complejo Sur (South Complex). The Complejo Sur houses three different SENA centers and each center has its own independent administration.

Apart from training programs, SENA provides continuing education classes for private businesses, helps students find work, and has various national and international allies. SENA has also created Empleadad to aid vulnerable population in Colombia including those affected by the armed conflict between the FARC guerrillas and government.

SENA is taking part in a government initiative to raise English levels in Colombia with the “volunteer teachers” program being one aspect of this initiative. An organization called Volunteers Colombia (VC) helps with logistics. What is today VC started in 2009 when Luis Enrique de Brigard and his organization “Off Bound Adventures” brought five volunteers to teach English on Baru Island. Brigard, along with Pablo Jaramillo, and Pedro Linares, wanted to provide quality English education to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it. Jaramillo told us at our first day of orientation about when he met with Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia. At this meeting, Jaramillo claimed he could bring over 130 English teachers to Colombia- a logistical challenge- but by 2014 Volunteers Colombia achieved this goal and has continued its project into 2015.

I have two two-hour classes that meet five days a week. Classes are quite large with one having thirty-one students and the other having twenty-two but we have a good time and those who want to learn are learning. Last week we worked on the prepositions ‘in, on, at’ for time and place and after the students made an itinerary for a fictional trip to NYC. Students always ask me to give instructions  in Spanish but I remain firm, speak slowly, meet their eyes so I know they are paying attention, and with the proper combination of gestures and words they understand- communicative success in English.

My students don’t let me get away that easy, however. One of my students’ names is Harly with the ‘r’ in his named is slightly trilled and the trilled ‘r’ still gives me problems. Harly drills me for pronunciation of his name in the same way I drill them for English pronunciation of new vocabulary. When they discovered my ignorance of El Chavo del 8, a Mexican comedy famous throughout Latin America, they assigned me a research project and I had to give them a full report in Spanish.


Inflation in Argentina

When I moved to Argentina in February of 2013 my friend who was already living there, Cody Laplante, told me to bring as many dollars as I could as once there I would be able to trade my dollars on the street for a higher exchange rate than at the bank.I had trouble explaining it to other people as I didn’t really understand it at the time. Anyone new to doing business or living in Argentina can be easily confused by Argentina’s complicated financial situation.

Before buying pesos on the streets of Buenos Aires for the first time I paced back and forth in the bedroom of my hostel, giving myself pep talks and pumping myself up practicing the Spanish phrases I would need. I had heard of people getting ripped off with counterfeit pesos and as my Spanish was still fresh I knew I would be an easy target. Cody went with me and introduced me to his peso guy named Diego who gave me a smile and asked where I was from, if I liked Argentina, etc., building that false sort of friendship salesman build. Peso salesman line the tourist section of Florida Street- “Cambio. Cambio. Dolares, Reales, Euros. Cambio.” If you look you can always find a better deal but I went to Diego because I knew him and knew he wouldn’t rip me off. Every time I went to change money he would say “hard day yesterday, rates dropped again” with all the sincerity of someone who sells blackmarket pesos to gringos but as I was getting two or three pesos to the dollar more than the official exchange rate I didn’t complain too much.

I’ve bought pesos in the back rooms of malls on Florida street, at the tops of hotels, I’ve been led through mazy buildings, always expecting trouble but never finding it. I checked the watermark of every AR$100 peso note always hoping I wouldn’t have to confront someone about counterfeits. When I arrived in Argentina the official rate was about 5 pesos to the dollar and the black market or ‘blue dollar’ rate was about 7 pesos to the dollar. The blue dollar was hardly black market- the ‘blue rate’ was often printed in local newspapers.

The Argentinean president Christina Kirscher had made it nearly impossible for Argentinean citizens to buy dollars after her re-election in 2011. The country had started to feel inflationary pressure in 2010, running as high as 20% and she put a lock on buying dollars to prevent capital flight. While the government wouldn’t acknoledge an inflation problem- painful memories of the hyperinflation of the ’80’s and the default in 2001 cause panic- aggregate demand is too high and outstripping the production capacity of the Argentinean economy.

In 2014 inflation was between 31-34%. It was highest in the first part of the year but flattened out due to weak internal demand and the drop in oil prices. This year basic services, transport, and communications lead the price rise as opposed to food and drink, which hit low income people hardest.

I had been living in Cordoba, Argentina at my friend Machi’s house in February and March of 2014 and was helping in his convenience store. I stocked shelves and put prices on the various items. I would need to re-price unsold items and at times there would be 4,5,6,7 price tags stamped one on top of the other. Machi could only sigh and shake his head at the new inventory invoices as the incessant clack, clack, clack, of my price gun inflated prices further and further.

Machi took me in because he was a backpacker as well and liked having the company of foreigners. He has been to every country in Latin America as well as many European and Asian countries. He had been planning on going to France in 2015 to visit his friend Mike and learn French but with the state of the Argentinean economy he can’t afford to be away from his store. “I can’t leave, not now,” he tells me, “I need to be around to take care of this. I can’t leave my mother alone in charge of everything, not with the constant rise in prices.”

Before World War II, Argentina enjoyed steady  economic growth (6% per year every year for 43 years) based on European immigration and agriculture. However economic mismanagement and inflation have plagued Argentina since the 1850’s.

In 1989 Argentina experienced hyperinflation as high as 20,000%. The root cause of this inflationary crisis was the failure of the ultra-conservative military government of the late 1970’s to increase the efficiency of non-financial public sector enterprises, instead relying on cheap foreign credit. The rise in interest rates due to the global tightening of credit, combined with falling tax revenues due to a stagnating economy,  left Argentina in dire financial straights and unable to pay the interest on its debt. In response Argentina printed money which lead to inflationary pressures. The primavera plan and B.B. plan of the late  ’80’s tried to reign in inflation by devaluing the peso, negotiating price freezes with the private sector, and raising the prices of public-sector industries but it wasn’t enough to sufficiently lower interest rates to make the public sector solvent. They declared bankruptcy.

In the nineties, after stabilizing its currency, Argentina enjoyed a period of economic growth. They pegged their currency tot he dollar, liberalized their economy, and privatized certain state enterprises. In 1998 however, Brazil unpegged its currency from the dollar, making Brazilian exports more attractive and Argentina’s exports fell as a result. The economy stumbled, foreign investors lost confidence, interests rates soared, and in November of 2001 there was a run on Argentinean banks. In December of that year Argentina went though five presidents and defaulted on over 93 billion worth of debt.

The fallout was brutal. Argentina entered the worst recession in history with unemployment running as high as 20%. There was looting and political instability.

Argentina has been slow to settle with its creditors. By 2014 it had come to an agreement with 92% of them by refinancing its debt to levels that it can afford and allowing creditors to make a profit. The 8% who have not accepted the terms offered by Argentina are holding out, led by hedge-fund mogul Paul Singer. This year a judge ordered to stop a bank transfer from Argentina to its creditors who had agreed to the new terms until the holdout creditors were paid as well. Argentina is unable to do this for if it paid the holdout creditors it would have to give the creditors who had already agreed the same deal; this is the RUFO clause and was built into the agreement. Argentina once again default on its foreign debt.

I’m not defending Christina Kirscher but why is it that a judge in New York holds so much power of the future of millions of Argentinians? It is quite arbitrary that Argentina has to pay the holdout-creditors; it is equally logical that they should be forced to accept the terms the other 92% of creditors agreed to. The way things stand now, no one gets paid and Argentina will continue to spiral into further economic and financial stress.

Jesús María Festival Nacional 2014

In January of 2014, I was invited to travel with an Argentinian dancing school named Shajen to the Jesús María Festival Nacional de Doma y Folklore, a popular national event. They would be performing in a choreography with eight-hundred other dancers organized by a dancing company called Sentires– an amazing opportunity for this small Patagonian dancing school composed mostly of adolescents and a few older teachers. On the day of our departure, I loaded my duffle bag and backpack and took my seat on the bus for the two-day ride from San Julián, Santa Cruz (second-most southernmost provide of Argentina) to Jesús María, Cordoba (in the middle of the country next to Buenos Aires province).

The Festival Nacional de Doma y Folklore began in 1965 as an effort to raise money for local schools. A man named Enrique Jarbas Pereyra had proposed the idea of a doma festival, doma being similar to rodeo in that horse trainers tame bucking horses. Forty-five thousand people showed up to help raise over seven million pesos for ten participating schools and has since grown to a national institution attracting more than three-hundred thousand people as well as radio and television viewers.

In recent years the doma has come under fire from animal rights groups for the treatment of horses however the festival remains popular with the majority of the population. One of my English students had told me he watches the festival every year.

The Patagonian dancing school Shajen had been rehearsing for months in anticipation of the festival. The teachers had been waiting 30 years to perform in Jesús María and their students were already there. Shajen had raised enough money to rent a private coach bus for the two-day trek and I found my place next to Fernando who was my age and played guitar. Pablo, one of the founders of Shajen, got to the front and started giving ground rules for the journey, most of which I didn’t understand, but the one thing I did was “disfruta cada segundo,” (enjoy every second).

Pablo was an active leader completely devoted to Shajen. I remember we used to take mate and make asado and he would show me photos and tell stories of the “Shajen family” from years past. Andrea, Pablo’s wife and co-founder, was outside the bus rounding up the stragglers. She would always be at the front of the room at practice, demonstrating the choreography and encouraging her students. I learned a lot of Spanish listening to her post-practice pep-talks. It had been clear and straightforward Spanish no one would dare interrupt. Sharing in their devotion to Shajen, Pablo and Andrea made the perfect compliment. Pol was the teacher closest to Pablo after Andrea- I remember it was he who made the big thank you speech to Pablo at the end of the year dinner. Pablo and Andrea’s daughter Flor was there too and she had inherited her parents’ leadership as well as dancing abilities.

I fell asleep in the cold, barren, windy Patagonia and woke up in the corn fields and muggy air of Argentina’s heartland. Sleeping on the coach bus left a couple creaks in my neck but a hotel wasn’t an option so we spent the next two days playing practical jokes and music before arriving at a Gendarmerie (federal police) base at 4:30 am on a Tuesday morning. Metal wire bunk beds and gang showers with freezing cold water would be our housing for the next week but I was happy enough to get off that bus and we all took showers and crashed before practice the following afternoon.

Upon waking, I found the Gendermerie over-run with teenage dancers as the leaders of Sentires organized themselves. Practice got underway, and I found myself Shajen’s water boy. Although it was slightly humiliating running back and forth between the spigot and the field, the police and other staff giving me puzzled looks, I was content just having something to do. For the next week the dancers spent several hours in the morning and evening rehearsing the same two songs and field was so dry they kicked up and choked on huge dust clouds. Their sweat and dirt caked bodies were testaments to their devotion.

One day I tired of talking to people so I got my guitar and found a corner. The guitar attracted Fernando with his guitar and we started playing. This attracted even more people and the boy sitting next to me was watching me pretty close. I invited him to play and he started playing folklore. This swelled the crowed further and inspired some to start dancing solo step dances. They took turns dancing as a way to show off and celebrate their skills and the crowd grew to more than fifty people whooping and cheering and making a ruckus. Unfortunately we had to stop  because other dancers were trying to sleep and the impromptu gathering disbanded as quickly as it had formed.

Day one of the performances had arrived and I followed Pablo around backstage.  The hurried, strained voices and the nervous bustle of the dancers made the atmosphere taught with anticipation. It was just another performance- dancers putting on make up and costumes, making nervous jokes, laughing- but there was an explosive underlying  tension as everyone knew they were about to perform in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the Jesús María Festival Nacional de Folklore y Doma.

I didn’t want to get lost and I wasn’t sure where to go so I didn’t leave Pablo’s side. He turned to me and handed me a bag which I had seen him carrying this whole trip. “Don’t lose this. It has my families ID’s, paperwork for the festival, and a lot of money,” I had no idea Pablo felt close enough to me to entrust me with so much but of course I wanted to do whatever I could to help. Then Pablo walked away to take care of a million things leaving me to make my own way.

Which was fine, they danced great. The next day they woke early to practice because they were rehearsing the end of the choreography which included running an Argentinean flag to cover all eight-hundred dancers. I was taking mate with Pol as Pablo was walking by with one of the organizers of the festival saying they needed people to run the flag for that night’s performance. Pablo pointed at me and said, “He can do it,” and Pol started laughing calling me the Gringo Gaucho.

Now I was nervous too; I didn’t want to be the boludo that messed up the end of the choreography. Practice went well but that night backstage I had no idea what to do so I just waited by the flag for someone to come and give directions. Some guys who seemed to know what they were doing came and picked up the flag so I did too and we brought it onto the field. Walking in front of Argentina felt like everything was the same while simultaneously being aware that hundreds of thousands of people were watching. Our moment came and we ran the flag and it was over so fast I was holding the flag with all my might praying my butt wasn’t jutting out from beneath the flag ruining the whole production.

Participating in the festival was more stressful than your normal vacation but worth it. Everyone was going south the following day but I would stay in Cordoba to meet up with a friend before going back to Buenos Aires. I went to a Peña, an outdoor tent with live folklore and food, to have a last dinner with everyone. I ordered Locro, an Andean dish made of beans, corn, and potatoes. Locro has spread throughout all of Argentina and is often eaten on May 25 to celebrate the May revolution. It was salty and delicious. There was live and music so Flor and other young Shajen dancers were dancing in pairs, stamping their feet and twirling. They weren’t dancing for anything but pure joy and they were beautiful.

They bus dropped me off the next evening. I walked through the bus hugging everyone and found Pablo, Andrea, and Pol waiting for me outside. Pol gave me his baseball cap, I told Andrea how beautiful her family was, and Pablo gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had and told me to give his regards to my family in the United States. Pablo stood in the door of the bus and we watched each other until the bus drove out of sight.

The next day I was getting a coffee while waiting for my bus when I saw a newspaper with a picture of the dancers filling the front page, above and below the fold. I recognized several dancers from Shajen. Maybe Jesús María was as important to Argentina as the dancers had said. What an opportunity for them at such a young age. How awesome Pablo and Andrea’s dedication was to make this happen. I’m very happy they shared with me what they’ve been doing in their little corner of the world.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJsvOLKgE_4]