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On Display

This week the Art Program hosted a Noche de Gala (Gala Night) – an art and music exhibition. The event was held at El Sitio, an art gallery and performance space in Antigua. El Sitio is itself both a venue and an association aimed at advancing cultural diversity and sustainable development. Founded in 1993, it seeks to promote cultural, artistic and social development in Guatemala. Its goal is to be an organizing hub for Central America, promoting cultural development, participatory democracy, creativity, innovation, intercultural dialogue and artistic expression in the region. El Sitio lives up to this mission by remaining incredibly supportive of NGOs, and is constantly having some form of event or benefit for a local organization.

El Sitio is a gorgeous venue. After walking past the on-site cafe, patrons are welcomed into the performance space, with a beautiful dark wood stage and room for at least 100 audience members. Beyond the performance space is a huge open gallery with vaulted ceilings and a terra cotta floor. Beside the gallery is a beautiful open garden. El Sitio pledges to make its performance and gallery spaces open to Guatemalan artists, particularly young Guatemalan artists who use any art form: painting, sculpture, photography, theater, dance, music – you name it.

El Sitio lived up to their pledge in a big way with Safe Passage’s students. This week, we had a huge visual art exhibit and performing art show, one night only, at El Sitio. All of the students involved and their families got dressed up and came out in bus chartered just for them. The night was absolutely magical.

When everyone arrived, we gathered in the main performance space. The room was overflowing with Safe Passage families, volunteers, staff and a host of others there to show their support. The event began with remarks by our Programs Director, the Art Program Coordinator and a featured workshopper. Then the meat of the night began, kicked off with a concert by six guitar students. A dedicated music teacher, Mike McCarthy, teaches guitar lessons Basico and Diversificado (middle and high school) students who sign up, and general music classes to the younger kids. These six students took the stage in pairs to show off all they’d learned in their lessons. They were obviously nervous, the night had an incredibly important air about it, but after a moment, they forgot everything else, got into the music, and played like the absolute rockstars that they are. Although I’m not involved in the music program, I was so proud watching them perform on stage. Seeing how far they’ve come, from only being able to pluck out a few notes to strumming beautiful songs (and singing!) in front of all of their friends and family was a transcendent moment.

After the wonderful guitar performances, it was time to move into the gallery to see the visual art on display. The art department did a workshop with the photography students on exploring their surroundings. Each student was given a camera and took pictures around their neighborhood. From the images that were taken, each student chose five to feature at the exhibit. The photos were printed and framed, and were hung with a narrative by the student about their challenges and dreams. The photography students spent the night talking with attendees answering questions about their photos and their lives.

Also on display were portraits of the parents. There were two sets of portraits. Portraits of the mothers were done through The Madre Project. Guest artist Antonia Munroe from Maine led a workshop with mother/child pairs to create autobiographical collage portraits of the mom. Art Program Coordinator, Carlyn Wright-Eakes, led the fathers through another workshop where they altered digital images of themselves and superimposed words that they wanted to use to express themselves and their personalities. Some of the words the fathers used to describe themselves included: educated, strong and loving. These are words that ring true with the fathers in our Adult Literacy program, but, sadly, can be quite uncommon in other families in the neighborhood, where female-headed households are the norm.

In addition to being an exhibition of the students’ work, the night was also a fundraiser for the art program. The art program flies through materials running their classes and workshops, and is in constant need of new paint, brushes, paper, guitar strings and other supplies. The photography students gave permission for prints of their photographs to be sold. A few other items were also available. The photos, especially, flew out the door, and helped raise quite a bit of money much-needed money for the art program. That being said, I was selfishly unhappy about this fact because I wasn’t able to get one of the photos. They were absolutely amazing.

It seems small, but it was really important to me to have the families there in Antigua for a night. I come and go from Antigua every single day; it’s as much a part of my life as being in Zone 7 at work. However, the students never get to see what my environment is like, so there’s always a disconnect there. They are constantly sharing their world with me, and it felt really good to finally be able to share a part of my world with them. It made me feel like the students were able to connect with me and the other volunteers on a deeper level.

It was palpable all night what a tremendous experience this was for the students and their families. They all got to get all dressed up, even professional hairdressers and make up artists came in to help them get ready, and spend a night in a fancy gallery in Antigua. Some of our students have been to Antigua for Safe Passage activities before, but it really remains a place outside of their reach. Most of our students don’t get outside of the neighborhood except on Safe Passage-sponsored events. The opportunities that we provide for them to get out and see other parts of their country are genuinely relished and appreciated. Coming to Antigua is a true experience for our families. You could see they felt important being in that environment.

It seems to me that this could be a reason why so much negativity is propagated in a place like the dump community. When you are literally surrounded by garbage, people treat you like that’s what you are. When you are constantly bombarded with that message, you can’t help but internalize it. When only negative messages come your way, whether they be direct or inferred, you start to lose sight of the fact (or, for the kids who grow up there, maybe never gained the vision in the first place) that you just might be worth more than this.

We’ve all had times in our lives when we’re stuck in a rut. It feels like nothing goes right and things just seem to keep spiraling downward. Negativity feeds negativity. However, the same is true for positivity. I don’t think this is a simple answer to breaking the cycles in our neighborhood. No, smiles can’t fix everything. But, by continuing to surround our families by positive energy, I believe it has started to take hold in them. Our students believe in themselves. Yes, they get down sometimes, just like we all do. But, on the whole, they have developed broader visions for themselves.

I see the difference between our families and other families all the time. You can spot a Safe Passage kid walking down the street a mile away. They walk just a little bit taller and with just a little more purpose. A lot of it has to do with the confidence that we are able to help them build. And, let me tell you, the Noche de Gala built a LOT of confidence.

This week I saw peace in a little bit of showing off.

More about Shannon Malone…