Street art seems like a perfect thing to celebrate this Cinco de Mayo.
Let’s be clear: Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, celebrating that country’s independence. I have not, in my last five years of traveling, gone to Mexico a single time.
Instead I’ve headed south, and in one case east of our direct neighbor to the south. Since 2016, I’ve been fortunate enough to see (in order) Colombia, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and of course, Perú. We also popped into Brazil for a day, but just to a national park and a nature reserve, so I don’t have nearly the photo log that I have from the other places.
Cinco de Mayo has gotten me to think about how impressed I’ve been with the political engagement of people, particularly young people, who we’ve seen and met in Latin America. A weekend doesn’t go by without a protest, maybe two, called manifestaciónes. Entirely peaceful, they’re well-attended and mostly orderly, depending on the relative stability of the country at the given point.
The above photo was taken in Bogotá, in the Plaza des Armas; all South American cities have a central square, and many of them are called Plaza des Armas. There’s almost always a statue of Simón Bolivár, the great liberator, somewhere. And there’s always Ché. He’s Argentine, but everybody loves him. I mean, he’s totally handsome; he looks like Jesus in a beret. How can you not swoon?
But beyond the protests, political expression extends into the street art. It goes way beyond graffiti all over Latin America, and it often goes way beyond politics. So please, pull up a chair and enjoy. But first, a little intro.
What Street Art Says
Not being a scholar of any kind, I can only show you pictures that I snapped here and there and leave you to make your own connections. That said, it may help to learn a few things we’ve picked up over the course of numerous visits to Latin America:
- While techinically illegal in most places, street art is decriminalized to a greater or lesser degree in many of them. In Colombia, where it began as a direct protest, it now appears to be effectively legal—which is why it’s often very beautiful and completely different from the scrawled tags and spray paint signatures we’re used to in the US. (These can be argued to have their own kind of beauty, but that argument can get heated.) Cops are supposed to arrest you in Argentina, in all of Chile except Valparaiso, and Uruguay; in Perú, I’m not quite sure. Still, it blooms on many, many walls.
- Every South American country we visited has a word, desaparicido. It means “disappeared,” and it is often used as a noun, a verb—”s/he was disappeared”—or, less often, an adjective. In Buenos Aires and Santiago, everyone knows someone personally who either is a desaparicido, or is a direct family member of one. The missing figures haunt much of the art, on the street and off.
- In every country we’ve visited, we have been welcomed with open arms. Particularly in Colombia and Cuba, people actually thanked us for coming. Despite the US government’s various measures that, while in theory were good for the US (that’s a whole other discussion) had horrible effects on many of the countries directly south, we heard time and time again: That’s your government. That’s not you. We know you wouldn’t be here unless you wanted to get to know us. Thank You. It’s a beautifully generous attitude, and I recommend that, if you have the chance to go anywhere in Latin America, you take it.
- Cuba, which we loved, is singular for many reasons. I initially thought I would include it here. But every post I would like to write about Cuba is very specifically about Cuba. The country had one leader, Fidel Castro, for decades. Compare that to the other countries on this list, all of which have had dozens of presidents at the least. So I will absolutely share my Cuba trip at a different point, but it doesn’t really work in the context this post.
Ok, let’s begin at our beginning. Grab your coffee or your margarita or your sparkling water or your tea, and settle in because I have A Slew of Pix for you.
Street Art: Colombia
Colombia was our first South American country, and a perfect intro to street art. Check out the puma and the indigenous Colombian behind our guide, José, below. The indigenous story in Latin America is as compelling and tragic as the one in North America. But there, it’s all over the streets.
The fanciful, surreal aspect of Colombian street art absolutely delighted us. You see that magical realism is not some invention of García Marquez, the country’s literature god, but simply a way of seeing.
South America and the Caribbean, of course, have many, many citizens with African heritage. This mural was done by an Afro-Colombian woman. In an art form dominated by men, Colombian women are carving out their own gorgeous turf.
Women are subjects as well as creators. This mural in Cartagena shows women who may be indigenous, may be mourning desaparacidos, or are simply doing what women have been doing for millenia: providing shelter, huddled with children. Are they angels? mothers? sisters? daughters? brujas, i.e., witches? healers, wise women? all of the above? I don’t know. I just thought this was beautiful.
Children, too, frequently show up in street art. I loved this little girl and her elephant, also from Bogotá.
And this work, from Medellin. Boy? Girl? Indigenous, immigrant, Creole? The medium lends itself to a wonderful ambiguity.
All ages, though, are represented. Along with a crazy mix of styles. This one has old school tagging, stencilling, portraiture, and just plain kickass beauty.
If Marquez is literature god in Colombia, Botero is art god. His marvelous fat people are everywhere, in this instance tango-ing on the side of a building in Medellin.
Street Art: Argentina
Over two winters (ours) or summers (theirs) in Buenos Aires, Steve and I have developed a great affection for los porteños, the people who live in and around Buenos Aires. All of this art is from that great city. Looking at the graffiti, I alway think of the great writer Bórges, of whom I understand absolutely nothing.
It is probably enough to know that many consider Bórges’ work Labyrinths to be his masterpiece. Or, as my teacher Rosario said, “When I read Bórges, I know that every word, no, every comma has meaning, and it drives me locura. So no, I’m not so crazy about him.” Me either. But I keep trying to memorize his poems, because they are frankly beautiful in Spanish. Lento, y azoramiento….
The desparacidos in Buenos Aires were generally aged 15 or 16 to their mid-20s, students. Their parents would simply never see them again, but know that they had likely been tortured, drugged, then dropped, tied up, from helicopters over the River Platte, which is very deep. The helicopters would wait and be sure they did not surface, then fly away.
Their mothers would post their pictures on walls around the city. No olvido ni perdon means “we neither forger nor forgive.” This mural is in La Boca, in Buenos Aires.
“The happiest days were, are, and will be Peronist.” I never thought I would see a more polarizing figure than Eva Perón. But…well, enough said.
I love the weird dream logic of this picture. I needed to take two shots to get the full impact….
…here’s the top half.
Of course, not everything is begging to be analyzed. A lot of things shouldn’t be analyzed. Did Karl Marx have cats? Did he even like cats? Who cares? This just makes me incredibly happy.
Rather than the work of one artist, this collage happily mixes big heads, torn out pictures, pasted up posters, robots, and the odd scan code…or something….
And this was made by a bunch of kids on the side of their pre-school, apparently a joyful meeting of planned and spontaneous broken tile.
Street Art: Uruguay
For two years straight, we headed to Montevideo to experience their amazing Carnival season—another post in itself that requires a movie (which requires me to edit, which requires you to wait a while). Street art is not encouraged in Montevideo, but we did find some wonderful stuff nonetheless, tending to pop up on sliding doors of shops….
(I don’t think they mean all that much. I just like the way they look.)
….and public buildings.
This doorway hardly counts as street art. Yet it shows Ché next to the words “Honduras resists against Fascism.” Regardless of how you view (or don’t) the statement, it amazes me that, all the way down in Uruguay, someone is expressing solidarity with a Central American country. It reminds me of the way that you don’t say, “I’m American,” in Latin America, because people from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America will say, with some exasperation, “So are we.”
Street Art: Chile
We spent a couple of days in Santiago before going to Buenos Aires in 2019, then spent more time there before returning to the US. Santiago doesn’t encourage street artists to plaster the city with their work. But if you want the side of your house decorated? Go for it.
Chile, like most other Latin American countries, has been through some shit. But the street art tends towards geometric, celebratory, particularly of the unique landscape of this long thin country. Valparaiso, where street art is officially legal, tends to get a lot of paint, even in Santiago, where I took the following photo.
Here’s Steve, walking up one of the steep Valpo streets. Check out the fancy mosaic sidewalk!!
The contributions of indigenous people are celebrated on murals, if not perhaps as much as they might be in the rest of society. How much harder the Chilenos are working on that than those of us in los Estados Unidos is up for (not much) debate.
Valparaiso, or Valpo as many lazy people including myself call it, has a crazy mix of styles as evidenced by this corner.
As Valpo features one of the homes of the great Pablo Neruda, Chile’s literary god, poetry easily makes its way onto the walls.
Street Art: Perú
And then there is Perú, the country whose name I can’t pronounce without a smile and a little tearing up. The street art tends, as I’ve said before, to portraiture.
But for me, the ultimate street art is the people. Especially this little girl, who I continue to think of as my spirit animal. When she pointed skyward in a mask-free world, not long, as it turns out, before COVID-19 changed everything, I felt my soul about to burst with love for her, with hope for a better world for her, for all little kids, however old we might be. Shine on, little diamond girl. I never saw your face. But you will remain in my heart forever.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* of Cinco de Mayo, 2020
From our AirBnB host in Lima during lockdown, Leo, that we are all in this together, that we are strong in unity, and that the most important thing is to look out for each other.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.