16" x 20", oil on canvas.
Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay
This painting should be considered as a study for one of the most important paintings in this collection, Matanza en Santiago Atitlán, 3 de Diciembre 1990. On December 2, 1990 the Guatemalan military opened fire on a unarmed protest of the townspeople of Santiago Atitlan at the army base there. The military killed thirteen protestors and injured about fifty more in what would be an international scandal and a turning point for the Mayan Indians in their struggle for respect. I was in the United States when I heard about this massacre, and I had a ticket to go to Guatemala two weeks later, specifically with the idea of going to San Pedro, the town closest to Santiago Atitlán on Lake Atitlán. This massacre of course put in doubt whether I would be safe going down to this part of Guatemala at this time, but I ultimately decided I would go down and make my decision there about the safety of going to the Lake. I also realized this massacre should be a painting by one of the artists—all other aspects of their lives were themes. Of the artists, there were only three who I felt were sufficiently skilled to tackle this subject, the three known in Guatemala as the brothers González Chavajay ,Mariano, Matias and Pedro Rafael. Of these these three Pedro Rafael seemed mostly likely to do justice to so serious a subject, Matias’s naivety would make light of it. It also seemed clear that Mariano and Matias would be unlikely to touch the subject, so I decided to broach the idea to Pedro Rafael when I got there. When I got there in our first private conversation, after being warmly welcomed by Rafael and his family, Rafael beat me to the punch by saying that his next painting was going to be the massacre in Santiago Atitlan. He did not paint it at that time, or during the following year, but when I returned the next December and into January, my visit inspired him into action and he painted Tragedia, about the women of a family returning home and finding the men murdered. He did this painting in secret, putting it away at night so no one could walk into his house and see it. Only his family and closest friends knew he was painting it. Rafael wanted to paint the massacre in large format, about 3' x 4', but this posed significant risk not only to Rafael, but his family. A large painting could not so easily be hidden as a painting measuring 16" x 20". Rafael was not afraid of the risk for himself, he said "I am an artist, and I have to paint what is inside of me," but he understandably did not want any risk for his family. We decided the best idea would be for him to wait and I would bring him to the United States to paint the massacre.
Tragedia, tragedy? This title has always bothered me. Why not Assasination, Slaughter, Murder, Killing, or Decimation, or some other title that clearly affixes the blame on the death squads which were the perpetrators of most of these incidents which frequently occurred at this time (over five hundred murders and disappearances in Santiago Atitlán in a ten year period). Tragedy, however, has the implication that the victim in this case the family could have done something to avoid this. In this situation it would not be the title that someone living in the United States, in a free society, would probably have chosen. No, I attribute it to the result of a people who have been through a period of severe oppression, where disappearances and murders are an everyday occurrence. Rafael was bold enough to tackle this theme, a theme which no-one else would touch at this time, but he was reluctant to take the final small step and title the painting as boldly as its theme. His cousin Benjamin, who had been his promoter up until then, strongly disapproved of Rafael doing this painting. Subjects such as this were not openly talked about in Guatemala at this time, and I can count on one hand the number of political paintings I know of which produced before the signing of the peace accord.
What do we see in this painting? Three women and three children have discovered the mutilated bodies of two men. It would be a good assumption that the women are family members. Even if the men were first discovered by one woman who ran for her neighbors, it would be likely that these women would be relatives. What else can we tell from the painting? I think there is a clue in the hoe which rests under the had of one of the murdered men. It is dark outside, so it is either night time or very early in the morning. It seems likely to me that the men rose early in the morning to go work in the fields, or conversely returned from the fields after it became dark. Why weren’t the women also there? Perhaps the women and children have just returned from a night service at church. Perhaps they sleep in another building, adobe or concrete block instead of cane, at some distance from this structure. If it was morning perhaps the woman whose kitchen it was had taken the corn to be ground up for the morning’s tortillas. In any case the assassins attacked and murdered the men in the process trashing the place, breaking all the furniture and pots, and overturning a basket of tortillas. Perhaps all or one the women hearing the destruction and gunshots ran outside seeing some masked individuals fleeing, and discovered the men’s bodies. Perhaps they came upon the bodies sometime later. Whatever the story that Rafael imagined, it was not a specific incident like the massacre the night of December 2 that Rafael had in mind but a more general incident representing all of the times that the death squads had violated Mayan families. The specific story and interpretation is up to the viewer. However he gives us to more clues to how he wants us to view this painting. In the background we see a crucifix and candle on top of a broken table, signifying that the family including the murdered men were good Christians. In the foreground under the leg of one of the murdered men, we see the lifeless body of an adolescent chicken, perhaps meant to symbolize the murder of innocents, and by connection the innocence of the murdered men.