San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Divisive Wall Inspires Community Art

IN the low-income, ill-reputed southern San José neighborhood of Sagrada Familia, a wall separates the community from a more upscale housing development a stone’s throw away. With the help of a community outreach program and paint donated by Pintura Sur, nearly 20 young people turned out Saturday to put a colorful mural on the barrier, which they see as divisive and insulting.


According to organizers of the mural, the wall was built more than ten years ago to keep the crime and drugs that are rampant in Sagrada Familia from crossing over into the backyards of those living on the other side. Members of the Sagrada Familia community took offense to the division and opposed its construction, but the wall was left standing with the exception of a single doorway.


The mural was coordinated by the neighborhood social works organization Neighbors Education Center, which has operated in Sagrada Familia for 25 years, in an office half a block from the wall.


Natalí Ramos, the coordinator of the project, explained that the mural is part of the center’s arts outreach program, “Culture, Place and Creativity,” which is funded by the Finnish government and operates in various low-income neighborhoods in San José. The center serves as a hangout for local kids and gathers them for weekly art, music and circus-theater classes.


“In these neighborhoods, there aren’t places where kids can go and do things, which lends itself a lot to drug and alcohol use, and the environment is very violent,” Ramos said. “(With this program) they have the chance to go to a place where they are treated differently, with respect.”


ON Saturday, participants in “Culture, Place and Creativity” from various neighborhoods, including Sagrada Familia, were joined by other kids from the community in taking paintbrushes to the gray cinderblock wall, continuing the 30-meter-long mural started the week before. The design the children and teens came up with was a long row of figures, their backs to the viewer, representing the different types of people found in their community, with a few bonus characters like an indigenous person in traditional clothing and the logo from the popular 1980s cartoon The Transformers.


Breaking up the line of people are two sets of hands, one lifting the wall from above, the other pushing it up from below, revealing blue sky on the other side.


Marco Chía, a recognized Costa Rican artist who works with the arts outreach program, explained that the idea of having all the characters with their backs to the viewer came from the program participants, and keeps each character anonymous.


“If there were faces, it would be very specific – a crooked nose, blue eyes. But from behind, people can identify with the type of person,” Chía said.


THE mural also represents the artists’ reflections on their community. The long row of characters begins with a scene created by Nelson Ocampo, 18, from Sagrada Familia. A man in a blue business suit holding a briefcase is passing a dollar bill behind his back to a young girl in a school uniform, who reaches behind her back to take the money. Next to the girl is a police officer, watching the exchange.


Ocampo explained that the scene is a common sight in his neighborhood, and while people from the more well-off side of the wall think his side is full of criminals, it is the people from that side who come to buy drugs and exploit young girls.


At the other end of the mural, a police officer flashes a gun as he searches two people, their arms and legs splayed wide against the wall.


PEDRO Reyes, 19, was one of the program participants painting on Saturday, and has been coming to the weekly Neighbors workshops for two months. He credits the program for helping him stay clean after leaving behind a street life of drugs and crime just a few months earlier.


On Pedro’s left forearm are 17 short scars, looking like a brutal bar code, from where he repeatedly cut himself one night, drunk on rubbing alcohol and frustrated with a drug addiction that had consumed him. On the underside of his arm he carved the initials of his two brothers, thinking he was going to die and might never see them again.


On his right hip is another scar from where he was shot with .22-caliber bullet after robbing a store and making his getaway.


Taking a break from the painting, he spoke easily about his past, thanked his brother and a close friend for getting him off the streets, and praised the Neighbors Education Center.


“I feel like I’m with family, I feel comfortable, like it is a second home,” he said of the center. “I spend all day there. They trust me and they keep my mind occupied.”


After spending two years on the streets, smoking crack cocaine and stealing, Reyes is now working with a friends on a break dance routine to go with the Neighbors music class performance. As he worked on one of the characters in the mural, he said that he had never painted before getting involved in the program, but he likes it because it helps him get out his frustrations.


REYES said people in the community call the wall separating the two communities the Berlin Wall.


“We thought about putting a bomb there and blowing it up,” he said. “They think they’ve all got money and we’re beggars. We can’t stand this.”


As the small army of artists added more and more color to the wall, 75-yearold Bienvenida Castro paused as she walked by to admire the mural in progress.


“I stop and look at this every morning. It’s beautiful, beautiful. I congratulate them,” said Castro, who has lived in Sagrada Familia for 52 years. “These muchachitos, they’re so young and have so much beautiful talent. Here there are so many drug addicts causing problems. This is precious.”

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