GUATEMALA CITY – Find the plain door with a chalkboard hanging to the side on a non-descript street in the Guatemalan capital.
Then knock loudly.
If you happen by at the right moment – and if your face looks friendly enough – you will be welcomed into La Banqueta, the city’s most creative underground space for independent artists, actors and activists.
On entering, you will find: A narrow hallway lined with photos, posters and a colorful mural of Latin American revolutionary heroes. The hall leads past a tiny darkened bar, where perhaps a local DJ is playing tonight.
Just beyond a door to the right, a handful of university students research art history in a cozy library, where all the shelves were built by hand.
Up the stairs to the left, a stagehand arranges the set while actors rehearse lines for an upcoming play.
“It’s a very casual place, like its name suggests,” said Byron Vasquez, a 26-year-old who bartends and sometimes deejays parties at La Banqueta, which means “The Sidewalk” in Spanish. “You can walk in and run into your friends, grab a beer, talk about art or politics.”
Indeed, there is nothing pretentious about La Banqueta. And that’s exactly the point: to offer an urban space for those who want to create art but can’t afford to shell out too many quetzales to attend events at state or privately run galleries or theaters.
In that same vein, it’s not out of the ordinary for those who stop into the bar to bring their own beer instead of buying bottles there.
For an admission fee usually between 20 and 25 quetzales (about $3), activities at La Banqueta range from theater and hiphop concerts to art exhibitions and puppet shows. About 80 percent of proceeds go to the local acts, while the other 20 percent help pay for the center’s operating budget.
And a tight budget that is.
“Well, here we have with more in our hearts than in our bellies because there just isn’t money,” Vasquez said. “So maybe the bellies have to wait on side until we figure out a way to keep the place going.”
The center, which opened last November with financial support from the Norwegian Embassy, operates like a collective among the 17 young people who started it.
That means everybody splits the work – cleaning, bartending, scheduling activities or building furniture – and nobody gets paid for it.
Eric “Spanky” Galvez, an actor with the Andamio theater troupe that dreamed up La Banqueta three years ago, said the operation is on a month-to-month financial basis.
“We don’t want the project to die, so each one of us is looking individually for ways to find funding,” he said.
One unique aspect of La Banqueta is its RafaelPinedaResearchCenter for the Performing Arts, the only library of its kind in Guatemala.
It is named after one of Guatemala’s most famous stage actors and directors, Rafael Pineda, who died in 2004. The center carries a thorough selection of locally produced scripts, as well as other works relating to art and literature, that are available for loans.
Last week the theater group put on a performance of “Dentro del Closet” (In the Closet), a tragicomedy about two women on death row in Guatemala for the crime of being lesbians. It’s these kind of performances, which take on local issues and create a space for expression and reflection, that make La Banqueta necessary, its founders insist.
“There was this real need to hear ourselves, see ourselves,” Vasquez said. “We were sick of listening to outsiders while we lacked our own space. What we have here goes beyond mere initiative – we have heart.
For More information
La Banqueta is located on 2a Av. 11-19 de la Zona 1 en la ciudad de Guatemala
Tel. (502) 22-32-22-06
Or visit the regularly updated blog, with a monthly calendar: http://labanquetaz1.blogspot.com/
Hours for RafaelPinedaResearchCenter for the Performing Arts: Tuesday to Friday – 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturdays – 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.