Street Art of Bogotá II: The Colombian Capital as Painted by Senil

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on Senil can be found on his Flickr.

Che Guevara is even today a master of disguise. He turns up as a chef. An Argentinian cowboy. A halo-wearing saint. And it turns out glass Coca-Cola bottles make great molotov cocktails. Discontent ripples in warm human waves. A headdress-wearing shaman has moved from the jungles to the capital. He now rents out cellphones to people on the street. Things are changing, remixing themselves.

Welcome again to humming Colombian capital of Bogotá, a city making a serious bid to become one of the major global centers of urban art. Like any city worth its weight in concrete, Bogotá is a study in the arts of juxtaposition, contradiction and oxymoron. Standing among the clean glass and white lights of the financial district, look just a few blocks up hill and check out the adobe houses that have stood there for over a century. Their corners are rounded, the grit in their walls held together by plaster and older, less affluent stories.

Time in Colombia is not a linear system, progressing toward a bright ephemeral utopia. Time here is circular, moving in spirals, doubling back on itself. The glitter does not supersede the adobe. All time exists at once.

While taking a taxi from the airport, zooming along a thoroughfare with cement medians and no shoulders, watch for men in wooden carts pulled by burros. Freelance garbagemen. They do more to keep the city clean than most politicians, who look to make their livelihood illegal.

Some high-rises were built only to stand and scrape the sky, completely unrented and probably uncompleted. Rich kids dance inside clubs. Outside they couldn’t walk two blocks without being shook down.

Quickly scrawled graffiti reads resistir es existir. To resist is to exist. Continuing to read the walls it seems that to remix is to exist––to take on the symbols and archetypes as our own. One of the local experts in existing is Senil, whose rearranged characters inhabit the florid, numbered streets of Bogotá.

¿So who are you? ¿Why “Senil?”
I’m an artist, I like cats. Why Senil? People who know me call me that because I’m an olvidadizo, always forgetting things and unworried about time.

¿What is this place––Bogotá––to you?
My center of operations.

¿Why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?
I’m a visual artist, that’s how I communicate my ideas. I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor, and that was the connection to graffiti: I was trying to make sculpture versions of [the street artist] Tot’s work. Then I started projects with DjLu, which is how I took up stencil and jumped into the streets with a couple small templates. That was the start of this urban artist project.

¿So is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿What’s the government’s stance?
In Bogotá it is dangerous to do many things. Clearly the social situation here is really complicated, and questioning the establishment is hardly recommendable. Regardless, there are some neighborhood initiatives that support graffiti work. But they’re not sufficient, so no matter what, one turns to clandestinity to develop projects. If they catch me, there do exist laws [I could be charged with], and with the proliferation of graffiti, we turn into targets of the authorities.

¿What reactions to do you receive to your work?
There are many reactions, and I pay a lot of attention to them. The ones that worry me are from people who feel disrespected by my work, because when you show reality in a raw way you can make enemies of the same people you want to support. For example, there was one stencil of the Che-f [Che as chef], somebody angrily took a chisel to it and wrote: “Nobody messes with Che, idiots!”

Your art seems to hold a lot of social critique. For example, your stencil of the falso positivo, ¿why bring up the subject with this symbol? ¿What impact do you want it to have?
Not all my work has social content, sometimes as an artist I simply express ephemeral or indulgent ideas. The Falso Positivo stencil is a rhetorical piece based on a pharmaceutical symbol associated with health. When I change the text to the word “falso,” I ironically denounce one of the diseases that affects our society today: the phenomenon of forced disappearances. [See Noise #102 –– Ed.] What I’m looking to do with that symbol is to make problem present in the streets, especially in places where the problem isn’t common, and in this way to engage citizens with it, hopefully eradicating it.

You play a lot with the image of Che: the Che-f, the Che-sús, the cowboy Che. ¿How is Che Guevara seen in Colombia today?
He represents revolution, but nevertheless it depends on the context. Some who consume his image are thinking, questioning people; on the other hand, there are others that just associate the image with fashion.

Explain for us a bit about your piece of the indigenous man with the “minuto celular” sign.
It comes from two socio-environmental issues. It’s a critique of the displacement suffered by the indigenous, caused by violence, which leads to the abandonment of the state and the loss of ancestral beginnings. The “minuto celular” sign is an urban icon that [in addition to advertising cellphones for rent] represents the scarcity of employment and the necessity of making money however possible.

¿Does freedom of speech exist in Colombia? ¿How is graffiti a part of that?
Yes, there is freedom of expression, but only when the expression stays inside the parameters dictated by the government itself. When you step across those boundaries and you question the establishment, the situation can turn dangerous. As far as graffiti, it’s a form of free speech since it’s done out of personal initiative. The act of scrawling on a wall is a political act, because it challenges and questions the establishment regardless of the message. Surely there are other examples of free speech, nevertheless a piece in the street can be read by anybody, and that makes it very effective.

¿What is the most important thing for people in the U.S. to understand about Colombia?
That we are tired of war, and that they are welcome here. They’d have a good time.

One of the Millions

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The first of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.7mb).

Carmen is a woman in her early 30’s, born in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City. Six years ago this month she started a journey that took her across Mexico and into Arizona. Her ultimate goal was New York City, where she arrived just in time to experience the events of September 11th, 2001. What follows is her story, as she herself tells it.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from Cuernavaca to NYC

interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Preparations

We left February 15th, 2001. It was a normal day, just like that song that says, “it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold.”

We had decided in October of 2000. I was working in a coffee shop, selling little cakes, chocolates. We decided to go because... well, my husband, David, he wanted to go more because he has a brother that lives in New York and he offered David a good job, as a painter. I wentto try my luck, to try a new way of living my life. Maybe it was curiosity, but more it was the necessity to earn a little bit more money in less time.

But we needed a lot of money just to go. We had $6,500 for the two of us.

We also needed a good coyote. A friend recommended him to us, we didn’t know him. He’s from Puebla, he came here to Cuernavaca to talk to us about it. We crossed through Arizona because the coyote told us to. He’s the one that decides the route you’ll take, you can’t say, “no, I think we’ll go through Tijuana.” No, you make a deal with the coyote and the only thing you’re interested in is making it to the other side. You pay him and he has to figure out how to get you there––all the way to wherever you want to go, to Wisconsin if you want. But you don’t pay him before. You give him the name of the person who will send the money, and you pay him when you arrive.

He gave us advice, like not to bring backpacks, packages, but to dress warm because it’s really cold. No photos in your wallet, and just a little bit of money. He told us not to be scared, that we’d jump the wall and that’d be it.

My oldest daughter was ten years old, and the younger one was seven. I told them that I had to go work, that they needed to wait for me for awhile. Although they didn’t understand it, they had to accept it. They stayed here, with my mother. They cried, and felt like we were abandoning them. It was hard.

My mother and father gave me a lot of advice, that I should be careful what I get myself into and who I make deals with. Since I was young my dad has always taught us to be honest. David’s family told him to behave, and not get drunk all the time. They just told us to be careful, especially when the time comes to jump. Also to be careful of the cholos because they’ll assault you.

carmen

Nogales

We left on a bus from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, to the airport. Then in a plane to Hermosillo [capital of the state of Sonora]. There we hired a suburban, which is like a taxi, but for a lot of people, and it took us to Nogales. I didn’t know anything about northern Mexico. It’s like David says, “I didn’t know any farther than my eyes could see.”

Nogales is ugly. It looks like an abandoned city. The whole border is ugly.

We arrived at a hotel. The coyote had told us where we would meet again, in that hotel. It obviously wasn’t a luxury place, normal rooms, normal beds. He was already there waiting for us, and that same night we tried the first time. That first time is when the cholos showed up, the guys who live on the border and make a living of attacking people. They’ll take your shoes, your watch. But that night they just were making noise, shouting our way. See, they also want to jump, so when you try, they’ll make a big show so that you won’t make it.

We had to jump from really high in Nogales. The wall was fourteen or fifteen feet high. But the jump is the least of it. The important thing is to get to a safe place where you’ll be able to get transport to where you’re going. Sure, you jump in Nogales, but to get to the next populated place, it’s unbelievably hard.

You arrive like a soldier, chest on the ground, dragging yourself. More than half a mile like that, dragging yourself like you were a worm. Like that. But the cold, it gives you all its got. Our jackets weren’t thick enough.

There were six of us crossing. David and me, our cousin, a couple and another guy. Two kids from Puebla guided us. Ah, because see, it’s not the coyote who brings you, the coyote sends the people who will bring you. No, the coyote doesn’t hang around there, he passes you to a helper and says “take them, you know where to go.” And they were young! Not even eighteen years old. From Nogales we hoofed it the whole way.

We made it to a ravine at about eleven that night, and we were there all night and all the next day, without eating, just sleeping. We were hugging one another, trying to get rid of the cold. It was unbearable, to the bones. We couldn’t lick our lips because the spit would freeze. We hadn’t drank any water, hadn’t gone to the bathroom––much less taken a shower––in two days. A lot of animals came while we were there. If you get hurt, you’ll die there. It’s really risky. People don’t realize.

We just huddled in that hole. I didn’t know absolutely anything about Arizona, just some photos and maps on the computer, and the desert, which is the famous thing. And Tucson thanks to that Beatles song that says “Tucson, Arizona,” but that was it. [laughs]

A car came for us the second night. We all piled in, all pressed together, it was horrible. I thought that the car was going to take us to a safe place, but that car didn’t bring us anywhere. They threw us in the desert. They told us that we were going to just walk for half an hour, then we’d meet another car to take us to Tucson. We had to go around the checkpoints, but they keep saying things so that you don’t get scared, but it isn’t true. That night they threw us out of the car at about nine.

That was the most traumatic for me. We had two gallons of water that we got from the car. Our feet sank in the sand, our sneakers filled up with it. We jumped some barbwire. I fell flat on my face. The highway was about a mile away, and they have this red light out there that detects your iris and they’ll know you’re there. All kinds of technology. But it’s stupid because they know that there’s a lot of people passing anyway. We walked all that night.

We hadn’t eaten anything. David started getting really mad at the guides. We got to an underpass on the freeway, before Tucson. The guides kept saying “there’s the car,” lying so that you’ll wait. We were really disillusioned. We went out to the freeway and waited, I said it wouldn’t be long before someone called us in. Half an hour later, the migra arrived. One of the guys with us had lived in Brooklyn before, and he started talking to them in English. “We’re tired, we’re hungry.” They rounded us all up and brought us all the way back to... Nogales!

The migra was really nice. We can’t say anything bad about them. They took us to the station to get our information. Later, in Mexico, we called the coyote because he always has people in the hotels, waiting to send them. We got to the hotel with our clothes in rags, he saw us and said “I thought you two were already in Phoenix!” We started to talk, and he said he was going to send us through Sasábe.

We got to Sasábe [a small bordertown east of Nogales], another horrible place, there isn’t anything there. We were there about a week, not doing anything. We were in this house with tons of people, about fifty. Everybody together, Salvadorians, everybody, waiting their turn. Waiting.

Carmen continues her story next month, telling of how she and David became separated during their second attempt, and how they eventually made it to Los Angeles.