El Salvador

Salvadorians protest destruction of pacifist mural

 Every weekend, Salvadorians gather outside San Salvador Cathedral to protest the destruction of their most famous mural. “Harmony of our People” used to grace the cathedral’s façade, until it was destroyed on January 1. The mural was heavily symbolic in a country that endured a bloody civil war that lasted 12 years and left more than 70,000 dead. Four months later, many Salvadorians are still angry, and express their appreciation for the lost mural in very colourful ways.

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Photos posted on the “Indignados por el Mural” Facebook group.

 

Every weekend, Salvadorians gather outside San Salvador Cathedral to protest the destruction of their most famous mural. “Harmony of our People” used to grace the cathedral’s façade, until it was destroyed on January 1. The mural was heavily symbolic in a country that endured a bloody civil war that lasted 12 years and left more than 70,000 dead. Four months later, many Salvadorians are still angry, and express their appreciation for the lost mural in very colourful ways.

 

San Salvador Cathedral, located in the capital, may not be a historical or an architectural landmark, but it occupies a prominent role in the memory of this country of six million inhabitants. One of the bloodiest massacres in El Salvador’s history took place on the cathedral’s footsteps in May 1979. Archbishop Óscar Romero, widely respected for his human rights activism and assassinated in 1980 by government security forces, is buried inside; his tomb has attracted visitors ranging from Pope John Paul II to Barack Obama. The first peace conversations between the government and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerrilla group – now in power as a democratic political party - were also held there. So in 1997, when El Salvador decided to rebuild its cathedral, badly bruised by the civil war, renowned artist Fernando Llort was commissioned to design a giant mural to decorate its façade.

 

Mural detail. Photo posted on the “Exigimos el regreso del mural de catedral” Facebook group.

 

 

Last December, the Catholic Church decided the cathedral needed more renovation. In the midst of this renovation came the surprise disappearance of Llort’s mural, which was ironically in the process of becoming declared a national heritage. Hundreds of Salvadorians soon flocked to the cathedral in outrage, furious at the Church’s vague explanations for its move.

 

Initially, the construction company hired by the Archdiocese for the renovation claimed that the damaged tiles were a hazard to pedestrians, as the glue holding them in place was not strong enough. However, the solid slabs of cement visible on the wall where the tiles had once been cast doubt on their assessment. Later, Archbishop José Luis Escobar claimed that the mural was full of Masonic symbols.

 

These explanations have angered ordinary Salvadorians, hundreds of whom had helped fund its construction in 1997 by individually paying for each of the 2,700 tiles. Every week, dozens of people gather in front of the cathedral, protesting against the Archbishop’s decision and bringing hand-painted, woven and even baked versions of the colourful mural than once symbolised the embattled country’s efforts to find harmony.

 

Photo posted on the “Indignados por el Mural” Facebook group.

 

“We want the mural!” Photo posted by Mario Saavedra on the “Indignados por el Mural” Facebook group.

“The mural represented a way of remembering the Civil War years and giving them closure”

Óscar Jiménez is a mural artist from La Palma who assisted artist Fernando Llort in the creation of the San Salvador Cathedral mural fifteen years ago. He has participated in several protests over the mural's destruction since January.

 

The ‘Harmony of Our People’ mural was a graphic representation of an entire society. In very bright colours it spoke about mankind, work, family, faith and everything that constitutes harmony. Destroying it was a decision that most of us in El Salvador still do not understand. Not only is Fernando Llort one of the most important artists this country has had, but this was one of the few significant examples of public art in Central America. [Llort, who now lives far from the capital, said in a statement days after the mural was destroyed: “The Church's request to decorate the Cathedral's façade was the greatest satisfaction God has given me during my artistic career. Its destruction by the same Church has been the saddest thing that ever happened to me.”]

 

When the Archbishop accused the mural of having Masonic symbols, we realised that there had been no real, valid reason for its destruction. His claims were not only farfetched, but highly illogical. Drawn on the tiles were the Last Supper, the dove of peace, and guardian angels, because the mural was meant to protect the temple.

 

"We still desperately need to remember the mural’s message, because we are very far from achieving peace in this country"

 

The mural was also heavily symbolic because of the place where it was displayed. The cathedral is a place where many sad events have occurred. We had signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought an end to the civil war only a few years before, and so the mural was meant as a conceptualisation of this newfound peace. Llort's work of art represented a way of remembering those difficult years and giving them closure.

 

Most people feel that by losing its façade, the cathedral lost its life. It now stands just like it did during our armed conflict: a gigantic block of concrete with absolutely no colour.

 

It is frankly impossible to rebuild the mural, so we are trying to remember it. People gather outside the cathedral with their own renderings of its shapes and figures. During Holy Week, teenagers brought a woven rug reproducing its patterns and colours.

 

We still desperately need to remember the mural’s message, because we are very far from achieving peace in this country. [El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with 65 violent deaths for every 1,000 inhabitants.]

 

 

Poet Alexander Campos holds a sign saying “Murdering art and lying is also a sin”, San Salvador Cathedral. Photo by Mauro Arias on the “Indignados por el Mural” Facebook group.

 

Photo by on the “Indignados por el Mural” Facebook group.

 

Woven mural during Holy Week. Posted by Ana Canizalez on Twitter.

 

Wedding cake remembering Cathedral mural. Posted by Teresita Gavidia on the “Fundación Fernando Llort” Facebook group.

Post written with freelance journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.