Stand on the edge of the cliff that overlooks the Guatemala City Dump and your brain will fail to comprehend the scene. Not just the visual—an immense, toxic ecosystem with its own mountains and rivers—or the smell. What hits you hardest is the movement. The thousands of men, women and children actively working in the trash. Some estimates claim 11,000 trash pickers, or guajeros, work the dump daily, a staggering number.

The not-for-profit organization Safe Passage (Camino Seguro) estimates nearly 60,000 people experience extreme poverty in the dump’s surrounding community. It’s why they are committed to empowering the “poorest, at-risk children of families working in the community of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump by creating opportunities and fostering dignity through the power of education.”

For most of the children of this community, nonprofit-funded education is their only hope for everyday necessities like food and clothing, as well as psychological resources to help them process the traumatic levels of stress suffered daily. In fact, 36 percent of Safe Passage’s families report violence at home, and 42 percent of their students exhibit signs of distress due to violence.

But this is not a sad story. For above the bulldozers and below the birds, the sound of music persists. Safe Passage’s Creative Expression program builds a foundation of hope through the teaching of the arts by promoting positive self-expression. The children and teenagers of the Guatemala City Dump are gaining access to musical instruments and learning to draw. They are performing in front of their communities. They are singing new songs.

Behind the Setlist spoke via email with Noel Arévalo, Program Coordinator of Safe Passage’s Creative Expression. Arévalo is a musician, composer and thoughtful academic who is approaching his fourth year at Safe Passage. We discussed how drawing can promote positive self-esteem, how music works to emancipate the poor and why art education should be accessible to everyone, but not mandatory. This conversation has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.

Noel Arévalo

Let’s start with a little background on the program. What does an average day look like? Do you have specific goals for the children?

Expresión Creativa (Creative Expression) was born almost 10 years ago and has been changing with time. We adapt to the different educational needs at Safe Passage.

Creative Expression has four fundamental pillars: to strengthen self-esteem through practicing art; to promote positive and non-violent expressions; to help with experiences that stimulate self-management of time and responsibility; and, finally, to increase creative thinking. We don’t have a specific time for our classes, which means that students can choose to be with us for 10 minutes or three hours. It is up to them. The key is always having fun. When a child asks, “When will the class finish?” the answer is always, “When you decide it.” If we start imposing art expression as mandatory, we’ll lose the spirit and essence of it.

Due to space limitations, we need to divide our program focus on different days. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are dedicated to music, and Tuesday and Thursday are for arts. We start our daily routine by cleaning and tidying up the room, because it’s very important to have a clean, calm and stimulating workspace that makes the students feel comfortable.

Classes start at 9 am and the students who would like to participate put their names on a ticket that is signed by their full-time teacher. The idea of the ticket is to have better control of which students can participate (those who have finished their homework and have free time to spend learning to paint, to draw or to play an instrument). We don’t have a specific schedule but instead try to stimulate the students’ self-management of time and responsibility. We are very grateful each day to see students who have completed their homework and have free time to be with us.

What are the students’ favorite parts of the program?

I think the kids should answer that question. Each one of them could provide different and authentic responses. I can talk about some aspects that I see from my adult eye, which I consider to be the most attractive for the students who are regularly with us in the program.

The first is that of a kid who is authentically happy, which is not easy to get. Creative Expression is not about lying and saying good but empty words to the students. It is about the students discovering, with effort and time, the best in themselves.

Another aspect is the different or alternative space that the student can take. Many of them feel uncomfortable or not accepted in their social environment (with family, neighbors or classmates). Having a relaxed space without such severe constraints promotes expression in different ways, and that makes students feel comfortable and accepted. Creative Expression inspires an aura of security and faith because it is public and accessible. We don’t tolerate violent or negative attitudes.

Why is it important to teach the arts to the children of the Guatemala City Dump?

It is important to analyze artistic education in general. Some of my colleagues think art should be mandatory, because they think through art, social problems can be tackled. As a musician, I believe art can be, in specific conditions and environments, a tool for emancipation, transformation and social development. We shouldn’t exaggerate or deform its nature. I really believe a good and free artistic education should be accessible for everyone, not mandatory.

In Creative Expression, we do not offer education for the arts. We do not have the curriculum, staffing or space to undertake a space of professionalization. Our focus is education through the arts. The majority of our students live in complicated family and community settings. And in a collective environment full of vices and social risks, you need creative and sensitive people who are capable of analyzing, devising and offering solutions to daily problems. That is our goal as a program, which extends far beyond the simple vanity of playing an instrument, painting or drawing.

The way to become an entity of change in your community is not simple and does not work in one way. Our educational input may be useful and applicable to certain profiles, but it would be naïve and pretentious to believe the mere fact that a child touches an instrument or draws has already automatically resolved their life. [Creative Expression] is an input that, well-channeled in the long-term and in connection with a robust multidisciplinary framework, allows us to be a breeding ground for individual and collective change.

In your time at Safe Passage, what memories stick out to you the most?

The first thing that comes to mind is the first day I came to Safe Passage when I saw the work the children and youngsters were doing. I was intrigued by the gang content in their drawings and paintings. I immediately identified the need of offering a different approach to their work. I knew as a teacher my job was to guide and orient the kids in their creations, but it was hard for me just to sit and see what they were doing. I felt I needed to change what they were expressing through their art.

But I kept allowing them to make that type of violent and negative art that was not aligned to Safe Passage’s vision. I was being useless as a teacher. I realized my job was not about guiding the volunteers, or taking care of the kid’s art supplies, getting donations or being responsible with my schedule and activities. It was more than that. My job was tracing an educational route.

These kids reflect their environment. If you were born in the highlands of Guatemala, you would draw landscapes, animals or stuff like that. But when someone grows up in a marginalized, impoverished zone such as our kids, they will relate their art to what they are living each day. I came to the understanding that many of these kids weren’t drawing about gangs or violence because they really loved doing it. They did it because they didn’t know any other way of expressing themselves.

I want to change gang-related art to something different, even if it doesn’t contain high artistic content. It might seem small, but to see a kid that before would draw guns and marijuana leaves now drawing more visually positive drawings, and doing it by themselves (not because I tell them to do so), really makes me proud.

“In Creative Expression, we do not offer education for the arts… Our focus is education through the arts.”

Any recent achievements from your students you’d like to brag about? Humbly, of course.

Children who have significantly improved their academic performance with the aim to not miss the opportunity to attend Creative Expression classes. And wandering students who often walk aimlessly and are difficult to conduct but can spend hours drawing or playing an instrument, as they have learned to channel their interest and attention to what Safe Passage offers. There are students who compose their own songs, which, although simple, shows they already have the creative germ that doesn’t just imitate or repeat what others have done.

The work of three students of photography last year will be exhibited at a contemporary art gallery in Canada. Photos that modestly came out of disposable cameras whose price does not exceed Q.100, as they could not afford others. These are achievements that do not make much noise, but at a personal level have an impact on the construction of cultural and social identities.

How did you find yourself coordinating music and art at Safe Passage?

I came to Guatemala City at the end of 2008 to study at the university. [While there], my dad was worried about how difficult it was going to be for me to get a job. In countries like Guatemala, art is an area that is exotic and barely comprehended. So my father suggested I study something else besides the arts. He thought if I would get an engineering degree, or something more commercial and “useful,” it would guarantee I would always have an income.

But my priority has always been music, and I decided to get a degree in arts. I graduated in 2013, with a plan to go study in Mexico in early 2014. During that waiting period, I had a lot of free time. So I dedicated myself to composing music, occasionally giving concerts and teaching some classes.

I felt that I could contribute more with my profession, so I looked in a directory of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] where I could volunteer. I sent emails to about 10 or 12 organizations offering myself as a volunteer. Not only was Safe Passage interested, but they also told me the person in charge of the Creative Expression program was about to leave and they were looking for an arts professional who was willing to take on coordination. I accepted the challenge. And, well, I clicked with the children and did not go to Mexico. In November of this year, I will be completing four years in Safe Passage.

“Creative Expression inspires an aura of security and faith because it is public and accessible. We don’t tolerate violent or negative attitudes.”

Anything else you’d like to share about Safe Passage, your music program or the children?

I would like to replicate some suggestions that were proposed at the General Conference of UNESCO in the year 2000 to promote the inclusion of artistic disciplines in the general education of children and teenagers. It was suggested that—I would add “good”—education in the arts contributes to the development of personality (emotionally and cognitively). That creative thinking stimulates and strengthens the acquisition of new knowledge. That at the individual level, and from the social perspective, stimulating imagination, oral expression, manual ability and memory influences the strengthening of consciousness and self-identity.

It is the responsibility of those in charge of programs of this nature, however modest they may be, to defend it and seek to offer it from an integral and conscious perspective.

Learn more about Safe Passage at Click here to donate or here to learn about “Alternative Giving,” such as directly sponsoring school supplies, books or shoes. All photos courtesy of Safe Passage and Beth Price Photography.


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