Peru’s principal port city has gained a reputation for being a hotbed of organized crime and drug trafficking. Local art initiatives seek to paint a new face for Callao.
Callao is part of Lima, but it also isn’t.
This is meant both in administrative and cultural terms. Callao is considered part of the Lima metropolitan area but is also a separate, independent constitutional province from the regional government of Lima.
Historically, the port of Callao was physically separated from Lima by kilometers of rural land until it was completely enveloped by the 20th-century mass migrations from Peru’s interior, accelerated by economic necessity and terrorism. Now, it would be impossible to draw a line between them on a satellite image as Callao is completely surrounded by Lima’s urban sprawl.
Callao has formed a strong urban identity.
People from Callao call themselves “Chalacos” to distinguish themselves from “Limeños” (residents of Lima). There is a certain sense of collective belonging among those who live there, as well as a distinct urban culture that has emerged as globalized identities combine with traditional ones in the children of immigrants from the interior regions of Peru.
However, this constitutional province that receives nearly all of Peru’s foreign visitors at Jorge Chavez International Airport has gained a seedy reputation for organized crime, drug trafficking, and turf wars between rival gangs.
A recent raid by national police and prosecutors revealed the under-workings of one of these organizations.
Financed by an Ecuadorian and run by traffickers from Venezuela and Colombia in addition to Peruvians, Insight Crime analyzes their activities as “largely low-profile” and carried out in “relatively small clans.”
There is also sicarios (hitmen). One artist, Aaron Lopez from Callao, dedicates his life to painting hired killers. He says he does it to show society the people that have been marginalized and forgotten. Perhaps he realizes he could have easily turned out just like them.
“Thank God my father forced me to be educated,” he told Al Jazeera.
The paintings are quite haunting (see the Al Jazeera article above) in their grim realism and the desensitized stares of the anonymous subjects’ faces.
Another artist known as Lucuma did 30 years of hard time in Peru’s prisons and now dedicates himself to his outdoor studio where he silently paints vivid images with social and political themes. A few years ago, VICE produced a video about Lucuma which can be viewed with English subtitles.
In the wider community, there are also movements to use street art in urban transformation.
There are local initiatives including the project Callao Monumental which is promoted as “the graffiti neighborhood”.
The community was involved in the project as old houses have been restored and some were decorated with murals by professional and semi-professional artists, although many in the capital remain wary of the neighborhood. In response, a private initiative called Fugaz created a center which offers classes on street art, dance, and sports to local community children in order to combat the negative stereotypes.
These community art projects are integrative.
They create jobs for youth in an area where unemployment reaches 17%, they create tourism, and they create more of the same kinds of initiatives that are reaching local children.
Callao is a port city of 1 million people packed into less than 150 square kilometers.
Most of these people are good at heart, not criminals. As for the youth, natural curiosity, ingenuity, and creativity seek an environment in which to thrive. Unfortunately, there are few of these environments to be found. This doesn’t mean the creativity is absent, only that it is left to die like a garden without water.
But now, the soil is more fertile than ever.
The arts are part of what we call living culture. Peru’s past lives and is evolving now. Support for local and community art programs is one way to focus our attention again where it ought to be centered; on the living Peruvians rather than the dead ones beneath archaeological ruins.
It takes courage to really look at the sicario even when it’s just a painting. Artists have the power to show us the parts of society we need to see and understand. We need to include more voices, especially here in Peru.