Oscar Estrada

In the year 1900, when the phantoms of the nineteenth century were still controlling the destiny of Honduras, Juan Ramón Molina (1876-1908), a poet known among the literary and intellectual circles of Central America was sentenced to forced labor, breaking rocks on the southern highway, because of a story he had published in the newspaper of which he was the editor-in-chief. The criminal article was not his own however, but that of Benjamin Franklin, written during the full swing of the Enlightenment, and its title was “An Ax to Grind”. In the story the narrator describes a childhood memory; on a cold winter morning a man draws close, smiling with an ax on his shoulder and says, "My pretty boy, does your father have a grindstone?" "Yes sir," replies the boy." Will you let me grind my ax on it?" asks the man while continuing to flatter the child. Bewitched by the sweet words of the man, the little boy tirelessly begins to work on the tool. By the end of the day his hands are covered with blisters and the man never stops showering him with compliments. "I'm sure you are one of the finest lads I have ever seen,” he says. But as much as the boy continues to work, the ax (which is brand new) never gets sharpened. He grinds and grinds without making a dent until the school bell finally rings and, excusing himself, he prepares to leave. The man, who had shown so much kindness to the boy, suddenly becomes furious and angrily begins to insult him, calling him a lazy bum, a buffoon, a scoundrel.

During his trial Molina argued that the article was not meant as a criticism against President Terencio Sierra’s government. However, his explanations remained unheard; from the San Francisco quarter he was taken directly to prison. From there he was sent to carry out forced labor in the “Honduran Siberia” (the hot and arid southern region of the country), after which he went into exile. 

More than one century has passed since the incarceration of the “the finest Honduran poet”, as many recognize him to this day, and very little has changed in the relationship between Honduran artists and the leaders in power. It is important to remember that Artistas en Resistencia (Artists in Resistance) was not born with the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya Rosales. Making art in Honduras has always been an act of resistance due to the precarious conditions in which artists live, the lack of institutional support, and their constant incrimination and exile. The journalist Álvaro Contreras (1839-1882), had to abandon the country and move to El Salvador where he later died. The writers Froylán Turcios (1872-1943) and Rafaél Heliodoro Valle (1891-1959) had to live in exile during the sixteen years of Tiburcio Carías Andino’s dictatorship because of their poems and essays. Turcios died in Costa Rica, Valle in Mexico, while Carías, whose power lasted until 1949, died comfortably in his own home in Tegucigalpa. “In an environment like ours”, wrote Molina a short time before his physical disappearance in El Salvador, “of blind aggression and intimidation, the intellectual, carrier of truth, has two ways to free himself from death caused by suffocation; either he isolates himself superbly in his summit, wrapped in his own cloud without deigning to see the city geniuses, hoarders of cheap and on-sale glory; or he slaughters these hoarders as if they were lambs of a propitiatory holocaust of art, right on his altar of rubble patiently accumulated”

In 2010, writer Helena Umaña published the article, “El contragolpe cultural como expresión de lucha” (“the Cultural Countercoup as an Expression of Struggle”). The article is a complete inventory of the multiple artistic expressions that exploded all over the country after the 2009 coup. Helena goes from poetry, prose, essays, theatre, audiovisual, music, and sculpture, to naming a long list of all the artists who used their own medium to express, denounce, or simply capture the collective struggle in one of the most difficult moments for the entire country. “At the moment our accomplishment is that we have busted the frontiers that isolate art from everyday life”, says filmmaker Katia Lara, quoting from the words of the Argentinian-born philosopher Enrique Dussel on the “Tupamaros” (the Uruguayan Marxist urban guerrilla of the 60’s and 70’s). “For the first time some of our political comrades stopped looking at us as extras and started to consider us as allies, accomplices, as political citizens. We contributed with our own work to break through the media enclosure from a position perhaps much more interesting than that of pure political activism, if ever the two can be separated.”

The resistance against the coup in Honduras eventually left the streets and the leftist political party Libertad y Refundación was founded. After only three years from its founding, the party that launched Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya, as a political candidate to the presidency, confirmed itself as the second most prominent political force in the country. Some argue that it is not the second but the first, a claim supported by the existence of evidence of fraud in the recent elections. The collective struggle continues against an economic model that is clearly dysfunctional, a corrupt political class, a militarized state, and a violent society, extremely violent.

The artists, whose eyes were opened to the political reality in the country by the coup, are now part of a cultural revolution (counter-cultural) that extends to all disciplines at the margin of official institutions that are now incapable of supporting any artistic expression. Paradoxically, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro de Sula now have a theatre program, open air concerts (lacking space for performances), murals and street art, shorts and documentaries, new non-fiction publications, and poetry and prose offering a cathartic experience in a society that, at present, is the most violent in the world.

“At best, the artistic production before the 2009 coup was more existential”, says iconic songwriter and activist Karla Lara, “the coup and all the struggle and resistance that followed, turned our attention back towards urgent issues that in all these years we had left out. Before the coup we were not so polarized, our artistic expression was not about matters such as women’s rights, antiracism, and neocolonialism, or against extractive industry and other criticisms of the system. The coup shook our life and challenged our creativity.”

Translation from Spanish by Veruska Cantelli

Photos ©Ariel Sosa

Oscar Estrada is a writer, a screenwriter, and a lawyer. He studied at the International School of Cinema and Television of Habana and worked in the production of radionovelas, television programs, and social documentaries, such as El Porvenir (2008).  During the 2009 coup he worked as a link to several international media outlets. Part of the materials covered during these events appears in the documentary Quién dijo miedo, Honduras de un golpe by the filmmaker Katia Lara. Oscar is the author of Invisibles, una novela de migración y brujería (2012) and Honduras, crónicas de un pueblo golpeado (2013).

Veruska Cantelli is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine