Women in Resistance–Meeting Sandra Moran

After our meeting with ISMU, we traveled to Casa Artesana for a conversation and dinner with artist-activist Sandra Moran at Casa Aretsana. Casa Artesana is an artists’ collective, that includes an open-house and cafe, and is part of the umbrella organization Women’s Sector.

The name “Casa Artesana” is a wordplay on “artisan” and its Spanish meaning of (arte sana) “art heals.” After introducing herself, Sandra explained that Casa Artesana provides an important  outlet for Guatemalans’ energy and creativity, which will disappear if it is not channeled.

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The wall at Casa Artesana’s entrance reads: “Casa Artesana: House of Women. The house is open to diverse people for sharing life, the creative act, and transgression.”

Like so many of the activists we met, Sandra’s demeanor spoke to a deep inner wisdom stemming from her lived experience. Setting her apart though, was her emotive artistic energy, ever-present as she gave us a tour of Casa Artesana, and explained that the vibrant paintings adorning the walls were created by women incarcerated in Guatemala’s prison system. Many of these paintings had the common theme of maternity and pregnancy in prison.

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This painting on the wall of Casa Aretesana is a powerful visual testament to the experience of the painter as a woman pregnant in prison.

Sandra added that although there are organizations in Guatemala that aim to reform the prison system, which is controlled by current and former members of the military, Casa Artesana is the only organization that works with incarcerated women. Casa Artesana introduced art programs to incarcerated women in 2008.

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I love this painting, and seeing it on the walls of Casa Artesana felt like a special message linking disability and Guatemalan women’s rights. Mermaids are popular symbols for women with spinal cord injury, who feel like “landlocked mermaids.”

Casa Artesana also provides services to promote the economic self-sufficiency and wellbeing of the 1,2000 women in Guatemala’s 9 prisons. One such program is clothing donations, which give women materials to sew and sell handcrafts to other inmates and visitors.  Casa Artesana also advocates for improved living conditions in the prisons, and does political education trainings so that women will understand their rights, how the system works, and how to press charges for inhumane treatment. Casa Artesana has also established a phone line that women can use to call for help or make denouncements if they have been attacked or tortured.

Sandra continued that Casa Artesana is also working to establish separate prisons for women and men. She shared that many women of the women are from countries outside Guatemala, such as Venezuela and Colombia, and are charged with drug trafficking and organized crime. Although they participated in the crimes for which they are incarcerated, many times women were unwilling or unwitting victims who had been kidnapped or extorted.

In Guatemala’s prison system, some women wait for as long as six years to be sentenced. Children between the ages of 0-4 years old are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison. Casa Artesana takes care of children 4 years and older, identifying scholarships so that children are not sent to a “third-party” because most extended families of the incarcerated women are too poor support the children.

Following our tour of Casa Artesana, we sat with Sandra as she shared her own story with us. She is from Guatemala City, and joined the human rights movement at age fourteen. She attended the University of San Carlos in the 1980s, when violence against students was on the rise. She went into exile in Mexico and Canada to escape the violence. During her years in exile, she participated in solidarity work, developed her musical talents, and joined Canada’s women’s movement. After the signing of the Peace Accords, she returned to Guatemala City. Upon her return, she came out as a lesbian, and has been victimized because of her sexuality.

She has emerged as a leader in Guatemala’s women’s movement, and explained to us that she is “committed to understanding systems of oppression from different points of view.” She stated that, to create positive social change, activists must confront internalized beliefs of racism, homophobia, and other prejudices before addressing external systems of oppression. She insightfully commented that indigenous people are trying to re-value themselves against this external system, and are faced with an additional assault of structural violence that prevents them from valuing who they are.

Then, she opened the conversation up to us for questions, and we continued onto a dynamic conversation that spanned from the history of feminism to life for people with disabilities in Guatemala. Listening to Sandra share her breadth of knowledge regarding Guatemala’s history of social justice and observing the engaged flow of conversation from my fellow delegates, was immensely invigorating.

Sandra concluded our talk with the statement, “women are finding ways to confront the struggle, and we need to learn from the history of resistance.” She then abruptly grabbed her drum and sang a song titled “Mujer” (Woman).

Her rhythmic words and drumbeats reverberated in a profound way for each of us delegates. One delegate, a drummer, was deeply moved by Sandra’s performance, and told me she “had never heard anything like that before.” For me, Sandra’s song set to music our special week of “Women in Resistance.”

Sandra Moran drumming “Mujer”

Learn more about Sandra Moran and Casa Artesana

1. Moran, Sandra. “Mujer Maiz Mujer.” March 14, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9no4r1NIXI This youtube video of Sandra Moran singing and drumming “Mujer Maiz Mujer” is a dynamic performance, but does not give justice to the vital energy that comes across in her real-life performance.

2. Moran, Sandra. “Sandra Moran about Casa Artesana.” June 14, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huNjSAP3XOc This youtube video shows Sandra Moran speaking in English about Casa Artesana’s founding.

3. Gonzalez, Elma. “Activist Shares Turbulent Past.” The Ithacan. April 4, 2011. http://theithacan.org/12009 This interview between Sandra Moran and a staff writer from Ithaca College’s newspaper the “Ithacan” gives a more detailed glimpse into the varied stages of Sandra’s life.

4. Alford-Jones, Kelsey. “A Grassroots Activist on the Frontlines of the Women’s Movement.” Peace x Peace Blog. March 23, 2011. http://www.peacexpeace.org/2011/03/a-grassroots-activist-on-the-frontlines-of-the-women-movement/ GHRC Director Kelsey Alford-Jones’s blog post describes Sandra Moran’s inspiring role as leader in Guatemala’s women’s movement.

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