Both of the murals created for the Steinmen Festival in 1989 are currently displayed in the Owen D. Young Library on St. Lawrence University's campus. They are eye catching in their color, size, and dynamism and are saturated in imagery. The cultural and historical references of the murals speak both of the contemporary political state of Latin America as well as the historical relationships of colonization. The first mural created by the Orlando Letelier Mural Brigade features a large table with seated figures. The central theme is “No theory of people and society be currently serving the needs of both humankind and the planet”, and the mural's imagery reflects the tensions between people and their environment. The environmental message is contextualized within the political and historical world of Latin America and is illustrated through imagery which was iconic and relevant in 1989. The second mural was a collaboration between the brigade, the north country community, and St. Lawrence students, and is titled “A common thread.” While it is thematically related to the other mural, it focuses less on political life and more on folk tradition. It also contains imagery that is more specifically connected to aspects of life in the north country. Both murals speak to the interconnectedness of people, politics, history, the environment, and communities.
No theory of people and society be currently serving the needs of both humankind and the planet"
Media Carousel: Click through the above images for some of the mural's details
This mural, created in 1989, has many recurrent symbols and details. From left to right the background color changes from light to dark, symbolizing day to night. The people on the left side compared to those on the right side also go from positive to negative illustrations. As a whole, this represents the changes within Latin America and the complex political dynamics at this time.
The handprint in the bottom left corner of the mural was a signature done by Latin American poet, Claribel Algeria. She helped to sign this mural with the Orlando Letelier Mural Brigade at the Steinman Festival. Next to the handprint, it reads “Brigada Orlando Letelier 89.” In the mural, a man is picking corn and not sitting at the table. This clearly demonstrates the lower class peasants working in the agricultural industries throughout South America.
Curving around the whale, the writing says, “No theory of the people and society be currently serving the needs of both humankind and the planet.” This language is most likely in relation to the lack of caring that Pinochet and other global political leaders had for the people and the environment. It surrounds the whale, which is placed in the middle of the table, as if it were the main dish of the meal. During the time this mural was painted and designed, whaling was receiving harsh criticism from the international community and organizations like Greenpeace. In 1987, Japan declared that it would only hunt whales for scientific purposes, though many remained skeptical of the pledge. Then in the 1990s seven out of the nine nations who commercially hunted whales banned the practice1. International pressure to stop whaling through protests and art pieces (like this) are a part of the shift in laws.
To protest the Pinochet regime, many women made arperillas and sang songs. Chileans protested with vibrancy and colors and refused to be silenced. While the Arpillera movement was greatly influenced and facilitated by the church, the spread of music was more independent. Music as a form of protest is popular among many communities and is still a common phenomenon today. The woman playing the guitar is contributing to the protest and she also symbolizes the role that women played within the protest of Pinochet. Many women became arpilleristas and took a stand against the military regime through artistic forms illustrated in the mural. The monster to the left of her has a red string attached to its horn. This monster could represent the violent regimes that repressed protesters, a trend that touched many cultures in South America. On the string attached to the monster there is a man balancing, titled "3rd world." This represents how Chile and other developing nations around the world were struggling throughout this time period. The struggles of Chile and other South American countries tied back to the larger global Cold War, resulting in dictatorship and civil rebellion alike.
At the head of the dining table is a dead chicken. The man sitting at the head of the table appears as a representation of fat capitalists. He is dressed in a black and red striped suit. The effect of capitalism was scrutinized within South America because of the dependency that it created. The bear sitting to the right of the man in the suit represents Russia during the Cold War, placing an even larger emphasis on the political scene during this time period. The capitalist is tickling the bear, essentially goading him to violence. This interaction, combined with the imagery of the chicken, depicts how global super powers played a dangerous game of chicken with nuclear weapons during the cold war. Instead of eating the chicken, the bear has missiles in front of him, adding to that theme.
The bottom center of the mural is a figure facing away from the table, staring straight ahead. The mural uses imagery of division and juxtaposition, the left side of the figure is George Washington and the right is Karl Marx. This symbolizes the competing influences of the United States and communism in Latin America. However, because they are facing away, not interacting with the action in the rest of the mural and appearing sternly, it could also be a commentary on how Chile at the time lacked both liberty, represented by Washington and equality, represented by Marx. The rest of the people in the mural are engaged with each other around the table and are interacting with imagery representing Latin America, the non-interaction of Marx and Washington is striking. These culturally powerful symbols’ disapproving gazes show the unique effects of outside political and historical actors on Latin America.
One of the most notable aspects of the mural is its dynamism and the interactions of unrelated symbols which can be interpreted to show the interplay of factors in Chile during the time. A dark secret agent caricature wields a briefcase and a gun, firing a shot at a lightbulb and shooting through a banana held by a cowboy with a pack of Marlboros. A plate of bananas, a syringe, and a cleaver lay on the table between them. The bananas are a reference to banana republics, politically unstable countries which economically rely on the export of their resources. The Bananas symbolize Latin America's dependence on foreign exports and the political power of foreign investors. The economic dependence on and political control by foreign actors in Latin America had violent results. In addition to more literal agricultural exports, the Chilean economy was dependent on the copper industry which was dominated by U.S. multinational interests. The ability for foreign investors to control Chile’s most valuable export created economic and political tensions which are being portrayed by the handling of the bananas. A broader statement is being made, showing the agent, likely representing the CIA and the American coded cowboy’s control over and disregard for the bananas, a symbol of Latin American industries and economies.
At the end of the table sits a military general in sunglasses and a mustache, reminiscent of Pinochet, and a skeleton in a five-pointed crown. The general’s sash reads “More Aid” and he’s lifting a fork towards the decapitated blindfolded head on a plate. This shows the role of the military government in violence and torture and their dependence on the United States. The Junta relied on the U.S. economically for aid and foreign investment in Chilean industries, especially copper. The approval of the U.S. also served to politically legitimize Pinochet, and protect his regime from international pressure over human rights abuses. His sunglasses have money signs further illustrating the greed of the junta. The flaming arrow landing on the table is labeled FMLN, which stands for Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The FMLN was a coalition of leftist groups engaged in the Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992. Chile aligned with the United States and aided the government of El Salvador to violently suppress the FMLN during the war. The Salvadoran government used paramilitary death squads against the people of El Salvador, trained by the Chilean military2. Next to the general is a skeleton: while obviously a symbol of death, the skeleton is also juxtaposed with the fat man across the table from him. The contrast shows the unequal distribution of resources. A Hill news article from April of 1989 about the murals describes this image as a “toppled skeletal Statue of Liberty”3. The torch of liberty is extinguished, and the smoke becomes a cloud of pollution drifting off the mural. The skeleton’s crown has five points, the five-pointed star is a symbol of Chile found on the national flag. The globe on the table is oriented so that South America is above North America America and an arrow is pointed at New York which says “yo be here”. The fact that the orientation is seen as upside down shows America centric thinking and the arrow reminds Americans and St. Lawrence students of their position and distance from Chile.
Continuing with the contrast of the ends of the table, the colors on this end are darker than the left side. The fisherman at the bottom right is similar to the figure of the peasant farmer at the bottom left of the mural, but positioned to the right side next to the skeleton is a scene of death. The water is black and there is a dripping oil barrel next to it, and the fish in the net is a skeleton. One of the themes of the mural is the connection between people and the planet. The oil spill represents ecological disasters that are both caused by humans and intensely harmful to them. The mural was created in the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill so the imagery of the oil was especially meaningful. When the Exxon-Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil of the coast of Alaska on March 24th 1989, it was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. Though it has since been surpassed by the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, Exxon-Valdez forced Americans to acknowledge the hazards and disastrous effects of oil dependence4. This ties back to the central text on the mural “no theory of people in society meet currently the needs of the people and the planet”. This end of the mural has a row of chopped down trees as well, further contributing to the central theme of environmental degradation.
In the upper right corner, a conquistador stands with his arm around an indigenous `person, looking over the whole scene. The conquistador symbolizes the legacy of colonialism in Latin America. He holds a staff with the catholic symbol of the sacred heart, which is dripping blood onto the fisherman below. While the figures at the table represent modern political or economic aspects of Latin American life, the way that they are being viewed by the conquistador and indigenous person shows a larger legacy of western interference and violence.
A Common Thread...
The community led mural is called A Common Thread, which references the craftwork of Chilean women, while also tying Chile’s struggles to a broader global community. This mural uses bright colors and a patchwork layout in homage to arpilleras, as well as depicting folkcraft and religion more blatantly. The left square shows a woman in traditional Chilean dress against a background of mountains holding a fabric tapestry. The imagery celebrates traditional folk Chile. The mountains in the background are likely the Andes while the hills in the next panel could reference the foothills of the Adirondacks, which are near St. Lawrence University. The next panel continues with the patchwork motif, a flaming church and a sun are over a background of hills with planes flying over them. The church was an important human rights symbol in Chile due to the legal and advocacy work of the Vicaria de la Solidaridad5. The planes are an example of how the students tied together aspects of their surroundings with the themes of the mural. In 1989, while the mural was being worked on, there was protest in St. Lawrence county over low flying planes from nearby Fort Drum6. For the upstate community the planes represented the concern that the flyovers were disrupting wildlife in the Adirondack park. For Chileans the low flying planes represented the militaristic dictatorship. This mural uses traditional imagery of Chile alongside specific references to the time and place it was being created, tying it together with a common thread.
1"History of Greenpeace Campaign to save the Whales." Greenpeace International. January 9, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/What-we-do/oceans/whaling/campaign-….
2Arnson, Cindy, 2007. “Appendices: Foreign Military Assistance to El Salvador”, North American Congress on Latin America. https://nacla.org/article/appendices-foreign-military-assistance-el-sal…
3 Lowe, Brian, April 7 1989, “Mural By Letelier Brigade Unveiled In Library”, The Hill News, Canton NY.
4 “Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill”, Office of Response and Restoration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Revised: Nov 26, 2018.
5Aguilar, Mario I. 2003. "Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, the Catholic Church, and the Pinochet Regime, 1973-1980: Public Responses to a National Security State."(719-720), Catholic Historical Review 89 (4): 720-731. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=30h&AN=11691206&s…
6 Sam Howe Verhovek, November 18,1989, “Adirondacks Thundering at Bombing Runs” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/18/nyregion/adirondacks-thundering-at-b…
7Jennings, Nadine N., ed. "A Century of Change: A History of the Pulp and Paper Mills in St. Lawrence County, New York." The Quarterly Official Publication of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, July 1988, 14-20.
The left section has a woman holding a picture of a man while flying with music notes passing behind her. The picture that she is holding most likely represents the loved ones that have disappeared because of the Pinochet regime. This man could have been her husband, brother, or son. The music notes represent the colorful songs that Chileans also used to protest the Pinochet military regime. The illustration below relates to the water vane and is a picture of farmland with a barn, field, mountain, and water source. The symbol on the side of the barn actually relates to a St. Lawrence County protest against the building of the paper mill that was being disputed during the time of this mural’s creation7. St. Lawrence County had historically manufactured paper and the pollution that this produced was often never considered. The people that it hurt the most were the farmers on the Degrasse River. As time went by, the owners of the paper mills changed and the pollution continued to not be addressed. At the time of this mural the then-owners of the paper mill at the Natural Dam location, James River Corporation, wanted to expand and build another paper mill. This caused the controversy that led to it being included in the mural.
This part of the mural has a woman sitting at a table creating an arpillera. The Vicaria helped organize arpilleristas, who in turn worked to illustrate daily scenes of life and struggles under the strict military dictatorship. This gave women a voice and a platform to protest. Within the mural, the woman has stitched several scenes. The world most likely represents the international attention that the arperillas are garnering. The Vicaria would sell the arperillas around the world to help attract international press on the situation happening within Chile during the Pinochet regime. The white crosses represent the mass graves made for all of the disappeared. The military regime would arrest anyone who did not support Pinochet. Those arrested are depicted within the mural as red figurines with jail cells around them in the background. Many families were never given the bodies of their loved ones, nor were they told if their loved ones were alive or dead. She has also stitched five houses, possibly representing a shantytown. The woman herself could have come from a shantytown, as many working class women who needed basic subsistence money also participated in the arpillera movement. Shantytowns were often raided by the military regime. Many of these neighborhoods suffered under the economic policies that Pinochet put in place. The policies led to high unemployment rates and a housing crisis. Within the background, the stained glass window from St. Lawrence University's Herring Cole Building is seen. This shows the personalization of the mural by the St. Lawrence students who participated in the painting, in the same way that the farmland scene connects the other quadrant to the North Country.