Last November, la Parroquia de la Asunción in Santiago was sacked during protests against the government of Chile. Protesters pulled out the wooden pews as fuel for burning barricades against the police. Statues were thrown into the street. A statue of Mary was carried away above a protestor’s head while a bystander commented, “The Virgin is going to war.” In the midst of this chaotic scene was a procession, no longer religious, but still reliant upon the symbols of Chilean Catholic culture.
During the estallido social, which began last October, the Plaza Italia was the site of violent confrontations between Los Carabineros, the national police, and la Primera Línea, those who envision themselves as the “Front Line” that protects the people from the state. Nearby, one wall of the enormous Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) has become the site of memorials to those who have died or been injured in the protests. Built during the Allende era, and used by Pinochet for government offices, Centro GAM is now a cultural center for music and the performing arts. It is also the site of some of Chile’s most spectacular protest art and graffiti. Images depict blood running from the eyes of famous political and historical figures, suggesting both the police violence that has caused so many eye injuries and the blindness of the upper class and government to the desperation of the people. The art at Centro GAM has changed daily. When the government ripped down and painted over the memorial, it was recreated the next day.
Some protest art has an openly anti-religious message. Graffiti marking the exterior of churches—“Dios no existe” (God doesn’t exist) and satanic symbols—is particularly unnerving to Chilean Christians, many of whom are sympathetic to the protests. Yet it is hard to attribute a consistently secular ideology to the movement as a whole. Some of the protest art appropriates religious iconography. One frequent image is of a black dog with a red bandana and a halo (see page 24). Another portrays Jesus, surrounded by dogs, with the face of Keanu Reeves, a reference to the John Wick film series in which the main character (played by Reeves) goes on a rampage of retribution after his dog is killed. These images are often ironic, playfully sending up the conventions of Catholic hagiography.
Yet the wall of Centro GAM also includes memorials and tributes to fallen protesters next to unironic images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The memorial links these casualties to the deaths of earlier heroes—like the indigenous leader “Lonko” Juan Collihuín Catril and Víctor Jara, a musician who was tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. A painting of Mauricio Fredes, who died running away from the Carabineros, links him to a long history of struggle. In a representation of a tree—titled “The Sacred Tree of Chile”—the trunk and branches contain the names of the martyrs who constitute that history.