A Discussion with Selvin Peres Hernandez, Teacher and Catholic Youth Activist, and Elvis Perez Hernandez, Visual Artist and Catholic Youth Worker

With: Selvin Peres Hernandez Berkley Center Profile Elvis Perez Hernandez Berkley Center Profile

January 20, 2016

Background: Young people often take the initiative within church settings to address what they see as urgent problems in their community. This discussion with two siblings, Selvin Peres Hernandez and Evis Perez Hernandez, with Carlos Martinez Ruiz in Guatemala on January 20, 2016 describes and assesses a range of youth-led activities. Initially working within Catholic parishes, the groups encountered resistance from Catholic Church leadership, but they persisted in their efforts, including allying themselves with young people from other churches. These two youth leaders offer a generally optimistic view of the approaches and attitudes of Guatemala’s youth, but they bemoan the lack of support and opportunities to engage, notably from the Church.
What is your background, and how did you come to your current work?

Selvin Peres Hernandez: I am from Esquipulas, Chiquimula, Guatemala, and I am 28 years old. I initially studied to be an accountant, but through a stroke of destiny, I ended up training to become a teacher. I began working as a teacher in 2006; I work in two schools and also support an institution for advanced education that is geared towards adults. I have also worked on many different social projects with focuses ranging from religion to politics.

I work with many young members of the Church, so I was looking for a way to direct these young Catholics’ energies into something productive. After speaking with friends and acquaintances, I was able to start a small youth group. Young people from different churches and various religious denominations started to join, until we couldn’t call it a strictly Catholic youth group anymore. Thus, our initial concept was to have a youth group that welcomed different religious affiliations and to work on several activities and projects with that group. The group started out with six young people with whom we visited villages and orphanages. In Esquipulas, there is a home for abandoned children that receives support from various individuals, but it’s not much. So the youth group members acted as intermediaries between the needy and the businessmen. We had meetings with them and explained what we truly wanted to achieve as a youth group: to help those without opportunities.

Elvis Peres Hernandez: I am also from Esquipulas, Chiquimula, a small town of about 50,000 people in eastern Guatemala. My experience in terms of religion is somewhat similar to my brother’s because I also worked with church youth groups for many years, developing these groups and helping young people to create something positive. It helped me a great deal in my education and training, even though I am not so much a believer anymore. For me, religion is the foundation of human beings because it gives us values.

I am a self-taught artist and learned through observation, logic, and experimentation. I’m knowledgeable about drawing and painting. I focus on portraits, and I am a realist who tries to achieve hyperrealism. In this sense, a feeling of wanting to contribute to the youth surged in me because I have seen a great deal of talent in many places. Unfortunately, there are no artistic opportunities available to them. This is why I started holding painting and drawing classes. So there’s a variety of things that define my work, as well as my free time.

What is the religious context of Esquipulas?

Esquipulas is a highly religious place. The economic base is the Black Christ. I say the base because all of Esquipulas revolves around the basilica and the Christ. It’s a life-sized crucified Christ constructed from black wood by Quirio Cataño, who was an artisan. Esquipulas is a pilgrimage destination for Central America, Latin America, and the world. Esquipulas is on the map because of the Christ. If the Christ didn’t exist, Esquipulas would just be like any other place. So tourism is completely religious. Everything revolves around the basilica—hotels, food sales, dining rooms, all of the businesses. Everything has to do with the Christ. We could say that the Church is indebted—we could call it a moral debt—to the people of this city.

It must have been intense to grow up in Esquipulas surrounded by this.

Elvis: Yes, there is religiosity everywhere you turn. Sometimes religion is not as perfect as one imagines it to be. At the moment I am agnostic—I don’t practice any religion. But religion leaves a mark on you. I think that the young people carry that mark and that concept of being a perfect youth. In a way, this affects young people, because it gives them a strict and marked code of conduct, and anyone who steps beyond that code is seen as a bad person. This is a factor that intervenes in the development of young people.

It’s not just the city benefitting from the Church; the Church also benefits from the city, because people that come offer their support and then leave. The economy of the Church is quite good. However, in my opinion the Church contributes little to the community. An example is the arts, because there is no support for projects, and not just artistic ones, but any project. It seems that the Church is receiving, and only indirectly producing in return. There is no dialogue with the different groups that want to work with the youth, even though it’s well-known that the base of the Church is also the youth. So there are no youth projects, which is contradictory.

Is Esquipulas located on the drug routes?

Yes, and many young people have opted to make easy money. They are usually employed as messengers or errand boys. And there’s no space or central place where a young person can devote his time and energy. Unfortunately, this leads them to occupy their time with destructive activities.

Do you [Elvis] teach at a school or independently?

Elvis: I teach independently and work with other friends who share their talents. We have formed a group to work with young people on drawing, painting, and music. We became privatized because we had to charge a fee to be able to rent a space and offer materials. This is why I criticize not only the Church, but also the different government entities and institutions, because the work that we were doing was not being done in Esquipulas. The arts did not have any support; or, the support was very limited if offered. So we started a youth initiative in order to give back to society. It was called Artistic Space. We had a desire to give something back to society. But we couldn't rely on anyone. We asked for the support of different entities—the municipality itself, the Church—but they offered no support. I see very basic projects coming from them, without judgment.

How did you learn about art?

Elvis: When I first wanted to start painting, I wanted to go to an art school but was not accepted because there were a lot of students. Then I made a painting, and it was really ugly. I took it to the teacher at that time and he saw it, laughed, and gave it back to me. I took it as a snub. If I had a different personality, it might have discouraged or disappointed me, but I interpreted it as a challenge. I went home, made a new painting, took my time, and I brought it back. When the teacher saw it, he told me that he was going to teach me, but I decided not to go back because of my pride. But it helped me. Classical art has influenced me a great deal—artists such as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Monet, and different movements and techniques from the old masters. But I developed my technique myself. All I’ve done is observe paintings and deduce how they were done—a lot of what I do is observation. Most of my paintings are portraits, which I use a lot for realist purposes. I also work on landscapes and still lifes. I do a bit of modernism too, so I don’t limit myself to any one thing.

Are you still active with your group of students, despite no longer working with the Church?

Elvis: Yes, I have a small group. It’s small because I have my own pedagogical process and way of teaching. My foundation doesn’t come from classes; I developed my skills on my own. I try to explain this to the students and work with them. There are only about five talented young people in the group, because the students have to go through a process similar to the one I went through. This way they don’t just learn, but they also experience.

When were you [Selvin] most involved with youth groups?

Selvin: This was from 2008 to 2012; we visited that orphanage around once a year. Two years into visiting, we received an excellent aid package from Entidades del Hijo Ausente, an organization based in the United States. They gave us an extremely large box of children’s clothes, toys, and stuffed animals that we delivered to the orphanage. We used to bring them food, candy, piñatas—whatever we could manage to get in time for those meetings. The church gave us permission to work but didn’t give us any direct support. However, there was a priest at that time who supported us quite a bit. He was essentially the leader of the Youth Ministry [Pastoral Juvenil] in Esquipulas. Unfortunately, he left to continue his studies in Rome, and his departure led to our downfall. When he left, they gave his position with the Youth Ministry to another priest who wasn’t keen on giving that space to the youth. We continued our work through rebellion—there used to be eight Catholic youth groups, but after the new priest came, we were the only group still working.

One nice activity was on December 12, that we called Charity Night. We would go to shopping centers and bakeries, with a letter explaining that we wanted to help homeless and poverty-stricken people, and asking for donations. We used to take coffee, bread, and soup and hand it out in the streets and parks in the villages where people were braving the cold. We did that every year for four years, from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. We kept working until the Youth Ministry was dissolved. There was no support for it within the Church, since the community didn’t like the idea of meetings happening when there wasn’t someone managing them. So we had to cease our work. But our fight did not stop there; a few members remained, and we organized a few activities whenever we could help, despite no longer receiving the support of the Church.

We called ourselves Lion of the Tribe of Judah Catholic Youth Group [Grupo Juvenil Católico la Tribu del León de Judá], so the Church leaders started paying attention to us. We had been researching names and ultimately found the Lion of Judah. It’s not so much about religion or the name; it’s about working for God. When we took that name, the abbot met with us and told us that there was no problem and that we should keep working. Later, they shortened the name and called us the Tribe Youth Group. But we didn’t care—we just wanted to help. We also visited villages where there were a number of Youth Ministry national meetings. We were visiting, sharing, and working even though the other groups disbanded. But then, problems arose with the Church leaders, and they didn't want us to continue.

Only three or four colleagues remained after that, but we kept working, always with the goal of helping people. We collected supplies and brought them to the nursing home and to needy families that we knew. That’s also when we started working with my brother to create an artistic space where young people could learn about art. Going back to the Tribe, we maintained that vision of supporting the needy in the community by holding meetings for children who were 9 to 11 years old. We also held various meetings with community leaders who urged us to continue our work. We still have people, even owners of commercial businesses, that ask us, “You don’t hold the charity nights anymore?” But we didn’t have the direct support of any of the churches. Since it was initially a Catholic group, we never wanted to bring our work to any other church. But that doesn't mean that there weren’t calls; people were supportive because they saw our leadership. We still would rather like to start back up and get involved, but our movement was cut off.

Why do you think there was this resistance or lack of interest by the Church to support you?

I think it’s because the Church has a certain way of doing things. We functioned as a Youth Ministry group because we worked with young people directly. The Church said that we were doing a great job, but that other Youth Ministry groups already existed for that same purpose.

Was the problem that your group was outside the organizational structure of the Church?

Perhaps. We were within the structure, but the Church said we were encroaching on the duties of others. But they weren’t doing their duty, and we had that energy, that initiative. We didn’t care, so we just started to work. Before this, as an active part of the ministries, we were already visiting young people. We met with other groups from other communities in other municipalities, and they saw our willingness and our initiative, but they also saw the persistent feeling of mistrust coming from the Church. However, the community needs support. There are people who want to work directly because the Church isn’t doing anything.

What was your relationship with the evangelical church?

We didn’t want a relationship with them since we started through the Catholic Church. All six of us had Catholic roots, but we never pushed aside anyone coming from other churches. These same people would tell us that they liked our group because we were unified and worked together. We didn’t simply devote ourselves to studying the Bible, but instead worked to channel the energy of the youth into something productive. We held various workshops on how to exploit that energy so that they might truly discover those principles and values that they held, so that they would know that they too were free. We also asked leaders of other youth groups to join us, and after participating in our activities, they would replicate them with their own youth groups. It was then that we saw the greatest boom within the Church. We lit a fire under these leaders, and they began to replicate our work and started groups in support of all types of activities. It was shortly after this that the Youth Ministry closed and everything crumbled.

How do you see the challenges that the youth are faced with in Guatemala?

Within our group, we had young people with cases of drug addiction, alcoholism, and broken homes. Eventually we reached the point where they were able to leave all of that behind. They were so focused on our work that they abandoned all of their vices and started concerning themselves more with the Church. There are many challenges, many problems that the youth encounter. The town where we work, Esquipulas, is a border town, which is basically open. Therefore, there’s widespread corruption and drug addiction.

How do you think the evangelical or Catholic churches can provide constructive spaces besides inviting young people to pray?

What I’ve noted is that the majority of the churches continue to work in their old-fashioned ways. But if we really want to encourage the youth towards a good path, we need to start working with what they like and what grabs their attention. A lot of times I’ve seen them try to reach young people, thinking that they know what they like, but they don’t conduct research to learn about their wishes, the activities that they like, or their pastimes. Instead, they just invent some activity and try to involve them. Some participate—perhaps it’s due to the pressure or something that one particular group likes, or perhaps they’re there because they have a commitment and they’re there with their parents. I think that the Church has the potential to influence young people a lot. However, this depends on having a broad outlook on young people’s current perspectives.

Given all the political changes in 2015 in Guatemala, how do you see youth roles in the future?

My recent work at the university was focused on youth, children, and adult participation in the electoral processes, with particular attention to youth. I started working with youth as a volunteer with the hopes of seeing a better, changed Guatemala. I find that young people are no longer seeing the issues with a political tinge; instead, they are now focusing on Guatemala’s development.

And do you think that’s only been since 2015?

I think so, because of the process that has been occurring and all the events that have taken place. They eliminated that political bias. There is a desire to improve Guatemala, even though there are some who say they don’t care. There is a vision of improvement, and I am not lying when I say that if they could be a part of some organization, whether for social or political improvement, they would participate. The issue here is that large organizations simply do not offer their support. They just don’t. I realized that when we started our volunteer work, there were young people willing to work, but there were no supplies or materials to help them. So my college friends and I took money from our own pockets to give talks so that they could see the political situation that is taking place, as a part of social and democratic development. When we visited various schools, we realized that they knew, understood, and expressed democratic sentiments, but there is no manual to tell us where to work, or where the youth can help. Energy and desire exists among the youth, but it doesn’t have a focus. In our case, we don’t have an organization that could support us.

Among the youth, there is definitely a vision of change; they hope for a lot. One of their biggest hopes is to participate and contribute. I used to arrive at the talks, and some of them would say to me, “I am 17, but I can’t vote.” We would explain to them that it was impossible for them to vote under the current laws, but that they could support the development of Guatemala through the Supreme Electoral Court programs, or through civic volunteer work. Thankfully there was a lot of youth involvement, and they supported those activities. Unfortunately, there’s always the backward view of the party leaders, who only think about what benefits them. They say that we are favoring other parties, when in reality, we were just trying to make it easier to vote. I was encouraged when, after the polling centers closed, the young people would say to me, “I am so exhausted, but I feel satisfied, because even though I couldn’t vote, I was able to do something for my Guatemala.” And that wasn't something I said, but something they expressed.

How would you [Elvis] characterize current municipal art projects?

Elvis: They are projects without direction or vision. The people in charge just want to hold events. There’s nothing that follows a sequence, that takes time, or that has long-term goals. They just decide to do something, and they do it. That doesn’t help, because these young people are growing up and going through different stages in their lives, and they’re training little by little. So the municipality makes it exciting at first, but then they don’t follow up. In reality, they aren’t doing anything except essentially frustrating young people.

So the main problem is a lack of sustainability?

Elvis: Exactly—it’s worse. Our vision was to change that, so that it wouldn’t be something that lasted a day, or a year, but instead it would be a process. I have been working with some young people indirectly for three years, little by little. I try to motivate them so that they keep working, and so that they can motivate and better themselves. I try to make it a progression. But there’s no support from any institutions, in terms of the churches, etc. In the beginning, there was a desire to create groups to work with young people; not necessarily to change them, but to plant seeds so that they could gradually begin to blossom.

On a personal note, growing up, I was very rebellious—I stopped going to school, I had problems at home, things like that. Then, when I started to work with issues in the Church, it helped me a lot. It centered me, and it helped me think more about things. But to my dismay, when I wanted to do something good, I didn’t receive support, but instead received criticism from a local priest. When the priest saw that we were working with a lot of young people and that other groups didn’t have the same ability to attract the youth, he told us not to continue our work with them. He didn’t think it was right that someone who didn’t have experience with religion and who had a past that didn’t jive with the church’s ideals was more accepted among the youth than he was. Our groups were very big, and we had a lot of activities. We helped each other, supported each other—it was like a family. But all of this was frowned upon.

That’s when I started to see the reality of things: there are no opportunities for a young person to try to do something good or contribute in some way. So that’s when I stopped working with the Church and started working of my own accord. I don’t think it’s necessary to practice a religion in order to be a good person, even though it gives you an identity in society.

How do you see youth civic involvement in Guatemala today?

Esquipulas has a lot of young people with potential but without direction. Thus, there is a good deal of participation; at the very least, there are young people involved in raising awareness about the elections. I think that there are youth movements throughout Guatemala. Many young people in Esquipulas are active in that sense. Besides that, many young people are active in church matters, both evangelical and Catholic. I think there is potential, but they don’t have leaders, so there is no direction or concrete goals—it’s all fleeting. There was a group called Youth in Esquipulas [Jóvenes en Esquipulas], but now that the elections are over, they do not have much to do. The potential for a movement thus dissipated, resulting from a lack of well-thought out, well-formulated direction with clearly set goals.

I think that what is missing is leaders who support; they could be religious, and they could guide these young people. The talent and willingness is there, but there’s no follow up. This is an issue everywhere.
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