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BWB NEWS 06/10/2024

Peronia Adolescente: 2019 Community Microgrant Update

by Roxane Jessi

Guatemala City, with its potholes, endless traffic, and mosaic map of different colored zones, depending on security risk. Safer streets abruptly give way to red gang-controlled areas – it’s one of those places where you can never truly let your guard down. As an aid worker, I’m here on a work assignment and to meet Peronia Adolescente, the Burners Without Borders (BWB) supported NGO running a youth cultural center in the red zone of the city. 

The organization helps youth, especially young girls, in their transition from teenager to adulthood when they are particularly vulnerable to cycles of violence, and a potential life on the streets. Once a year, their street festival brings vibrancy to the community – a testament of the power of connecting through art – and one that deeply resonates with the Burner ethos.

I sit down in a worn-out taxi bound for the red zone to meet Lesli, a Peronia Adolescente ambassador, who leads the youth center’s circus performance activities. The car jerks along the uneven road, the streets lined with barrio buildings and shops secured with prison-like grilles. I am on my guard as locals observe us pulling into the run-down neighborhood. Finally, the youth center comes into view, its walls painted vibrant shades of purple and blue, decorated with books and musical instruments. With its splash of color, it stands out like a beacon in an otherwise bleak world.

My host Lesli has a shock of bright blue hair, cropped short – she explains with a belly laugh – to avoid unfortunate fire spinning accidents. Despite her bubbly personality, her young life has been marked by hardship, as is all too common for girls growing up here. “In Guatemala, adolescence begins at age 11, and many kids don’t have a childhood” she tells me. Children are often taken out of school early and sent to work, and violence can start at home. The allure of joining gangs offering protection is ever present. “But here, kids have a safe place where they can express themselves through painting, playing drums, and performance art. We create these spaces that should exist in the community, but don’t.”

We are interrupted when the door swings open, the room filling with the giggles of the boisterous 30 or so youth who peer in curiously. They have gathered here for a clean-up day. It is one of the many weekly activities that keeps them engaged in community and creative projects, and off the streets. Although the center is small with only a couple of rooms, that could do with a lick of paint, for workshops, funding this space was a dream that took years to realize.

Despite the safe haven it provides, the youth center struggles to stay afloat. Burners Without Borders (BWB) understands the importance of its work, which aligns with the Burning Man principles. The collaboration came about through Anna, an American volunteer, who secured a BWB  microgrant for Peronia Adolescente back in 2018. Though she hasn’t been to a Burn herself, her partner has built art at Black Rock City. “I was searching high and low for any groups that might support a movement using art for change; that way of working is not common.”

As Burners we have all felt a yearning for creativity and self-expression. But here art is not just a creative outlet – it’s a lifeline. Lesli’s face visibly changes as she tells me how discovering circus performance through Peronia Adolescente turned her world around. Her passion is palpable as she explains “to live from art, from what transforms you is bien perro (slang for very difficult) in the system we live in… to be in movement, to be creating, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.” She looks out the window, the desolate alleyways a stark contrast to the colorful life she describes.

But once a year everything feels within reach. The barrio comes alive during the street festival organized by Peronia youth. The road is blocked off on either end so there are no cars. Instead, circus performance, storytelling, games, face painting, balloons, fill the snaking alleyways, transforming the neighborhood for a day. Dressed-in brightly colored costumes, the youth walk high on stilts, their faces and bodies painted, embodying the “gigantes,” the larger-than-life figures built for the parade. Others sing, dance, beat loudly on drums, and play, reclaiming the streets and the childhood that has been taken from them.

Beyond the celebration, the event provides a platform for public denunciation.  Last year, forty-one giant painted butterflies were released into the sky, each one representing the loss of a young girl who suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of authorities – a reminder of the injustices that still haunt the community. “We commemorate the women who fought for the opportunities we have today and honor the memory of those who suffered. All women are powerful, valuable, and capable of achieving whatever we set our minds to” Lesli later tells me defiantly with tears in her eyes.

The festival is the culmination of all the artistic displays created throughout the year. Groups or “commissions” are set up to support production, logistics, food, agenda, and sound, each one made up of children. Through this experience they are taught practical skills they don’t learn in school and have fun doing it.

The whole neighborhood comes out and joins in. Fire, which we gather around at so many Burn events, is also a connector here with fire spinning and breathing delighting the crowds. In this way, year on year the organization is winning the hearts of not just the children, but of their parents, who witness the power of art in revitalizing the community first-hand. And gradually the tide is turning towards a more hopeful future.

Back in the taxi, I replay the stories I have heard, deeply moved by the strength of the women who have shared them. In a world where art in community-building is undervalued, BWB supported-projects such as Peronia Adolescente recognize the central role it plays to help us dream, connect, and reimagine the world around us. Its importance cannot be overstated in an environment like Peronia’s. As Burners we can support these dreams, spreading the magic off-playa and into the world’s streets. As I head back to Guatemala City, I picture the now empty alleyways bustling with festivities. Little by little the youth center disappears from view, dwarfed by the grey sprawling suburbs. 

BWB supports other projects in Guatemala such as Limitless Horizons which creates opportunities for the indigenous youth, women, and families of Chajul, Guatemala, to develop the academic and professional skills they need to effect change in their lives and community. Chajul is one of the municipalities most severely affected by the Civil War, and there is still a lot of trauma amongst families living there. ​​Limitless Horizon runs a school in the area which focuses on empowering youth, including through artistic expression, which is central to its approach.  

About the Author : Roxanne Jessi

Roxane Jessi is an aid worker and roving Burner who has participated in more than a dozen different Burns around the globe. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, “Once Upon a Time in the Dust, Burning Man Around the World,” which chronicles the year she spent participating in seven Regional Burning Man Events on six continents.


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