Terremoto discusses Latinx history by revisiting a child’s memory of protection and community

grunt gallery presents a new exhibition by Salvadoran visual artist Michelle Campos Castillo questioning what can feel like community care when a child lives through civil war and fractured political landscapes.

“I think community care can help people through tragedy and disaster, and is especially relevant right now that we are experiencing pandemics and climate change disasters,” says Castillo who is currently living in Edmonton (AB) and exhibiting her show in Vancouver. “However, I think North America operates on a really individualistic level.”

Photo by Michelle Campos Castillo

In Terremoto, the artist investigates how specific moments in time overlap narratives of community care. Based on archival materials, video recordings, and her own memories of living through the magnitude 7.5 earthquake in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, in 1986.

Castillo analyzes this defining moment in a decade of civil war, and fractured political and cultural landscapes.

Her show, curated by Vanessa Kwan for grunt gallery, consists of site-specific wall pieces, installation, audio + video media works, and a publication that are used to question the nuanced lines of memory and history in times of care and crisis.

“My interest was largely because I lived it, and the aftermath of that event was an example of times my community in El Salvador made me feel safe despite troubled circumstances, mostly living through a civil war,” she affirms.

Fragments of memory: what remains when the body remembers

Although acknowledging that her version of what happened in 1986 is very idealized because she was a small child that people worked hard to protect, Terremoto allowed Castillo to explore through an artistic experiment what family members would share as versions of their stories, confronted by news articles and official records.

Only having heard fragments of the event up until the starting point of Terremoto, Castillo found an opportunity to sit down and review with her loved ones personal intakes on a catastrophe that was felt collectively.

Surprised by so much that was left unknown, like when her sister (who was 12 at the time) had to walk home for 4 hours from school since public transit was suspended, or by certain sensory memories like the kinds of sounds you hear when the ground breaks, the artist agrees that such an intense search within memory brought her a sense of community that had been long lost.

“At least in Edmonton, I never grew up knowing neighbors or feeling cared for by them as I did in El Salvador. I experienced war as a child but the impact was way less traumatic because of the community of care around me. I specifically included Spanish translations in the exhibition because I wanted the work to be accessible to Salvadoran communities, and the many other people from Central and South America who can relate to these experiences as well,” Castillo says.

Community womb and the feeling of being safe

As the show’s synopsis suggests, the woven hammock – a Salvadoran staple – became a place of refuge for Castillo and her sisters, as they slept outside to avoid the danger of crumbling architecture. In the show, this metaphor for survival is intertwined with Terremoto’s symbolic statements.

“The hammock is very womb-like in the way it envelops a person and relates to the feeling of how I felt protected as a child in the midst of disaster and war”, the artist explains, reaffirming the importance of creating work that relates to an artist’s community, in the hopes that the community can be seen reflected in the work.

“Ultimately it’s only one story from one immigrant and refugee,” she says. “So many immigrants were displaced and didn’t have a choice but to leave our homelands. Our countries were beautiful and full of culture prior to outside, mostly U.S., intervention. There’s a lot to celebrate and a lot to miss.”

Terremoto runs July 9–Aug. 13, 2022. For more information visit: www.grunt.ca