Nicolas Chavez Sojuel
Hand-carved wood sculpures in Central America
"So they took turns to sleep and if they saw soldiers approaching they'd wake me up and I'd escape through the false door we built, and run to the hills. Back then, I was only 20 years old.""I was born in Cantón Tzanjuyú, a village by Atitlán Lake. We are seven siblings and, painfully, we lived together with our parents for only short period of time because Mom got gravely ill and Dad dedicated all of his time to looking after her. We didn't have much money and there was no one else to look after us, so we were each placed with good families who took charge of our welfare.
"I went to live with Juan Sisay, regarded as Santiago Atitlán's 'first fine arts painter.' He put a roof over my head and fed me. My siblings joined other families – it was the only solution so we could eat and be properly cared for.
"My older brother Juan and I learned to carve and the little money we made we gave it to dad so he could buy mom's medicines.
"Juan Sisay taught me to appreciate art and to live from it. Dad, one of the first wood carvers in our village, taught me to carve. And since Juan and I were interested in learning new things all the time, we would befriend tourists who worked in other art forms so they could teach us.
"When I was 12 years old I started to work assisting Father Rother at our village's church. He was an American priest from Oklahoma that had driven his Chevrolet 2,000 miles from Oklahoma to Guatemala to dedicate his life to helping our people. I assisted him with general church organization and also cleaned and made sure everything was in order. He'd pay me enough to eat and help at home. When I was 15 years old my brother started carving the church's altar and Father Rother said to me, 'If you like to carve and want to practice, you can help your brother and I can pay you.'
"He didn't need to tell me twice – next morning I was already helping my brother with the carving. The Father paid me 17 Quetzales per month and I was happy. This was my first art work, of which I am still proud. And, it is still there, in our village's church.
"From there I started showing my work and selling to tourists. From us seven siblings, only Juan and I carve, making Dad immensely happy because we are preserving the family legacy he started. He taught us a lot despite everything he had to do to caring for Mom. Seeing how he struggled, my siblings and I helped out by washing their clothes, cooking, and doing the house work.
"During the 1970s Guatemala was engulfed in an armed conflict, but in our village we enjoyed a relative calm. However in 1977 the army arrived in Santiago with information of guerrilla cells living here, and they believed good Father Rother was their leader. He had nothing to do with them, they just thought he did because he helped out a lot of people and no one knew where the money was coming from.
"Actually the money was coming from donations, which he used to invest in sponsoring vocational workshops where people learned to weave, carve, read and write. He also helped the elderly, the sick and the orphans.
"The army then said everyone working with him was a revolutionary and so they began to persecute Father Rother and his collaborators.
"I was still working at the parish and those were difficult times, of great fear, of staying indoors and of looking after each other. On July 28 1981, they tortured and killed Father Rother at the rectory. Since then, everyone in the village refers to him as both Father Francisco, and as the Good Shepherd. His body was sent back to his family in Oklahoma to be buried, but he was so special to us here that they let us keep his heart, which is enshrined in our church, under the altar my brother and I carved, with a mason jar of his blood.
"By the time Father Rother was assassinated, there were already many children made orphans because their families had been killed too. I took in several youths between the ages of 10-12. A week after the assassination, I started being persecuted too. Soldiers would come knocking at my door at night.
"The kids came up with a plan – I would teach them how to carve and in return they would look after me. So they took turns to sleep and if they saw soldiers approaching they'd wake me up and I'd escape through the false door we built, and run to the hills. Back then, I was only 20 years old. I spent a lot of time hiding in the hills in those years and I would carve from my hiding places.
"Even though those were highly stressful times, I knew I couldn't forget about my art and my work. I knew I had to keep on going and make sure dad's legacy wouldn't die with me. I continued teaching the orphaned kids as well as those at school. There were about 10 kids living with me, and I didn't have enough tools for them, my dad wasn't working and I was still contributing to the household expenses. Plus, I couldn't leave home, because if I did, they'd kill me.
"After some time I was contacted by Father Gregorio, from neighboring San Lucas Tolimán. He told me Father Rother had recommended me and wanted to place some orders for carvings and altar pieces for the church. He bought several pieces from us, so I had more money to work with the kids.
"By then I felt confident that my students could work and sell on their own, so I decided to leave home and deliver some pieces to Father Gregorio.
"I was on my way, riding a public bus, when the military ordered it to stop. They got on the bus, read out a list of names, and saw a red cross next to my name. They had to take me with them. Thank God there was a young woman traveling on the bus who used to be Father Rother's secretary. I was able to leave with her our pieces and what little money I had with me. She took it all to Father Gregorio and informed him of my abduction.
"They took me to an isolated place in a coffee grove. It was raining hard. They accused me of being with the guerrilla and I asked them who had told them so? I explained to them that I worked at the parish, that I helped people out, and that I knew nothing about the guerrilla.
"They didn't care.
"Their leader, who they referred to as lieutenant or something like it, arrived and they pushed me into a latrine – a blind covered hole filled with feces and human waste. They'd throw me a couple of tortillas a day and if I didn't catch them in time they'd fall in the excrement which came up to my knees.
"I was kept there for three days and two nights. They'd urinate and defecate on me. I prayed day and night – I knew I hadn't done anything wrong.
"They took me out to interrogate me about Father Rother's project about taking the sick to the hospital and have the parish pay for it. We used to take about 20 people a month. It was truly a work of charity, there was nothing wrong with it.
"We waited for the lieutenant to make a decision – I don't know what exactly did he say, but I got thrown back in the latrine.
"In the middle of the darkness and the silence I clearly heard a voice that said, 'Nicolás, how are you?' And then the voice said, 'Do not worry.' That voice sparked something in me and gave me strength.
"I started jumping but couldn't get out or find something to hold on to haul myself up. The excrement was up to my knees so I couldn't jump that high. But I tried again, and I don't know how something helped me get out. It was a miracle.
"I couldn't breathe. I tried to avoid making any noise. I saw there was a soldier about 15 meters away from me and I said to myself 'Yes! I'm out! And if I made it out it is because God wants it that way and I have to do it.'
"I wanted to come out alive. I wanted to go home, to work, and to continue helping my people. I rolled down a 20 meter hill, I walked for a while and I came to a little house by a church. I asked the man there for help and even though he couldn't make sense of what I was saying or why I stank so much, he offered me clean clothes. I remember them well, a red shirt and green pants.
"He nervously asked me who I was and if I was being persecuted. He then asked me to leave for fear they'd kill him too. He showed me which way to go, thinking I'd be home in four or five hours. It was dark so he gave me a torch light which I didn't use because I didn't want the soldiers to see me.
"The full moon was bright enough for me to follow the path. I didn't know where I was but I kept on walking, trusting in the Lord. After two or three hours I heard gun shots – they were looking for me. I hid and rested and finally I arrived in Santiago about 1 am.
"As I crossed the soccer field I was met by another group of soldiers who asked me why I had broken curfew. I lied and told them and said I went looking for a doctor for my mother who was dying. They believed me and let me go.
"I went home to tell Dad I had escaped but he wouldn't answer the door, he was scared. I whispered in a low voice it was me and he opened it. He said he'd been praying for my safe return when he heard me knocking. I went to see Mom and neither of them could believe I had escaped. Everyone else was being killed.
"I started to work again, never leaving the house. I believed they were still looking for me and that they'd kill me if they found me, and I would not allow that to happen. Father Gregorio would buy the wood and bring it home. We'd send them back the finished pieces.
"The kids started working on their own and selling their own pieces. They lived with us up until they were 17 years old. They still come round to see me as we care for each other very much. Now they have their own families and their own workshops.
"The work you see in shops and galleries throughout Guatemala, as well as in some parts of the world, is often made by them.
"Many good people have helped me throughout my life, since I was a little boy. I am grateful for every moment I have lived and I am grateful for the art that my father taught me. I love to sculpt, and my life has been beautiful. I never want to stop working.
"When I was 23 years old I dedicate all of my time to sculpting wood. By then my life had gotten better since I wasn't being persecuted anymore. I work with a lot of love. And, I am now my village's historian.
"My own children are enjoying this art form too, and they help me when I have too much work.
"My thanks go to Novica for finding me and giving me the space to tell my story, and share my art with the world."