Guatemala Reflections: The Intangible Experience

I grew up in Guatemala. However, the last time that I visited downtown Guatemala City was over a decade ago. Every time I've gone back, I've avoided downtown. I've had some bad experiences in that city. So when the ZERO1 staff behind American Arts Incubator told me that I would be working in the city for a month, I got the chills. I took this as a challenge to face my fear of Guatemala City and this challenge gave me the opportunity to see Guatemala urban culture from a new perspective. I was able to connect easily with the project participants and understand their experiences. Several of them told me their city life stories; unfortunately, they had scary moments in them too. Perhaps that’s why someone always offered to walk with me every time that I had to leave the building. They know too how bad Guatemala City can be.

This kind of human gesture showed me a side of the culture that I had never seen before; an appreciation for life and the desire to share that with others and help keep them safe. My experience had always been “everyone for themselves.”

Another impactful experience happened during the workshop week while I was explaining the theme of the project — economic equity. Some participants, in a very respectful and kind way, said, "We know our problems. We don’t need to promote them." Then one person said, "We need to think of new ways to create and to act and that’s what you are bringing to us. We need to do things differently, and if we fail, at least we will fail differently. Then we can try again with other new ideas." This showed me that Guatemalans are craving innovation and positive changes. Nietzsche wrote, “Who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” My experiences in Guatemala seem to align with that saying.

During one of my trips to the rural areas outside the Capitol, I noticed a good number of charity projects that I think are impacting these communities negatively in the long run. Don’t take this the wrong way, I know they have good intentions and are doing great work in the short run. But I also realize that these projects bring ready-made solutions and are creating dependency on the charities in these communities. They also affect local small businesses negatively. For example, free shoes are great and humanistic, but can cause the local shoemaker to go out of business.

My personal conclusion is that if you want to help individuals, the best way is to share new knowledge. I hope that I did this in Guatemala.

Balam in reflection at his beloved Universidad San Carlos, Antigua Guatemala. Photo: Courtesy of Balam Soto

Panajachel, my most favorite place in Guatemala. Photo: Balam Soto

The day of the showcase has finally arrived! The doors were opened for the public to come and see our work. To my own surprise there were a large number of attendees, including many curious pedestrians who wandered in. A few hours into the event, we had our panel review and were honored by the presence of several folks from the U.S. Embassy. Many attendees expressed profound interest in the projects and complimented the teams.

event day

Event day. Photo: Balam Soto

I set the showcase up as a show-and-tell, booth-style event that allowed the participants to interact more directly with the audience then get feedback. People loved the idea of the Mobile Makerspace! From my perspective, Guatemala is looking at this idea as a great resource with economic impact. Guatemalans love ideas that promote small business.

Teams Presenting to the public Photo: Balam Soto

A recurring comment was, "We know what our problems are but we need new ideas that can solve our small economy-issues. This idea of a shared makerspace looks amazing."

This event was efficient and awesome. The show-and-tell feedback gave participants in-depth information about their projects and the questions during the panel helped shape their thinking about the future: "How can these projects be sustainable? Can they be replicated in the rural areas? "

The attendees were so happy to see projects in Guatemala that promote economic prosperity! The panel was followed by a huge standing ovation. I usually do not mix business and emotions but that day I almost cried in public. I was so moved by the teams, the sacrifices they made to participate, and their dedication and time to the project. Thanks to all of them, I have a new understanding of hope.

Thanks Guatemala, it was awesome!

The community project descriptions below were written by participants in American Arts Incubator — Guatemala. All four projects are collaborating to form a single makerspace, each contributing to an aspect of the whole. These projects were initiated during Balam Soto's Incubator workshop and will continue to develop after the Incubator is complete.

Community Project: Makerspace

A "makerspace," also known as a "hackerspace," is a physical or mobile space for people to join and share resources or knowledge. It contains different tools and accessories which facilitate the development of projects and ideas, establishing modular standards to be adapted to different environments. In order to do this well, one needs a mobile makerspace as well as a stationary one.

Our main idea in order to begin this project was a mobile makerspace. Following this intention, there was an outpouring of ideas for different models and structures that could inform our makerspace design. Our current model originated from the concept of a wheeled cart used by gum vendors, which one can find on any corner or street in Guatemala City. We felt this would make it immediately “friendlier" since people are used to seeing them everywhere everyday.

The structure of our mobile makerspace is a composite piece made with wooden boxes that are removeable. In these boxes we can store tools in different compartments for categories like: Carpentry, Finances, Programming, Art, Smithy, Marketing, Electronics, Design, Cooking, Photography, Engineering, Technology, Math, and Theater. Our makerspace has many tools, from soldering irons to hammers, painting supplies, etc.

The goal of the project is focused on economic equity. Looking for a way to integrate this focus, the makerspace has a mission to promote multiple creative processes and shared resources that boost economic benefit based on personal and group wellness. Our makerspace, RedCrea, is open to all kinds of people. It will be taken to all types of places, like schools, communities, etc.

Red Crea tools

RedCrea promotion. Photo: Andrea B.

Por Eso Red Crea

RedCrea is born. Photo: Andrea B.

Community Project: Open Source Web Knowledge

Is an opensource web tool to add tutorials, how to etc base on Guatemala culture, the main ide is to make a place were creative and commun knowledge has an online presence.

Every little moment of life goes unnoticed: the sun, eating, sleeping, living… ah, also posting, sharing (virtually), everything so daily and routinely…every morning, nothing can escape…nothing to be postponed for next week, it has to be there every morning…for a fraction of a moment, you stop, open your eyes, and breathe… let oxygen go through your brain, life becomes real, the good and the bad awaken… the pleasant sun joins this day, the restlessness to improve turns unbearable…the daily demands raise your fears, but today, the decision is already made. The needs have made themselves heard, many times it will not be ignored.

Ideas join in, also wishes, experiences not so much, we have to tear down these walls, forget the smartphones. Getting up is the order: get up!

Today I fulfill my assignments, victory is ours, and the nation has been saved.

Who would be left out? Are there any cowards among us?

You have a lot to give, we have even more to give you.

Now, we sail with all our abilities, follow the wind, face the storms, and accept our weaknesses only to become stronger, now we sail to win.

Red Crea Social Equity and Education

Social equity and education. Photo: Angel Castellanos

Community Project: Education Maker

We envision economic equity through the use of art and technology as a means for human development. From the perspective of RedCrea, economic equity is a social concept under which people have the same opportunities in order to achieve their goals, personal success depending on how much individuals take advantage from these opportunities.

As we analyze it from this perspective, we notice that in Guatemala this is far from a reality. So initiatives like RedCrea can bring opportunity to more people, giving them access to diverse opportunities, specifically through access to art and technology.

Considering the positive impact of art on people’s ability to learn, and the influence of technology in a world in which the rate of new inventions and discoveries is at the highest in history. We consider it undeniable that access to art creation and technology is crucially important for any person.

Talking about these topics in developing countries has the tendency of being done under the supervision, considered sometimes sacred, of those who had the privilege of access. That is why at RedCrea the main objective is to give voice to those deprived of access by any circumstance, so that they become both actors and participants of the present and future.

As an education team, we visited a community in Santa Catarina Pinula, in order to gain a better understanding of their youth and to offer a workshop based on artistic creativity and technology. Together with the help of the collective, we developed topics, materials and processes aimed at this goal, integrating everything by promoting maker culture.

We are now developing a three-month course, once a week, for children and youth from Santa Catarina Pinula as a pilot, with topics focused on technology and community development for the attendants to become active participants in the growth within their community.

Dando Un Lugar

Giving a Place. Photo: Daniela Briseno

Community Project: Social Media Awareness and Communication

During the last three weeks, we have faced a big challenge as a developing group because in order to focus on the topic of economic equity, we needed to address the worst problem affecting Guatemala: high economic inequality and poor access to education.

We decided to create a maker space that we called RedCrea, which is a collective initiative for inquisitive minds: artists, designers, creators and makers who bring art and technology to children and youth with the objective of changing the way in which they learn and develop themselves.

We have been contributing ideas, designing webpages, social networks, branding, and the graphic identity and colors which represent us: red, white, light blue, and gray for they represent technology, dynamism, and creativity.

Our mission is to provide technology, maker culture, and the development of reasoning skills in order to modify the way in which people learn and communicate with one another; bringing materials, tools, educational methodologies, contents, and supplies to urban and rural educational institutions in Guatemala.

Our vision is tools, technological and artistic knowledge to children and youth in order to reduce the opportunity access gap and allow them to be competitive in a globalized world, pursuing economic equity in Guatemala.

We hope that with this project, we can help Guatemalan youth to have a broader vision of their future, learn about the internet, art, technology, and programming and apply them in their lives to even work in it later, as well as encouraging them to leave their comfort zone to try new things, unknown in their environment.


Redes Sociales

Social networks. Photo: Angel Castellanos

Women making tech

Women making technology. Photo: Balam Soto

Fun times are still rolling here in Guatemala! After a week of soldering, programming, and LEDs, the participants have split into four groups to work on their own projects. I must say how impressive these four groups are. They each have a realistic perspective on their project and an authentic dedication. The majority of these participants are taking several hours a day from work or family matters to work on their projects. All four groups have a clear understanding of the value of research, marketing, outreach, and partnership.

Guatemalans are entrepreneurs at heart. Many believe that the answer to high unemployment is small business enterprise. Every day, everywhere you go, you see small businesses selling goods or services. Even when you take a bus ride, entrepreneurs will board the bus to sell everything from a single candy to cell phone accessories. This is how millions of Guatemalans make a living or supplement their income.

The four Guatemalan community project groups are:


This group is developing and researching the educational component of the makerspace the participants will create. They will develop curriculum for workshops based on research of urban under-served populations.

Website Opensource Common Knowledge

This group will create a website. It will include tutorials in a DIY interactive format, general info on the makerspace, and will support the education team by hosting the educational content they develop. It will make that content available to the community worldwide as an open source education tool.


This team will develop a mobile makerspace based on their research of urban under-served populations, combined with the research and feedback of the education team. They are working hand in hand with other groups. They will design everything from the mobile makerspace unit itself to the tools it will house.

Outreach and Sustainability

This team is working to develop events, promote workshops, and develop social media outreach and economic equity awareness content. Among other tasks are branding, partnerships, and fundraising.

All the teams have a diverse membership of community leaders, students, workers, working mothers, artists, and entrepreneurs, yet they all understand and value the tools of the business world. This group strongly believes that economic equity can be promoted with business tools.

small business

A local small business. Photo: Balam Soto

It has been a few days since my arrival in Guatemala City. My memory of downtown is different. I remember it being a place of transit and noise. Now a few streets have become pedestrian streets. But the noise is still there!

So far the experience has been great. I've met in person the folks from ArteCentro, which is a cool space and a visionary organization. They promote new practices and help artists to create by providing working spaces and studios.

Fundacion Paiz

Fundacion Paiz studio spaces. Photo: Courtesy of Balam Soto

We started the project with an artist talk during which I got a big surprise: the Mayor of my town and the Cultural Affairs Office presented to me with official recognition for my work! I got the chance to meet a few participants from diverse backgrounds, from startups to visual artists. They expressed real interest in this kind of workshop and projects.

Diploma de Reconocimiento

Diploma de Reconocimiento. Photo: Courtesy of Balam Soto

It's looking like we will have a really great 3 weeks to learn and share together. I hope to make this 3 weeks a space for an exchange of ideas and actions.

And finally, I had a few hours to see my Guatemala family, meet my new cousins, and just play like kids in my most favorite place on earth — El Cerro Alux.


El Cerro Alux. Photo: Courtesy of Balam Soto

Finally, it is time to travel to Guatemala!

Over the past few weeks, I have literally been working non-stop, from coding to imagining how the project will be. I love to be ready ahead of time (not an inborn trait, but something that my wife taught me), however I know there will be times during this project when the unexpected will happen and I’ll be thinking, "What the # am I going to do now?" 

ElectronicsCustom circuit board. Photo: Courtesy of Balam Soto.

That has already happened. Despite ordering the custom printed circuit boards I developed way in advance, they took several weeks to arrive. They finally arrived just a few weeks before my departure. What if they don’t work? But they did! This was a huge relief and I began to open my mind to new ideas for utilizing these boards when I return.

I’m thinking about developing them into wearable cyclist turn signals as low cost urban biker safety gadgets.

This started really putting me in the mindset I need for managing the project in Guatemala. I need to introduce the concept of innovation. Not just what it is, but how to make it happen. What resources are there in Guatemala and how can these resources be integrated with new tools to rediscover the potential of Guatemala? The Mayans were a great civilization once before. We have it within us to recreate that greatness.

However, to help the program participants do this, I’m going to have to help them reassess and reimagine everything they already know about Guatemala and the culture. Going back one more step, I’m going to have to reimagine everything I know about Guatemala and the culture. I can’t wait to get started...

I am not lost in Guatemala City yet, but am still in my comfortable home writing this blog. However, I have started my travels by attending the American Arts Incubator orientation week in California. This was the week for “getting you ready to leave, dude." I had never been to California and I loved it. San Francisco has a bit of a Latin American city flavor.

After an 8-hour flight and ½-hour train ride I arrived at the orientation, excited about getting right down to work. We started with an icebreaker and an overview of the week, but the next day we really got to work. We covered the challenges of being abroad, details on how to run our projects, video documentation, had lots of discussions and exercises... it was a jam-packed week!

Midway through the week, we had to present our projects to mentors and other invitees in just 6 minutes. Personally, I like the less-is-more-concept so was comfortable but I was not expecting the fantastic feedback I received. I presented my idea for a Portable Makerspace and got positive feedback from the mentors. People seemed to like the fact that I was born in Guatemala and am now returning to share my knowledge.

After the presentation we got a chance to mingle at CounterPulse, a local gallery, and a moment of magic passed. While I was eating my dinner in silence, reflecting about my day, I felt someone looking at me. A man approached to introduce himself. We each felt the other looked familiar but couldn’t remember why. It turned out we had each been invited to the Information Technology Festival at Galileo University in Guatemala, but in different years. We recognized each other from photos – we live in such a small digital world.

LED textiles

LED Textiles. Photo: Balam Soto

I was excited because it was further proof to me that Guatemala is trying to create a real footprint in the technology world now. Our Mayan ancestors were inventors and scientists, innovative and creative problem-solvers. I am a strong advocate of the idea that we should be harnessing our legacy and creating new pathways in Guatemala, rooted in innovation.

During orientation week, I had the chance to be challenged and explore new ideas, something I love to do. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” I want my Guatemala experience to be full of new ideas to be conquered.

E-textile on Guatemalan fabric

E-textile on Guatemalan fabric. Photo: Balam Soto

March 2017 will be a memorable time. For a long time now, I have daydreamed of finding an opportunity to go back to my native Guatemala to make art and support others in their passions, dreams, and ventures. I searched without success until one evening I received a series of emails from a mailing list. Among these emails I found the American Arts Incubator RFP and saw on the short list of countries participating exactly what I had been searching for — Guatemala.

I read it over about 4 times to make sure I was understanding correctly before I running to wake up my wife and show her the opportunity. My groggy and very patient wife read the RFP, looked at me and said, ok, let’s get writing — tomorrow.

I considered proposing projects ranging from projection mapping to E-textiles, made a few drafts to discuss with my wife, did a lot of research, and finally settled on E-textiles.

After a few months of internal agony waiting for the finalists to be announce, I finally received the email one Saturday afternoon while working in my studio. It was there in my inbox, the emails acknowledging my acceptance into the American Arts Incubator Guatemala project. I literally jumped from the chair and called my family to share the news.

Then the real work began. It has been an awesome experience developing the accepted project, from the research to the elaboration of the project details. The highlight of the preparation was to meet and get to know the amazing folks that work so hard to make this possible, especially Kate and Shamsher. This team can make magic and help us to be ready to bring new media art and technology to the world.

I am counting the days and every day the excitement grows, as does the project I’m developing. Nos vemos pronto.

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