Regina José Galindo
El gran retorno
Ciudad de Guatemala, 2019

The Great Return

by Idurre Alonso

Walking the road is its making
and upon looking back
the track seen is the one that never
again shall be trodden
—Antonio Machado, Songs

Never backward, not even to gain momentum
—A popular saying

In 2019, Regina Galindo hired a group of forty-five professional musicians to perform her work El gran retorno [The Great Return]. Playing military marches, the band walked through downtown Guatemala City, from the Ministerio de la Gobernación to the Palacio Nacional, two places of great political significance. The artist was at the head of the band, conducting with her white baton, but instead of walking forward, she and the band walked backward. Whereas musicians in bands usually wear striking outfits with bright colors and elaborate decoration, these were wearing black, turning what is usually a festive event into a sort of funeral act. A contradiction ran through the action, its movement and visuality; the sight of something going against its natural course produces a sense of confusion and uneasiness.

The performance speaks, metaphorically, of the socio-political setbacks in Guatemala, but also around the world. The threat to democracy posed by the rise of the extreme right, fake news, corruption, and growing inequality produces the feeling we are heading in the wrong direction, regressing. Recent Guatemalan history adds its own set of problems: a thirty-year armed conflict (1960-1996) that left 200,000 dead, most of them Indigenous persons, and that was never solved by the judiciary; gang violence; femicides; the power of conservative religious groups; and one corrupt government after another.

This is not just a return, but—as the work’s title makes clear—a “great” return, a striking and serious return that affects us all. It makes sense, then, that Regina’s piece was collective, that it involved a large number of participants, and that it took place in the public space. But this was not the first time the artist did a performance that entailed walking through her city. In the early work ¿Quién puede olvidar las huellas? [Who Can Forget the Tracks?, 2003], Regina walked from the Corte Constitucional of Guatemana to, once again, the Palacio Nacional, leaving a trail of footsteps in human blood. The work made reference to and remembered the victims of the armed conflict in Guatemala. It was created to repudiate the presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt, a military participant in a coup d'etat and a figure associated with the Indigenous genocide, specifically a policy known as Scorched Earth. That work was made just seven years after the signing of the peace treaty, and its use of public space was tied to the appropriation of the city as symbol and to the need to restore freedom. Insofar as both these performances took place in the capital city’s central plazas and parks, they were an opportunity to get physically near the political agencies and institutions they addressed.

Regina was not the only artist who, in the first decade of the 2000s, brought performance into downtown Guatemala City. In the 2000 work Tiempo y libertad [Time and Freedom], Benvenuto Chavajay tied himself up, along with a number of crabs, and lay on a sheet of plastic in the colors of the Guatemalan flag placed on the ground of Plaza de la Constitución. The impossibility of movement on top of the national symbol and the use of crabs, an animal itself with hindered mobility, made reference not only to how hard it is to progress but also to social backwardness (remember how crabs walk). That same year, Aníbal López’s 30 de junio [June 30] took place during a military parade celebrating the Guatemalan equivalent of Veteran’s Day. The artist scattered the contents of a number of bags of charcoal on the pavement where the parade would take place, a reference to the villages wiped out during the war. The parade’s organizing committee tried to clean up the charcoal, but pieces were stuck in the cracks in the sidewalk. The footsteps of the marching military personnel scattered the charcoal’s black dust everywhere they went. The military’s sullied past cannot be erased. It is enmeshed in the military world.

El gran retorno also made use of a parade and the city streets but, in its large-scale conception, it differed from the early performances of other artists of Regina’s generation (Jessica Lagunas and Sandra Monterroso, as well as Chavajay and López). The differences become glaring when Regina’s entire body of work is considered. In most of it, the artist confronts, alone, situations that test her mental and psychological limits, imitating violence or causing it to be inflicted on her person. In El gran retorno, Regina does something else, namely generate a contradictory “public spectacle” rather than confront violence in the first person. The result is no less efficacious. On the contrary, this work powerfully points out a frustrating reality and a world collapsing from wherever you look at it. In a further paradox, El gran retorno ends where Guatemalan history begins: the Palacio Nacional is kilometer zero in Guatemala, the place where all the nation’s roads begin.

A Map on Skin

by Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez

If it weren’t for the rage
that keeps baring my fangs
I wouldn’t exist, or so they might say
—Regina José Galindo, Spider Web

In downtown Guatemala City, just a few blocks from the Palacio Nacional, the seat of the executive branch, and the Plaza de la Constitución, is the Correos y Telégrafos building, the central post office. Its distinctive trait is an arch in the neocolonial style that fascinated the military officers who governed the country starting in 1871. With the same dedication they applied to trimming their moustaches, they forced chained Indigenous children, women, and men, by dint of rifle butts, to coffee plantations while they had public buildings, barracks, and cemeteries built. The Arco de Correos, as that arch is called, is one of the many structures built to last that General Jorge Ubico, the dictator who ruled Guatemala for fourteen years (1930–1944) ordered built. Ubico was a regular rapist of women, mostly teenagers (anyone who wanted to get into his good graces knew that the best way to do so was by offering him a sacrificial victim, even if it was one’s own daughter). He would not have been amused, then, when, some five decades after his overthrow, an enraged woman shouted from “his” building poems to be scattered to the winds. It was 1999, and the artist who hung down from the Arco de Correos in a harness sustained by ropes was named Regina José Galindo. The image of that work and her name were not only reproduced in the mass media, but also engraved in the memory of those of us who witnessed an event that re-signified public space. That building was now the one with the arch from which Regina hang (Lo voy a gritar al viento [I Will Shout it to the Wind], performance, 1999).

Guatemala was, at that time, a country waking up from a long nightmare. A few numbers attest to the scale of the horror: two hundred thousand dead, forty-five thousand missing, a million displaced, four hundred massacres and about as many villages erased from the map. Three decades of war came to an end when the government and the guerrilla fighters signed a peace treaty. Despite the freedoms won, some artists and writers, Regina among them, looked askance at the incipient peace process. It would take more than a few very old and very uniformed men embracing to fix the country, and decades of terror cannot be undone by signing official documents. The same year Regina hang from the Arco de Correos, Guatemalans, under pressure from the usual suspects—the most reactionary and brutal sectors, the historic beneficiaries of fortunes and privileges in defense of which they committed one of the bloodiest slaughters in the Americas—voted against the constitutional reforms necessary to pave the way for peace. That same year, headlines that attested to rapes and other brutal acts of violence against women committed during the last six months of the twentieth century were projected onto Regina’s nude body (El dolor en un pañuelo [Pain in a Handkerchief], performance, 1999). Even Regina’s early work sensed the future. She was aware that good political intentions—if there ever were any—were not enough to hold back an undercurrent of violence. If El dolor en un pañuelo were performed again today, it would not be a smidgen less relevant. We are just twenty-two days into January, 2021, and already twenty-three women have been murdered in Guatemala—more women dead than days have passed in the new year.

Rituals to sublimate trauma

In the over twenty years since that work, Regina José Galindo’s art has been an oracle, a condemnation, and a daily chronicle of a country and region used to atrocity. And while it’s true that she often turns her attention to topics that go beyond national borders, her point of view seems always to be grounded here, dug like a navel into this land. The themes she addresses are obsessively, tirelessly, the same: violence and injustice, exclusion and inequality, the countless ways we human beings are capable of spreading pain.

There are no indexes to measure “art’s power to change the world”—a grand notion upheld by everyone but artists—and, if they did exist, I would have no interest in or use for them. Nonetheless, every time a new horror joins the long list, we turn to Regina to see how she interprets it, what ethical light will be cast by the most recent symbol she has created. It matters little what specific theme a given performance addresses. What runs through them all is one thing: ethics. And that means that these works question and overwhelm us in identical measure. Just a few examples, a tiny sample from a vast and complex body of work: In 2003, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court illegally authorized General Efraín Ríos Montt, who had participated in coups d’etat, to run for president (ten years later, he would be convicted in a Guatemalan court for having committed genocide against the Mayan Ixil people in 1982). Armed with a recipient full of human blood, Regina walked the distance between that court and the Palacio Nacional. Every so often, she would dip her feet in the recipient in order to leave in her wake, on the cracked pavement of the downtown streets, bloody footprints in memory of the victims of the war (Quién borrará las huellas [Who Will Erase the Tracks?], performance, 2003). On International Women’s Day 2017, fifty-six girls were trapped and burned alive in the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a public shelter for minors where they had endured all order of abuse, including sexual exploitation. The very people who were tasked with protecting the girls decided to ignore the nine full minutes of shouts coming from the locked room where they burned to death. Forty-one died. No one has, as yet, been convicted. Regina and forty other women, among them mothers of some of the victims, locked themselves in a small room and screamed for nine minutes straight. The photographs and audio recording of the work are wrenching (Las escucharon gritar y no abrieron la puerta [They Heard Them Scream and Did Not Open The Door], performance, 2017).

Though all her art begins with herself and consists of her own body—its guts, skin, breathing—though her body is the background and figure of the primordial art she creates, Regina does not waste her time navel- gazing. Her art seems to grow out of the perhaps-never-satisfied desire to break out of the insularity of her own body in order to blend into that greater body of which we all form part. Each one of her performances is a ritual to sublimate our traumas, a spell to light up the dark.

Backward steps

For some years now, a number of knowing voices have warned us, as their own alarms go off, that democracy is in an overt and brazen retreat. That regime organized for pursuit of the common good, where society elects its representatives, where individual rights are respected and institutions held to account for abuse and arbitrariness—democracy—has been taken for granted for the last thirty years (even though it is really an anomaly in the arc of our history). In regions like Central America, that retreat has left unforgettable images: In February 2020, the young president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, burst into Congress with a visibly armed military escort to twist that legislative body’s arm into grant him a loan (he seemed to want to remind us that being a millennial in no way diminishes his authoritarianism). Two years earlier, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who had come to power at the hand of retired military officers active in the darkest years of the war, expelled from the country the United Nations commission investigating cases of corruption (some of them involving Morales himself or members of his family). He did so on national television and, to give the move extra oomph, he was accompanied by the high military command, an image that Guatemalans had not seen on their TV screens since the eighties. In Nicaragua that same year, the police murdered hundreds of people who were protesting against the government of Commander Daniel Ortega—that fossil of the Cold War—and his wife, Rosario Murillo. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States sped things along. His lies, outbursts, and authoritarian temper tantrums not only deepened polarization and weakened institutions in his country, but also backed and encouraged many would-be dictators, regardless of ideological bent, around the world. The prime example in Latin America is Jair Bolsonaro. And, as if all that weren’t enough, the restrictions imposed to control—or attempt to control—the Covid-19 pandemic sent democracy into retreat even in those countries where it seemed encoded in inhabitants very DNA. According to the Global Democracy Index, an annual report put out by the British weekly The Economist, in 2020 democracy retreated 70% around the world. “The pandemic caused an unprecedented rollback of democratic freedoms in 2020, which led the average indicator to fall to historical lows,” the report states. It is as if authoritarianism had always been there, lurking in presidential offices around the world, waiting for the right moment to hop out and reclaim what had been snatched away from it.

With characteristic economy of resources and ability to create straightforward metaphors, Regina José Galindo imagined a performance whose movements and sounds would capture the pulse of the times. A band of forty-five professional musicians played Guatemalan military marches while they themselves marched backward from the police headquarters to the Palacio Nacional—a path similar to the one taken in Quién borrará las huellas, which makes us think that Regina’s art is also a journey and a map of symbols drawn on the skin of history. And, at the front of the band, looking fiery and engrossed, is Regina, baton twirler and conductor of this staging of our return to the mouth of a wolf we foolishly thought dead. The video of the performance is disconcerting. It takes a while to realize we are not seeing images in rewind (El gran retorno [The Great Return], performance, 2019).

Up to this point, the work speaks for itself. It is worth dwelling on one of its micro-symbolic elements, though, to get a true sense of its complexity. First off, the sounds. If there is one thing that resonates in our shared memory—and this may well hold true for the entire continent—it is the moronic hammering of military marches. In Guatemala, those horns and drum rolls have been the music of power since the late nineteenth century, with the liberal reform. When they don’t remind us of being forced as children to march on Independence Day, they remind us of profusely-moustached toad-jowled generals with medal-laden chests announcing foreign threats, celebrating military coups, or praying to the holy spirit on national television. The path marched by Regina’s band, whose musicians lost none of their verve as they skillfully marched backward, began at the historical police headquarters that today houses as well the Ministry of the Interior. The building was once a Franciscan convent (its treasures were plundered by the aforementioned “liberals” of the 1871 reform). Starting then, and well into the twentieth century, those walls housed the most varied collection of uniformed psychopaths. Perhaps the best example of those individuals was Coronel Germán Chupina Barahona, chief of police during the General Romeo Lucas García administration (1978–1982). Chupina had placed six or seven marimbas, each with its own player, in the lobby of that building—the starting point of Regina’s backward march—so that, during the hours when visitors were received, the music would drown out the screams of the people being tortured in the basement. Regina’s band continued down Sexta Avenida, the city’s main thoroughfare and meeting place. Every September 15, it is marched down, double step, by those school bands that have not yet dared to turn their back. Soon before reaching their final destination, Regina and her band marched by the place where student leader Oliverio Castañeda De León was murdered at the order of Lucas’s Minister of Interior, Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz—also remembered for, among other brutalities, having had a torture chamber in his basement. The spot is marked by a commemorative plaque that hurried passersby rarely stop to look at. Unsuspected doors open when Regina ritualizes the public space. She didn’t get a permit for the march, and yet the police asked no questions. In fact, they stopped traffic at some corners to let the parade go by “without incident.” Finally, they reached the end of their journey, the Palacio Nacional—its name today, with unwitting cynicism, ends in “of culture.” This is the building where Jorge Ubico, the dictator ousted by the Revolution of 1944 who had ordered the construction of the Arco de Correos, must have dreamed of ending his days surrounded by laurels and bathing in the gratitude of his people.

El gran retorno is a reminder of our helplessness. Marching backward seems like an act of resignation. The triumphant, almost festive, music only deepens, through contrast and irony, the hopelessness. Let’s hope this time Regina’s work does not predict the future so accurately. Let’s hope that El gran retorno is only a warning. In the meantime, we will continue to celebrate the uncomfortable allure of an artist and a work that do not countenance indifference.

Stef Arreaga
Journalist and researcher
She lives and works in Guatemala City.

She has been involved in political and social issues since a very young age. She started out covering evictions from lands in northern Guatemala. Her current work in investigative journalism revolves around historical memory, mining, extractivism, megaprojects, monocrops, land evictions, and criminalization and malnutrition, mostly as they affect historically disadvantaged communities.

As a journalist, she covered El gran retorno in 2019, an action she places in the context of the final year of Jimmy Morales’s administration. Arreaga describes the retreat of democracy—in the country and the region as a whole—underway at that moment due to rampant corruption, police crackdowns, and femicides. She recalls that the Palacio Nacional, the building where the performance ended, was undergoing reparations at the time. The black canvases that covered it made the action all the more poignant.

“The social regression was exemplified by Regina José Galindo’s action—an artistic expression of backwardness that critiqued the government and overall situation not only in Guatemala, but in many parts of the world.”

Avelino Sala
Artist and Curator
He lives and works in Madrid.

His work as an artist has led him to question culture and society. From a jarring perspective, he relentlessly explores the social and political imaginary. His projects exploit art’s ability to generate spaces of experimentation that give rise to new worlds.

Eugenio Merino
Artist and Curator
Eugenio Merino lives and works in Madrid.

Solo shows of his work include Home Sweet Home at ADN Galería (Barcelona, Spain, 2017), Here Died Warhol (UNIX Gallery, New York, 2018), Aquí Murió Picasso at the Alianza Francesa (Málaga, Spain, 2017), and Sons of Capital (UNIX Gallery, New York, 2016). His work has been exhibited in museums and biennials in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

After Avelino Sala and Eugenio Merino saw the video of El gran retorno, they published a dossier about the work in the Spanish magazine Sublime, which they edit. They both point out the political relevance of this work at this historical juncture, when totalitarian ideas are on the rise in a number of regions. They consider El gran retorno a metaphor for the retreat of contemporary democracies. They also mention the transgressiveness of the fact that career military musicians performed in Regina José Galindo’s parade.

El gran retorno speaks explicitly of the retreat of democracy, where the ideas of the powerful, repression, the Church, and the state act together to cause upheaval. The work induces us to rebel and fight against that trend.”

See Sublime magazine 2020 (PDF) >


Rossina Cazali
Independent Curator and Researcher
She lives and works in Guatemala City.

She studied art at the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. She directed the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala from 2003 to 2007. She has curated biennials and exhibitions around Latin America, the United States, and Spain. She has delivered papers and lectures at events organized by dOCUMENTA 12 (Cairo, Egypt, 2010), the Royal College of Art (London, 2009), and Independent Curators International, New Museum of Art (New York, 2012). She was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim fellowship for research (2010), the Prince Claus prize for her longstanding work as a curator and writer (Amsterdam, 2014), and a research grant from the Fundación Júmex (Mexico, 2017).

Rosina Cazali describes the relationship in Guatemala City between military parades and religious processions. Both occur on major thoroughfares flanked by large historical buildings—often the material support of a past steeped in institutional violence and repression. For Cazali, El gran retorno is a call to occupy the public space before the constant retreat of Guatemalan society under the military order.

“Regina’s works not only remind us of the many infamies committed in our country over the course of decades, but also of their denial.”

José Luis Ovalle
Musician and Music Teacher
He lives and works in Guatemala City.

A musical specialist for the Guatemalan army for the past twenty years, he has played in the Mariscal Zavala brigade’s band, the symphonic band of the Guatemalan army, and a number of marimba orchestras. He played a key role in organizing the musicians who participated in the performance and in the selection of the pieces.

José Luis Ollave was the conductor of the group of musicians who performed in El gran retorno. He describes his training at the military academy and his experience as a member of the Guatemalan army’s symphonic band. He points out that most of the marches played during the parade were by Guatemalan composers. He recounts how surprised he was when Regina José Galindo told him they would be marching backward.

 “El gran retorno was a great experience—unforgettable for all the musicians who participated. We had never played marching backward before.”

Archive 1 >
Background and Traditions

"September 15 is Independence Day in Guatemala. It is celebrated every year with public events and military parades where young students play in bands from schools around the country. This year, 2021, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Guatemala’s ‘Independence,’ which was orchestrated by the Criollo class and the Spanish without any consideration for the population. Guatemala, two hundred years later, is still afflicted with all order of plunder and exploitation. Guatemala has never been free." —Regina José Galindo


Military band of the Colegio San José de los Infantes in a parade in front of the Palco Presidencial (2019)

See video >

Meeting of school marching bands. Participants: Colegio San Sebastián, Colegio San José de los Infantes, and Colegio Católico San Pablo

See video >

Colegio Liceo Guatemala military band marching down Sexta Avenue in Zone 4 of Guatemala City

See video >

Independence Day in Guatemala, a number of school bands marching down Sexta Avenue in Guatemala City

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Baton twirlers in school bands marching on Independence Day

See video >

Military march played by a religious-military band inside a Catholic church

See video >

Military band playing El Soldado during the procession in honor of Señor de Esquipulas del Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Zone 1, Guatemala City.


During the performance, the band played the following military marches, most of them Guatemalan, but some from the United States and one from Chile: Soldado guatemalteco, Amor patrio, Escuela politécnica, Estrellas y barras, Emblema nacional, Tema de bajos, Adiós al séptimo de la línea, and Caballero cadete 6.40.

The participating musicians were: Byron Avendaño, Cristopher Borrayo, Felipe Cach, Claudio Cach, José Luis Ovalle Chejas, Javier Arana, Daniel Velásquez, Julio Mendez, Juan David Brito, Juan Pablo Arrecis, Alan Lutin, Rodrigo Flores, Carlos Pedroza, Ferdy Franco, Polanco, Jossy de León, Vitalino Hernández, Alejandro Xococic, Mori Lagos, Manoy Portillo, Ronald Galindo, Santos Hernández, Daniel Ruiz Santos, Pablo Esquivel, Gabriel Borrayo, Ramiro Antonio Adqui, Joxi Jiménez , Darwin Vásquez, José Sazo, Edgar Orozco, Mario Alorego, Marvin González, Mario Enrique Muñiz, Luis Estuardo Prado Reyna, Pablo González, Mario de León Shuba. The conductors were Kevvine Urías and Christian González.

These low-resolution photos taken by musicians show archival material from the Escuela de Músicos Militares Rafael Álvarez Ovalle, a school for military musicians. They were used as a guide in the performance.

Archive 2 >
Documentation of the action


Prior to the performance, the forty-five musicians, producer Mishad Orlandini, and the film crew (Ameno Córdova and Pepe Orozco) held a dress rehearsal at Hipódromo park located at the end of Simeón Cañas Avenue in Guatemala City’s Zone 2. At the rehearsal, the musicians’ formation was determined, as were the marches to be played and the camera’s angles to be used tp document the action. The rehearsal was essential to the performance’s success. It was there that the musicians learned they would have to march backward. They were able to practice, and they executed the action perfectly.


Nerves and final instructions in front of the national police headquarters before the performance began.


A band of forty-five professional musicians marched backward through the streets of Guatemala City while playing military marches.

Production: Mishad Orlandini.
Production assistant and cinematographer: José Oquendo.
Cameras: Pepe Orozco, Javier Herrera, Sebastián Porras Sáenz.
Drone operator: César Chavarría.
Editor: Pepe Orozco Recino.
Sound director: Ameno Córdova.
Sound technician: Marco Samanie.

Archive 3 >
Documents and Reviews


Notes in Regina José Galindo’s notebook. Here, the artist planned the action and toyed with possible titles. She sketched out the musicians’ formation and her own position during the parade.


This text was, in a way, what sparked the idea for El gran retorno. It reinforced the artist’s obsession with restoring the historical memory of her native Guatemala.


Archive 4 >
Hilo de tiempo [Thread of Time], 2012

"We must follow the thread of time to find the reason for so much death and, in so doing, find life.

The passive body is wrapped in a woven black bag (like a body bag). The audience’s active body was free to fray the bag during the action, uncovering the body hidden within it—a live body that remained motionless in the bag.

Hilo de tiempo is an action that reminds us of the dozens of murdered bodies that appear day after day in countries like Guatemala and Mexico. Anonymous bodies, human remains inside large black trash bags, bodies waiting to be located, recognized, dignified."

—Regina José Galindo

Performance and its documentation in video: 18'.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. 2012.

Production: Doris Difarnecio, Caleb Duarte Piñón.
Cameras: Mia Eve Rollow, Thomas Erling, María Jiménez Romero.
Editor: José Enrique Juárez.
Cinematography: María Jiménez Romero, Lydia Reich, Cecilia Monroy Cuevas.
Commissioned and produced by the Centro Hemisférico de Performance y Política in Chiapas and EDELO, a house of art in movement and an intercommunal artist residency.

The theme of this piece dialogues with El gran retorno. Hilo de Tiempo was acquired for the Malba Collection in 2019 thanks to the support of its Acquisitions Committee.

See in the Malba Collection >