Rosa Elena Curruchich

By Joseph Johnston

Andres Curruchich was the first Maya painter from San Juan Comalapa. He started about the same time as Rafael González y González, the first Tz’utuhil painter. Like Rafael González, his success inspired others to follow in his footsteps.

The first woman painter in San Juan Comalapa was Rosa Elena Curruchich, a granddaughter of Andres Curruchich. When Rosa Elena succeeded in getting an exhibition of her work in Guatemala City, she says that it angered some of the male painters of San Juan Comalapa. Her story is that upon her return, she felt threatened and claimed to have been beaten up. She went into hiding and moved to Chimaltenango. The experience affected her art, too. She began painting in a small format, usually no more than six inches on a side, with her few large  paintings less than a foot. Rosa Elena painted on unstretched canvas, and sometimes made little frames out of tiny pieces of wood. She was able to paint and transport these tiny paintings without being noticed. She took them to Doña Ruth Bunde who offered them for sale in her gallery, El Sombol, in Guatemala City. Rosa Elena’s paintings were a fixture in the gallery until Doña Ruth retired in late 1990s.

I tried to contact Rosa Elana through her family, when I was in Comalapa, but she never got back to me. I also tried to verify her story. Because I know that he has helped teach and promote women painters in Comalapa, I asked Salvador Cúmez Curruchich about it. He says he was with a group of men who did go to meet her and congratulate her on her exhibition, and that he saw nothing to substantiate her story.

Anna Paddington, a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who had been buying Rosa Elena’s paintings for many years, befriended the artist and became Rosa Elena’s main outlet. Anna arranged for Rosa Elena to be included in the 2005 Santa Fe Folk Art Festival. Unfortunately, Rosa Elena was already sick with diabetes, and died of the disease at the age of 46 shortly before the festival. Her paintings, which Doña Ruth had been selling for between $20 and $50, were quickly snatched up  for $400 and more at the fair. This raised nearly $18,000 for Guatemalan charity. The story of Rosa Elena's threat, whether true or not,  from the male painters contributed to the sale price of her paintings and the amount of money raised.

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