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Monday, 30 November, 2020

Argenis Gimenez: the madman of the banner who fights for the mentally ill

“Let me introduce you to the madman of the banner. He gets up in the morning and gets on with his protest.” As street protests multiply and intensify in Venezuela, the lifestyle choices of Argenis Gimenez, who calls himself crazy and admits to living in perpetual protest, begin to make sense.

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By Keren Torres.

In the city of Barquisimeto, someone, at least once, has seen Argenis. He is a former psychiatric patient better known as the madman of the banner because he always carries on his head a kind of poster-hat with protesting phrases against the mistreatment of people with mental health disorders, inside and outside the care centers.

“No to repression in psychiatric hospitals.” That is the most common phrase Argenis Gimenez wears on his head, in the form of a hat-poster, with which he fights the mistreatment of people with mental illness, inside and outside of psychiatric hospitals.

“This is a real-life case that happens all over the world, and it is not my subjective thing. What I have been unique in is my style of protesting. If I have to go down in history, it will be as the madman of the banner, nothing more and nothing less,” we read in his autobiography, thanks to another art he has cultivated since he was a child: writing.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is a common illness around the world and estimates that it affects more than 300 million people. Although there are effective treatments, more than half of those affected worldwide do not receive them.

“The biggest scare of my life was when I was 28 years old. It was the first time I was given electroshocks in the psychiatric ward. You become unconscious. When you wake up, you feel panic, that is horrible, is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life… It must be that because it hits the nervous system, the neurotransmitters,” he recalls.

During the pandemic season, Argenis Gimenez takes care of the coronavirus with a self-made mask. Courtesy Enmanuel De Sousa.
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The reports of abuse have not stopped, even if it has been years since Argenis left because he felt the institution no longer had anything to offer him. In February 2018, workers at the El Pampero Psychiatric Hospital testified to the media about the deaths due to malnutrition of at least ten patients in two months.

Two years earlier, The New York Times managed to enter this facility and showed, through photographs, the conditions of the inmates, all of them extremely gaunt.
For more than four years, there has been no psychiatrist in this institution, the main one in the state of Lara. The second is the Acute Psychiatric Unit, located in the Luis Gomez Lopez Hospital, which also lacks the specialized staff or the medicines required by the patients.

El Pitazo tried to contact the directors of these centers, as well as the Regional Health Director, Javier Cabrera, but they did not respond to the requests for interviews.

“My fight is so that we crazy people stop being anonymous martyrs… but since we, crazy people, do not vote, we do not pay taxes, so we are not taken into account in society.” Argenis Gimenez.

In October 2016, photographer Meridith Kohut managed to enter El Pampero Psychiatric Hospital and show the extremely poor conditions for the patients there. Photo The New York Times.

Crazy people don’t vote

“People use to say that those crazy people are happy, they don’t bathe, they don’t worry about anything. But this is a crown of thorns, it is not a fun walk or a hobby. That is why, as a way of compensating my self-esteem, almost 30 years ago, I started my life project, I told myself I have to do something to not suffer in vain,” says Argenis.

That is how he started his campaign in the streets with the banner over his head, with phrases of the struggle for people with mental illness, to create public awareness and social sensitivity.

He insists that people with mental illness have rights, despite being “socially disadvantaged and legally weak.”

“I’m famous but not powerful because I don’t charge admission as the artists do. I’m famous because I’m crazy in the streets, suffering,” says Argenis.

Local folk group La Bandera del Folclor explains it better in this song, “The crazy guy with the banner,” they posted to their Facebook page. The chorus goes like this:

“I’ll introduce you to the crazy guy with the banner.
He gets up in the morning to go and protest,
with a banner on his head, marching through the city,
sharing his writings, asking nothing from nobody.”

I’m not a beggar

Argenis Giménez turned 60 years old on August 18, 2020. He was born into a dysfunctional family that lived in poverty. He was with them until she was seven years old when his family left him in the care of the Sisters of Charity, with whom she learned to read and write. Now, he lives on the streets.

“My mom was schizophrenic, she had nine boys. We were hungry, we went from here to there. If I would tell her that I wanted to be a big man, that I wanted to learn to read and write, but she would insult me,” Argenis recalls.

Argenis lives in the street but always tries to shower. And he has enlisted a network of people who help him with that. He doesn’t do drugs or drink, he says.

“Unlike the other homeless people, I have not lost myself in drugs and alcohol. If I wanted to, I could get around with mud in the hair, bearded and with my clothes full of dirt, but no,” he explains.

He says he survives by running errands and sometimes because there are people who offer him help without him asking for it. I am not a beggar, he says.

Writer and creator

Argenis Gimenez recorded his complaints, in his handwriting, on letter-size sheets, which he photocopied so that he could give them to more people. Until a little less than ten years ago, Argenis Gimenez would go to the headquarters of regional newspapers in Barquisimeto to deliver these writings.

The banner of Argenis: 28 years of fighting. Since 1992.

When asked by photographer Enmanuel De Sousa who had given her the plastic mask, Argenis replies: “Why do you think that is a present? I have my talent to create, to improvise. I also invented this banner. Of course, it is not a great invention like those made by Nikola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, or Thomas Edison.”

“If I hadn’t been crazy, I’d be an environmentalist”, says Argenis. Then, he says goodbye with his poster-hat to continue his walk through the streets of Barquisimeto, hoping that his struggle will be useful.

Additional reporting by Carlos Camacho.

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