“To learn to do a skateboard trick, how many times you have to do something to get it right, and you hurt yourself and you learn to do that trick … now you got yourself a life lesson.”
— Jerry Seinfeld
Spc. Diego Barrientos is one of those skaters who gets back up. Whether it’s on a skateboard, with a paintbrush, while he’s typing his novel or recording an album: Barrientos gets back up.
As you walk into his studio at California Institute of the Arts, well-worn books of great painters, writers and leaders are stacked in the corners. A song he and his bandmate are composing is scratched out on flashcards neatly taped to his desk. His art series, “Alienation,” hangs on the walls. On the ground are amps, a handful of stringed and percussion instruments, and a neatly rolled guitar cable.
His studio has the vibe of an artist’s space, yet one that’s underscored by six years of military discipline. When the beanie-and-Converse-wearing grad student talks about the war, he shows you how his art personifies how he felt in the Anbar Province of Iraq. He shows you what creeps in every day. He explains why his content is cathartic.
“Over there, it felt like being hunted.”
Loose cares & all
Barrientos was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, to Esther and Rolando Barrientos, a musician and ballerina, respectively.
His family moved to America, settling down in Bakersfield. While growing up, he was heavily involved in two things: skateboarding and music. School was an afterthought.
He said his parents were “hippies,” but they found work, his father as a salesman and his mother working in the nearby school district. And while his parents were at work, he practiced the musicianship he got from his father by playing the drums, and the dexterity he got from his mother by spending “all day trying to do one trick.”
“I got mostly C’s and D’s in school,” said Barrientos, jokingly.
Even when he took his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, the test given to determine what job you’re suited for in the military, he says he didn’t try. “They told us it didn’t really matter, so it was like, ‘Whelp…’”
Despite that, he ended up joining the military when he was 17.
“My parents, they were like, ‘Why?’” said Barrientos. “I wanted to get out of Bakersfield, I guess … It just felt like something I had to do.”
After signing his six-year contract, Barrientos, the laid-back skater, son of loving hippie parents who supported his music, would be off to boot camp and, eventually, war.
“I was super tiny, but they don’t start you off right away, like in the movies … it’s gradual,” recounted Barrientos. “What surprised me was the people in there who didn’t expect it, and I was like, ‘That’s the whole point, it’s basic training.’”
After completing his boot camp and receiving his military occupation speciality training as a wheeled vehicle mechanic, he was sent to Kuwait and eventually Iraq.
“When I got there, I ended up driving truck and jet fuel,” Barrientos said, adding he was mostly stationed at the Al Assad Airbase. “When we got there at 1 in the morning, it was 115 degrees. And then when 3 p.m. rolled around, it was already 130 degrees.”
When they weren’t running missions, he and his platoon would need to find ways to entertain themselves. “Birthdays were fun for us … like one guy got duct taped to his cot while he was sleeping when it was his birthday, and I got zip-tied to a dolly. I thought it was hilarious and about camaraderie, but when I tell people that they think it’s a bit mean.”
When he wasn’t on duty, he continued playing and listening to his music. He had a guitar he would play for the guys.
However, all these things, he said, were distractions for what awaited them when they got into their trucks; distractions for what had just happened to them, or what was going to happen in the coming hours.
“I lost that guitar,” said Barrientos. “My friend had it in the back of his truck, and it exploded when the truck got hit.”
“IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were a daily part of life,” Barrientos said.
While driving along Iraqi roadways, Barrientos said he experienced open disdain from the locals, and he understood why.
“Mostly we were driving in the desert, but when we drove through the city they’d give off a vibe like, ‘What are you doing here?’ They were trying to get the insurgency, but we came there and it was very occupy-y.”
If their flatbed or transport vehicle got stuck, the locals would help, Barrientos said. “But not to be nice, but to be like, ‘Let’s get this s— going.’”
And when it wasn’t verbal or atmospheric hostility, it was direct hostility.
“We would be driving on the road, like a main freeway like how it is here, but we’d have to zig zag through all these giant craters,” said Barrientos. “We’d see something shiny or whatever, on the side of the road, and we’d stop and call up explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians and they would get hit on their way.”
Barrientos said IED’s have exploded right in front of his truck, and taken out his trucks, his friends, his comrades. And it was largely due to an “arms race,” as he called it. When the U.S. military first showed up, the insurgency in Iraq had elementary roadside bombs. But as the Army began armoring their vehicles to protect against these bombs, the insurgents innovated their own technology.
“Their IEDs got bigger, so we started seeing their cellphone stuff. So, then they started burying the wire, but then we started to see the wire, so then they started to put little doorbell sensor in the garbage piles so we started avoiding garbage. Then they started putting lasers across the road so then we had these little Rhino cars in front of our trucks, with a little metal pipe in front so that would cross the laser and blow up the bus. And then they started doing daisy chains, and it got to the point where their IEDs got even more creative.”
“One of the biggest IEDs I ever saw was six 155 mm artillery rounds, two propane tanks and C4 and two chlorine tanks on top,” said Barrientos, following it up with one of those laughs that kind of say, “I laugh now, but only so you won’t give me that horrified look.”
“Our gas masks couldn’t handle the chlorine.”
It got worse as his year in Iraq went on, he said, because when they first showed up, they always had the best food, the best aircraft and heavy support. But as the war went on that year, those amenities started to disappear.
“We were driving (in the convoy) and turn around and there would be no one behind us anymore,” Barrientos said, adding that his comrades had gotten hit and either turned back or couldn’t turn back or move forward any longer.
“The scariest thing for me, on the way back (on Christmas night 2006) we saw a dead body on the road, blocking the convoy with his head cut off and (his head) was tied to his back with a note in his mouth that basically said, ‘Don’t drive here through Christmas,’” Barrientos said, his tone becoming more soft and serious.
Barrientos said the fear that gripped him for the next 10 hours while they completed their mission — to retrieve two men five hours away — was amplified because a little bit earlier a patrol had found a notebook used by the locals with the names of each member of his platoon in it, and the artwork on the side of his truck — a skull and crossbones in the likeness of a pirate — indicated the enemy knew what truck he was in.
“I don’t know. It was the anticipation, and it felt like being hunted.”
After one year in Iraq and then serving the rest of his enlistment in the National Guard, Barrientos was honorably discharged after six years as an E-4 Specialist. He was awarded an Army Service Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, an Iraqi Campaign Medal, an Army Service Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon, and Armed Forces Reserve medal, and a number of pins, clasps and pay grades indicating his time spent in imminent danger.
He tried returning to what he used to do before he left, but he was a new person. He had enough money to get a new guitar, replacing the one he lost when his friend’s truck exploded. He joined a band for a bit, which he admits was a boy band named “Vogue in Motion.”
But he never skated again after he got back. That part of him was over.
He eventually enrolled at California State University, Northridge, and got a degree in animation because he always wanted to be an artist. That led him to the master’s degree program at CalArts.
On Friday, May 17, he will graduate after completing his graduate work in fine arts. In the immediate future he will also be publishing his novel, which talks about his time in the service and the “backdoor draft” that affected him so much, and will be releasing his band’s first music album.
He recently showcased his series “Alienation,” which now hangs in his art studio. He describes the work with pride yet reservation. He says the artwork reflects his connection to his platoon, guys who became his brothers and were much like him.
Two have already committed suicide since leaving the service only a few years ago, he says.
His artwork is a metaphor for what it feels like to be an immigrant in a foreign land, to be the son of Guatemalan hippies in a conservative town, what it’s like to be the guy who listens to Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy at base camp while everyone else wants to listen to hip hop. It shows what it’s like to come home from war.
And within each work is a similar piece of cord, Barrientos said. While the string sometimes works to form the outline of a light bulb or the outline of a weeping man’s face, other times it depicts a noose with a character hanging from it.
“It’s the same cord we used in a parachute in the Army,” he said.
When asked if the darkness he puts into his artwork drives his content or hampers it, you can see the hurt he’s endured, and what he must do now that he’s seen it.
“I got a lot of content from that year … (but) for me it’s important or else these stories stay in my head,” Barrientos said. “But I want to make a living selling my art … I want to be in the history books.”