Sixteen-year-old Edwin hopes to finish high school student next year. He lives with his aunt because his mother left him at age seven to get remarried and the new husband didn’t want him. Last November, he started coming to the youth theater group led by ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields but after participating in several rehearsals for the Christmas play, he drifted away. This year, though, Edwin comes to every workshop and rehearsal.
Edwin is the one who organizes his cousins so that they bike together up to the little school where we meet for every rehearsal. If I need something, he will get it for me. If the group is rowdy or not focused, Edwin helps me restore order. He does all of this quietly and without calling attention to himself.
A few months ago, I sat down alone with him before a rehearsal and told him, “Edwin, you are the one in the group who has grown the most in your leadership skills. When I leave, you’re going to have to work hard to keep the group going because everyone respects you and listens to you.” He ducked his head trying to hide his smile but didn’t say anything, just nodded. Later that night, as we were rehearsing, I noticed that he had taken my words seriously. Offstage he marshaled the actors and kept them focused. In our reflection circle he was constantly helping.
Edwin’s leadership has continued to grow significantly. He and Aracely, another of the group’s leaders, wrote, directed and organized a play on gender-based violence for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which they performed for over 100 women from the Jujutla area. Days later, at the request of the public health department, they performed the same play in their own community. This was a big step for Edwin who had joined the group with the disclaimer that he would only perform outside of his village: “I’ll do a play for other people, but I’ll never perform in Las Palmeras. Everyone knows me here; they’ll all laugh at me.”
After the performance I asked him what changed his mind. He explained that he was inspired by another ArtCorps theater group, who he saw perform in their own community: “The actors in Guayapa were really good, and no one laughed at them. We can do the same thing here.” Edwin is truly a guiding example for his peers and neighbors, and it has been a real joy to see him change from an on-the-edge drifter to a motivational leader.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America in Ahuachapan, El Salvador.
Naphtali Fields October 19th, 2012
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and her youth theater group redefine rap.
“Diego! Hold your chest up! Proud like a soldier,” I walk across the room and do my best stiff-armed soldier impression. Diego nods his head affably and imitates me for about a half-second. Then his shoulders slump back into their constant hunch and he begins his gangster walk towards the rest of the group. “No, Diego,” I repeat, trying to keep the laugh out of my voice, “don’t slouch like that, you have to be sterner, more in control.” Again the nod and the smile, but he can’t do it. He walks like a happy rapper whether he’s supposed to be acting like an indigenous chief or an army sergeant.
Diego joined our theater group in Las Palmeras only a few weeks ago. His first day, I asked the group members to compose a rap based on three different parts of Salvadoran history: the indigenous period and the Spanish invasion, the civil war of the ’80s and the current situation. They complied enthusiastically, none more so than Diego. At the end of the session, we got up to share our verses. Most people were off-beat, but their rhymes were solid and their message sound. Then Diego stepped up. He began crooning about a true love’s rejection as he bounced up and down in the middle of the group, one hand gesturing wildly, the other on his crotch. He has clearly spent time watching music videos; when he finished he slouched back to his place in the circle with a grin.
I wasn’t the only one surprised by his performance. The next week, as I readied the music for a second go at the group rap, I turned around to find the whole group imitating Diego’s stance and pelvic thrusts. “Is this how you do it, Diego?” Yolanda asked as she bounced her butt in a cumbia-style rhythm. Our youngest member, a 12-year-old girl, began to attempt break dancing on the hard linoleum floor. I couldn’t help it; I started laughing. We were rapping about indignities, violence, history and our dreams for the future. And everyone was convinced that they needed to clutch their crotch and waggle their rears to get the message across.
We eventually came to an agreement about the movement/song relationship. Bopping is allowed. Thrusting is not. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Diego. For me, he represents what ArtCorps is all about.
Diego lives a hard life. He’s from a poor family and before I met him, he found something that filled him with joy: rap. He swallowed the messages, the movements, he even changed his walk to match that of his new pop-culture heroes. And then he came to our group. Suddenly, Diego was introduced to a different idea about what rap could do. It can motivate people to action. It can tell stories of the oppressed. It doesn’t have to be about sex and money and drugs. It can tell his own story in a powerful, redemptive way.
The beauty of working with community groups is that each member brings with them a richness of past experience when they join. Sometimes that takes the form of singing, acting, or drawing. Two of our group members love doing bike tricks and we want to incorporate that into a play someday. And Diego is our rapper. He teaches us rhythm that we didn’t have, and we help him understand that he holds a tool for good in his hand that all of us can use together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America.
When ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields started choreographing a dance for the Las Palmeras youth group, she chose the three-count stomp as the base beat, assuming that it would be easy for the group.
“Stomp, stomp, CLAP. Stomp, stomp, CLAP.” I remember countless basketball games my high school gymnasium as the bleachers erupted with the sound of feet stomping and hands clapping their three-count beat for the team. I’ve always thought of this rhythm as the most basic of beats, good for encouragement, intimidation or amateur rap.
“It can’t be that bad,” my visiting friend Junia chided as I mourned over my group’s lack of rhythm.
“You have no idea!” I replied, “the boys have an amazing ability to mess up the beat in a different way every time. First they lift their foot wrong, then they forget to clap. The third time they start two counts too late. It’s incredible; they’ve found every possibility for error and make them all.”
We were walking the fifty minutes towards Las Palmeras for the second session with the group’s boys. They were cast as the farmers in our play about sustainable agricultural practices, performing a dance/rap number that promotes native seeds, organic fertilizers and more communal farming techniques. As all eight of them lined up with the broomsticks we were substituting for their traditional planting sticks, Junia flashed me an encouraging smile and began the stomp. I led the girls in the rap as the line haltingly marched forward, hitting their broomsticks against the ground as they tried to keep up with Junia’s rhythmic marching. One verse in she called for everyone to stop.
“This isn’t working,” she stated. “Let’s divide up and have them watch us as we walk through it.”
Then we grabbed partners and made them do the routine with us. Then we all just tried to clap the rhythm. Three hours later we were still working on the same one-minute song. The clouds suddenly broke over our heads and as we started to run the long, muddy way home we shouted encouragement at the tired boys. “You can do it! We’ll see you next week!”
Stomp, stomp, CLAP.
Five days later a girl from the group told me that every night the youth had been meeting on their own to work on the rap/choreography. The girls were learning it, the boys were getting better, and everyone was excited to show off their skills to me on Saturday.
“We’re not going to embarrass ourselves,” she told me confidently. “We’ll practice every day if we have to.”
I congratulated her on her commitment to the play but couldn’t stop thinking about the awkward dancing boys. Is there another rhythm that would be easier for them? Am I imposing some kind of American beat that doesn’t fit with the movement of Salvadoran culture?
Saturday came but instead of showing off their practice, they wanted to work on the choreography for our second song. I spent some long minutes trying to get us lined up on the right beat, kicking at the same time with the same leg and twirling in the same direction.
Then, I stood back and watched for a minute. Fourteen boys and girls were singing loudly about their dreams for their rural communities as they linked arms and danced enthusiastically. What is rhythm after all? If it is the base, the pulse behind the song, then these kids have figured it out perfectly. They might not kick or clap or march on time, but they know what they’re singing about. And they know that stepping on beat is not the most important thing—it’s stepping together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America.