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.
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió invokes Fred Astaire to facilitate a dynamic exchange around shared power and tradition in the first training workshop with members of the Natural Resources Council of 48 Cantons, Totonicapán.
When I came to visit Totonicapán for the first time, I thought I knew all there was to know about 48 Cantons: it has one of the most deeply rooted structures for indigenous self-determination among the first peoples of the country. The area is also known for their community work to protect forests, water and natural resources.
Nonetheless, as I walked the streets I saw the people carrying a black stick in their hands; I thought: people DANCE here in Totonicapán. The image of Fred Astaire with his black cane and tap shoes flashed in my mind.
But that was not the case. The scepter in Totonicapán is the HIGHEST SYMBOL OF AUTHORITY. Whoever is carrying the scepter is, at that very moment, representing the power of the Maya Quiché people of Totonicapán and its villages. A tradition that is over 200 years old.
For the inhabitants of Totonicapán, the scepter is a well-established symbol, and one with which they are very familiar. For the uninitiated, it can awaken foreign and fantastic interpretations.
Under that idea, we designed a workshop together with the members of the Natural Resource Council. The idea was to deconstruct the significance of the scepter, taking it out of context, and then reconstruct its importance to reaffirm its living presence. The intent of this activity was to help conserve ancestral practices.
I sent an email to some friends around the world, attaching photos of the people of Totonicapán holding the black stick in different daily situations. I asked my friends what they thought of these images. Who were the people in the photos? Why were they holding black sticks?
Yuko, from Japan, said they might be police officers who were using the sticks to protect women and children from would-be thieves. Silvia, from Spain, said that they must be healers who carried herbs in their sticks to heal the population. Sunil, from the USA, thought they might be religious students. Amalia, from Italy, thought they were retirees. Eva, from Germany, said that they might be magicians going to perform at a children’s party. Anki, from Norway, also thought they could be dancers. And Zartosht, from Iran, said that the sticks were to keep bad spirits away.
I shared these answers with the nearly 40 members of the Council. They listened intently, with reactions ranging from alarm to laughter.
As soon as I finished reading the responses, the council members began to speak out, as if defending themselves. Taking their feet and raising their voices, they extolled the importance of their scepters. Without further prodding they spoke for more than 30 minutes, expressing ideas that included:
The president of 48 Cantons, Carmen Tacam, told us that she feels energy through the scepter: “The scepter holds the power, we are just intermediaries.”
Just as the scepter can be a blessing in the lives of those who carry it, it can also be a curse if people do not know how to use it appropriately. The scepter cannot be loaned to anyone. It can be used only by the person who carries it for that year.
Carmen also told us that the scepter only changes hands on the last day of the year, as it is passed on to the new Council President. The scepter is left in rosewater, in a clay pot. Rose petals are spread upon it, and it is left to rest for the night on December 31. A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and thanks are given for the protection, aid and wisdom that the scepter has granted that year. The scepter can then be passed on to the new authorities with new energy.
As we were all motivated after the intense discussion and exchange of ideas, we decided to set up a sort of mandala in our work space. Everyone spontaneously put their scepters in the circle. Through the exercise of drawing we joined into this year of mandalas, this time representing the past, present and future, as individuals and groups had done before us.
The morning flew by and before we knew it, we were having lunch amidst mandalas that had been filled with our concerns and hopes. And we had renewed energy to finish out the year.
This project is being implemented in collaboration with the EcoLogic Development Fund