ArtCorps Artist Napthali Fields shares the challenges of working with women’s groups and introducing theater and creative expression in rural El Salvador. She is collaborating with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America to promote women’s leadership in their homes and communities and prevent violence against women.
Ten months ago I stood in front of a semi-circle of women in rural El Salvador, waiting to begin our first meeting. Trying not to be distracted by the free-range chicken who kept honing in on my toes, I smiled cheerfully at the kids who ran as free and as dirty as the chickens and worked on keeping my rising sense of panic off my face. My mission was deceptively simple: teach theater and art techniques to women so they learn to analyze and express the realities of rural poverty in their communities. Standing in front of fifteen women who sat silent and impassive, staring at the ground or nursing their babies, I wondered what in the world I was doing.
We started with an ice-breaker. An easy get-to-know-you game that involved tossing a small ball around a circle and saying your name to the group. I had scheduled five minutes for this introduction. Twenty minutes later the women were still silent and impassive, even as they chased after the balls that found the dusty ground more than they were caught. I don’t remember much more of that meeting. My Spanish was bad and the women, if they spoke, used a slang called caliche that was impossible to understand. That first day we set up rules for our new art group: be courteous, show up on time, participate, don’t criticize other members and others. In the days to come, everyone would break those rules.
Week after week I would walk down the dusty road with a huge plastic bag of colored pencils, paper, cardboard, and balls hanging off my shoulder. If it rained, we canceled the meeting. If it even looked like rain, no one would come. In times of planting or harvest, when every hand was needed to assure a year’s supply of food, we would postpone our group. Babies got sick, tortillas had to be made, and at one point in mid-May we were down to a group of 4-5 women.
“The problem is that you aren’t bringing rice,” Niña Aracely told me as we sat in the shade of the patio.
“True,” Lupe laughed. “Rice and some clothes in that big, ugly bag of yours.”
“That’ll bring ‘em for sure,” Niña Aracely nodded sagely. I sighed. This region had a long reputation of handouts from various aid organizations. That’s why any kind of community organization was almost impossible to form; no one saw the point when the system was corrupt and if they waited long enough God or some NGO would hopefully have mercy on them. Giving gifts was completely against the mission of my organization. We wanted to empower rural women, to give them the tools to think, organize and act for themselves so they could resist dependence on well-meaning but unhelpful foreign aid. Still, how could I teach empowerment if no one came to my meetings?
“Alright.” I said to Niña Aracely. “If they want rice I’ll see what I can do.”
The next week, my plastic bag was heavier as I walked towards our meeting-house. I hadn’t brought rice, deciding on a big snack instead that would add some variety to the never-ending repetition of beans and tortillas that everyone ate. Niña Aracely had rounded up a few more women with the promise of food, and I stood in front of a big circle of women again, praying that this time we would stay on course.
I taped a blank poster to the wall and asked, “Why is it hard to participate in the women’s art group?” First there was an embarrassed silence. Then Lucinda spoke up.
“Everyone gossips about us and says we’re crazy. The men say that we’re wasting time here playing games when we should be working. Other people say you’re teaching us to dance. Everyone makes fun of us for being here.” At her words, everyone began to talk at once, confirming or adding to the stories about the community mocking them for doing something so strange as an art group. Eventually I had to let out an unladylike shriek to be heard above the noise.
“Do you think we’re learning crazy things?” I asked the women. They shook their heads no. “Well, it’s your opinion that matters. You’re the ones who are learning new things; the ones who gossip about it are scared of any kind of change.”
I wish I could say that my words inspired them to continue. Honestly, they didn’t seem very convinced until I brought out the snacks. I wisely decided that from then on I would offer the powerful combination of good food and inspiring speeches at all of our meetings.
Slowly we began to act like a real group. We presented a play called “The Education of Santiago” that questioned the disparity between boys’ and girls’ value in the community. We rehearsed for months to perform at a nursing home a story about a tyrannous queen and a village that slowly organized against her abusive laws. Finally, the year ended. At our last celebration, Niña Aracely came up to me and spoke in her gravelly voice.
“The men were at it again yesterday,” she said. “They were telling us we’re crazy for being in this group and that we’ll never be good for anything now.” I sighed. After all the work we’d done, I thought that public opinion would be a little more favorable. But Niña Aracely was smiling. “I just had to tell ‘em it was a whole load of lies and if they have a problem with you they are just wrong because we learn good things in our group and you are not a crazy woman.” I stared at her in amazement. That she would dare to contradict the powerful men in her community to their faces in defense of our little group was more than I’d ever expected. But Niña Aracely wasn’t done yet, “And I told ‘em that when you come back we’ll be looking for even more women to be in the group and we’re going to get even more done next year.” She looked at me for a moment and I remembered the taciturn woman I had met a few months before.
She pulled me in for a goodbye hug. “But this time, bring that bag of rice to the first meeting.” She smiled, “Those good-for-nothing men will want to come too.”
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields is working in collaboration with with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America to empower women and girls in rural El Salvador through theater and other means of creative expression. She is originally from Kodiak, Alaska.
While cleaning my grandmother’s house, I found a box of National Geographic magazines from the eighties. While my uncle and brothers kept sorting through boxes accumulated over a long lifetime, I crouched on the floor, cutting out brilliant images of far-flung lands. Now those pictures grace my bedroom wall in El Salvador. My favorite features an Alaskan woman from Juneau, flexing an impressive bicep above a heading that reads, “Alaska: A Place Apart”. I always imagine the woman as a fisherman (her muscles are inspiring) and sometimes look at her picture to remind myself of who I want to be in a place where the definition of a woman is so different than the smiling, strong, independent female pasted to my yellow wall.
What does it mean to be a woman? The answer not only varies from El Salvador to Kodiak but from person to person. All of us, women and men, work out the significance of our gender through our lives. I think of Alaskan women as strong like my picture. They are smart, know how to get things done; they are businesswomen, mothers, teachers, doctors, fishermen, and hunters. I grew up believing that women could do anything they wanted to.
Then I arrived in Palo Pique, Ahuachapán, El Salvador. There is a dusty road riddled with potholes and stones that the bus travels only three times a day. If a woman wears pants, she is ridiculed and called a prostitute. No one works outside the home; if a mother of five children wants to visit a neighbor a few houses down, she has to ask her husband’s permission. Though I try to fit in, it seems everything I do falls under male stereotypes. I walk alone. I wear pants. I talk in public and lead events. I don’t defer to masculine authority. I stand out like a sore thumb. Yet despite all my presumably male activities, I endure a ridiculous amount of male attention every time I leave the house.
Latino culture is verbal in their admiration of a female, any female, who isn’t crippled or sagging or dead. I got angry at first when a chorus of, “Hola, mi mamacita linda,” followed me down the street, but now the noise almost blends in with the belching smoke of busses and the trigger-happy sirens of police cars. I try different experiments with clothes to see if more or less coverage makes a difference in the attention. It doesn’t. I ask my girlfriends here what they do about the constant heckling. “Ignore it,” they tell me. My best friend Aracely saw me give the finger to a truck that followed me one day. “Don’t do that again,” she says. “They like any kind of response, even a negative one. Some guys blow kisses and say, ‘If you don’t like it, just throw it back. They’ll just keep following you if you act mad.’” I try to follow her advice and keep my fingers and my eyes to myself. It’s been the most effective method so far, but I can’t imagine living like this all the time. When every public outing is a sexual battlefield where the men behave abominably and the only weapon women have is silence.
A few days ago, a man followed me off the bus in my neighborhood. I didn’t notice him; I was admiring the outdoor decorations my neighbors put up when he turned around and quickly groped me with one hand before hurrying away. I stood still staring after him, cursing myself for not being able to remember any of the bad words I’ve been practicing in Spanish. I let him walk away without communicating in any way my displeasure at being treated as an object to fulfill his sexual desires.
My work in theater groups with women and young people focuses on gender-based violence: its causes and ways we can combat them. I confess to being enraged that after leading so many self-empowerment workshops I stood still and let a man walk away after treating me with so much disrespect. I’m ashamed to tell the story to the women in my groups.
“Well, what did you do?” they’ll ask me.
“Nothing,” I’ll say, “I didn’t do anything.” Perhaps the worst part is that they’ll nod their heads in agreement. Doing nothing is something they do well.
The picture of my Alaskan women is fading in the humidity of the tropics. Tomorrow my woman’s group meets for the last time and we will talk about what we’ve learned together about being women. This time, I don’t want to lecture about the strong, brave, ideal woman they should emulate. There is a strength more subtle here than the bicep-flexing model I follow. Maybe my friends endure too much, submit too often, or silence themselves when they should speak out. Or maybe they understand something that my forcefulness has overlooked.
“What does it mean to be a woman?” I’ll ask them. Then I will sit in the circle and listen carefully, stitching together another image of womanhood that I can carry home.
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields assisted with disaster relief this past month, as more rain fell in El Salvador than during the devastating 1998 Hurricane Mitch. Read more about the flooding and landslides that have caused national emergencies in Central America.
It’s my third morning working at the shelter. I walk into the dark, cement gym and head for the children’s corner. Before I can get past the entrance, a skinny, dirty girl flings herself at me, “Naphtali!” Brenda yells, “I was waiting and waiting for you all morning!” She shoves a piece of paper at me and stands back to look at my face as she grips my hand, smiling and breathless. She’s handed me a picture, the third she’s given me in three days. Each one is the same: her house in the middle of green grass and flowers under a shining sun. I smile and give her a hug. Her picture is beautiful, but it doesn’t look anything like her house. She’s at the shelter because her real home is about to collapse.
The rains have continued for ten days, and Brenda’s family was evacuated from their adobe home to wait out the danger. They live over a canyon, and as the earth loosened in the rain, their house kept slipping closer and closer to the edge. By the time the sun returned, half of their kitchen wall had fallen over, and the rest is precariously perched—ready to collapse in the next earthquake or flood. She and her family were at the shelter/gym for seven days along with sixty other people, all displaced by the rising water.
I worked for a week at the shelter in Ahuachapán; and saw little for Brenda to be so joyful about. The adults sat defeated on the benches, silent for hours at a time, while we tried to play with the kids and keep them happy. Donations came in the form of meals and food, but the churches or groups came, gave their organization’s speeches, and left an hour later. Aid workers took for themselves clothes meant for the evacuated families. Conflict between the seventy or so people in the crowded, dirty space escalated as the week wore on. And worst of all, when the families began to roll up their mats, put their possessions in plastic bags, and head for home, some of them returned to dangerous living conditions that they can’t afford to fix. Instead, they humbly pray for protection in their crumbling houses and flooded land and live the best they can.
Who suffered most from the storm? As always, the poorest among us. The homeless men and women cold and coughing on the street, the families without money for land who build their tin shacks by rivers and lakes, the houses of mud stacked like dominos that fall at the least provocation. I played with children of twelve who weighed less than some four-year-olds, brushed out the tangles of dirty, unkempt hair, and watched bemused as government aid workers introduced toothbrushes to the half-rotten teeth of the shelter’s kids. The first day, after hearing the stories of every family, sorrow followed me home like a shadow. I am a small woman and can do little in such great need. It was tempting to stay home, bury myself under my quilt, and read novels until the rain and the reality of El Salvador was a far off haze. But I had promised the kids I’d come back, and they had so little to do with their days. We fought against boredom with a vengeance: soccer, singing, half-remembered yoga exercises, hair braiding, coloring, and tickling filled the hours as the rain kept pounding on the roof. And then, finally, it was over. We piled into trucks to take families back to their far away communities, colored the last picture, hugged the last sticky child, and swept up the last piles of trash on the gym floor.
I went to Brenda’s community to see her house on the canyon’s edge. It was a grouping of three homes, one right on top of the other. The first had collapsed when a neighboring wall fell on top of it, the second had cracks running through all its walls from the weight of the water, and the third, Brenda’s house, was about to fall into the canyon. Still, the children were laughing as they gave us the grand tour, Luis Miguel was trying to squeeze in a few last tickles before we said goodbye. Maybe in fifty years, he’ll have a daughter who asks for stories about the big flood in 2011. Maybe the terrible rains won’t come next year or the year after that and his children will gleefully imagine tragedies that they’ve never experienced. We can hope for that can’t we? We are small in the face of so much need, but we can hope.