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.
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields shares the story of her youth theater troupe’s debut on Mother’s Day, with heartwarming, behind-the-scenes detail.
Mother’s Day is a big deal in El Salvador. Some people take off work, schools everywhere hold celebrations for the students’ mothers, and all month long TV programs are saturated with commercials of smiling, light-skinned women in US-style apartments, hawking vacuum cleaners, kitchenware or soup mixes that will show your mother how much you love her. Perhaps it’s stating the obvious to say that television rarely reflects the lives of ordinary people, but here the disconnect is enormous. The families in rural El Salvador, though avid watchers of these commercials, don’t live in the same country as those who can afford to buy things like vacuum cleaners. Many of the families I know don’t have electricity or have gotten it only in the last few years. Water comes every eight days if they’re lucky. Needless to say, a vacuum cleaner would do more harm than good on the dirt floors of their homes!
AGROSAL, my host organization, has a tradition of doing something special for women on Mother’s Day. This year was going to be a big event because our youth theater group, “New Views Theater”, was going to present in public for the first time. Almost since the week we began we’ve been working on our repertoire, starting off with a hybrid Electric Slide/Interpretive Dance number and working our way into an original poem and rap focused on our mothers and life in the community. After numerous postponements, we finally had a date to gather. Karen, a co-worker who has worked with these communities for a few years, called for a meeting, keeping the reason as secret as she could. (Last year, a lot of women came who had never heard of AGROSAL, knowing that free gifts and cake were there for the taking.) I was nervous as we planned details like who would buy the cake and how we’d get the piñata, but Karen had done this before−she was in control and all I was responsible for was my theater troupe’s performance.
The morning of the event, Karen was suddenly called to the capital for one of those “urgent-you-can’t-miss-it-if your mother-is-dying” meetings that seem to happen a lot in the world of NGOs. “You can manage, right, Naphtali?” she asked as she breezed out towards the van.
“Ummm….what were you planning to do?” I responded, already feeling the dread settle in. I am a lousy last-minute, spontaneous planner. My mind goes blank and I forget everything theater-related I’ve ever done and just stare in panic at the person closest to me. Karen didn’t notice.
“Just do a few ice-breakers. The important thing is to make sure the women are celebrated. I’ll call Nina Yolan to help. You’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” With that, she left. I had approximately one hour to find a piñata, rehearse for the last time with my group, buy raffle gifts and pray that Jose would get the cake on time.
Two hours later (sometimes the Salvadoran sense of time is gift from God), an army of women showed up at the restaurant. We were expecting around thirty, but the group was over fifty strong, not including the kids that trickled in behind their mothers. The young people in the theater group were nervous. We were first on the agenda, and their hands were shaking as they stepped in front of their mothers and their neighbors, people they had known all their lives. We started with the dance. It was a little shaky, with more spirit than rhythm. Then the poem. Better. They talked loudly into the microphone and remembered both the words and the actions. Finally, the rap. I was worried they would lose their nerve, but their voices were strong as we began to speak what it’s like to live in the communities−to speak in public for the first time things they had never questioned before.
In dusty streets,
The rich, the politicians have their own objectives.
They don’t include us,
Only exclude us.
It’s time to (do things ) for ourselves.
Together we fight, mothers and children
Fathers and grandparents.
Take my hand to work for a better future.
My mother has given me
Everything I have
She fills my life with love and care.
I study far away, I learn a lot of things,
But how do they help me when we have no food?
I have a brother in the USA,
He’s still waiting for his dreams to come true.
We can choose to focus on the bad or the good
We can remain with nothing, complaining
Don’t do it! I’m not going to wait
For an outsider to come and help me.
I know that we’re strong, I believe in God
That he loves us, cares for us, wants us to work together.
I’m not afraid, I’m going to organize
With my community, the mothers, and us, the youth.
It sounds better in Spanish, and the glow of the youth as we finished was wonderful to see. The applause was not very hearty, but they bowed gracefully and happily.
I would like to end by saying that the entire event went smoothly, that the women participated and appreciated the work of their children, that I didn’t panic over the amount of cake or get annoyed at the strange woman, not connected with AGROSAL, who kept volunteering her tiny daughters to dance reggaeton for the group. But the event didn’t really go smoothly. Someone got mad when she wasn’t considered for the raffle because she wasn’t a mother, Nina Yolan and I had a hard time figuring out who was in charge of leading the group, and the kitchen ran out of food. It was not the theater debut I would have chosen, but I’m not Salvadoran. I confess to being a little disappointed. So much work went into our ten minute performance, and who knew how the women, or the youth for that matter, really felt about it. Later that week, I asked the youth for suggestions about how we could do better next time, hoping they didn’t feel as disappointed as I did.
“My mom said I looked really good up there!” Maria said.
“Lots of people said I looked good. And did you see me remember to do the step-out thing for the poem?” Noé continued.
“Yeah, the only thing we need for next time is better costumes.” Aracely added. Everyone agreed.
“Anything else? Anything more we need to work on besides costumes?” I asked. I looked around the circle and everyone was thinking. Flushed from the excitement of their first public performance, they hadn’t noticed the flaws, the scramble for food, or my stress. Finally, Etiel spoke.
“I think it was perfect. And costumes will make it better.” Everyone nodded their heads, relieved that she’d expressed their thoughts. Looking at them, I wanted to film their grins, and make a new TV commercial for the country, one that showed the beauty of a real Salvadoran Mother’s Day.
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and the women farmers she works with find the courage and confidence to begin working together in new ways.
In a recent meeting with my theater group of women I pulled out some sheets of paper and crayons and asked them to draw a map of the year’s journey, the future they imagined for our group over the next few months. No one opted for the crayons, but most got busy with colored pencils, drawing with a concentration I hope will someday transfer to theater exercises. I walked around the group, complementing their color choices, admiring their work, and trying (as always) to keep random chickens for pecking at my toes. After a while I noticed two women in the group weren’t drawing. Their paper lay in their laps, and they were looking at the ground. The closest, Mamita, is the grandmother of most of the women in the group. She is tall and dignified, ancient and always kind to me.
“Mamita,” I asked, “Why aren’t you drawing? Do you want me to get you some different colors?” Lupe, her granddaughter, looked up briefly from her picture to say,
“Mamita can’t write.” Mamita nodded her head vigorously in assent.
“But drawing is different than writing,” I said. “You just have to put the colors together.” Then Mamita clarified for me. She had never held a crayon, a pencil, or a pen. She didn’t know how to put it in her hand. I brought over one of the jumbo crayons I had bought on a whim and fashioned her fingers around it. “Now all you do is decide how you want the colors to go together” I told her. At first, she barely nicked the paper with the crayon, self-conscious and grimacing. Then, after glancing around to see that no one was watching or laughing, she tried again, managing a very nice red circle. I left her drawing circles triumphantly and went to encourage Ildit, the other quiet woman who had never held a crayon before.
After about twenty minutes, we showed our pictures and shared what they meant. Margarita had drawn a plane with herself as the pilot, saying she wanted to be in charge of her own life and make her own decisions. Almost everyone had drawn fields of ripe corn and beans, hoping for a good harvest. Some drew us together, holding hands and working to better the community.
But I was proudest of Mamita. Though her paper was covered with black, red and yellow circles, she showed it off to all of us. “Did you see what I did?” she asked us. Though the other drawings were technically better, she encapsulated the spirit of this year more than anyone. At face value, art seems a poor tool to bring to communities like San Francisco. Every woman is burdened with more work than she can handle, kids with parasites, little food, and now, a real shortage of beans because the rains last year were too strong. Wouldn’t I be more useful if I was advocating a food or health program? The answer, I think, is more complicated than what I want to say. I want to say that no, handouts and benefits are not helpful in the long term and the beauty of art, of creativity, is that it teaches us to think critically about our lives and gives us the tools to organize and change that which causes our suffering. I believe that’s true, but I’m learning that it’s a lovely thing to believe and a difficult belief to live.
Art and social change take time. I came here to teach theater, then realized that for many of these women, it will take a year of work to give them the confidence and courage to stand in front of ten people and say a few lines. Organizing is hard. If the water comes down the main pipe, as it does every eight days or so, all meetings are cancelled. Babies get sick. Housework has to be done, tortillas have to be made three times a day. If it rains everyone stays home. There are a million things that seem more urgent than getting together to play games and talk about creative thinking. Yet, we still meet. Our numbers have dwindled after the first burst of interest, but those who remain are growing in confidence and camaraderie. We might not be mounting any full-length productions soon, we might not solve the problems of malnutrition, parasites and economic scarcity, but we’re slowly beginning to draw our dreams together. And this time, everyone can hold a crayon.