Theater Advances Gender Rights in El Salvador

Dec 4, 2013

Festival Celebrates Women Leaders

Leaders of women's savings and microcredit groups receive diplomas and promote community service at the Festival for Leaders of Women’s Savings Groups organized by ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda Santos.

Women receive diplomas

Nervous energy reigned at the time of the final preparations. “Miguel, check out how the mural turned out.” “Miguel, we put up these pictures, what do you think?”

The first truck arrived, carrying about 50 participants. They began organizing the chairs and setting up the sound system, while others helped with the welcome banner. In less than 20 minutes, about 300 people arrived, counting girls, boys, women and men.

The program began with the introduction of the participants and a reflection on the work done by the different groups, while dances from young people entertained the audience. During the presentation of diplomas, the women shared their accomplishments, along with the difficulties they encountered and how they have overcome them and the road that lies ahead to achieve even more. One participant stated: “The group and training have helped us in solving group conflicts. We used to wait for someone from Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo to come and fix it, but now we can do this for ourselves thanks to the group activities and reflections, which have helped us become more independent and address difficult issues in an atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance.” The ceremony was very emotional, and some participants could not hold back their tears when they received their diplomas.

ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda santos motivates group

The representatives from ArtCorps partners Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America noted the pride and active engagement of the leaders and have many questions for them. Some female entrepreneurs made the most of the gathering by selling their products.

The participation of staff from Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America was fundamental to the success of this event. A colleague from another district traveled a day early to the village to help out with anything we needed, and the entire office staff lent a hand from transporting equipment to cleaning up.

A month has passed since the activity took place, and our shared experience is already showing results. It has served as a model for other groups. The festival will be replicated in a nearby village where Servicio Jesuita also works, and other groups of women and youth are planning service projects like the ones that were presented and recognized.

In the words of Rigoberto Bonilla, Program Manager for Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo, "I congratulate [all female leaders]; this is a sign of how hard they are working."

Leer en español

Jun 17, 2013

Budding Self-Confidence

Doña Aidé was one of the first women to arrive for the workshop, and she sat down to chat to enjoy her cup of coffee and pupusas and wait with ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda Santos for the other organizers of women’s microcredit groups to arrive.

Doña Aidé has a quiet and kind demeanor, and like many women from a machista culture, she only speaks if she is addressed directly. I wondered how comfortable she would be participating in the activities and telling the group about herself.

I gave each woman a flower that I had created earlier for them to color and fill in (this technique is called the “Flower of my Life”). On each petal, they were asked to respond to the following statements: I work with women in order to…, What I like the most is…, My best quality is…, What I do best is…, My worst fear is…, What I don’t like is…, My greatest dream is…. Doña Aidé told me that she needed help to complete her flower. I approached her and realized that it was difficult for her to read and that only with much effort, and very slowly, was she able to write. But despite these limitations, she didn’t get discouraged and participated along with the others.

When Doña Aidé finished filling out her flower, she shared the following:

I work with women “to help my family cover household expenses.” What I like the most is “to share with the women in the savings group.” My best quality is “to be very nice to others.” What I do best is “to make a delicious meal.” My worst fear is “to get sick and have to go to the hospital.” What I don’t like is “to be selfish.” My greatest dream is “that my son will be a professional.”

If we ask people what they like and what they don’t like, what their greatest fears and best qualities are, etc., without using this creative technique, people don’t participate. But a simple drawing exercise breaks the silence and allows women to express their day-to-day realities as women, mothers, wives and leaders in their communities.

Once all the women had shared their drawings, Doña Aidé expressed that the drawing had served to make her stop and think about who she is, make note of all her good qualities, know herself better and reflect on her life.

Dona Aide knows how to communicate her biggest fears and this is an important step toward overcoming the physical, psychological, verbal and economic abuse, which she and her peers face every day. In the microcredit groups, women share joy, sadness, pain, a sense of community and determination. Now the organizers of the women’s credit groups have one more tool to use to build self-esteem and communicate with one another.

This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo.

Mar 20, 2013

Salvadoran Youth is a Guiding Example

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.

Dec 17, 2012

A New Kind of Rapper

ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields

A New Kind of Rapper

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 Naphtali Fields
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields
Oct 2, 2012

Following the Beat and their Dreams

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.

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Ipswich, MA, United States

Project Leader

Louisa Trackman

Ipswich, MA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Theater Advances Gender Rights in El Salvador