Theater Advances Gender Rights in El Salvador

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Maria discovered her voice and purpose in ArtCorps’ workshops. She now serves on a national committee for community development, applying her leadership and creativity to improve living conditions in rural El Salvador.


In 2013, Maria del Carmen attended the leadership school for rural women leaders (“Escuela Rural”) with 19 other microcredit organizers. The facilitator, ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda Santos, recalls that she was embarrassed to speak in front of the group and only responded to a question when asked directly during the first few months. However, despite her obvious discomfort, she never refused to participate in the creative expression exercises, and her participation gradually improved as she engaged in conversation more often and interacted more with the other women leaders.

One day, she shared that her town planned to form a volunteer committee and that she was thinking about participating. The group encouraged her to be part of this effort, as an opportunity both for personal growth and to serve her community. And she joined.

In our workshops, we continued to work on self-esteem, communication and conflict transformation, using role play and other creative methods. A noticeable shift had taken place in Maria—her shyness was a thing of the past and her ambition to keep learning took the forefront.

The next month, Maria told us that she had been selected as a departmental (state) representative for the rural progress committee she served on. She was chosen based on her communication skills, ability to express herself and strong interest in improving the living conditions of her people. Maria credited the creative leadership workshops with helping her become a better leader for her community, and we congratulated her on the significant progress she had shown.

In our last meeting of the year, as we celebrated the group’s progress, Maria surprised us yet again with remarkable news. This time she had been appointed to the national committee for rural progress.

As part of a collective assessment of our work, Maria gave the following testimonial: “If I had never participated in ArtCorps’ workshops, I would never have discovered my abilities…. Now my public service is recognized by many people. Not only am I a part of the town committee for progress, but I was also elected to represent my district at the state level and, most recently, I have also become our national representative. I meet with public figures and government officials, with the President’s staff, and we come up with projects to benefit [rural communities].

This project was carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America.


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

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.

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.

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

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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