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.”
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