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Mar 28, 2012

Finding Strong Women in a Macho Culture

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.

Dec 14, 2011

A Never-Ending Rain

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.

Sep 26, 2011

A Real Salvadoran Mother's Day

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,

We walk.

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.


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