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.