Theater Advances Gender Rights in El Salvador

by Creative Action Institute

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.

ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields

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.”

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.

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.

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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Creative Action Institute

Location: Ipswich, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Louisa Trackman
Ipswich, MA United States

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