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.