tlf news Vol. xvii #2 June, 1996

The Tourists Speak

Pedro: At the frontier they told me, "Go take a look at those railings." In Honduras I had never seen bullet holes; in El Salvador right at the border the railings are full of bullet holes.

Oscar: The guerilla and the military were always at each other there.

Pedro: The minute you walk into the country you see bullet holes!

Oscar: The imprint of the war.

William: The roads in Honduras from El Progreso to the frontier are good. But as soon as you cross the border -- once upon a time there was a road there, but now there are just patches of asphalt and cement, rocks, dirt, potholes.

Chito: Until you get to the turn-off for Chalatenango.

Oscar: And then leaving Chalatenango we head for Arcatao, the last town on the road. Holy Mother of God! It's a roller-coaster: up, down, down, up.

William: You have to twist to the left, then twist to the right, go around a mountain, go up again.

Oscar: It's a serpent.

Chito: We picked up an elderly couple who were hitch-hiking.

William: Very humble people. The señora didn't say much; the señor, wearing a straw hat and carrying his machete, did most of the talking.

Oscar: After negotiating around a couple of trees fallen across the road, we came to a gorge about 30 metres deep.

Pedro: The river Sumpul.

Oscar: It's a beautiful view. There is a bridge barely wide enough for one vehicle, and below the water is clear, strewn with rocks. If you fell...!

William: The señor told us the story of a massacre of campesinos in an ambush at the bridge.

Chito: He really brought the story to life and I saw it happening there.

William: He said that during the war, Chalatenango, Arcatao, and all the villages around there were guerrilla territory. If a squadron of soldiers entered, they were in danger of never getting out. Day and night you heard planes, helicopters, tanks, troop convoys.

Chito: But the war didn't solve anything. The minute you enter Arcatao you see that the war goes on; they're as marginalized as ever.

Oscar: The "peace" is just politics. The war of hunger, of ignorance, of illiteracy, of malnutrition: that war keeps killing them.

William: "They preach peace while under the table they prepare for war."

Chito: Arriving at Arcatao, you feel the warmth of the people.

Pedro: Arcatao is a humble town lost in the mountains of El Salvador, two hours beyond Chalatenango. It's a total desert.

William: The houses are adobe and the narrow streets are in miserable shape; the valley is surrounded by deforested mountains and the land is arid.

Chito: You can see in the faces of the people that they have had to fight.

William: It breathes an aroma of poverty.

Oscar: But the people are wonderful. They suffered a lot in the war and they are still shackled to that history that martyrized them.

Chito: Their fight was useless; only the people in power benefitted from it.

Oscar: These places are forgotten as if they didn't even exist on the map.

Pedro: They don't exist on the map.

Chito: Every time we go to Arcatao they receive us with open arms: those arms that come straight from the heart.

Pedro: In the workshop, there were groups from Arcatao, and from the villages of Carasque, Nueva Trinidad, and Los Pozos.

Oscar: As a first exercise we sat everyone in a circle and each one had to say his name, where he was from, his age.

William: It's a real fight to get the ones who are there for the first time to say their names clearly. They mumble, you can't hear them; some of them cover their faces.

Oscar: I noticed especially one kid, Mario. He was a mute; you couldn't understand anything. We had to make him repeat his name three, four, ten times. At the end he was speaking medieval poetry: he was the one you could understand best and the others followed him. What a leap forward that kid made!

Pedro: It was incredible how much all of them advanced in the workshop.

William: The last day some of them even raised their hands to offer an opinion.

Oscar: As we move into the workshop they come to life bit by bit. They are different persons when they leave, because they can express themselves.

Chito: Why don't the people in power do anything for these people? Especially the children, a decent education for the children. I have two beautiful daughters whom I love dearly. I could see the reflection of my daughters in those children of Arcatao: barefoot kids, kids carrying loads of firewood. I went through that myself and I hate to see others have to go through it.

William: All of them are child-adults. They didn't have an adolescence. They moved directly into adulthood when they took up a gun.

Oscar: There were three girls younger than the others, two of them about 11 years old and the other about 9.

Chito: They're orphans living from house to house on the generosity of the people.

Oscar: One of them was telling me that she has no one in this world. Everyone was killed in the war. She laughs. "It makes me laugh, not having anyone, knowing that I'm alone in the world."

Pedro: That's Verónica. She's 11, with long, curly hair and beautiful big brown eyes. She said the soldiers came to her house one day, grabbed her mother and shot her. Right in front of her. Her father belonged to the guerrilla.

Chito: The tallest of the three, the dark-skinned one who always wore a red blouse, told me that one of the times the soldiers were out killing, the people had gone up into the hills to hide. Her infant brother was crying. A kid crying was the surest way for the soldiers to find them, so the mother put a gag in his mouth to quiet him. She didn't realize that the gag was suffocating him. That's how her little brother died.

Pedro: The other one's parents hid her in a cave; they went out to look around and the soldiers shot them. The guerrilleros found her there later; if it had been the soldiers they would have killed her.

Oscar: I worked with the group from Nueva Trinidad, a village about 10 kilometres from Arcatao. I had worked with this group last year, and this time I was able to get to know them much better. Joaquín, the group's coodinator, is 27.

Chito: Joaquín belonged to the guerrilla.

William: He started in the guerrilla very young, when he was 12.

Chito: And he keeps on fighting for the well-being of his people.

William: He understands now that a gun isn't the only way to fight; that you can fight by using your voice and your body to communicate a message.

Chito: He was determined that the group continue practising on their own what we taught them. He took the responsibility of making sure they kept going.

Oscar: There are two girls in the group, Consuelo and Minda. They have found a way to defend themselves and not let themselves be exploited by men. Both are trying to finish grade school. Minda has real problems reading. One of the guys, Santos, is 22 and of course doesn't read or write at all. I told him he had to narrate; he couldn't just hang out as an extra. The others all said, "No, Santos is never going to learn the narration." So I said to Minda, "You are going to stand next to him, and you're going to read the text and he has to repeat after you." By dint of being responsible for Santos, Minda was forced to read better. She was his teacher, and she was giving a good class in reading to both of them.

Chito: I had a similar guy who couldn't read at all. But he wanted to act. I went repeating the text phrase by phrase like you would teach someone a song, phrase by phrase until he got it. For me, as an actor it's easy to reach someone like that.

William: Some of them could read, some read a little, others nothing.

Pedro: When they can't read, the only recourse is that they can memorize. It's easiest with poetry: they think of it as a song.

William: That really helps them to learn to read. When they see the text they have memorized on the printed page, they say, "I know what that means; this paragraph is the one that I know." And they begin to associate the symbols with meaning.

Oscar: There's another guy in the Nueva Trinidad group, Luis, who's 17. Somehow he's managed to stay in school. He's very different from the others because he's been in contact with books and with other kids in the high school in Chalatenango. That's another world altogether. He's like the great hope of that village.

William: He didn't carry a gun but he saw a lot.

Pedro: Luis spent 10 years in Honduras, in Mesa Grande. The refugees couldn't leave the camp. His family decided to return to El Salvador; as soon as they got back they had to flee to the hills because the soldiers were on the rampage.

William: It was the first attack he lived through. The soldiers opened fire on the group and he said to himself, "I'm dead, it's my turn." The Red Cross was trying to help them, but the soldiers shot up the Red Cross truck.

Pedro: He said there was a woman who was carrying an infant in her skirt. Everyone was so scared when the military came shooting that she ran too fast and the baby fell, rolled on the ground and was impaled on a stake.

William: That story really got to me.

Chito: I felt really sad the last day of the workshop, because I don't know what's going to happen to those people tomorrow.

Oscar: But they leave the workshop alert. Theatre helps them get a better grip on their situation.

Chito: Theatre helps them understand the reality that surrounds them, and their acting can help others understand it. And it provides a moment of meditation, a mirror of their reality. We have a real duty as actors to teach them whatever we know.

Pedro: Acting and dancing are very fulfilling for me; but even more so, teaching our people the thousands of things that you can teach by means of art.

Oscar: Teaching them so they can learn the work method we've developed; so the chain can go on, and that if tomorrow I'm not around, someone else can carry on.

Chito: I feel I'm still living with those people; there's a reflection of their suffering inside me. Sometimes an experience makes you understand a lot: some live well and others barely survive; some eat well and the rest gather the left-overs from the garbage. These people live worse than I do. That's a serious responsibility for me as an actor.

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