viernes, 29 de abril de 2011

Moon, Sun, Freedom: Artist Names for Peace

How many of us actually like our names? My own father, despite scoffing at his parent’s poor taste, always presents himself with his given name of Wayne. Rarely do we stop to consider, what would I choose for myself if I could?

Salvadoran parents give their children more wiggle room with their names. They get four: two first, two last. A given María Elena, for example, can introduce herself as María, Elena, María Elena, Malena or Mari depending on her mood. Moreover, during the civil war (1980-1992) guerrilla fighters and their families invented names for themselves to protect their identities from being discovered by the murderous Salvadoran army. Today these guerillas veterans alternate between their nom de guerre and their given first or second name, all which makes it very difficult to remember the names of twenty people that presented me the first time as Jose or Tomasa and the second as Salvador or Santos.

I’ve always been fascinated with names, ever reading Anne of Green Gables, where the heroine laments her bland name and creates for herself an alternate identity as Cordelia. My name was boring too! Once I started reading poetry and found that Pablo Neruda had actually been born “Neftalí Reyes Basoalto” and Gabriela Mistral’s parents baptized her as Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga (whoa) I decided to take the plunge. I started signing my work Madeleine Breton in honor of the surrealist poet. In El Salvador, jealous of all my friends with their flexible name situations, I christened myself Jennifer Azucena in honor of Monseñor Romero, the Salvadoran martyr born on August 15th, the day of Saint Azucena.

In my first day of the theatre workshop I attend at the University of Central America, our teacher had us go around the circle and say our names . Once we had finished, she said, “Good. That’s the name your parents gave you. Now pick your artist’s name. It can be a childhood name, a name you’ve always loved, something that identifies you with your inner actor. Now present yourselves again.” Brilliant.

I decided to bring this to our workshops ABC (Art, Wellbeing and Creativity) at FUNDAHMER. The first day, I asked them to go around the circle and say their names. Rolled eyes. “ Come on Jenny, “We work together every day!”
“Great.” I said, “That’s your name outside of our ABC workshops. Now pick your artist name.” I was terrified that they all would refuse, but as we went around the circle again, they beamed as they introduced themselves as “Luz(Light), Luna (Moon), Mar (Sea), Libertad (Freedom), Nube Gris (Gray Cloud), Mariposa (Butterfly), Kamila, Charrango (A Peruvian guitar), Campanilla (Morning Glory), Linda (Pretty). We drew portraits of our artist selves, and made colored nametags which we wear each time we meet as a group.

Our recent challenge has been naming our group. We’ve narrowed it down to two: Aroma Natural (Natural Aroma) and Baúl de Los Tesoros (Treasure Trove). Unfortunately, during our Wednesday meeting, 6 voted Aroma and the other 6 Baúl. I’ll keep you posted on which Mar (Sea) chooses once he returns from his conference in Guatemala.

Because our ABC workshops are held in our office, our artist names help us to separate our work space from our art space: the one place where my colleagues can fully detach themselves their grueling non-profit work schedule (6-7 days a week, 9- 10 hours a day), and responsibilities taking care of their kids or aging parents. With each meeting, it becomes easier and easier to incorporate our inner artists into our repertoire of identities, allowing us to live and work more creatively in our fight for social justice in El Salvador.

miércoles, 13 de abril de 2011

Introducing the Poets of FUNDAHMER

I. Upon mentioning to my colleagues that in our first ABC (Art, Creativity and Wellbeing) workshop we’d be writing poems, I heard a chorus of groans. I shuttered. But why? Their reaction didn’t make sense. In El Salvador, where martyred poet Roque Dalton is a national idol, why would my colleagues be so opposed to poetry?

I asked this question to the Charrango (the motorist) and Linda (the secretary) one morning as we sat down to sweet bread and coffee. “Oh Poetry, ” groaned Charrango. “None of us get excited about poetry because it was boring when we studied it in school. All we did was memorize poems for homework and recite them in front of the class like parrots.”

“But didn’t you analyze the poems in class? Talk about the rhythm, the metaphors, the feelings the poet conveyed through his words? ” I asked. He shook his head. I continued, “And the teacher never assigned you to write poems?”

“No.” sighed Linda. “We copied poems from books and memorized them. That’s all.”

“Just wait,” I promised them both. “I promise you that you both are poets.” They shrugged their shoulders.

That Wednesday morning, after finishing our beans and plantains, the 10 staff members/artists and I sat down in a circle to embark on our poetic journey. We began with an activity called “Unwording our names,” which consisted in jumbling the letters of our “Artist name”(to be explained in a future blog) and saw which words we could form using the same letters. For example in my artist name “Azucena” (Lily) I can form “Cena” (dinner), “cuna” (crib), “Caza” (to hunt). Once we had found all the words hidden in our names, we had to stitch the words together into a verse.

The Kindergarten teacher Kamila found that her name unscrambled into “Mermaid,” and wrote—

In sand, The mermaid Is a sand-less frog.

The scholarship student coordinator Ana Luz found the words, “Light” and “Path” in her name, and composed—

I will be a path, A blue path. I will be light.

While most of my colleagues looked smug about their poetic findings, a couple of them still looked at me skeptically, their faces asking, “Nope. Try all you want but I’m never going to like poetry.”

II. I ignored off their pessimism and handed out copies of Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, “Ode to my sock,” and we entered into the mystical world of the famous Chilean who celebrates a pair of socks given to him by a friend. “I don’t like it,” spattered Ana Luz. So we read it again, and began discuss the significance of finding beauty in ordinary things until she admitted, “Oh. I like it. It’s pretty.”

Next they scattered with the assignment: 1. Find an object FUNDAHMER office 2. Sit down and “talk” with it for 5 minutes 3. Write an ode celebrating this object.

In the 20 minutes that followed, I witnessed many frightened scowls soften into pensive grins. We reconvened in our circle, and one by one, the artists of FUNDAHMER read their odes: “Ode to the Coconut Tree”, “Ode to the Flowers”, “Ode to the String Bean”, “Ode to a Shell”, “Ode to a dried Rose”.

Linda explained that as she was looking for an object to write her ode about, she felt the time ticking away, and so she wrote an “Ode to the Watch”. The youth group coordinator Miguel “Guevara” Gris chose a picture of Monsignor Romero, (the Salvadoran Archbishop who was murdered by the U.S supported army in 1980 in response to his human rights work) and wrote an “Ode to America” which begins with the verses:

Poor America.

Why did the Spaniards have to come?

Poor America.

They robbed you of everything:

Women, gold, silver, etc.

Poor America.

You were subjected to slavery.

How unjust!

Charrango, perhaps inspired by the poems I put up in the bathrooms, closed us out with his “Ode to the Toilet,” where he put personified the john as a supportive, hard working friend who always supports our efforts. Unfortunately, citing those verses in this blog would be inappropriate.

III. Our final activity was Newspaper Poetry. I threw down a stack of last week’s newspapers in the center of the circle and asked, “What do you think of the news in this country.”

“Lies!” “They just show violence and consumerism!” “Death death death!”

I gave each of them a pair of scissors with the assignment to pick an article that angered them, cut out at least 10 words from the article, and use those words to write a poem.

Kamila wrote about the price of beans (a staple food in El Salvador whose price tripled in the past year from 50 cents to $1.50). She explained how the newspaper just talks about the price, but never explains the roots of the price increase: poor harvests due to hurricanes and droughts caused by climate change.

The executive director Luna wrote about the exploitation of mining companies in the rural areas. The education director Libertad responded to an article which explained how the United States continually refused to import the “Flor de Izote” the national flower of El Salvador, due to food safety standards., Ana Luz came out with a biting critique of the cell phone companies in El Salvador in response to a Movistar ad which nearly received a standing ovation.

They rob you without compassion.

They make you believe

That they give you double phone credit

So that you can call anywhere in the world,

But they’ve already charged you.

It’s a farce, a trick,

They don’t give you anything!

Instead, you make them rich

Buying minutes with your puny salary.

In our final activity, I taped a blank sheet of paper on everyone’s back and asked them to write a compliment in the form of a verse of poetry on each of their colleague’s backs. We finished with a group hug, and I smiled watching them head up to their offices reading their papers. They finally believed what I had been telling them all along: that they could write poetry. That we all can.

miércoles, 16 de febrero de 2011

Massaging out the Memories of War

I wear a number of hats in my non-profit FUNDAHMER: poet, artistic enthusiast, translator, sport promoter, icebreaker facilitator and perhaps the most important, masseuse. About once a week, my lovely director comes up to me with a withered face and say something like, “Fíjate Jenny I feel like my shoulders about to fall off. Would you mind…?” I don’t at all. Giving Anita massages is one of the greatest ways I contribute to the wellbeing of my organization.

Anita, the executive director, needs massages. In addition to running our foundation, which includes 10-12 hour days 6 days a week, Anita is a single mother with three kids, and takes care of her sick mother on Sunday. When I sit down with her, and put my hands on her aching back, the tension of her present and past pop out like a cardboard cut-out. That knot: which staff members to cut given the funding crisis? This bump: are the gangs going to infiltrate her children’s’ school and force them to drop out? The longer I rub, the more I feel the tension of her past that she’s repressed for 30 years inside her. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, all 5 of her brothers were murdered by the Salvadoran Army because they were fighting for the liberation of the poor. Anita had to spend 12 years as an internal refugee not knowing where her other family members, who were scattered throughout the country, were alive or dead. Massaging, I try to imagine my fingers as pipelines sucking out some of this pain that Anita harbors inside her veins.

Massage has also been the solution for the difficult question of to give my host families in the communities in exchange for sharing their hammocks and tortillas? Money is inappropriate. Ice cream melts long before dinner. After months of trial and error I have come up with a wellness cocktail that works wonders. Because vegetables and fruits are expensive and not commonly grown in the communities (we’re working on that) I usually stuff my backpack with bags of zucchini, onions, tomatoes, carrots etc and top it with a huge pineapple to make juice with. And after dinner, I sit down with the mother of the house, who has spent the last 14 hours bent over watching her children, washing clothes, feeding the chickens, working in the fields, scrubbing dishes, grinding corn, making tortillas, sweeping the floor, and I massage her back. The knots that riddle the backs of these women in the communities are as hard the bullets they fled from, the bullets that took the lives of their husbands and children throughout the war. The hour we spend together barely strokes the surface of that pain.

Tomorrow, a professional masseuse and meditation expert will give me and my colleagues all a class on how to properly give massages. I’m quite excited about this. Not only will this help me do my “work” better, but it will empower my colleagues to help one another feel better, and to share this cost-free health miracle with the communities for their wellbeing.

In the darkness with Dolores

She sits down in the hammock
And sighs
As I dip my hands in aloe vera balm
And place them on her neck.
Her knots are like bullets.
I wish I could pull them out
And eras the days she spent eating weeds
inside the cave,
the days she withered wondering
if her brother, husband, father, nephew, son
had yet been sliced open by the booted men who
buzz in on their helicopters
to kill and rape and kill
until their biceps sting
so bad it aches to button
up their slacks.

Sitting with Dolores in the darkness
With my fingers on her spine.
Untangling the tension strings
Woven together so tight
They form a hammock in
The curve of her back,
A flimsy net struggling to
tuck away reminders
of the death that stayed behind.

martes, 1 de febrero de 2011


This morning stopped at the tire repair shop to pump up my bicycle tires. Central America is chock full of these “Llanterías”, as they’re called here, because the edges of the roads are littered with glass, and most Salvadorans with cars can’t afford new tires and wear their original ones to shreds.

At the second llantería closest to my house, the owner Alex generously agrees to pump up my tires twice a week. These three minutes I spend with him dote me with fascinating social commentaries on El Salvador. The topic today: Impunity.

As Alex reached over to grab the air tube, I asked him where he lived, and he pointed to the office in the back of the tire shop. This is my house. “Here?” I asked. On busy San Antonio Abad Street? “Isn’t it dangerous here? You haven’t been robbed?”

“¡Cómo no!” He said. “Of course I have.”
“Oh no! How many times?”
“Just twice.”
“What did you do? Did you call the police?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Alex smiled, I didn’t want to waste my phone credit.”

I related all too well to what Alex was talking about. Though I haven’t yet been robbed in El Salvador, in 2008, when I lived in Guatemala, I had my phone grabbed from my hand as I was speaking to my parents. I ran to the police station. There, two fat office and a buxom policewomen were loafing on the porch. “Buenas noches.” I panted. “Fíjense that these two guys just came over and grabbed my wrists and stole my phone out from my hands.”

“Ok,” smiled the fattest one. “Let’s go to the supermarket and write up a denouncement. That’s the only way you’ll get your phone back.”

“What? Really?” I asked. “Why? And doesn’t the supermarket close at 8pm?”
“Exactly. He said, that way you’ll have the announcement up by tomorrow morning. Let’s get in the car.”
I didn’t get it, but the policewomen was smiling and nudging me towards the car, and well, I figured women are trustworthy aren’t they? She opened the back door, and told me to wait inside. I sat for 10 eerie minutes before the officer waddled back from the office. He sat in the front seat, put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the car. 2, 4 ,6 silent minutes passed before he turned back and asked me,

“What’s your name?”
“Jennifer.” I said. He smiled, and swiveled his head like a porcine Don Juan.
“Hello Jennifer,” he swooned, “ my name, is Romeo. “ Double wink. I jumped out of the car, ran back to my dark hotel room and cried.

Impunity, meaning that criminals are never prosecuted for their crimes, is what really frightens me about Central America. Not so much in my own case, since as a foreigner any great crime against me would receive media attention in the States, but rather the fact that if any of my friends or colleagues are robbed, raped, or killed, nothing would be done about it!

In the 12 year Civil War in El Salvador, over 70,000 civilians were massacred by the army. The war ended with a set of peace treaties in 1992. While these treaties did grant land to many ex-guerrilla fighters, they also included a nearly blanket amnesty, meant that nearly all of the military men, and the government officials who ordered them to rape, murder, and torture went free. Three weeks ago I spoke with a woman whose brother was “disappeared” by the army in 1985. No investigation has ever been done to recover his body. Tens of thousands of similar stories exist.

Impunity hasn’t lessened much since the war. Now, the “maras,” (gangs) menace the country. Gang members frequently enter businesses like Alex’s tire shop and ask for “rent”. This means that small business owners like Alex has to pay them 200$, 400$ sometimes up to $1000 a month or else the gangs threaten to rape or kill Alex’s wife or children. Considering that a minimum wage salary is 200$, this is too much for most small business owners to afford, and many have to close up shop. The gangs also knock on the doors of families and demand “rent” from them. The rent is usually more than the family earns each month. People have to take out loans to pay the rent, move to another neighborhood, or else grind their teeth praying for the best. Miguel, one of my coworkers told me that in his community, nobody goes outside past 7pm, not even to walk to the store, because gang members prowl the streets demanding a toll for passing. The police do very little or nothing to help the situation.

I don’t want to hate on all policemen. One of my co-workers’ husband is a very friendly officer, and when I go out to the communities in Morazán, a policeman named Solomon gives me a ride to wherever I need to go.

And there has been some improvement in the gang situation in the past 2 years since the left wing FMLN government came to power. President Mauricio Funes began installing military men to patrol gang-ridden urban communities in 2009. Since this initiative, gang presence has significantly reduced in these communities. Funes has also began apologizing for human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran during the civil war, including the assassination of Monseñor Romero in 1980 and the 6 Jesuit priests in 1989. Though this may not be legal prosecution, denouncing these crimes is a significant improvement from denying they ever happened, as characterized the policies of the right wing ARENA government that ruled from 1992-2008.

Perhaps what amazes me most about the Salvadoran people is their vivacity and the humor with which they survive their difficult reality. “Call the police?” says Alex, “Eh, why waste a quarter? Might as well buy a pupusa.”

El Salvador, 1983

By Gloria Mindock

Somewhere, someone is mourning
for the body of a brilliant one.
Man or woman, it doesn't matter.

The tears in this country, an entrance
to a void . . . shadows touching skin like frost.
A star fell north of this city.

Armies parade aroundin their uniforms bragging about the killings.
Dead bodies thrown into a pit, cry.
Flesh hits wind, wind hits flesh.

How many dead?
Finally, they are covered with dirt at noon.
All eyelids are closed.

No one knows nothing.
No breathing assaults to hold us.
The bitter ash weeps over the world,
and no other country wants to see it,

taste the dead on their tongue
or wipe away all the weeping.

jueves, 27 de enero de 2011

Poetry in the FUNDAHMER bathroom

We come up with our best ideas in the bathroom. Indeed, Albert Einstein was quoted as asking, “Why is it that I always come up with my best ideas while shaving?” This Tuesday, after coming back from my orientation for Art Corps in Antigua, I too found that the bathroom inspired a solution to January woes in the FUNDAHMER office.

Whoa poetess step back a bit. Art Corps? FUNDAHMER? Sorry. Let’s begin with a glossary:

Art Corps: A non-profit based in Boston that promotes art for social change by placing artists inside of non-profit organizations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

FUNDAHMER: A Salvadoran non-profit organization based in San Salvador that accompanies the base communities of El Salvador. FUNDAHMER aids these impoverished communities in their development by promoting programs in nutrition, sustainable agriculture, education/scholarships, pastoral work and international solidarity.

Me (Jenny): A poet from San Francisco, California obsessed with Central America, ice cream and the moon. I graduated in 2007 with a degree in development studies and French literature, and after became a high school teacher in an indigenous community in rural Guatemala. From April to December 2010 I worked as the International Relations Coordinator for FUNDAHMER. This, as the prestigious title suggests, consisted of leading delegations and publishing communications between the sister communities in El Salvador and abroad. I applied to Art Corps last year, was accepted (hooray), and from January 2011-June 2012, I’ll be promoting art/poetry for social change in FUNDAHMER.

Let’s start again. FUNDAHMER office, El Salvador, January woes?

In mid November, about the time I found out I had been accepted and would be funded as the Art Corps artist of 2011 (hooray!!!!) bad news began to infect our little FUNDAHMER office. I learned that our Scottish grant, which funded over 1/3 of our organization including our organic garden project would be terminated in January. And then bad news started pouring in from the campesinos we work with in the rural regions of Morazán and La Libertad. Due to climate change, El Salvador suffered in 2010 from vicious hurricanes during the rainy season (May-September) followed by a severe drought in October and November. The farmers in our communities, most of which live entirely on the corn and beans they grow in their fields, lost over 60% of their corn harvest and almost 100% of their beans.

I went home in early December to fundraise for the farmers, and when I came back, I discovered a ghost office. Because of the funding situation, FUNDAHMER had to cut one third of our staff members and programs. This leaves a staff of about 10 people doing the work that should be done by forty (we were understaffed even before the funding crisis). For the past two months, the board of directors has been meeting almost daily to discuss how FUNDAHMER should proceed given the funding situation. Do they stop working with some of the 30 communities, communities that they’ve been supporting ever since the Salvadoran Civil War? Do they stop working with women’s groups, with youth groups, with the scholarship students? All possibilities are depressing.

Yesterday, I sat down to write my plan of how I would ensure art and creativity would become sustainable in FUNDAHMER. I couldn’t concentrate. A horrible cacophony of sighs was coming from the salon where the directors were once again meeting to resolve the financial troubles. I felt like a prisoner hearing the screams of his comrade being tortured in the next room. What could I do to lighten the mood? The epiphany came to me on the toilet. They needed poetry! But how could I introduce it? Put it in the bathroom! Bathroom poetry, brilliant!

I decided on two relatively light-hearted poems, one titled “The moon rises” by the Spaniard Federico García Lorca, and the other “I don’t love you rather why I love you,” by the Chilean Nobel Laureat Pablo Neruda. I scribbled down the verses and decorated them respectively with images of a glowing moon and an puzzled lover simultaneously carrying a bouquet of flowers and a poster reading, “I hate you!”

The reaction was quite positive. During lunch, I overheard two colleagues say, “Now who do you think put up all those poems in the bathroom?” At 3 o clock, my beloved director Anita came in laughing. “Gracias Jenny,” she said, “Never before had I read a poem in the bathroom!” I sat down to give her a massage, and though her back was still full of knots, my fingers promised me there was hope that someday soon she’ll be able to relax again.

As I write this blog, the directors are once again groaning around the table. Perhaps I should serve them glasses of water so they’ll have to head to the bathroom again soon and see the new poem I put up by the famous Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton!

Los dioses secretos

Somos los dioses secretos.

Borrachos de agua de maíz quemado y ojos

polvorientos, somos sin embargo los dioses secretos.

Nadie puede tocarnos dos veces con la misma mano.

Nadie podría descubrir nuestra huella en dos renacimientos o en dos muertes próximas.

Nadie podría decir cual es el humo de copal que ha sido nuestro.

Por eso somos los dioses secretos.

El tiempo tiene pelos de azafrán, cara de anís, ritmo de semilla colmada.

Y solo para reírnos lo habitamos. Por eso somos los dioses secretos.

Todopoderosos en la morada de los todopoderosos,

dueños de la travesura mortal y de un pedazo de la noche.

¿Quién nos midió que no enmudeciera para siempre?

¿Quién pronuncio en pregunta por nosotros sin extraviar la luz de la pupila?

Nosotros señalamos el lugar de las tumbas, proponemos el crimen, mantenemos el horizonte en su lugar, desechando sus ímpetus mensuales.

Somos los dioses secretos, los de la holganza furiosa.

Y solo los círculos de cal nos detienen.

Y la burla.

Roque Dalton

Salvadoran Poet (1935-1975)