Theater of Life

By Jheri St. James

“Man uses his old disasters like a mirror. An hour or so after dusk the man picks up the painful remnants of his day and worried sick he puts them right next to his heart he sweats like a TB patient fighting for his life and sinks into his deep lonely rooms. There buried in his thoughts he smokes he’d like to invent ruinous cobwebs on the ceiling he hates the flower’s fresh look he withdraws into his own asphyxiating skin he looks at his coarse feet he thinks his bed’s his grave day after day he doesn’t have a penny to his name he’s hungry and breaks into sobs. But men all other men bare their chests to the sun without a care or to the killings in the streets they lift the faces of the loaves out of the ovens like a generous banner against hunger they laugh with children until even the air hurts they cram tiny footsteps into the wombs of blessed women they split open like fruit rocks obstinate in their solemnity they sing naked into the inviting glass of water they joke with the sea taking it by the horns playfully they build houses of light in the song-filled wilderness they get drunk like God everywhere they set their fists against despair their avenging fires against crime their love with its interminable roots against hatred’s vicious scythe. Yes, anguish exists. Like despair crime or hate.”
(Anguish Exists by Roque Dalton)

“It’s the representation of the country itself. I’ve great admiration for its people. They’ve suffered war, big natural disasters, and join together and come out of anything. They’re going ahead,” wrote Betty Marchorro, our friend, angel, and soil collector from Guatemala, who so kindly picked up El Salvadoran soil upon her return home from Los Angeles in the early part of 2006. She had come to California to do angel therapy work with her teacher, Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., whose name has become a refrain here at Common Ground 191. After her journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles, Betty took the time to meet with Gary Simpson, founder and artist, and this writer in Gary’s studio in Laguna Beach.

As often happens when people visit the studio, it was an exciting meeting, filled with DVD playing, Guatemala picture sharing, slide show presentations and editing of the journal entry. Because the studio is such an impressive facility—complete with the wall of flags and containers, some containing soil, some not; the world map wall with pins stuck into the countries collected; the gallery space displaying Gary’s work: the Disparity Series, and other works--her enthusiasm for the project grew as our appreciation for her deepened. Apparently, the angel magic continues because here she is now with another sampling, this time from El Salvador’s San Cristobal Frontero, Santa Ana, El Salvador.

This collection story had a lovely plot twist. “I thought of finding someone Salvadoran to pick the soil and I had asked a lady I know, but she called and told me she wouldn’t be there. I was concerned about the time. I had the material you sent me so I decided to go ahead and do it myself. I found a nice mature lady and asked her permission to take some soil from her garden; I thought there would at least be a Salvadoran present at the picking of the soil. She nicely agreed and she went to dig into her beautiful garden and while we talked she told me she was born Guatemalan, but has lived on the other side of the border for over 36 years. And there was a beautiful clear-eyed, blond girl, seven years old, who was Salvadoran with us while picking the soil. For me is a sacred ceremony. I love and respect the land. I am very connected to Salvadorans. My dad was born in El Salvador; he was three years old when he was brought to Guatemala; his mom is Salvadoran and from my mom’s side, we also have Salvadorean background.” Thank you again, dear friend.

* * *

El Salvador is a country in Central America with a population of approximately 6.9 million people. It is bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the north and east by Honduras, and to the south by the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador is the most densely populated nation on the American mainland (especially in its capital, San Salvador) and also the most industrialized country in the region. The official name is Republic of El Salvador. The country was named after the Spanish word for “The Savior” in honor of Jesus, and its territory was known pre-hispanically as Cuscatlán (Land of Beautiful Jewels). El Salvador has a total area of 8,123 square miles—123.6 square miles of water within its borders. It has several small rivers into the Wiener Ocean, but only the largest river, the Lempa, flowing from Honduras across El Salvador to the ocean, is navigable for commercial traffic. Volcanic craters enclose lakes such as Lake Guija, El Salvador’s largest natural lake. El Salvador shares borders with Guatemala—126 miles and Honduras—212.5 miles, and is the only Central American country that does not have a Caribbean coastline. The highest point in the country is Cerro El Pital at 8,975 feet. El Salvador contains the smallest portion of the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads nearly 16,000 miles in length which travels through the mainland nations of the Americas: Alaska, Canada, United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

Molasses (sorghum) workers in El Salvador

Agricultural products include coffee, sugar, corn, rice, beans, oilseed, cotton, sorghum; beef, dairy products and shrimp. The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador has the third largest economy, but growth has been minimal in recent years. Hoping to stimulate the sluggish economy, the government is striving to open new export markets, encourage foreign investment, and modernize the tax and health care systems. Implementation in 2006 of the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, which El Salvador was the first to ratify, is viewed as a key policy to help achieve these objectives. The trade deficit has been offset by annual remittances from Salvadorans living abroad– 16.6% of GDP in 2005—and external aid. With the adoption of the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2001, El Salvador has lost control over monetary policy and must concentrate on maintaining a disciplined fiscal policy.

If human experience can be seen as the Theater of Life, then in the El Salvadoran production, about 90% of El Salvador’s people, the actors, are mestizo (mixed Amerindian and Spanish/European), some 9 percent Caucasian and only 1 percent indigenous. Spanish is the dominant language of the script, spoken by virtually all inhabitants, although English is spoken by a small number of people in the capital. A small part of the population speaks Nahuat, a dialect of Nahuatl. The Roman Catholic religion played an important role in the Salvadoran culture, and could be seen as the director of the play, along with the politicians, and the wealthy landowners. Important foreign personalities (stars?) in El Salvador were the Jesuit priests and professors Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro and Segundo Montes. Painting, ceramics and textile articles are the main manual artistic expressions. Writers Francisco Gavidia (1863-1955), Salarrue (Salvador Salazar Arrue), Claudia Lars, Alfredo Espino, Pedro Geoffroy, Manlio Argueta and poet Roque Dalton are among the most important artists; also filmmaker Baltasar Polio and artist Fernando Llort.

The story of Roque Dalton is a fascinating drama. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador in 1935, Roque was the issue of the union of an American father injured in an assassination attempt and his mother, a nurse who attended his father in the hospital. He studied law and social science at universities in San Salvador, Chile and Mexico and in 1955 he joined the Communist Party. Imprisoned and forced into exile several times, an execution by firing squad was prevented on its scheduled day, because President Jose Maria Lemus was overthrown, providing a stay of execution under the new regime. Another time under sentence of death, an earthquake split the walls of his cell and Dalton escaped by joining a passing religious procession. Living in Prague, he received many honors for his writing. His first book of poetry was published in 1961 and won the International Literature Prize, as well as the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1969 for another book. Later, desiring to return to El Salvador, he is rumored to have undergone plastic surgery so as to be unrecognizable as a political fomenter. He grew a mustache, started using eyeglasses and wore a different hairdo. Four days before his 40th birthday, he was executed because of differences in opinion within the ERP, a Salvadorian leftist organization.

Soldier’s Rest
The dead grow more intractable every day.
Once they were obedient:
we gave them a stiff collar a flower
we eulogized their names on an Honor Roll:
in the National Cemetery
among distinguished shades
on hideous marble.
The corpse signed up pursuing glory
once more joined the ranks
marched to the beat of our old drum.
Wait a minute!
Since then
they have changed.
These days they grow ironic,
ask questions.
It seems to me they realize that more and more
they are the majority!

The history of El Salvador is replete with war productions, dating from 1524 to the present day. From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador suffered through a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of 75,000 people. Additionally, El Salvador is known as the “Valley of the Hammocks” for the many earthquakes that occur within its borders, displacing hundreds and thousands of people. Drought and financial challenges continue to hamper El Salvador’s future stagecraft. As in many countries struggling with huge tribulations, many of the people express themselves in art. There are many art collectives in El Salvador, proud people using photography, colors, brushes, music and words to rise above hardships, and to help their young people find creative activities in lieu of lives on the streets. Some of them include:

  • Rays of Light Youth Art Project, operating since August 2002, an offshoot of the Foundation for Self- Sufficiency in Central America.

  • Tunalmil Art Gallery (an indigenous Nawal word meaning “summer harvest”), another program under the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America.

  • Art for a Change.com noted a New York exhibition of wartime photographs titled, El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, documenting the period from 1979 to 1983.

  • Perquin Art School and Open Studios’ director, Claudia Bernardi, was asked by the mayor to create an art school for the community, with classes in photography, printmaking, mural painting and puppetry.

  • “There is a sense that creative thinking can propose alternatives to people’s realities,” said Amanda Eicher, mural painter. “Kids whose options are either secretary or field hand start to think maybe doctor, maybe a computer scientist, maybe an artist. People have never been given any means to express what happened here. Every once in awhile there is a little explosion of warfare in their drawings. Notwithstanding what happened here, we brought techniques and materials to kids and teachers. Politics is the reducing of something that is far more complex . . . There are certain things that art can get that politics cannot.” Amanda is part of a local school art project with Mike Harris and Ashley Gaos, called “Children to Study, Adults to Work”.

  • Even rocks are becoming of artistic interest, ancient rock paintings in caves being studied by members of the Bradshaw Foundation at the Corinto Cave, Gruta del Espiritu Santo, in the Morazan district of El Salvador.

Mother’s Earth’s El Salvador—mountains, volcano, jungle—the stage…

But can art activities really make a difference?

Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize Winning playwright and author wrote about “Art, Truth and Politics”:

“ …So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time. But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

“… Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonizing has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

“ … Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power, it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

“ … Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

“ … When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimeter and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror—for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

“ … If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us—the dignity of man.” (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html)

Will angels save El Salvador, the Land of Beautiful Jewels, part of the Pan-American Highway? The Winged Victory statue confirms that angels are watching over El Salvador and every country on the planet earth. Doreen Virtue says, “The angels say that if we check our history books, including the Bible, we’ll see that there have always been violent acts that could be called terrorism. The angels say that CNN and the internet, which give us instant access to work events, make it seem as if the world is becoming more violent. In fact, the angels say, the world is actually less violent now than in the past . . . The angels also say that the earth changes are because Mother Earth is detoxifying. They say that just as our bodies shudder when we release toxins, so does Earth’s body . . . The angels say that they’ll protect you and your family during these earth changes, like an emergency broadcasting system. All we have to do is pay attention to our Divine guidance and then follow the messages we receive.”

Can El Salvador be a ‘savior’ to its own land? In a Catholic country like El Salvador, many, many prayers are said daily for the salvation of souls in this land. Doreen says, “The angels say that the best thing that light workers can do right now is to keep our frequency levels high. Instead of worrying, pray. Give any fears to angels. Take steps which help you to feel more peaceful, like meditating, practicing yoga, playing, detoxifying, and spending time in nature.”

Will art save this tiny country? Will words? Doreen says, “The angels say that the most important contribution light workers can make right now is to be happy and peaceful.” Time will make its contributions too. Time, spirit, faith and the continuous work of the people to create that future they so richly deserve.

We at Common Ground 191 accept the gift of the soil of El Salvador, repository of ancient Mayan mysteries, mountains, rivers and forests, coffee beans, molasses, art and poetry—and politics—a complex drama playing out in many scenes. This gift will join the soils of many other countries playing out their own metaphorical “Theater of Life” production on the Earth stage of . . . dirt. The word for peace in El Salvador is pax.




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