• Alex

La Cachada Teatro: by and about women in El Salvador

#Quotidien | Amongst spending a weekend going to an Irish bar, roof-top dancing to reggaeton and cleaning the last Mango’s from our patio, we spent Sunday afternoon at the National Theatre in San Salvador. A very strong reminder, that the experiences I am making currently are in no way representative of those of most women in this country. I want to write a bit more about the theatre as a) it's a great project, and b) almost a month after we saw it I’m still trying to digest all the imagery of a 1,5-hour experience.

If you hadn't been born

We saw a production of La Cachada Teatro, a theatre company that was born out of a workshop dedicated to the self-empowerment of marginalized urban women. Most of them work/ed in the informal sector (many as vendedoras – street vendors) and hadn't been to a theatre before. After sharing their stories, they decided to make a play based on their experiences – which are representative of the experiences of numerous other women like them – thus making the realities of Salvadoran women more visible. Their journey can be seen in the documentary Cachada - The Opportunity which was released in May of this year. It was also ted this Summer in Switzerland, at the International Film Festival in Nyon, but damn, I missed it (maybe it'll pass again, look out for it in any Latin American Film Festivals!)

The piece we saw is entitled “Si vos no hubieras nacido” (If you hadn’t been born) and is their second production. In it, they try to answer their questions about what it means to be a woman, often times seen as equivalent to being mothers, why they have more children than they sometimes would want, how their relationships with their parents and their upbringings shaped them, and many more.

Unfortunately, my Spanish isn’t good enough yet and I didn’t get everything, but in summary, it shows 7 individual stories, all representing one experience of one of the actresses. Below, I’ll describe those I still remember and – cause I wanted to know more - I added some incomplete statistics from the internet to give a national context.

Work, care, work

A woman is strapped down by three children – one on her shoulders, one in her arms, one clutching her waist - while peddling her goods in the street: “mi amor!” "dos para una cora!” (25 cents). This is the opening scene of the piece - a scene that is so realistic and familiar to every single person sitting in the theatre that the audience can't help but smile or laugh. Also the end of her day, where she and her children squeeze onto an overstuffed bus and fall asleep standing as they drive home - somewhere outside of the city, still evokes some chuckles. Mainly because most people have been in an overstuffed bus, although I imagine only a few of the middle-class audience do this every day, while juggling our children and business. Her posture speaks of exhaustion.

Next, we focus on a young girl: when her mother comes back from work, dressed in a business suit, her parents get into a fight (sorry, didn't understand about what…), which ultimately leads to her father leaving.

In 2015, 36% of children/youth up to the age of 17 live with one parent.Reasons are migration, decease, but primarily andonment by a parent, where 76.1% were abandoned by the father (2015, Pan American Health Organisation)

Both scenes show how women in El Salvador are the primary, and often the sole caretakers of children, regardless of income or household constellation. When walking through the central market, it's very common to see the vendedoras with their children - some doing homework, some helping their mothers sell their goods. Rarely is this the case with the male vendors.

A different scene portrays the gender expectations of young girls, where a child is expected to play the role of dutiful daughter to her father (which sometimes looks confusingly similar to the typical role of a mother to me..): cleaning up his mess, washing his clothes, ensuring the food is on the table. As children will do, she sneaks off with her friends to play dress-up - of course a beauty contest with an oversexed beauty-queen or tele-novela star. Her moment of playing with her friends is interrupted by her furious father who brings her back to her duties/training. All the while, different expectations apply to the sons.

Children becoming mothers

Another story is of an underage girl (I think 15-year-old) falling in love with an older man. Or if we want to place it differently: a 30-year old man wooing a 13-year old girl, something that is illegal in El Salvador and most countries in the world (the age of consent in El Salvador is 18, in Switzerland: 16). Unfortunately, the story is much too common here. We are shown how, slowly, the unequal power dynamics turn from being "romantic" to being physically abusive. In the end, she becomes pregnant and he leaves her (of course with the time-old "I'm sure it's not even mine, after all, you slept with me...") to deal with her pregnancy and the child alone.

Child and teenage pregnancies are a huge issue in El Salvador:

30% of pregnant women in 2015 were under the age of 18, of which 11% were under the age of 14 (2015, UNFPA).

Reasons are varied. rom what I've been told, sexual and reproductive health education is part of the curriculum, but often focuses on studying STD's but shies away from teaching birth control methods (i.e. for religious reasons). Combined with high numbers of child sexual abuse (in 2008 6,7% of children under 15), a young average age for the first time (around 15) and abortions being illegal, it's a little less surprising.

The current situation doesn't look too bright: The country has recently amped up it’s policy of “territorial recuperation”, meaning it’s fight against gangs, by increasing military presence in many areas. Every time I've talked about this with another women, their first reaction was: “This means child and teenage pregnancies will increase.”

Childbirth - an everyday occurance

Let's move on to a happier topic: childbirth! Oh wait, what? It's not a beautiful spiritual experience? The next scene shows the often emotionally very violent experiences women have in Salvadoran (public) hospitals when they are giving birth. Three pregnant women – ranging from a scared 14-year-old awaiting her first child to a self-absorbed 30-something year old woman – are waiting to be tended to by the gossiping nurses, who treat them like small children, belittle them, and shout rapid-fire instructions at them. Next we see a line of women in labor while the nurses are tossing babies around like in an industrial manufacturing line – pull it out – dunk it in water – rap it up.

97% of Salvadoran women give birth in a health facility and assisted by a doctor (World Bank, 2008)

The audience gets the impression that pregnancy is a given in every woman's life in El Salvador - so why should childbirth be treated in a special way? All women go through it, just push - clean up - get back to work; don't expect us to make a big deal out of it! The scene also correlates with what women have told me of their own experiences in hospitals: While pre- and ante-natal services are largely available to women, the staff is often overworked and there is barely time to take care of the physical, forget the emotional wellbeing. And this is not just a common occurence in El Salvador (for Switzerland, see "Beim gebären kommen Frauen auf die Welt", or research: "Abuse in Hospital-based birth settings?").


Amongst all these very heavy stories and depressing statistics, let's not forget how amazingly the theatre company portrayed these vastly different experiences; sometimes with humour, sometimes with the severity they deserve. I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a lot of the more subtle messages and subtext, but the beautiful images and great acting (not "only for amateur actresses") helped get the messages across in more than just words.

The story of these 5 women is amazing and – corny as it may sounds – shows how empowering the process of creating art together, via safe spaces to work through experiences, has been to them.

They have not only moved the audience in the chockablock Teatro National (the luxurious Zürcher Opernhaus-style setting - a stark contrast to what we saw on stage), but they have become theatre actresses, protagonists in a documentary, and will even have the opportunity to tour in Spain in the coming months with “Si vos no hubieras nacidos”.

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