The first sessions in the theatre workshop produced a feeling of restlessness in Magdalena Henríquez.
The teacher asked the students to stir up painful memories about growing up female and poor in El Salvador. When she turned 30, the single mother of three children, whom she could barely feed, spent the day crying in despair. Two years later, she didn’t want to be reminded that nothing had changed.
Still, she kept going to the workshops. One day Ms. Henríquez realized her middle child had stopped giving her the glass of water that both greeted and soothed her at the end of every day. He didn’t see the point of doing it, he said, since she wasn’t yelling at him and his two brothers anymore. “Mommy, I’m proud of you,” she remembers him saying. “You’re no longer violent with us.”
That was when Henríquez first realized something was changing. Fast forward six years, and she has left her tenuous job as a vendor to take up a better-paid, less exhausting job as a housemaid. And she became an actress.
“I’m 38, but I feel younger and more alive now. I have this desire to change things,” she says.
Henríquez is one of the five actresses of La Cachada Teatro, a theatre group that originated in workshops offered to impoverished single mothers in San Salvador by an NGO that works with children from the city's poorest and most violent neighborhoods. She and her sister, Ruth Vega, along with Magalí Lemus, Wendy Hernández, and Evelyn Chileno, directed together by the actress and director Egly Larreynaga, created plays that incorporate their painful stories of domestic violence and sexual abuse into broader pictures of a deeply unequal, sexist, and violent country.
In El Salvador, cachada is slang for a unique opportunity, a bargain. These women say that theatre is the cachada of their lives.
'Fear is part of every woman's life'
Gang violence has turned the small Central American country of El Salvador into one of the world's most violent, with the highest murder rate for any peacetime country in 2015. While men are more likely to be murdered, women experience violence in different ways. El Salvador has the world’s highest rate of femicide, and domestic violence is prevalent, as well; more than half of all Salvadoran women say they have suffered some form of violence in their lives. In more than half of rape cases in recent years, the alleged victim is under the age of 15, and only 10 percent end with a conviction.
Corruption and social acceptance help explain why violence often goes unpunished, women's advocates say.
“El Salvador has deeply ingrained values that severely restrain women’s freedom,” says Zulma Méndez, a doctor at Hospital Nacional San Rafael in San Salvador. “It’s a structural problem affecting women at home, but it also informs the way institutions work.”
In such a context, “fear is part of every women’s life,” says Dr. Méndez. That applies to a broad range of experiences Salvadoran women endure, she says, while particularly highlighting pregnant women's concern that a miscarriage could lead to years in jail. El Salvador has some of the most comprehensive anti-abortion laws in the world – the procedure is banned even in cases of rape, an unviable pregnancy, or when the mother’s life is at risk – although a bill introduced in its parliament late last year would loosen those restrictions. Miscarriages are sometimes treated as suspected abortions and prosecuted as murder, which can carry a 40-year sentence.
Right at the end of the play “Si vos no hubieras nacido” – “If you hadn’t been born,” in English – Ms. Chileno addresses her daughter, after the character playing her confronts her mother about their stressful relationship.
“Why did you have me?” the daughter asks.
“I gave birth to you because I was raped and I was afraid to terminate the pregnancy and go to jail for 30 years,” Chileno says, the audience rapt in silence.
Ms. Larreynaga, the group's director, is the daughter of two former guerrillas who fought the military-led government in El Salvador's civil war, which in the 1980s claimed approximately 80,000 lives. Although she has never endured poverty the way her actresses do, she says she was raised to oppose the sort of inequality and classism that plague El Salvador, still polarized along civil-war-era lines of haves and have-nots.
So when she first contemplated the idea of presenting La Cachada's plays before upper-class audiences, she was afraid of people's reactions – until one night a “very right-wing woman” approached the director at the end of the show.
She was uncomfortable with that last scene, when one of the women admits she was raped. “It makes me profoundly sad that a baby is brought to this world out of fear,” the woman told her, “but I imagine that must be true.” Those reactions make Larreynaga and the other actresses hopeful that their stories can inspire change.
“Maybe the wealthy will start looking at the maids cleaning their houses differently, or maybe they’ll stop harassing street vendors,” says Ms. Hernández, a vendor and La Cachada actress. Today, several of the actresses work as housemaids – and some of those jobs have come from well-off people in the audience.
“In this country the lower class and the upper class have always fought each other. Theatre allows the two groups to come together,” Henríquez says.
La Cachada Teatro has performed in schools, streets, jails, and theaters all over El Salvador, in front of the poorest and the richest audiences. In earlier, less intense scenes, audiences often burst into laughter at caricatures of abusive parents and boyfriends, or the degrading treatment characters receive – including at the hands of doctors and nurses at public hospitals. “Another C-section? Shouldn’t you have been sterilized?” one nurse yells rudely.
“That happens all the time in public hospitals, but it’s not something richer women would recognize. Gender violence affects women differently based on their class and La Cachada is a great showcase for that,” says Laura Aguirre, a Salvadoran doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin who researches sexual violence. “That’s why the richest people in the audience laugh. For them is like watching fiction on TV – there might be some resemblances to reality, but not their reality, so they laugh.”
Breaking the cycle
Over the last six years, the actresses say, life has gotten better: They've found better jobs, stopped hitting their children, left abusive partners, and confronted and forgiven worn-out parents. Yet they still live in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, where a shooting broke out just as a journalist was interviewing Henríquez at her home last year.
“We all give what we get. I’ve been spanked, yelled at and abused since I could think – it would have been surprising if I had acted in any other way,” Henríquez says. “Theatre taught me to unlearn every bad habit I developed in my past. It made me brave enough to accept I was perpetuating a cycle of violence I inherited from my family, and it made me brave enough to decide to put an end it, stop regretting it, and start over.”
What's particularly striking about these women's transformations, Ms. Aguirre says, is that they did it themselves. “Society doesn’t expect these types of women to take life in their own hands and empower themselves; we expect them to become dependent on charity,” she says. “I hope others can follow their example.”
One may be Gabi Hernández, who usually helps her mother by selling pupusas – filled tortillas – outside the shows. She’s only 10, but says she has seen her mother change in the last six years.
“She spends more time playing with us. Sometimes she’s frustrated because she didn’t make enough money, but I understand her now,” she says.
Looking ahead, Gabi says she dreams of being a doctor, because she wants to change some things: “Doctors yell at patients,” she says, and can scare people away from seeking care. “I don’t think that should happen. I want to be a doctor because I want to be a different type of doctor,” she says.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.