Beneath the Mask: Writing as Transformation in El Salvador

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As I continue in these blogs to reflect on the role the humanities can play in settings not traditionally seen as sites for creativity and reflection, I recalled an experience from a trip I took to El Salvador in 2012. Joining a delegation from the University of San Francisco, our trip was in part homage to the Jesuit martyrs from the University of Central America who were murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989. Part of our mission was to immerse ourselves in the setting and to explore the ongoing healing and reconciliation after the civil wars. We toured the country and learned from its citizens about the conditions that led to the murders and the subsequent problems with violence and corruption that continue to plague the country and make it among the most dangerous places in the world. (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/2/9646848/el-salvador-violence).

Yet despite all the fear and violence in the country, there are movements for change. Among the voices struggling to be heard are those of youth incarcerated in the El Espino Reinsertion Center in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. We were introduced to these voices by a young American volunteer, Jenna Knapp, who understands the transformative power of language and who has used her creative and discursive writing skills to help Salvadoran youth imagine another kind of life. Their writing has also left us a testimony of witness and, with Jenna's persistent efforts, will soon result in a body of literature published in a volume that she can use to reach out to colleges, high school, and other venues to use in curriculums aimed introducing students to issues of social injustice.

As Jenna explained to us, the youth survive in deplorable conditions, having arrived at the detention center because of their ties to gang life, a relationship almost impossible to avoid or ignore in a country with few choices and many pressures on young people. Due to extreme poverty, structural violence, and broken family units, most of the young writers had been excluded from society long before they became gang members. Yet these energetic youth have "complex and painful stories" to tell and long to "be somebody in this life," Jenna observed. "They hunger for society's acceptance."

Jenna's way of helping these young people move from despair to hope and from rejection to acceptance was to facilitate a creative writing process that encouraged them to share their stories. She collected, transcribed, and returned to them in an ongoing process of editing and collaboration. Eventually each author narrowed down to a theme and meticulously attended to their creative process, illustrating "their worlds and past experiences with shocking sincerity." The program provides a safe space and an empathetic listener in an environment free of judgment and demonstrates how providing an intentional space and creative writing exercise, young people can begin the process of healing and transformation.

The transformation, however, is not felt by the authors alone. Readers, too, are encouraged by the writings to show the same creative courage the youth showed in writing that necessitated their taking off the masks they adopted for protection and survival. As readers encounter the writings--primarily narratives distilled into poetry--they are moved to take off their own masks of judgment, bitterness, and fear and to read the stories with the openness and compassion that all humans, especially these incarcerated youth, deserve.

Currently Jenna is compiling a volume of works by both male and female youth and hopes to publish them in Spanish and English. Beneath a Gangster's Mask or Trás la máscara de un pandillero, she hopes, will prove the truth of the Salvadoran proverb: "por algo pasan las cosas," everything happens for a reason. The authors, as one writes, invite us into their lives, and through language we can make the same journey Frederick Douglass invited his readers to take when reading his narrative of enslavement: "to understand it one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances."

It is such an exercise in imaginative empathy that Jenna's work invites us all to experience, as one writer expressed "such a cruel life...living like an animal in the dark/disconnect from the world..."; but also, as another writer offered, "dreaming of one day getting away from this bitter pain," and seizing on "a light of hope/to continue onward/the fight/ to one day be free," to "see the glimmer of the stars/ to feel that gentle breeze/to feel the warmth of the people/I most love in this life."