(A four-part series introducing on our Niñas Arriba scholarship recipients. Written by Sarah Esther Maslin.)
When Marta saw the 13-year-old boy drawing gang symbols on his desk, she didn’t yell at him. She was student teaching in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in El Salvador and she knew the boy could be the son of a gang member. She didn’t want to end up with a gun to her head.
But the 24-year-old had another reason for gently asking the boy to put his Sharpie away. She saw herself in him. She knew his rough upbringing wasn’t his fault.
Next year, after five years at the Universidad Don Bosco in the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango, Marta will be a certified elementary school teacher. When I met her for coffee and donuts with her longtime friend Vanessa—another Niñas Arriba scholarship recipient—Marta’s dark, serious eyes peeked out from behind choppy shoulder-length hair and rectangular glasses.
“When you’re a kid, you remember everything,” she said. “The bad things more than the good things.”
Marta’s mom didn’t want kids. Still a teenager when she had Marta and Marta’s two brothers, she left them alone for days at a time to go clubbing with men and to visit friends in Chalatenango, the rural province where her family lived.
Marta and her brothers didn’t understand why their mother frequently abandoned them. Sometimes they chased her, running in the streets until they fell behind. They tricked taxi drivers into driving them all the way to Chalatenango, promising that a parent would pay. Upon arrival, three hours and 75 miles later, they opened the doors and ran, leaving the taxi driver penniless and fuming.
But when they found their mom, she told them to go home.
Marta’s father was an alcoholic, in and out of his children’s lives. In 2001, after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake rattled El Salvador and temporarily separated Marta and her brothers, a Social Services agency gave their dad a choice: take full responsibility for his children or give them up for adoption.
He chose to keep his kids. “I’m very grateful for that decision,” Marta said. Her father weaned himself off alcohol and got a job sweeping streets for the city of San Vicente. After school, Marta did her homework in the building where the men kept their brooms.
But when she turned twelve, her body started changing, and the men noticed. “They started making sexual comments, asking for things,” she said. Marta’s father began to look for other childcare options. A friend told him about the Maria Auxiladora Boarding School, which gave scholarships to girls from low-income backgrounds.
When Marta visited, in February 2004, classes had already started. At first she was told there was no room for her. Then: a stroke of luck (or a rule-bending nun). There was room after all.
For the first several months, Marta felt like an outsider. She was the new girl, one of the youngest. The nuns yelled at her for eating with her hands. She had never learned to use silverware.
One day in the laundry room, Marta decided she needed a friend. She spotted a girl who looked older (and presumably kinder) and gave her a bon bon. The friendship offering worked. The girl, Vanessa’s older sister Marilyn, took Marta under her wing.
A few years later, Marta started giving classes to adults who’d never finished school. She discovered that she enjoyed teaching, and the nuns told her she had patience. When she graduated in 2010, she decided to become a teacher.
Now in her last semester of college, Marta has a busy schedule: three full days of class every week and student teaching on her days off. She’s currently teaching in a middle-school classroom in a neighborhood where two rival gangs dispute every inch of ground. “One boy couldn’t cross his own street because it would mean walking into rival territory,” she told me, shaking her head.
Some of her students are already involved with gangs. She has seen baggies of marijuana and pistols in their backpacks. She can’t go to the police—they offer little protection and some work for the gangs—or say anything to the students. “Ver, oir y callar,” she explained, repeating a common gang slogan that means “See, hear, and shut up.”
More than 30 teachers have been killed by gangs in the past several years, in some cases for as little as a bad grade. The threat of violence has led to a decline in the profession. “But teachers quitting just makes the problem worse,” Marta said. For her, students coming from rough backgrounds present opportunities—not liabilities. “When they’re little, you can still mold them,” she said.
She told a story about a seven-year-old girl who bragged about her older brother’s gang tattoos. The little girl talked back, cursed, and refused to follow Marta’s directions—but when she turned in her weekly spelling tests, she always scored 100%. Marta wasn’t surprised. “They try hard in order to escape,” she said.
I asked if she believed her own success came from a desire to “escape.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “And from all my mothers”—the nuns, older students, and volunteers who filled the hole left by her own mother. Now she wants to return the favor and help children who are struggling. “Every responsible adult in their lives helps,” she says.
Join us this Saturday, Aug. 13 at Stateside at the Paramount to help Marta and her fellow Ninas Arriba scholarship recipients reach their dreams! Tickets are almost sold out!