(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!
(A four-part series introducing on our Niñas Arriba scholarship recipients. Written by Sarah Esther Maslin.)
Xiomara is twenty-five years old. She’s married to her childhood sweetheart and they have a two-year old daughter. Her husband, a trained mechanic who works full-time in an auto shop, wants to build a house on a small plot of land he owns so the three of them can start a life together.
But Xiomara is a climber.
When she was fourteen, she moved from a backward village in San Vicente to San Salvador with her mother. The move opened the door to a high-school education, and attending the Maria Auxiladora School made Xiomara want to go to college. A scholarship from Niñas Arriba made it happen.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
Like so many working women, Xiomara feared that her peers and teachers would see her as less capable because she had a child. That fear disappeared one afternoon when she was eight months pregnant and a classmate invited her to Burger King. Pink and blue balloons greeted her at the door and a crowd of Economics majors shouted, “Surprise!” Her professor showed up to the baby shower carrying a cake.
At first, Xiomara didn’t know how to juggle her classes with a newborn baby. After her daughter Ariana was born in October 2013, she started doing her homework late at night, but she’d lose focus every time the baby woke up.
Eventually, Xiomara learned to study more efficiently—prioritizing assignments, working quickly, and blocking out distractions.
“I couldn’t hole up in the library with friends for hours anymore,” she said. But having less-than-perfect working conditions has prepared Xiomara for a job in the real world. And having Ariana has given her something to fight for.
When I met the two of them at the university one morning, Ariana, in pigtails, wore her mother’s university ID on a lanyard around her neck. In the library—just one big room with a couple dozen bookshelves and a computer cluster—Ariana presented the ID to the security attendant.
Outside, students chatted on benches and gathered at picnic tables, textbooks spread out in front of them. Xiomara pointed out the new Economics wing—a block-like building painted blue, green and yellow with orange Z-shaped staircases jutting out from each end.
As we ate pupusas in the student cafeteria—Xiomara’s scholarship includes a daily food budget—we chatted about Xiomara’s hopes for the future. She wants to get a job at a big corporation, perhaps a car dealership or a technology firm—somewhere where hard work is rewarded by the chance to climb within the company. Quotas excite her; so do the bonuses that come with them.
It was easy to forget what was happening beyond campus walls. July 27, the day before we met, was one of the most violent days since El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. Gangs called a countrywide bus strike, in an effort to destabilize the government, and over the course of 24 hours, seven bus drivers were murdered.
Meanwhile, thousands of Salvadorans had no way to get to work. They flagged down pick-up trucks, cramming in like cattle, clutching each other for balance as the trucks sped down the highway. The few busses that continued to operate were packed with passengers willing to risk a stray bullet in order to get to their jobs and classes.
Xiomara, Vanessa and Ariana were among them. In Soyapango, where they live, gangs collect a weekly extortion tax from every household. Most people pay “la renta” and try to go about their lives without thinking too much.
When Xiomara’s husband moved to San Salvador to be closer to her and Ariana, gang members assaulted him in the auto shop where he worked. After he watched gangsters pilfer the cash register, a gun against his head, he told Xiomara he couldn’t take it anymore. He returned to San Vicente, where the gang presence isn’t as strong.
Every weekend, Xiomara and Ariana take a two-hour bus ride, followed by a series of local buses and pick-up trucks, to see him. But Xiomara is trying to persuade him to move back to San Salvador so she can work in the city when she graduates. There aren’t any corporate jobs in the village where they grew up.
More importantly, Xiomara wants Ariana to go to a bilingual school. She wants her daughter to have the chance to climb even higher.
Exciting news! Xiomara received a US visa to attend the Aug. 13 Niñas Arriba benefit concert in Austin, featuring Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel. Come to the show and meet her!
It’s on mah friends! Join us for our most exciting Niñas Arriba College Fund benefit concert to date on Saturday, August 13 at Stateside at the Paramount! Help us celebrate our first college graduate, Xiomara, with powerhouse Austin musicians Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel!
We’re also seeking individual and business sponsorships – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Every time I travel, I embark with great intentions of blogging. Well this time I’m really doing it! Every Friday, the Austin Chronicle will publish my tour diary as we journey to five different countries; a journey that begins in less than 3 hours. But before I grab a couple hours of shuteye, here’s the first installment.
Tomorrow is the biggest show we have ever put on and in my state of sleep-deprived excitement, I come to you with two pieces of exciting news!
1. We are almost sold out! There are a few tickets left (very few), BUT even if you can’t join us in person, we are LIVE STREAMING the show! Now I can’t promise the quality of the connection, but I’m hoping it will be enough to experience the magnitude of this show from the comfort of your home!
2. A generous donor has offered us a $1,000 MATCHING GRANT for the Niñas Arriba college fund! If we can raise $1,000 by the end of this weekend, we will have enough funds to ensure all four of our college scholarship recipients — Xiomara, Marta, Vanessa, and Rosmery — can graduate!
Remember that album we made together and released in February? Well, my friends, we made made a slew of Best of 2014 lists, including NPR’s Alt Latino’s Favorite Latin Albums of 2014 and KUTX’s Best Austin Albums of 2014! This year just won’t stop giving and it’s all because of the love that helped to make Up.Rooted a reality. THANK YOU!
It was a relaxing Labor Day. A nice late start followed by free yoga — thank you Austin and Yoga Con Amor — and a caffeine fix at Genuine Joe, our favorite neighborhood hang, when a certain someone looked at her phone and saw that… GANAMOS! We WON the Latin category of the The John Lennon Songwriting Contest! We tried to keep our squeals and hugs to a minimum but we definitely got some stares as we ran outside to begin the jumping up and down. Days later it’s still hard to believe that “Siete-D,” a musical tribute to our experiences in El Salvador and the girls we taught who are now family, has won one of the most important songwriting contests in the U.S.! Even cooler, I just got word that the leading newspaper in El Salvador, La Prensa, wants an interview… que locura!
Stay tuned on that. Mientras tanto, felicidades to all the Session 1 finalists and winners. GANAMOS, SUBE!
Tune in to your local National Public Radio affiliate station this afternoon for the nationally-syndicated show All Things Considered. Why? Because I’ll be on it! I am beyond excited, and extremely humbled, to have not only visited the mothership of public radio — the NPR offices in Washington, D.C. — while touring the East Coast last week, but to have been interviewed by the director of ATC herself, Monika Evstatieva. Tis a Good Friday, indeed…