Alicia Moscoso Mendez, Martha Lidia Ajxup, Juana Herlinda Yac Salanic & Jennifer Thalman-Kepler.
Looking for Lilith Brings Their Guatemalan Partners to Louisville
Text & photos by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Looking for Lilith company members have been making annual visits to Guatemala for 10 years, teaching women in that country to use theatre as a means of educating their communities about health, nutrition and domestic violence. Finally, in October, some of these Guatemalan women traveled to the United States to visit their sponsoring organizations. The project is called Faith Stories Project, a reflection of the context established by the sponsorship of two Presbyterian churches in Virginia, but also of the very real presence of faith in the ambition and commitment these women display in their everyday lives.
I was given the opportunity to meet three of these women, who journeyed, first to Louisville and then to Fairfax, Virginia (Looking for Lilith, First Presbyterian Church of Winchester and Fairfax Presbyterian Church share sponsorship of the program). It is clear that they have many stories to tell, but in this instance the voice of one particular individual, Martha Lidia Ajxup, rose to the surface.
She lives in a rural town on the west coast of Guatemala. After Martha finished 2nd grade, her family pulled her out of school to work taking care of her younger siblings while the boys remained to finish their education. What little education she had received did include some exposure to theatre: she participated in ‘historia biblicas’ in church, especially for the Christmas holiday.
Otherwise, growing up in a rural, poor area provided no opportunity to see theatre. At age 13 Martha left home to work in the city, returning after 10 years to pick up her education where she had left it, studying in elementary school alongside 3rd grade children. Her classmates did not hesitate to make fun of her, despite her being an adult, but Martha received encouragement from the teacher, who chided the children and used Martha as an example of the importance of education. It was not an easy thing, at the age 23, to sit beside such young children and recognize that, at least academically; you were at their level. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine many people in the United States who would have been willing to swallow their pride in such a fashion.
The control and abuse suffered by women in such a deeply patriarchal society such as that found in Guatemala is a common theme in the women’s stories, so perhaps Martha was lucky in marriage. Her husband, a Presbyterian pastor, was enthusiastic in his support of her thirst for education, and she went on to complete high school and earn a degree in Theology.
Yet her desire for education was still not fully satisfied, and when Looking for Lilith member Jennifer Thalman-Kepler lived for a year in her town through the Presbyterian USA, she started teaching Martha and other local women about theatre. “It was a beautiful experience to learn,” says Martha. The bond was reinforced when Thalman-Kepler become sick and was cared for by Martha and her husband. Martha explains that, “…it is a big responsibility – like becoming a part of my family.” It was during this period that Martha took such an avid interest in Looking for Lilith’s work in Louisville, and the plans for a return visit with other members began to grow. The annual pilgrimages began in 2004 and involved workshops based on the local women’s stories. Eventually the Guatemalans themselves began carrying the work out into surrounding communities: interactive theatre workshops led by women and directed to women. Workshops about healthy eating, chronic malnutrition, patient-doctor communication, directly addressed the responsibilities carried almost exclusively by the women in the society: feeding their families and caring for them when sick.
It is a profound example of interactive, devised theatre as a communication tool that moves far beyond entertainment. It, in fact, saves lives. But there is also a palpable sense of pride in the highly personal experience Lilith’s training has offered: a contribution to their sense of identity that encapsulates some small act of rebellion as well. One of Martha’s companions on this trip, Juana Herlinda Yac Salanic, described by Martha as, “A very brave woman,” talked about the role of women in Guatemalan society, where “…our sole purpose is to work.” The physically demanding life leaving the women – wives and mothers who often come to the theatre training in adulthood, feeling too stiff and embarrassed to do theatre. Yet they overcome this discomfort, breaking through the formidable cultural limitations and embracing theatre both as a means of personal expression and as a practical method with which to improve the lives of all the members of their communities. They are such ‘ordinary’ women; of humble origins but absolutely determined to change their society through their own courage and commitment. And that is nothing less than extraordinary.