MARACA keeps Central American youth away from street gangs

November 2007 -

The success of the dance project Huellas, a theatrical dialogue on violence in today's Central America, proves that art can truly be an alternative to violence and poverty, giving people a different view of a hopeless situation. Andrea Montenegro, who made a documentary about the project, remembers an intense performance in the village of Los Ranchos in El Salvador. "The population of Los Ranchos has seriously suffered from the domestic violence in El Salvador, and organises El dia de NO Violencia – the Day without Violence – once each year for that reason. Huellas was presented in Los Ranchos on that very day, and its theme of the consequences of violence caused by street gangs and recent wars had an enormous impact, not only on the audience but on the Huellas staff as well."

The performance with music, dance and theatre was produced in 2005 and 2006 by Theatre Embassy in cooperation with the cultural NGO Arte Acción from Honduras and a group of Central American artists. It successfully toured various Central American countries and was also performed a number of times in the Netherlands. "During Huellas, we asked local organisations to help organise our performances and also held art workshops on the theme of violence," says Lies Joosten, who worked on the Huellas project in that period. "With Tiempos Nuevos Teatro from El Salvador and Caja Lúdica from Guatemala it worked out so well that we decided to establish permanent cooperation under the name of MARACA - Movimiento Centroamericana de Arte Comunitaria – which means Central American movement for community art, for which I bear responsibility as regional coordinator." MARACA organises theatre workshops, youth exchanges and street festivals. Its programmes target the youth with poor prospects in rural and urban areas, who are given a chance to deal with the violence and poverty of their past caused by street gangs and internal conflicts through dance, music and theatre. The network now receives financial support from the ICCO Youth and Security programme in Central America.

Joosten: "The street festival that we organised in Honduras in July 2007 clearly had a direct effect for Arte Acción: social organisations and government institutions now recognise the power of their cultural work. On the day the Stilt March passed through the city, no one was afraid to be on the street. It was a celebration! The next day the telephone never stopped ringing at Arte Acción; requests for performances and workshops skyrocketed."

"The problem of youth gangs – Maras – is extremely serious in cities. Every day, the youth are in danger of ending up in a gang because of the poor economic situation and because the gangs offer them social status, a mock sense of security," explains Relinde Moors, who worked with Tiempo Nuevos Teatro via Theatre Embassy until October. "MARACA's work is preventive: it offers the youth an alternative to the street gangs. One of the young men from Guatemala, an enormously successful dancer, has a large tattoo on his stomach with the initials of a Mara. He explained that the Maras were not as controlling in his time, and he was able to leave the gang. That would be impossible now: once you belong to a gang, you stay in the gang or else you and possibly your family are simply killed. There are organisations that try to help young people who want to leave the gangs, but they are often forced to leave the country."

The Huellas dance project and the resulting MARACA cooperation reflect the vision of Theatre Embassy: using intercultural theatre to establish the conditions for socio-economic and cultural development that will contribute to the progress of society. An important conclusion in an era in which social organisations and cultural funds are advocating a stronger role for culture and development in the policy of the government of the Netherlands.

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