Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From the Slums of El Salvador, A Magical Journey

By Joseph Barbaree

Copy edited and produced by Laura Straub

SANTA ANA, El Salvador -- Peter grew up like many kids in El Salvador, the victim of a crippled economy and strained internal conflict. But when he was exposed to magic at the age of 12, he discovered his calling - one that would forever alter his identity.

Living in Terminal, one of the most deadly slums in the city of Santa Ana, is just part of life for Peter. The 20 year old grew up against a background that is all too common in the nation’s second largest city: marginalized children, violent gangs and a strained educational system.

Peter grew up working at his mother’s side, kneading dough for bread that she could sell in the markets to support their small family. His childhood was more adult than youthful.

Barefoot Angles in El Salvador
So when he heard of a program called Angeles Descalzos (“Barefoot Angels”) that took kids from the streets and treated them like children – he excitedly told his mother.

Children at ASAPROSAR courtsey of
Angeles Descalzos started at the tail end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992 as a program of the Salvadoran Association for Rural Health (ASAPROSAR). It was due much in part to the work of individuals such as Lucy, the manager of the Children and Youth Program in Santa Ana.

“Angeles Descalzos began working with kids in the street – kids who didn’t have a family to rely on,” according to Ana, the Assistant Executive Director at ASAPROSAR. “Through that program, we realized that what the kids needed was a substitute family to support them.”

Many of the children they targeted were either working or prostituting themselves in some way. Many relied on drugs to numb themselves from hunger and cold.

The program took a holistic approach to identifying the problems that are typical of poverty. Ana, Lucy and others realized that they had to understand how the kids they were targeting came to live in the streets. There was no room for superficial fixes.

The approach they took evolved into Angeles Descalzos, which worked to keep children in school, out of dangerous labor and developing themselves as community members. It presented the chance to be a kid full of self-expression and creativity.

“[The kids] like it because they feel good and safe in the physical spaces of the program - they make friends, they learn about issues that help them to better understand more about their reality,” explained America, a community psychologist from Santa Ana who works with children and families involved in ASAPROSAR.

It was the perfect environment that Peter craved.

When he approached his mother to join Angeles Descalzos, though, she shot down the idea. To her, it was easier to see how Peter could be utilized as a worker.

But then he got through.

“In some ways, I feel like it was destined to happen,” said Peter recalling his start in the program. One day his mother simply broke down and let him join.

His acclimation with the other kids wasn’t quick and easy, though, according to America.

Peter was captivated by magic
When he found magic, that all changed.

“When he began the art of magic, he underwent a personal discovery,” explained America. He soon was putting on shows for groups small and large, and became a leader amongst Angeles Descalzos’ other magicians.

Magicians without Borders 
Peter fell in love with the performance art when Tom Verner, founder of Magicians Without Borders, visited Angeles Descalzos during one of the organization’s quarterly trips to El Salvador. Verner’s organization travels and performs magic for poor communities worldwide.

Peter became involved with the group and was able to travel extensively from as near as Guatemala to as foreign as the United States, meeting others just as passionate about magic as himself - including Devonte Rosero.

Rosero of Brooklyn, NY grew up surrounded by gang influences just as Peter did. But Rosero actively took part in the gang lifestyle and all that entailed. He was forced into re-examining his life in a gang, though, after a serious injury at 16.

“What magic does is that it gives you an immediate talent,” said Rosero.  He chose to return to his childhood passion and with his new talent began a career as a magician, eventually connecting with aspiring performers like Peter.

The two met as part of Rosero’s involvement with Magicians Without Borders and he soon witnessed the opportunities that Angeles Descalzos presented to Peter.

Not long after his start in Angeles Descalzos, Peter was traveling worldwide with other magicians to perform for young men and women just like him. He says kids are universally drawn to their act because the group he travels with performs to others just like themselves.

“Magicians Without Borders understands us,” said Peter, “they live like us, they understand where we’re coming from.”

And that’s the powerful lesson that Peter learned about himself when he was invited to attend Google Ideas’ Summit on Youth Violence in Ireland due to his outstanding academic record and community involvement.

“It was something that has transcended me and my life,” he said about the international meeting.

He found right away that the power of magic as a universal tool is also reminiscent of some of the most basic facts of life.

“I noticed when the first session [at the summit] started that people from all over the world – all parts – we are the same,” said Peter. “Violence is everywhere, all over. They might be different actions, but they are still all violence.”

Peter’s passion for magic has kept him heavily involved in Angeles Descalzos, as well as with his own performing group. And he’s as committed as ever to his studies.

Though his future is still unwritten, Peter says magic will always be part of his life. “Today, as a part of me, it’ just essential,” he explained.

In Peter’s experience, there’s no one reason why kids join gangs. For some it’s easy. For others it’s obligatory. But the answer to avoiding gang proliferation might lie in how individuals impact those around them.

“The idea that you can affect people’s lives in a way that they remember you is so remarkable,” said Peter about his magic group. “And people always remember us.”

Note: Only first names have been provided for the individuals living in El Salvador at the request of all involved. This is to protect both anonymity and personal safety, after prior reports from news agencies led to the sudden disappearance of community members.

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