Proyecto Cuéntame - Voices of El Salvador’s Incarcerated Youth

Proyecto Cuéntame - Voices of El Salvador’s Incarcerated Youth

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Ed. Note: A new study put out by the government in El Salvador shows nearly half a million residents there have links to gangs. Many are youth driven by poverty, broken families and a cycle of violence. In May, The Beat Within, a publication of writings by incarcerated youth in the U.S., teamed up with Proyecto Cuéntame to produce a series of pieces by young Salvadorans caught up in that country’s juvenile justice system. Below are a few of the many pieces that were submitted. The writers are featured in full at The Beat Within (pdf). Click here to learn more about Proyecto Cuéntame.

Proyecto Cuéntame (The “Tell Me” Project) creates opportunities for incarcerated youth in El Salvador to express their experiences and share their stories, poems and reflections. In a society in which violence (gang-related and not) has become a public health crisis, we aim to improve the mental health of these youth through a one-on-one accompaniment that utilizes creative writing as a therapeutic process.

The standard response to youth violence in El Salvador, until very recently, has been repressive police measures, massive incarceration, tougher sentencing and an almost complete absence of prevention initiatives. Unlike conventional violence prevention programs that focus on religious conversion or skills training, Proyecto Cuentame focuses on two elemental components of human relationship. We listen and we share stories. We believe that both individually and as a society, we can recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and struggles of these youth.

As I Looked at the Candle
Me, a mattress, and a candle.
That’s all that accompanied me
on the long nights
that I spent in an abandoned house.

As I looked at the candle
I thought about how people
now saw me as trash
not as a human being.

As I looked at the candle
I thought about how policemen
were going to grab me sooner or later
to beat me up and take me to a holding cell
just to mess with me.

As I looked at the candle
I thought about the path I’d chosen,
asking myself if I would ever have a child
or if I would get killed first.
As I looked at the candle
I realized that I no longer had a life
of peace and tranquility
rather of setbacks, difficulties, bitterness,
pain, and the sadness of being far from my family-*.

When I finally closed my eyes
I fell asleep
and the candle burnt out
crying wax by my side.

Proyecto Cuéntame was born in 2011 when former Fulbright grantee Maria Hoisington realized while giving Human Rights workshops with FESPAD (the Foundation for the Study and Application of the Law) in juvenile detention centers that there was a great need for youth not only to be given information but also to tell their stories and therefore contribute to society’s understanding of juvenile justice. We have found that these young people have a lot to teach us about love, death, forgiveness, anger, faith, vengeance, loyalty, violence, resilience, and also about the ways in which we, as a society and as a system, have failed them.

A Nighttime Goodbye
On Mother’s Day when I was nine-years old
I woke up
and my mom wasn’t there.
She left for the US because of problems
that she says she’ll explain to me
when I’m older.
She thinks I’m still little.

She left the four of us siblings
and my oldest sister had to raise us
although she was only fourteen.

My mom has never been with me
when I’ve needed her most.
I don’t trust her.
When I looked for the joy of a mother’s love
I only found a voice on the telephone.
When I looked for a hug and a kiss,
I found loneliness.

I used to vent to my sister,
but when I was thirteen she left us.
So as not to be alone,
I joined the gang.

In the gang there´s a strong unity.
If one of us has something and you don´t,
they´ll share with you.
We’re not united by blood,
but we’re more united than a family.

Still though, what I have now doesn’t fill the emptiness
that my mother’s absence left in me.
Now I’m in jail with a bunch of my friends
but even so I miss
the advice and the warmth of my mother.

Currently, Proyecto Cuéntame is operating in two juvenile detention centers in El Salvador: El Centro de Reinserción Femenino “Rosa Virginia” in Ilopango (with young women) and El Centro de Inserción Social “El Espino” in Ahuachapán (with young men).

In 2012 with the help of FESPAD we published our first book, Duras Lecciones, (Hard Lessons). After the book’s publication we were overwhelmed with the reaction from the young women and men in the two juvenile detention centers where Proyecto Cuéntame is currently based. Seeing their words in print and sharing the publication with peers, family, and members of the juvenile justice system motivated the authors to continue reflecting and writing, and encouraged more and more youth to join the initiative

In May, Proyecto Cuéntame released Tras la máscara de un pandillero: poemas y reflexiones de jóvenes privados de libertad (Behind the Mask of a Gang Member: Poems and Reflections by Incarcerated Youth in El Salvador) in the boys' detention center in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. Next month, we will present Duras Lecciones 2 (Hard Lessons 2) in the girls' detention center in Ilopango.

Yesterday he told me he tattooed his face

I just stayed quiet

“It’s not going to be the same now,” I told him

“We aren’t going to be able to go where we want.”

That night, I cried and cried

When my mom sees him she isn’t going to like him anymore

Because she is afraid we could both be killed

If I get pregnant

And they kill him

I’ll be alone

And I don’t want that

It’s hard to be a homeboy’s girl

Whatever happens I’ll always be with him

I love him so much I’d give my life for him

Who knows what will become of us?

These young people write what they can’t say out loud; because of being marginalized youth, because they have been shut up so many times, because of fear, embarrassment, mistrust and because of the masks of self-preservation that they wear. One young woman explains, “I want to share this book because I want people to know the real person I am and how I feel.” Another says, “Although our actual voice can’t be heard, I want people to meet and understand through this book all the voices of incarcerated youth.” That is our hope, too.

Olivia Holdsworth is a co-facilitator with Proyecto Cuéntame conducting workshops at the El Centro de Reinserción Femenino “Rosa Virginia”detention facility.