San Salvador, El SalvadorThe stage curtain opens on Evelyn Chileno, a stout, middle-aged woman wearing a red shirt and apron. She is surrounded by the recreated chaos of the capital’s central market. Hands appear from behind a curtain to hand her a baby, then a bag, then another baby, then a basket to balance on her head.
Chileno winces but doesn’t complain while working all day selling toilet paper and cleaning products for a few dollars, enduring her babies’ cries. But when she gets home, it all becomes too overwhelming and she falls to her knees: “What if one day you scold me, screaming, ‘Why have you brought me into this world?’” Chileno wonders out loud.
Another actress, playing her teenage daughter, hopscotches on stage, looks at her mother struggling, and asks: “Por qué— Why?”
They stare at each other in silence. At this pivotal moment in the play, Si Vos No Hubieras Nacido (If You Hadn't Been Born), Chileno’s eponymous character has not mustered the courage to answer.
From the audience, Chileno’s actual daughter, 22-year-old Jaqueline, watches along with teenage students, teachers, and a group of giggly older women gathered for the performance at a rural school one morning in the fall. Like the daughter in the play, Jaqueline often wondered the same thing. But she never dared to ask her mother, whose character is based on Chileno herself. Such queries would have been met with shouting or a stinging swat.
“She had a very tough personality,” Jaqueline says of her mother. “She was crass, with little patience.”
Chileno acknowledges that the relationship with her daughter was cold; hugs and other expressions of love were rarely exchanged. “Once when Jaqueline was 12, she told me maybe I wasn’t her mother because I treated her so badly,” she admits.
After Chileno joined the La Cachada all-women theater troupe, Jaqueline began to understand why her mother behaved as she did. Motherhood was thrust upon her against her will. “I didn’t know her story,” Jaqueline says.
Community-based La Cachada, Salvadoran slang for “bargain,” draws on members’ personal experiences to broach taboo topics—forced motherhood, gang violence, and exploitive working conditions among them. The performances, mostly for Salvadoran audiences, aim to initiate difficult conversations and provide an emotional release in a country where stigma and deficient services for mental health issues often mean traumas are buried rather than confronted.
“Theater is a powerful tool that can transform people,” says Salvadoran actress Edith Elizondo, who has seen La Cachada’s performances. Watching Salvadoran women role-playing personal experiences can contribute not just to an individual’s healing process, she says. “It can even help heal a country.”
Taking a chance on La Cachada
Chileno first heard about La Cachada about 10 years ago, while working as a vendor in the central market, barely making a few dollars a day to support Jaqueline and her two siblings.
Most mornings, she would leave Jaqueline and her younger brother and sister at a free daycare center for single moms. There, Egly Larreynaga, a Salvadoran actress and La Cachada director, was offering the mothers what she called a “self-care” workshop.
Chileno was skeptical. After long days on her feet, how could a workshop help her?
“I said, ‘I’m going to waste my time,’” Chileno recalls. But something else also concerned her.
“I didn’t know these women,” she says. “Back then, I didn’t talk to anyone. For me, everyone was a bad person. I didn’t trust anyone.”
Salvadoran psychologist Yanileth Mejia explains that a lack of trust is a normal defense mechanism after a traumatic event. But failing to talk about the cause of the distrust can cause a snowball effect. “That’s why you always have to go to the origin, to heal from the root,” she says.
The daycare director who had earned Chileno’s trust eventually convinced her to give La Cachada a chance.
Chileno found the improv and writing exercises challenging. She didn’t know what to write or say. She thought about quitting, but Jaqueline persuaded her to persevere. “When you go to the workshops, you don’t come home and yell at us,” Jaqueline told her mother.
So Chileno went back.
The other women started opening up. They shared their childhood trauma and abuse, tough days with no sales, and relationship problems.
Chileno began feeling closer to the women. But she still wasn’t ready to share her biggest secret.
The arts and mental health
La Cachada is not the first troupe to tackle trauma in El Salvador. Since at least the country’s civil war, theater has provided an outlet for mental health care.
During the insurgency when guerrillas battled troops from the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government from 1980 to 1992, residents in the northern mountainous province of Chalatenango had to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Honduras.
That’s where Irma Orellana, a member of the guerrilla forces who acted as a liaison with the refugees, used music and dance to rally the spirits of fellow refugees as they waited for the fighting to end so they could return home. A year after the war ended, in 1993, Orellana and two colleagues founded Tiempos Nuevos Teatro (New Times Theater or TNT) to help residents in Chalatenango process their experiences.
Maria Orellana del Delgado (no relation to Irma), now 64, was one of the first to sign up.
At six months pregnant, soldiers had beaten her, causing a stillbirth. In 1991, during a military raid, a stray bullet hit and killed her 12-year-old daughter while they fled. Orellana del Delgado held her child while she bled to death. “I can’t forget what’s happened to me,” she says. “It’s deeply ingrained in my head.”
Her husband refused to talk about what happened, preferring to drink himself into a stupor to forget. Orellana del Delgado grew distant from her surviving five daughters and son.
Preparing for the TNT play, based on the former refugees’ lives at the camp, was a welcome distraction. With time, she realized performing helped ease the pain she carried. And it eventually allowed her to share her feelings and reconnect with the children she had been pushing away.
On stage, refugees, survivors of abuse, and former combatants can “unburden themselves,” through tears, dance, joy, or pain. Theater allows people to “connect with emotions” in a non-intimidating way without the stigma of therapy, says Elizondo.
“When you tell people to go to therapy, or even self-care, they think it’s for crazy people,” she says. “They say they don’t need it, but they do.”
Salvadorans often say that peace never came even after the civil war. Instead, inequality, gangs, and sexual violence soared. Meanwhile, the country has some of the strictest reproductive laws worldwide, and women, including rape victims, can spend years in jail if they are convicted of having had an abortion.
In 2013, when one of La Cachada members became pregnant unexpectedly, the troupe decided that they wanted to produce a play about motherhood—specifically forced motherhood. This is a subject with new resonance in the United States, where the recent Supreme Court ruling to withdraw constitutional protection for abortion rights has set the stage for legal battles as some states ban or restrict abortion. But in El Salvador, abortion has been strictly prohibited for more than two decades. That is the narrative behind If You Hadn’t Been Born.
When the idea for the play emerged, the troupe had dwindled to five performers: Chileno, Ruth Vega, Magdalena Henríquez, Magaly Lemus, and Wendy Hernández. Later, they were joined by Mariam Santamaría.
Over months, they met to develop a script and share their personal tales: an older man who courted one then-teenage member, then hit her after she birthed their first child; an abusive father who beat another for botching his dinner; doctors who mocked them as pregnant teenagers at the hospital.
It would take months before Chileno shared how Jaqueline was conceived. Just thinking about it made her nauseous and dizzy. One day, after a vomiting spell, she finally told Henríquez.
It was late and she was on her long commute home from work one night when a strange man she had never seen before and would never see again attacked and raped her. She was too scared to report the attack to police and had never told anyone what happened. She was 22 years old. About nine months later, Jaqueline was born.
Chileno had finally shared her torment, but she swore Henríquez to secrecy.
Shortly after telling Henríquez, Chileno went to church one day to reflect, and decided it was time to tell her daughter Jaqueline. She came home and the two sat down to talk. Chileno began to tell her the story of her brief and violent encounter with Jaqueline’s father.
“I asked her to forgive me,” Chileno says. “And I said that we were going to be a different family.”
Her mother’s inexplicable outbursts while she was growing up now made sense to Jaqueline: “I understood that everything she was, was a product of what they had done to her,” Jaqueline says.
“I’m telling you this, because I don’t want the same thing to happen to you,” Chileno told Jaqueline. Now it was the daughter’s turn to share her own trauma, which she had kept to herself since she was 11 years old.
“Mom, the same thing already happened to me,” Jaqueline told her. Chileno often trusted a friend to watch Jaqueline and her siblings while she was working, but a relative of the friend had often sexually abused Jaqueline while in their care.
Chileno had prepared for potential rejection, but not this. She felt both angry at the man who did this and guilty she had failed as a mother to protect her daughter from the same kind of assault. Yet she was proud that Jaqueline, still a teenager, had the courage to speak the words she herself had struggled for years to release.
“We hugged and we forgave each other,” Chileno says.
“Talking about these things is the only way to close these cycles,” Jaqueline says.
That was the beginning of a more open and affectionate mother-daughter relationship.
“The fact that she went to the [Cachada] workshops, and was able to open her heart, and then later this exchange was able to help me heal,” Jaqueline says. “This saved us.”
Days after confiding in Henríquez, Chileno shared the truth with the rest of the cast: She didn’t know who Jaqueline’s father was because she was raped. “I felt like it was my fault,” she says. “It was so horrible to carry this guilt and shame and always think about what society was going to think.”
As Chileno shared her story with the other troupe members, she says she felt a pain in her chest so strong she almost choked on the words. She knew sharing it on stage would be difficult but necessary. Keeping it in had only caused her anguish, and she thought conquering her fear of telling others would help her overcome her sadness.
Letting go of the pain
Now that she had told her daughter and castmates, Chileno was ready to share her story with a wider audience.
Chileno took center stage again at the middle school that day in September as the play entered its final scene. She carried the same heavy load—baby, bag, another baby, basket.
“Why?” her on-stage daughter asked.
“You know why? Because I had to have you and that’s it,” Chileno answered. “That’s what a woman is for. At least that’s how they taught me,” she said, facing the audience with her head held high. “Because they raped me, because they forced me to, and if I didn’t have you, they could have sentenced me to 30 years in prison, and I was scared.”
By then Chileno had said the line dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. It would always be personal, but the tightening of her chest had faded by now as she faced the audience, including Jaqueline.
She had let her cast mates in. She had let her daughter in. They had accepted her. She was free to release the pain.
This time, she didn’t say it for herself or her cast mates or Jaqueline. She said it for the women and girls in the audience, for them to hear her story, to see themselves reflected, and to give themselves permission to let go too.
Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist who has covered Central America since 2015. She was a 2021 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow reporting on mental health in El Salvador and Honduras. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida
Cristina Baussan is a photographer based between El Salvador and Haiti. See more of her work on her website and on Instagram.