Connecting Through Creativity

El Salvador and the Arts

by Ashley Borcardt ’09 |

It is hard to believe that just one year ago I was watching The Veracruz Breakers Show our group of Santa Clara artists what they know of dance. In a country plagued by gang violence and youth delinquency, the Veracruz Breakers, a group of about ten break-dancing Salvadoran teenagers, became a model group for kids who want to stay out of trouble.

In this case, dance kept these boys off the streets and gave them something to strive for. This showing turned into an exchange: “We’ll show you what we know if you show us what you know.” In exchange for their showing, the three dancers in our group were asked to show what we know of dance. In an instant dance became a connection between people of different culture, age, economic situation, and language.

SCU Theatre and Dance Professor, Aldo Billingslea (back, left) and Art and Art History Lecturer, Renee Billingslea (not shown) led a delegation of SCU students who participated in the Justice in the Arts Initiative immersion trip to El Salvador. They pose here with a member of the VeraCruz Breakers (front row center). Renee Billingslea

In March 2008, faculty and students participated in the first-of-its-kind Justice
and the Arts El Salvador immersion trip, organized with the help of the Justice and
the Arts Initiative (JAI) and a Bannan Grant from the Ignatian Center. Composed of 11 students and two faculty members, Aldo and Renee Billingslea, the group experienced a unique itinerary that exposed them not only to the political, historical, religious, societal and familial structures of El Salvador, but also to the way in which art creates a space for expression and communication and has the ability to become a catalyst for change and connection.

Since this trip, students have maintained a connection to the people and places they encountered in El Salvador. Studio art participant, James Hanold, returned to El Salvador shortly after graduation where he has connected with Claudia Bernardi at her art school, Walls of Hope, in Perquin, a town devastated by the Salvadoran Civil War. Many

El Salvador has always been a place of great importance for this University. The experience of exploring that country’s people and culture under the umbrella of the arts was something that will never leave me.

students have also found ways to bring this connection back to Santa Clara. In their Senior Fall Dance shows, recitalists Skye Wilson and Maxine Evangelista used themes inspired by their experiences in El Salvador. Elena Zavala is actively pursuing ways to involve more artists in future Ignatian Center El Salvador immersion trips. With the help of the JAI, Francesca McKenzie (not a participant in the El Salvador trip but a strong supporter of using the arts to promote social justice) and I are working with the Arrupe Center to integrate the arts into the Sacred Heart Community Center homework club through our Arts Reach program.

SCU student James Hanold (left) and a member of the VeraCruz Breakers share some breakdancing steps. Renee Billingslea

Co-directed by Carolyn Silberman and Kristin Kusanovich, the JAI has continued to foster a culture integrating the arts and social justice from here on. Their Guest Artist Series featuring Erik Ehn, Cindy and Mauricio Salgado from A.S.T.E.P—Artist Striving to
End Poverty, and Claudia Bernardi, encourages students and faculty alike to witness and pursue this connection of arts and social justice. (The Salgados’ visit in 2007 is what inspired Maureen McKenzie and me to begin planning the arts immersion trip.) Through their mentoring
and support of student-artists as well as active participation in this field, the JAI has been able to live out one of its foundational goals: to create a frame of reference for examining and fostering artistic processes that are critically bound to issues of justice.

Following the JAI immersion trip, SCU Student James Hanold (right) returned to spend a year in El Salvador volunteering with Claudia Bernardi at the Walls of Hope Project and Sr. Peggy O’Neill at the Centro Arte para La Paz. Renee Billingslea

El Salvador has always been a place of great importance for this University. The experience of exploring that country’s people and culture under the umbrella of the arts was something that
will never leave me. While I did not learn how
to spin on my head or hop on one arm in time with the music that night with the veracruz Breakers, I did gain something more. No one walked away a better dancer, but that “something more” was confirmed: The arts stand as one of the most promising means of connection and hope for the betterment of our future.

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