(Begun Thursday, Oct. 7)
This has to be the ultimate surreal moment here yet - as I am writing this, I am watching Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (my hometown, incidentally) with Spanish subtitles on the mostly English movie channel Cinemax on my hotel room TV in Suchitoto, El Salvador! A reminder of how small and odd the world is...
Today has been a day of surprising and touching breakthroughs after a week of roller-coaster ups and downs:
Monday started fairly well - my first day with some of the ladies from the Casa de la Cultura. Two of them, Jesus (also a female name, pronounced Hay-suess') and Eleonore, turned out to be very experienced and confident sewers who were gracious enough to go along with whatever I asked them to work on - quickly and accurately accomplishing what challenged and frustrated the Escuela girls the week before. I was in raptures of appreciation and they laughed and were pleased in turn! Gloria, a bit younger and one of Jesus' proteges, was less accurate, but very positive and cheerful about trying till she got it right. Mariza, the fourth one and Jesus' daughter, came along but declared that she had a boil under her arm which hurt her so that she couldn't sew. I asked if she was up to pulling threads to make fringes on the panuelos (the same job I offered one of the Escuela girls who was too shy and reluctant to try machine sewing for me).
She seemed pleased with this, and sat fringeing and gossipping with one of the Es Artes girls, Raquel, all morning and went off to see the doctor in the afternoon. Jesus was late in the morning and couldn't stay for the afternoon because she was attending the funerals or wakes (it wasn't entirely clear) of two of her neighbours who had died over the weekend, but everyone seemed happy with the day, keen to come back on Wednesday and I felt I had an ace in the hole if the students lost interest or couldn't handle the workload.
Monday night, Frank Holte and Eric Ball arrived from Stratford and we had a great reunion with drinks at Lupita's and pupusas at El Gringo. They are staying in the hostel rooms at Villa Balanza (one of our favourite and most frequented lunch spots) - I considered moving over there when John leaves, as it is considerably cheaper than El Tejado, but I decided that my knees couldn't be certain of making it up and down the extremely steep hill it's on, twice a day, particularly in the rain or the dark, so I'm staying put.
Back right: John, Tatiana, Evelyn, Tito, Coky Back left: Erika, Eric and Frank - lunch Tuesday at Villa Balanza
Tuesday was back to Escuela with hopes of finishing mounting the ruffles of last week, but this proved more difficult than it had looked for many of them, and frustration started to build, so we moved on to more of the second style (lots of measuring, pressing and straight lines, less gathering and matching). My shy and somewhat challenged girl, Alejandra, continued fringeing, moved on to pressing, and even started hand-basting a ruffle in place. Abigail seemed preoccupied with paperwork in the morning, but in the afternoon, wanting to include her, I asked her (through Coky) if she wouldn't mind helping me out by marking and putting together a mock-up of one of the blouses we were going to build later. She agreed, but either didn't or wouldn't listen to my directions and explanations (delivered through Coky) and then suddenly disappeared for most of the afternoon, saying she'd been called to a meeting with the director. I was a bit surprised, but asked two of the more confident students, Patricia and Flor, if they would try it and they managed quite well. The overall feeling was much less positive than Friday had been, but we kept moving forward, and put it down to the disruption of changing back to their regular class on Monday.
Wednesday - back as Es Artes, looking forward to the next group of ladies, two new ones for the morning, the Monday group back for the afternoon - neither of the morning ones show up. After some confusion about who has the contact numbers (Mabel, who is no longer with us), phone calls are made and explanations of misunderstanding when and where are given. I carry on with some assistance from Raquel, who doesn't really sew but is keen to help anyway. and manage to get a servant petticoat built and tried on one of the student actresses, and cut out one of the Bernarda daughters' skirts. After lunch, Gloria appears, cheerful and willing, and makes some progress on the next petticoat; Eleonore doesn't arrive till two, but sails through the skirt before she has to leave by four; Jesus and Mariza - no shows. Over dinner, it transpires that the true reason for the absences is negotiation for some form of compensation - that they are not actually willing to volunteer this time away from their other work, in spite of the approval and enthusiasm everyone expressed at the initial meeting, when it was made clear (I thought) that we only wanted whatever time they felt they could give, and that, of course, their other commitments came first. Yet another dilemma for Tatiana, who is still deep in the throes of a truly Machiavelian tussle for the Suchitoto venue for the play.
Thursday - back to Escuela, accompanied by Tito, who is going to translate for Frank and Eric (although they seem to get by very well for the most part with the key word and demo/gesture method). Just as I'm about to begin with the class, Tito arrives to inform us (Coky and me) that Hector (the director of the school) has some concerns about how the class is working - that because we no longer have Mabel's female presence and supposed understanding of sewing terminology, he feels the girls may be resistant to Coky's interpretation of my directions and that the line of communication should be me to Coky to Abigail to the girls.
As I have tried to include Abigail in everything we have done so far, and asked her advice on how to approach the students and what their capabilities are; and the methods and standards I am setting are as unfamiliar to her as they are to the students (she has told me she is not allowed to push them at all or they will complain to the director, so she is surprised that they are willing to repeat things and try to correct mistakes for me), I have some concerns about the efficacy of this approach, as does Coky, who also felt we had connected well with the girls, but anything to keep the peace, as it were...
So we approached Abigail and asked how she would like us to continue as it is her class after all. I assured her how pleased I was with the girls' progress (which I told them all repeatedly on Friday), and how willing I am to adapt to their strengths and comfort levels with the variety of work (which I had shown last week as well), which she confirmed. She said they all appreciated my attempts at Spanish and that Coky was doing a good job of explaining all the hows and whys to them. I also pointed out that Alejandra, who had always hung back from participating in what the other girls were doing, and waited to be given something to do, had actually amazed me by coming to me and asking for work that morning! Not only asked but shyly agreed to sew by machine the two small darts in a bustle pad that we were beginning today.
At this, she called the girls together and told them that all they had to do if they were unhappy or unsure about anything was to ask herself or me and we would help them with it; that they weren't expected to be perfect, but to see how they could improve their skills, which they had already shown that they could do (in not only her opinion but mine as well). She encouraged them to have a positive attitude and be willing to learn and try new things, as working with me on this project was a great opportunity (whether they appreciated it now or not), but again, they didn't have to feel pressured if they felt they couldn't do something, because someone else could help them out as they all learned to do it together.
She asked for feedback on anything they were concerned about, and after initial reluctance, Stephany mentioned having to undo their crooked seams - Abigail told her that their crooked seams were always picked out; the only difference was that up till now, she had done it for them and now they were doing it for themselves! Belinda (one of the older students - in her thirties) asked if I had been told that many of them had only been using the machines for about two months ? I hadn't, and told them once again how impressed I was with what they could do, and that they would get better and better with practice. Abigail then thanked me for working with them and said they considered me 'one of themselves', which immediately overwhelmed me, and had me brushing away tears that I hastened to assure her were muy feliz (very happy).
From that point, the day went from strength to strength! They all got a big kick out of the bustles when I explained what they were for (Abi thought they were shoulder pads), and Alejandra completed three of them on her own. Progess on the servant petticoats continued and after lunch and the mid-afternoon ice cream break, I played them Justin Bieber's (yes, they even know about him here!)"Baby" which I'd downloaded from iTunes since they'd talked about it the week before.
Towards the end of the day, all the elements were in place to do a mock fitting of one of the lead outfits with the girls, so we (Coky and I) asked Abigail if she thought they would be interested in seeing how the clothes would look on one of them (of course!), and also seeing some pictures of other kinds of costumes I had made (si, si!). So, we recruited the tallest girl, Cecy, as the model (because the actress playing Angustias is quite tall), and I showed them how all the layers built up the shape of the costume and made it move gracefully and elegantly - everyone was very excited and appreciative! Then I showed them some of the Festival costumes from the past couple of seasons to give them an idea of what it was possible to do with sewing - a huge hit and a great end to the day!