Many Salvadoran youths fall in with the gangs that have turned the country
San Salvador - AFP
The children and teens held hands in a circle in front of Mayan ruins west of El Salvador's capital, budding actors whose passion, officials hope, may keep them from the clutches of Central America's gangs.
Mixing acting with music, singing and dancing, the production's young stars, aged nine to 18, and their teachers are part of an initiative pitting theater against the thug life in a country where youths too often are swept up into crime and violence.
Their show, "La Cucarachita Martina Pide la Convivencia y la Paz" -- "The little cockroach Martina demands coexistence and peace" -- was backed by El Salvador's President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
He brought in a Cuban troupe, La Colmenita, that he observed on a recent visit to Havana to coach 144 children and adolescents to perform the play in the country's top venues.
"We didn't bring over the theater and music with the intention that the kids make a living from it, but rather so that they can learn to live better," La Colmenita's director, Carlos Cremata, told AFP.
- Tide of viciousness -
The aim is to nip in the bud the dark tendency of many Salvadoran youths to fall in with the gangs that have turned the country into the deadliest on the planet outside of war zones.
Last month, there were 783 murders, more than double what was recorded in January a year earlier.
For all of 2015, there were a staggering 6,657 killings -- a rate of more than one murder for every 1,000 residents. Most of the victims are young, aged between 15 and 29.
That tide of viciousness and loss is what the government is trying to battle.
Part of its efforts are focused on muscular security crackdowns by heavily armed police and soldiers that some see as exacerbating the violence.
But others, like the theater initiative, try for a softer approach.
"We share a method that is not acting as such, but more staging a game to create values. It's a form of educational artistic expression," Cremata said.
It goes beyond simply putting on a show to applause and praise.
The young Salvadorans who take part in the play will be sent back to their towns and districts -- including some that are among the most violent in the country -- to replicate the experience.
Thirteen-year-old Karen Ramos, who plays the lead role as Little Cockroach Martina, said she was "so happy" to be chosen as the lead. "It's fantastic to interact with the other kids," she said.
The story of the play they are in, though dressed up as a fable, is simple and clear to young and old: Martina the cockroach is wooed by several suitors who offer her various material gifts. But it is the love and peace offered by a noble-hearted rat named Perez that wins her over.
- Swap guns for violins -
El Salvador's government is also deploying other artistic initiatives to show children that they can aim for loftier goals that those attainable through the barrel of a gun.
One such group, a youth orchestra formed a year ago in the western town of Sonzacate, has played concerts all over the country.
"It was difficult, but the orchestra project has managed to change the mentality of young people so they drop the gun or the knife for a violin, a trumpet or a saxophone," its director, Ovidio Aguirre, said.
In the words of Andrea Elas Mendez, a 14-year-old girl who plays the violin in the orchestra: "Art and culture open up the soul."