Writing workshop helps hardened inmates find their voices in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—“Over the years, destiny tore us apart,” wrote Xiomara Esther Diaz, an inmate at Quetzaltepeque, one of El Salvador’s most notorious gang prisons for members of the 18th Street gang. “A dozen hawks surrounded my house searching for something to hunt…minutes later, ‘pum, pum, pum,’ the door breaks down.”

As it turns out, the hawks were hunting her, and the “dark box” she landed in was prison, although she never refers to it by name.

Xiomara’s son, for whom she wrote her memoir, is now 18. Years have passed since the two were separated.

Women inmates at Quezaltepque during the ConTextos memoir writing workshopJason Bax

Women inmates at Quezaltepque during the ConTextos memoir writing workshop

Xiomara penned her story from prison as part of a pilot memoir-writing program called Soy Autor (I’m an Author), led by ConTextos, a San Salvador-based literacy and teacher training organization started by my friend, Debra Gittler. Xiomara’s tale is replete with a mother’s love for her son, the pain and regret at the bars between them, and hope for redemption.

“It was a rainstorm of emotions,” she said of the writing process, as she sat among 12 other female inmates who participated in the program. Prison guards wearing ski masks paced just beyond the locked door enclosing the fenced cement pavilion where the budding writers assembled.

ConTextos first developed the writing program for public schools. But it has since found equal success in the prison setting, where inmates are finding a voice to tell their stories. For many, it’s cathartic.

“Through these books, we let out our secret. We cried writing these books and we hope others learn from this.”

- Xiomara Esther Diaz

It may seem like a modest achievement, yet the ConTextos’ effort is based on the conviction that literacy skills and writing can teach people to ask critical questions and engage in peaceful dialogue and disagreement. These are the cores of democracy, Gittler said, and a key to bringing peace to a country mired in violence. ConTextos staff also found that the experience of telling their own stories helped the prisoners process and understand trauma, which most of the population has experienced in a city that has the grim distinction of being the murder capital of the world.

Inmate Alex Melgar shares his memoir with classmates inside the prison school.Jason Bax

Inmate Alex Melgar shares his memoir with classmates inside the prison school.

The need for accountability and healing is clear, even, and perhaps especially, among the criminals responsible for this violence. It’s why Gittler risked near mutiny from her staff when she first suggested they bring the program into the prisons. But now her team believes that their work can play an important role in the long, complicated, fight to stem the bloodshed that has damaged so many Salvadoran lives.

“I do not have even the smallest doubt that if we do not give more opportunities to the people who are most affected to tell their stories, there is no chance that this violence is going to end,” said Gittler, whose organization has worked in 54 public schools across El Salvador.

Still, Gittler and her staff don’t harbor any illusions that their work alone will solve the crisis of gang violence in El Salvador.

“We are not naïve enough to believe that this program alone is going to take a violent criminal and heal them and fix them,” she said. “But we certainly believe that this is part of the healing process in terms of helping people understand their stories, and understanding how putting language to their experience clarifies what actually happened. Healing is definitely part of what happens, but I think accountability might be a more appropriate word.”

Once something is put in writing, it’s a permanent record and the author owns his or her words, Gittler says.

Carlos Recinos teaching during a memoir writing workshop with inmates at Quezatepeque inside the prison school.Jason Bax

Carlos Recinos teaching during a memoir writing workshop with inmates at Quezatepeque inside the prison school.

The writing program is expanding among the country’s juvenile facilities. The second phase of the program, if the funding comes through, will incorporate poetry instruction and peer teaching.

During my visit to Quetzaltepeque Prison, many of the incarcerated students, with gang tattoos covering their bodies and snaking up their necks, said that writing allowed them to find value in their stories and share that with others. ConTextos has started to distribute the memoirs to schools where they work, two municipal libraries, the U.S. Embassy, the El Salvadoran Ministries of Security and Justice, and the prisons.

“Whenever somebody is sharing a sad story or a happy story, other students are able to connect to that,” said Jennifer Correas, the head teacher for Soy Autor.

Soy Autor's Jennifer Correas works with women inmates during a memoir writing workshop at Queztaltepeque.Jason Bax

Soy Autor's Jennifer Correas works with women inmates during a memoir writing workshop at Queztaltepeque.

Participating inmates say writing helps them organize and clarify their thoughts, and become more aware of their negative thinking.

“You can give a child food, but if you don’t invest in him, he’s still poor,” says Jose Luis Aviles, one of the 11 male prisoners participating in the writing workshop. “But if you can change how a person thinks, then you can make real change.”

In his story, Aviles tells of a happy, if impoverished childhood, with loving, supportive parents. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but when he was 12 he had to leave home and find work as a bricklayer. Although he eventually returned home and to school, there he said he only learned to smoke and curse. His father pulled him out of school, but his problems continued. Aviles never reveals what he did to land in Quetzatepeque, but it’s clear he has regrets.

“Now I find myself in a maze where some day I hope to see the right path,” he wrote.

That sentiment—contrition mixed with a desire to do better—is a common theme among the inmates, adult and juvenile alike.

“The skills from Contextos help us to be better people,” said Jorge Luis Mendez Jurado, another inmate and writer. “It reminds us that we have potential we didn’t know about before.”