Las Poderosas: Superheroines against Gender Violence

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This is the story of a catharsis. Or, better put, five stories of catharsis: the story of five Guatemalan women who took a stand against gender violence and were able to "empower themselves," or become powerful, thanks to theatre. This is the story of Las Poderosas–The Powerful Women."

"My husband ordered me killed. They aimed at my heart. I lost my arm, but I got justice." Thus begins, in the form of an energizing trailer–Kill Bill style–, the introduction to Las Poderosas, a group of women who have managed to stand up to domestic violence thanks to theatre. Las Poderosas emerged five years ago in Guatemala, a country that tends to have male chauvinism lodged in its DNA: a midwife gets paid more if the new-born is a male than if it is a female –nevertheless, the movement is spreading across Latin America: Chile, Mexico, Venezuela... and it is about to cross the Atlantic.

"I never thought he would follow through on his threat," recalls Adelma Cifuentes, who lost an arm when two men, armed with a shotgun, sent by her husband, broke into her house. Adelma met Lesbia, Rosa and Telma during the shooting of the documentary Hoy puedo ser (Today I Can Be), directed by the Argentine Marco Canale. All of them shared in common that they were women, Guatemalan, and had been victims of violence - although they spurned that word (victims). They are, in their own words: "fighters and survivors, but never victims."

As a result of their participation in the documentary, the seven women initiated a process which used theatre as a therapeutic tool, an initiative by Marco Canale and the Guatemalan Patricia Orantes, sponsored by the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala, under the auspices ofCooperación Española.

Marco Canale (La Poderosa Barbuda−or The Bearded Powerful Woman," as his female collaborators call him) is also the director of a video with a Tex-Mex aesthetic that alludes to the genesis of Las Poderosas and could augur a movie about their particular ordeals:

The seven women (there are now five: two from the original group have died) participated in a project that used theatre as a tool to exorcise their demons of violence against women, a problem affecting every country in the world, according to the WHO, but particularly acute in Guatemala, where 28% of women report suffering violence from their partners at some point in their lives. The rate of femicides–9 per 100,000 inhabitants–is one of the highest in the world.

These "survivors of violence against women" felt the creative and liberating effect of theatre, and decided to create their own company, Las Poderosas, which was also the title of their first play. The name came to Lesbia Téllez during a dream−she tells me by videoconference from Guatemala: "We were about to present the play for the first time, when, trying to find a name, I dreamt of it. I recall seeing the youngest of us in the middle; we were all dressed up as wrestlers. We were at the Teatro Nacional, and there were producers from the U.S., from Mexico…"

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Lesbia's dream became a reality: Las Poderosas took their show on the road: to Mexico, Venezuela and Spain, where they performed in 2011, at the Casa de América in Madrid, and at the Festival Iberoamericano in Cadiz. But redemption is fuelled by more than theatre. Las Poderosas are taking their message and example to other women who are facing the same situation: "When we arrive to a certain community, we say: ‘We've come here to share this healing tool because it has helped us to move forward.’ One of our objectives is to reveal the problem, but also to present proposals for change," says Lesbia.

"The seven 'Poderosas' articulate an individual and collective response to violence. Pure self-defence through theatre,"wrote Laura Corcuera in the magazine Primer Acto on the occasion of the play's performance in Madrid, where it was received with enthusiasm, just as it subsequently was in Cadiz, Venezuela, Honduras and Chile. The play recalls and reconstructs the violent episodes experienced by its protagonists and their children (who also act). They themselves became involved in the writing process, according to Marco Canale: "It is important to underscore that the idea emerged from their own creative process. One of the Poderosas was inspired by the conversations she had with her dog while her husband kept her locked up."

This is just the beginning, because Las Poderosas have another dream: creating an alliance of Poderosas around the world: "In every country there are thousands of struggling women. They are the Poderosas of their places," says Rosa at the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala. Having overcome - or perhaps exorcised - the traumatic event that united them, Las Poderosas now explore their own sexuality in a new work: Naciendo (Being Born).

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More information on Las Poderosas Facebook page. With information from El Imparcial, Inspirulina, Público and the Report on Violence against Women in Guatemala [.pdf].