January 17, 2020 by Grace Cooper
Salon Speaker: Rosa Anaya
What is Salon? Every month we bring a writer or artist into Cook County Jail Division 10 to share their work and have a conversation with published Alumni Authors. Salon Speakers discuss their writing process and engage with Authors through thought provoking and meaningful conversation – a learning experience is beneficial to all involved. We sit down with our guests and ask them about their experience at Salon, and how storytelling influences their work.
November’s Salon speaker was Rosa Anaya, who has been an advocate for peace in El Salvador for 20 years, working to change the lives of vulnerable youth, gang members and prisoners. She currently runs Segundas Oportunidades (Second Chances), a Catholic Relief Services program that rehabilitates inmates in four prisons, preparing them to return to society and the workforce. Pioneering restorative justice in El Salvador’s prison system, Anaya and her team support prisoners with cognitive behavioral therapy and workshops that deconstruct toxic masculinity. The program prepares them to be responsible employees and citizens upon release, and to be “promotores de paz” (promoters of peace) in their communities.
What specific feedback on your presentation and writing from Authors stood out to you?
Well first the piece that you guys shared was a very old piece and obviously had a lot of context and relevance within the US, especially within the framework of the politics right now. I could perceive from them that they wanted to talk about the thought around what I had been writing. I could hear a lot about how do we go into the idea of politics with a leader that will fix everything for us. A lot of them didn’t talk about the writing but more what it is we’re trying to do [in El Salvador]…they also wanted to hear more about my personal experience. So one of the things that stood out to me was that they were interested in this piece! And what I heard from you guys is that you did previous reflections with them, so I also think that they had already digested the piece before I came in. But it was interesting to hear their own thoughts. Solitary was the thing, I’m not sure if they didn’t understand the concept because of their own conflicts but they weren’t so convinced that solidarity could be possible.
How did your experience with Salon match your expectations? Especially compared to what you experience in prisons in El Salvador.
I didn’t have any expectations because I know that every space is different. But definitely culturally it’s very different than what we see in general in prisons here, but I could compare the sort of place that they’re at with prisons that have higher security in El Salvador. People tend, I guess, to express their curiosity more with new people than the guys here did. But yeah no expectations, I was very happy to see the group, I was very excited to hear that the things that you’re doing here and in El Salvador were similar. It was actually interesting for me to hear their conversations after we stopped the presentation and we were just chatting along on the sides. I was talking to the guy from Guatemala because he didn’t speak a lot of English. He’s very disoriented and just feeling lost. But nothing that I saw was not expected in the sense that it’s a jail.
Did the experience influence, inspire, or enrich you as a writer or in the work that you’re doing?
Well I actually want to write something about the experience but I have to find the time to do it! But I’d like to write not only about that visit but about the various visits I did during my stay and the feedback that I would get from people. I’m always surprised about what people come back with to me – things I don’t expect people to pick up on what I’m saying. One topic is to see the link between what’s going on in El Salvador and what’s going on in Chicago. We speak a different language but we speak the same type of violence in many places. And that was a little disheartening to me, but at the same time I know that people become very creative in that context, so I want to write something about that. But maybe it’ll stay in my head and I’ll never be able to sit down and write! But if I do I’ll definitely share with you guys.
How does storytelling influence your written work?
Oh my god! So the way I process my own trauma and the way I process reality as it is is through storytelling. If there’s anything I collect in life it’s stories from what I hear, what I see. I think that when you say things out loud, the things you fear become less of a threat. So when you speak about your own story or think about the stories that are similar, or even completely opposite to your experience, you can share them and those trigger special moments for other people. For me it’s very important, it’s part of the reason of why we do the work we do because unless you speak to people, tell your story and listen to your own, it’s always going to be “the other”. And through storytelling you are able to break down all sorts of different barriers. And even if you are completely different people and think differently, still when you tell your own story you can always relate. Because you can’t judge another person by their own experience. Maybe you can judge them by their throughs or what their attitudes are, but your experience is your experience, it’s what life gave you. So how you interpret that, it’s something that you cannot judge, what happened to you. So I think that that’s very powerful when you’re able to share and listen to other people’s stories.
What are you working on next?
I need to find funding for my project!! So we’re in the last six months of the project, and we are now trying to think about lessons learned because I truly believe that the team that we have and what they’ve been able to do has done, with little, so much, and potentially could have such a great impact within the penitentiary system within El Salvador that it would be a shame if we’re not able to systematize that, put it into words, write it down and create new knowledge, for ourselves and for other people.
I believe that sometimes you go into these things and you know how to write a project and you can kind of give the guidelines, and I’ve been very privileged to be able to have an actual laboratory where we’ve been able to adjust things as we went along and that just made it so rich and gave us a lot of experience, but at the same time a disadvantage because we cant be doing the work and have a shadow that is writing next to us what happened since we never had the time to do it.
So I want to bring the team together, have a pow-wow and kind of do a process of lessons learned and storytelling to come back to why we’re doing this and what we learned, and if we can move forward, where would we go.
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