Guardians of Life: Empowering Women through Performance


By Alexandra Garretón

Afro Cuban drumbeats wafted onto 24th Street from the muraled walls of Dance Mission Theatre last night.

At 6 p.m. Arena’s Afro Cuban Dance Company was in last-minute rehearsal for the evening’s 7thannual healing arts festival, Guardianas de la Vida – which honors San Francisco’s day for elimination of violence towards women and girls.

Guests leaned against fuchsia, kelly green and yellow walls, eagerly waiting for the doors of the theatre to open. Chanting could be heard from the hallway as one patron received a healing from a spiritual leader.

“All kinds of people getting healed in here tonight!” exclaimed one woman walking by the queue.

At 7 p.m, roughly 60 people filed into the building’s auditorium. Poet and storyteller Nina Serrano, donning a sequined gold top that twinkled underneath the stage lights, introduced the show.

“The cultural expression of this movement is the expression that is closest to our hearts, because we were all born to a mother,” she explained.

Last night’s event to observe the dedicated day was a celebration of womanhood expressed through poetry, song, dance and theatre.

“There is an old woman, in a glittery t-shirt smiling in the mirror,” read Serrano as four mid-aged women from the No Tutu Poetry troupe acted out the words. “What’s she so pleased about? She’s excited to be alive at the same time as you.”

Poems by Native American speaker Kim Shuck received murmurs of appreciation from the crowd.

“Some of the worst violence against women is our invisibility,” said Shuck. She took the opportunity to remind the audience about the Ohlone people – who she says are often forgotten. The theatre, Shuck said, is five blocks from a village site.

The message of underrepresented women was woven into each performance. Youth performer Meche Perez crooned Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime” about a woman whose husband had just been lynched.

“Suppertime/Kids will soon be yellin’ /For their suppertime/How’ll I keep from tellin’ /Them that man o’mine/Ain’t comin’ home no more?” she sang.

Perez reworked the meaning of the song – using it to represent the loss a wife experiences after her husband has been deported.

Dance performances included a modern dance and poem by Anne Bluethenthal, a leap-filled performance by another youth performer, Paloma McFly, and a fierce flamenco by La Tania.

Master Healer, Marja West hosted a mediation session with the audience that rang loudly like a sermon through the auditorium. The crowd sat silently, eye closed, with their right hand over their heart and their left hand resting on their bellies, while West bellowed at them to ruminate over painful experiences.

“Let your heart eat this suffering,” she said in to the microphone, periodically striking a gold bowl that rang like a gong. “Tears are food for love.”

When Arena’s Afro Cuban Dance came on to the stage – loud drums banging, colorful costumes and festive singing, the stadium seating shook with the stomping of the audience’s feet.

The night ended with a gorgeous song by MamaCoAtl. Her powerful voice permeated the room. Eight years ago, MamaCoAtl spearheaded the campaign to bring the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Towards Women and Girls to San Francisco.

In 2008, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom signed a proclamation making November 25th San Francisco’s Day for the Elimination of Violence Towards Women and Girls in solidarity with the United Nation’s international day of the same name.

MamaCoAtl said she started Guardianas de la Vida because she noticed that around Thanksgiving people became depressed and domestic violence rates went up.

The event, MamaCoAtl said, is a “good way to heal the culture of violence that afflicts us. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s to heal the culture.”

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