Ivan Nogales (Bolivia 1998) has created a cultural-educational center that integrates theater workshops with a library and recreational space for street children and young people in situations of risk. This new structure provides them an alternative form of education and a place to build their badly damaged self-esteem, using theater as a therapeutic and pedagogical tool to transform their lives.
The New Idea
Ivan Nogales has launched an initiative for urban marginalized youth that is already spreading across Bolivia, and has earned international recognition in Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and Europe. Drawing on his studies in sociology and practical experience in theater, he founded the Teatro Trono (Throne drama group) in 1991, with a group of 7 street children whom he rescued from a state-run home and legally adopted. Since then, the group has created a youth center in a populous working class area just above La Paz, combining drama, film and library activities with a space for young people to come together and participate in self-esteem building activities. Working from the center, the group reaches out to existing youth groups in schools, parishes and community organizations to share resources and promote drama and cultural activities as beneficial in their own right. Ivan has already launched similar centers in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, and eventually plans to expand to each of Bolivia's nine provincial capitals, and to consolidate his links to youth organizations in the Andean region and beyond.
Though other initiatives have sought to use theater as a tool for engaging and motivating young people, the Throne group is the only project in Bolivia to build itself through the input of marginalized youth themselves, beginning with the 7 and now expanding to literally thousands more who become involved in the group's activities. Ivan's is the first Bolivian troupe to travel extensively, both nationally and abroad, building links to local youth groups which then form their own drama circles and establish permanent satellite centers in other cities. Ivan is consolidating a space for young people where they are taught to think critically and have access to culture, generating new leaders from former street children. The house "travels" and reaches out to other young people through theater performances in the streets, plazas, churches, and educational establishments.
Former street children are rehabilitated through the production of aesthetic arts, as participants are gradually being converted from problems into protagonists of change, working with other disadvantaged youth throughout the region - the first theater group in Bolivia with these characteristics.
Ivan describes theater as a pretext for a much larger idea and a way to initiate other worthwhile projects. His project does not focus on theater only as a creative activity, but uses theater for education, to sensitize the participants and public on important and little talked-about issues, labor formation and job opportunities for at-risk youth, rehabilitation and therapeutic aspects, to prevent young people from getting involved in dangerous situations. Ivan sees a future filled with alternative pedagogical centers based on his cultural house, using theater as a means for the community to grow, participate, think critically, and propose alternatives for change. It is also an alternative form of education, outside of the formal educational system in the country. In Colombia and Brazil, theater groups are responding to violence in which the countries are already immersed, using theater to try to solve the consequences of social explosion. Ivan, instead, uses theater as a tool for prevention, so as to not reach the levels of violence found elsewhere in the region. The very few other organizations that work with street children do so with a paternalistic and protective attitude and limited resources. Ivan's model gives the youth the ability to make their own decisions and theater does not suffer the same resource limitations as youth take the idea to others. Because Ivan focuses on prevention, he has seen more success than centers of rehabilitation, where as few as 3 out of 10 at-risk youth are rehabilitated. Ivan is the only person in Bolivia and the region using theater in this way.
Ivan describes the central problem he is addressing as a lack of effective educational centers in the country. Negotiations on educational reform in Bolivia continue without results. There is a need for alternative, informal pedagogical centers that operate independently of ineffectual state structures to support solid educational proposals. The state does not have the capacity or the desire to include cultural and artistic activities in its formal educational system. In the last 15 years, many local cultural movements have died because their proposals have not been supported or absorbed by the Bolivian government.
El Alto, where Ivan has initiated his work, is one of the poorest and most marginalized urban areas in the country, with high crime rates, alcoholism, and rampant child abuse. Many children are forced onto the streets to fend for themselves because of dysfunctional families and poverty that drives them to seek work at an early age. They do not develop healthy links to their culture, families, city, or society in general and end up as youth without identity. There are only 8 libraries, 6 cultural centers, and 2 youth centers in all of El Alto, serving a population of more than 500,000, two-thirds of whom are under 25 years of age. The population of this city continues to grow at 4.5%, the highest annual rate in the country, which accentuates the problems of poverty, unemployment, street children, and urban overcrowding. Yet these familiar scourges afflict other cities across Bolivia and throughout the Andean region. A 1995 UNICEF study found 430,000 child street workers in all of Bolivia, a number that has more than quadrupled in 10 years. Though major long-term public and private investment will be required to address the structural problems which produce the phenomena of rapid rural-urban migration, joblessness and family disintegration, there is an immediate need for initiatives which inspire hope and lend meaning to the lives of disaffected young people who can draw little comfort from the current state of their inner-city communities.
Ivan began working in theater with marginalized groups 15 years ago. Founded in 1991, the Teatro Trono is a select group of young people (15 to 20) who once lived on the street and are using theater to turn their lives around. The name Trono was coined by the youth themselves, and means throne, though it plays on a Spanish synonym connoting failure. The young people are encouraged to become "kings" of their imaginations and their futures. Ivan has worked to consolidate a core group of youth who have now become experts in replicating his methodology, gain instant credibility with urban youth based on their own experience, and are spreading his program of rehabilitation through creative expression throughout the region. This group of young people explore their identities, discover their creativity, and rise above difficult situations through theater. They travel around El Alto and the country, performing for their communities. But theater is more than artistic expression to Ivan and these youth. It is a form of therapy, alternative education, conscious-building, communication, a pedagogical tool. By the end of 1998, Ivan will have constructed a theater, the first in El Alto, where this group of young people can perform. Through Throne's outreach to youth groups, its workshops and joint productions, Ivan estimates that his troupe works closely with more than 5,000 young people a year, and reaches another 20,000 who watch the plays or visit the youth cultural centers. He has also established a program for the young people to generate revenues by collecting trash in La Paz and teaching ecology to high school students through theater performances.
Ivan's next step is the consolidation of a cultural and alternative educational center in El Alto, called COMPA, which he initiated in 1992 to expand his idea to a much larger audience. Along with members and ex-members of the Teatro Trono, members of the community of El Alto, and personalities in the cultural sphere, he has formed its board of directors. COMPA's initiatives are directed towards 2,000 street children and more than 6,000 youth in public high schools, and these same participants are responsible for its functioning. The cultural center will house the Throne Theater, and will diffuse audiovisual material destined to facilitate critical thinking, care for the environment, and responsible conduct in daily life and in sexuality. Through film presentations, Ivan has already reached 20,000 people during the last 3 years, inspiring them to analyze and critique the images in front of them. There will be a library with a reading room open to the public and containing about 3000 works collected by Ivan. An auditorium for theater, puppet shows and photography exhibits will promote the talents of the young people and encourage artistic and cultural activities. The center will also include a game room to provide additional alternative activities for the young people in the community.
Although street children are the direct beneficiaries of Ivan's model, the entire community benefits as well. A photo exhibit Ivan coordinated last year, showing images of El Alto and generating discussion of the city's problems and possible solutions, reached more than 100,000 persons. Ivan has expanded this activity by assisting the publication of a book on images of El Alto, which he has presented to schools throughout El Alto. He incorporates the media through the publication of street children's testimonies, such as the book Tomorrow is Today, which relates the difficulties of street children and their use of theater to overcome problems of drug addiction, alcoholism, and delinquency which tempt them. Ivan and a group of street children recently published another book, detailing their lives in the street and rehabilitation through his model, serving as a methodological example to many national groups and institutions which work with at-risk children. Ivan already sees the impact and multiplier effect of his project, as youth change for the better and learn to propose alternatives in support of their society, pass these ideas on to other young people, and serve as examples with their conviction. One has moved to Santa Cruz and started a theater group there. Various other groups have since been formed based on Ivan's initial model: Ojo Morado in La Paz, Chicalle Circus in Cochabamba, Enda Theater Groups in El Alto, Mitai House in Santa Cruz, among others. After consolidating his cultural center in El Alto, Ivan has plans to build others in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, where the Arnold Schwimmer Foundation has already expressed interest in expanding his model.
At the international level, Ivan has contacted COSCAMATI, an organization for street-worker children in Cusco, Peru; they hope to have a formal agreement for collaboration within the next 2 to 3 years. Twice Ivan took his group to Chiapas, Mexico, to perform in the International Encounter of Popular Art where he contacted CLETA, the Free Center for Experimentation in Theater and Art. Ivan has contacts with organizations in Mexico City and is strengthening his contacts in Chicago. In coordination with a Colombian Fellow, Ivan is traveling across Europe with 6 youth to present "Knowledge of the Street" in Amsterdam, Germany, and Spain. This tour is being funded by Holland's OLAA, Organization for Activities in Latin America, an institution which will replicate Ivan's therapeutical-pedagogical work through theater to reach at-risk children in their own country. Additional funding comes from Dutch organizations such as Vastenaktie, CEBEMO and Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland. The Arnold Schwimmer Foundation assisted COMPA in its travel to Mexico, the publication of Tomorrow is Today, the construction of a theater, and implementation of a second COMPA in Cochabamba by the year 2000.
Ivan remembers his father's death as the single most influential event of his life. He was killed by government security forces during the struggle against military dictatorship, leaving 7-year-old Ivan, his 3 siblings, and his mother behind to fend for themselves. Though this tragedy left his family poverty-stricken, Ivan learned a strong work ethic and a love of theater and poetry from his father. He was forced to grow up quickly, and took over a fatherly role in his family, which he would later extend to other children in his community.
The dictatorship also had its impact on Ivan, instilling in him the values of social justice and human rights as a teenager. He has been fighting for democracy ever since, and with this conviction firmly established, in 1980 he entered the National University to study sociology. Applying his childhood interest in arts and culture, he became involved in theater and puppet shows, and directed the art projects of a local church. During this time he also worked in theater with marginal groups, such as peasants, miners, and labor unions. In 1989, Ivan took his ideas for theater to the Male Rehabilitation Center, a prison-like institution for street children. Ivan put a technical team together to use theater as therapy and as an education tool to reach young people with serious behavior problems. Over the next few years the theater group gained more independence, and the boys began to think about alternative places to live. From this experience, the Teatro Trono and Ivan's lifetime project was born. Ivan, possessed of boundless energy and enthusiasm to expand his work, sees himself as providing young people everywhere with opportunities to build the dignity and self-determination necessary to overcome their disadvantaged backgrounds.