From the slums of El Salvador, a magician emerges

ATHENS, Ohio, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- Peter Rodriguez grew up like many children in El Salvador: struggling against poverty in a crippled economy and desperate to avoid the violence of his country's long-standing internal conflicts. But when he was exposed to magic at the age of 12, he said he discovered his calling -- one that would forever alter his identity.

Rodriguez, now 20, lives in Terminal, one of the deadliest slums in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-largest city. The area is filled with marginalized children, violent gangs and a poor educational system. He was raised working at his mother's side, kneading dough for bread that she sold in the market.

When Rodriguez heard about Angeles Descalzos (Barefoot Angels), a program that allowed children to play, learn and escape the hardships of life in poverty, he said he excitedly told his mother.

Program workers reach out to children who work illegally, sometimes as prostitutes. Many of the children rely on drugs to numb themselves from hunger and cold. When working with such children, there's no room for a quick fix, said Lucy Luna, manager of the association's Children and Youth division. The program needed a holistic approach, she said.

The goal of Barefoot Angels is to keep children in school, out of dangerous labor and help them develop as community members, with a full range of self-expression and creativity.

“(The kids) like it because they feel good and safe in the physical spaces of the program," America Hernandez, a community psychologist associated with the program, said in a telephone interview. "They make friends, they learn about issues that help them to better understand more about their reality."

That was an environment Rodriguez said he craved. But when he asked his mother if he could join, she said refused. For her, her son was a useful assistant. Over time, though, she agreed.

“In some ways, I feel like it was destined to happen,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview.

Angeles Descalzos was formed in 1992, at the end of El Salvador's civil war. The program is run by the Salvadoran Association for Rural Health.

“(Barefoot Angels) began working with kids in the street, kids who didn’t have a family to rely on,” Ana Gloria, the association’s assistant executive director, said in a phone interview. “Through that program, we realized that what the kids needed was a substitute family to support them.”

Rodriguez didn't immediately fit in with the other children, Hernandez said. But when he found magic, that all changed.

“When he began the art of magic, he underwent a personal discovery,” Hernandez said.

He soon was putting on shows for groups small and large and became a leader among Barefoot Angels’ other magicians.

Rodriguez first fell in love with the performance art when Tom Verner, founder of Magicians Without Borders, visited Barefoot Angels during one of the organization’s quarterly trips to El Salvador. Verner’s organization travels and performs magic for poor communities worldwide.

Over time, Rodriguez became so adept at magic that the joined Magicians Without Borders. He has traveled to the United States, Guatemala and other countries to perform.

He was invited to attend the Google Ideas Summit on Youth Violence in Ireland, where he said he realized that magic is a universal tool.

“I noticed when the first session started that people from all over the world, all parts, we are the same,” Rodriguez said. “Violence is everywhere, all over. They might be different actions but they are still all violence.”

Rodriguez is still involved with Barefoot Angels, as well as with his own performing group. His work can help children avoid gangs, he said.

“The idea that you can affect people’s lives in a way that they remember you is so remarkable,” he said. “And people always remember us.”