We've known Fr. Arnaldo Zenteno as the Jesuit priest who has worked for years with the base ecclesial communities in Nicaragua and occasionally shares his theological reflections through Adital and other liberation theology web sites. What we didn't know is that for more than 15 years, the CEBs in Managua have been sponsoring Proyecto Samaritanas, which aims to fight sex trafficking and help sex workers get out of the "life". And, as this article in La Prensa shows, Fr. Zenteno [the article incorrectly spells his last name "Centeno"] has been right there in the struggle to help these people regain their God-given dignity.
By José Denis Cruz (English translation by Rebel Girl)
July 7, 2013
The first time he visited the women in miniskirts and low-cut blouses, it occured to him to bring a handful of chocolates. He came to the highway to Masaya, got out of the truck, walked a few steps to where they stood with their legs crossed, smiled, greeted them, and handed out the sweets.
"Let's go, sweetie," they sang out, before the Jesuit priest Arnaldo Centeno got to them. "Well, we're not going," he answered. What he was looking for there was to win the trust of dozens of sex workers. And he did.
Father Arnaldo Centeno is half Nicaraguan and half Mexican. The first time his sneakers trod on Nicaraguan soil was in 1972. Then he came back in 1982 for a theology workshop but this time he decided to stay. Over there in Mexico he had worked with the base ecclesial communities, populist Christian groups committed to a "dignified life for the people." And if he leaped from Aztec to pinolera ["Nicaraguan"] land, it was because the base communities in Mexico had maintained a close relationship with the countries of Central America.
In the eighties, he ran into the war and during that time he had to preside at Mass almost every day in memory of the young people killed in combat. As he contends, the war period was a very painful situation, however he admired the heroism of the people of Nicaragua.
"The first meetings were simple like that. Greeting them, so they could see that someone was greeting them with respect, without any interest in their work," says the 80-year Jesuit priest, a gentleman of unshakable memory.
However, it wasn't until the third day that the girls realized that the man who was visiting them was really a priest. This happened in December 1994 and the following year, "padrecito" -- as the women call him -- laid the foundation for Proyecto Samaritanas ["Samaritan Project"].
His mother died when he was a boy. There was a cantina and a transient hotel very close to his house. He was accustomed to greeting the women who sold their bodies daily. One evening, as he was returning to his home, he found a girl lying on the ground with her white dress stained with blood. The image was painful and shocking. He wanted to do something. He thought of studying medicine and thus helping the neediest, like her, but fate steered him toward the priesthood. And so he nurtured the idea of supporting teenagers and women who are in situations of sexual exploitation.
The stories of the sex workers have touched his heart, he says.
He still remembers the story of a 14 year-old girl he talked to the first time on the highway to Masaya. Her head was shaved and she had a handkerchief on her head.
Her story surprised him. "She was supporting her own son, her mother, her three brothers and sisters, and, with a lot of anger, she was supporting her stepfather," the priest remembers. What's unique about his work is that he has maintained human closeness with the girl sex workers.
The stories he has heard don't diverge much. They're repetitive along the road that the priest travels on Wednesdays and Thursdays each week. Today is a Thursday and the four members of Proyecto Samaritanas are ready to undertake the journey. There is bad news: Father Arnaldo won't be able to join them. But the mission must be fulfilled.
"When we get to the centers, they receive us with so much joy it touches the heart. For me, the will to get ahead that's in them is very important," he comments.
For the priest, the project is quite comprehensive, since the women "are not like beneficiaries but agents of their own process." What he's seeking is to "reconstruct" the self-esteem of adolescent girls and women in situations of commercial sexual exploitation. He says he doesn't claim to rescue the women from the world of prostitution. "We can't say that they're taken out of prostitution, because they aren't objects," says the gentleman with a burned out look.
"Yes, they can, they get out, but it's their decision. It doesn't depend on what they want but if the conditions are there," comments the priest who today has put on a white shirt with [the image of] Monseñor Óscar Romero, to whom he used to listen faithfully when he would address the Salvadoran people.
Father Arnaldo hasn't come to see his girls. His health stopped him weeks ago. It's very likely that next week he'll join his project. Today they aren't going to give them chocolates. They will give them condoms, lubricants, advice and blessings -- that's what the priest directs. And one inevitable question has to do with their children.
"It's very important for us to know that they can do for their children," says the priest.
When Proyecto Samaritanas began in 1995, it tasked itself with going around the centers of prostitution in the capital in its truck. It brought chocolates and gospel brochures to the women who spent the night selling their bodies.
Its "via crucis" used to begin on Carretera Norte, pass through Bello Horizonte and then end on the highway to Masaya. That was the route that was designed. But for some time now it has had to add the Military Hospital area.
Something has caught his attention, and it's that there aren't as many sex workers on Carretera Norte as before. "We don't know why," he ponders. The only answer he sees is that they've moved to Mercado Oriental or have gone to other departments in the country.
The project has managed to help women who, according to the priest, live in extreme poverty. "It moves one's heart to see how they live in their homes. They live in very dangerous neighborhoods."
Currently, Proyecto Samaritanas serves more than 220 women and provides social, psychological, medical, legal, and spiritual help to them.
"At the beginning we didn't have a budget, just their trust. But we got people who would give us chocolates and materials about self-esteem," Father Arnaldo states.
He's even come to these women's homes. He knows their families and has had a closer view of the problems that influence prostitution. "Another ingredient is violence," he laments.
This priest is bothered by the way society refers to his "daughters." "Words are deceiving. They call them 'whores', 'fags' [the male prostitutes], and the man, 'client', which is an elegant word." This criticism led him to write a poem titled “¿Cómo las llamas? ¿Prostituta o mujer?” ["What do you call them? Prostitute or woman?"].
¿Cómo la llamas?
¿Prostituta o mujer?
Las llaman “prostitutas”
Los que las prostituyen.
Las llaman “Mujeres de la calle”
Los que las echan de sus casas.
Las llaman “Mujeres de la vida alegre”
Los que ponen su alegría en pisotearlas.
Las llaman “pecadoras”
Los “limpios” fariseos hipócritas.
Las llama “MUJER”
El que las ama,
El que las acoge,
El que no las condena,
El que las perdona.
Las llama Mujer
El que con cariño y cercanía
Las invita a cambiar de vida,
A quererse con “autoestima”
Y a vivir plenamente
Y Tú ¿cómo las llamas?
¿Prostituta o Mujer?
Photos: Fr. Arnaldo Zenteno, SJ; Fr. Arnaldo celebrates Mass on the 15th anniversary of Proyecto Samaritanas; a wall hanging at Proyecto Samaritanas protesting the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents.