Un Tren Llamado Esperanza: Mario Bencastro Visits Sacred Heart School with a Message About Hope
By Cierra Kaler-Jones
“It is a train called ‘Hope’ that crosses the planet freely, uniting children and mothers, carrying and bringing happiness that all children hope for.”
“Pienso llamarlo Esperanza porque correrá libre por el planeta uniendo hijos y madres llevando y trayendo la dicha que todos los niños soñamos.”
—Mario Bencastro, Un Tren Llamado Esperanza
As middle school students entered the auditorium at Sacred Heart School on May 8, they beamed when they saw Salvadoran novelist and painter, Mario Bencastro, sitting in the front row. Students diligently prepared for this momentous occasion by studying Bencastro’s work, focusing on his poem, Un Tren Llamado Esperanza. The event started with teacher Carlos Parada giving a brief introduction of Bencastro’s and Casa El Salvador’s work promoting culture and literature in the D.C. area. Born in El Salvador, Bencastro currently resides in Florida and has written several books for young adults.
Students created giant Nicaraguan puppets to welcome the author with the help of Gregory Landrigan. The puppets represented La Gigantona and El Cabezón, the Nicaraguans' caricatures of their colonial past. La Gigantona represents Spain and the short, dark-skinned male puppet with a very large head represents the Nicaraguans — which is meant to symbolize the intelligence Nicaraguan natives needed to outwit Spain and gain independence.
The students made the puppets in their classrooms, which was led by Parada and math teacher, Joanna Slinkert. The Gigantona's structure was used to teach geometry and introduce the students to the Pythagorean Theorem since her internal structure is composed of a set of triangles. El Cabezón's head was used to study the features of spheres. In Nicaragua, the playful couple is accompanied by a cohort of dancers — one of whom is a coplero or an improviser of verse.
After the introduction, middle school language arts teacher Kristen Kullberg invited the audience to engage in a Gallery Walk of student artwork and to:
Let your minds wander. Let yourself have a quiet space to record your connections and wonders.
The center of the auditorium was lined with chairs where student artwork adorned each seat. There were artistic reflections of Bencastro’s poem, including portraits of trains, sunsets, and silhouettes of faces. The art symbolized student reactions, thoughts, and expressions of what the poem resembled for them. The Gallery Walk gave students the space to be able to view each picture and write their thoughts on post-it notes. They not only engaged with the art, but with each other through the post-it responses.
Once everyone returned to their original seats, a group of students stood at the front and recited Bencastro’s poem. The poem weaves together a beautiful narrative about a toy train the main character received as a gift from his mother. He compared the toy with the train he had to take to cross the border to reunite with family. This train carried hundreds of children that took a long, arduous journey to rejoin family members. He calls the train hope because of its promise of children’s dreams of reunification.
Science teacher Riana Fisher led the question and answer portion. Students had questions prepared on notecards for Bencastro. Some of the questions included:
How do you feel about your poem?
Why is the train called hope?
Who and what is your inspiration?
As Bencastro answered in Spanish, he engaged the students with his dynamic and inspiring message about hope and the power of dreaming. He discussed how he presented his hope in the poem because hope is a strong force. He replied to the students’ overall questions:
You captured the essence of the poem. It’s trying to represent the power of good and evil. Hope is a balance of all the things that exist in the world.
Bencastro then read another one of his poems, a rap, which shared the experience of El Salvadorans that felt exploited. They resolved to keep working, despite the adversity and ill-treatment they received from their employers, and eventually became wealthy. The poem is told in El Salvadoran slang and Bencastro code switches between English and Spanish throughout the verses. The poem received a lot of reactions from the students from roaring laughter to amazement to expressing a sense of connection with the words.
Before the program ended, Shenelle Sanoir gave students a prompt to reflect, “I used to think ______, now I think ______.” Long strips of paper were rolled out onto the floor, which had the front and the back of the train depicted on it. In the spaces, students answered the prompt in both written form and through a drawing. Many of them wrote about how the train is a metaphor for hope — a journey moving in a forward direction towards a promise for something greater.
One student, as they packed up to return to their classes for the day, ran over to Bencastro to give him a small, yellow post-it. On the post-it was an intricate portrait of a train. Bencastro placed it on the front page of his black notebook and proudly showed it to all of the teachers in attendance. His message seemed to resonate profoundly with students and the connections he built with students in the room created an environment where students were able to share their dreams and hopes for the future.
More Photos from Event
Cierra Kaler-Jones is the Education Anew Fellow with Communities for Just Schools Fund and Teaching for Change. She is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park studying minority and urban education.