The Republic of El Salvador (Spanish: República de El Salvador), in Central America, is bordered by Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean. Prior to European exploration followed by Spanish colonization of the Americas in the early 16th century, El Salvador was inhabited by a number of sophisticated Mesoamerican nations, predominantly the Cuzcatlecs as well as the Lenca and Maya. El Salvador declared its independence from Spain in 1821 (see Latin America).
The history of puppet theatre in El Salvador is currently going through a period of growth and innovation. We can find traces of its origins in the Popol Vuh (The Book of Counsel), the ancient Maya-Quiché (K’iche’) “Bible”, where there is evidence of animated figures associated with magical and religious ceremonies. The Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA) in the nation’s capital San Salvador houses a room dedicated to a collection of pre-classical art that includes articulated dolls which had been excavated from ruins on the Finca Bolinas, a plantation near Chalchuapa, in the province of Santa Ana.
El Salvador is a country with a strong Catholic influence that has gone through a process of cultural syncretism mixing local indigenous traditions and Spanish forms, which is expressed particularly in the figure of “The Lost Child” (Luke, 2, 41-50, in which Jesus stays behind in the temple in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph go searching for him, believing he is lost). This story was performed with “bultos”, a popular expression which refers to three-dimensional carved wooden images; in the performance they represent Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus and are alternated with human actors. The journal Vereda noted that: “In almost every village throughout the country, there is always someone who (almost like a god-given task) takes on the role of keeping up local traditions. They are responsible for the ‘pastorela’, the ‘moros y cristianos’, or any other traditional performance.” (The pastorela and moros y cristianos are ritual dances and dramatic performances associated with Catholic ritual, and the victory of Good over Evil.) The same text also comments that: “The staging, the songs, dance steps of the aforementioned performances are learnt by heart; but the text is contained in yellowed manuscripts which are believed to be original …guarded zealously in ancient chests.” The local inhabitants gather together for these performances and to hear from the actors’ lips prophecies and ancient stories.
The article continues: “Among these local people there was a so-called Don Chico Rugama, from Berlín, in the south of El Salvador, who is known to have performed the Nativity story with puppets over the Christmas period approximately forty years ago.” Another mention of puppets talks of a Don César who was a puppeteer in Sensuntepque in the Cabañas department of El Salvador during the 1950s; his puppet characters included the Devil and “Uncle Zope”.
The puppeteer José Oscar Miguel Escobar was associated with a puppet theatre called Alma Salvadoreña (Spirit of El Salvador) which performed stories of characters including the devil, the drunkard, the priest, the policeman, and so on. The operators, hidden behind a black drape, used a swazzle which they made from the leaf of a tree; this rudimentary instrument added humour to the timbre of the puppet’s voice. This company toured the whole country, going from fair to fair.
Training, Puppeteers and Companies
Training courses, in particular those organized by the Escuela Normal de El Salvador, also ensured that puppetry skills were passed on through workshops. This school also encouraged the development of a library of works dedicated to puppetry, drawing for example on the following books: Teatro Mejicano de Muñecos (Mexican Puppet Theatre) and El Teatro de Títeres en la Escuela (Puppet Theatre in Schools). A number of groups were set up and adapted tales from the book, Los animales hablan (The Animals Speak), by the Argentine poet and writer Alvaro Yunque.
During the 1960s, a number of puppeteers emerged as artistic leaders and teachers; small theatres were built and there was a surge of puppetry activity in schools and within communities around the whole country. In 1964, the Teatro Nacional de San Salvador welcomed a Sicilian pupi company during their first tour in the country.
During the 1970s, a number of notable companies were set up, including Teatro de la Ranita (Little Frog Theatre), led by Roberto Franco, a Bachelor of Arts graduate from the Centro Nacional de Artes, who after discovering the Picolo Teatro founded by Paco Campos, later formed the Teatro Guiñol Universitario (University Puppet Theatre) at the University of El Salvador. During this period the Argentine puppeteer Sergio Kristiensen visited the country where he met Roberto Franco; these two developed a programme of development and extension for puppet theatre through shows and workshops under the banner of El Pequeño Molino (The Little Mill).
Between 1980 and 1981, the extra-mural department of the University of El Salvador, the Secretaría de Extensión Universitaria, organized training courses in puppet theatre and became the most important body in the development of work in marginalized areas. Among the works produced during these years by El Pequeño Molino, mention must be made to El pícaro burlado (The Mocked Rogue) by Argentine writer Javier Villafañe and Mariluna y el Pirata (Mariluna and the Pirate). The company Bululú also organized courses and workshops with the support of the university, Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas.
In 1980, the Ocelot Teatro was founded under the direction of Jorge Amaya. One of its most notable works was the adaptation of the ancient Popol Vuh and the Maya civilization, produced as shadow theatre and music. In the same spirit of rediscovery of indigenous roots, the troupe presented Somos Maíz (We Are Corn).
In 1983, the Salvadorian Association of Workers of Art and Culture – Asociación Salvadoreña de Trabajadores del Arte y la Cultura (ASTAC) – was set up by fourteen founding groups (theatres and companies); it included three puppetry companies: Cipitín, Pequebú, and Los Ruiseñores, plus two other groups which combined puppetry with live theatre: Bululú and Calabaza.
On the death of his friend Roberto Franco, the puppeteer Narciso de la Cruz, called “Chicho”, continued the work of the master, scouring the villages with his puppets and stories.
Puppet theatre in El Salvador may seem humble, but it also surprises with its creativity. Puppeteers, who are often self-taught, continue to appear, surviving by sharing their stories with children in their communities, by showing their works, perhaps sporadically, thus demonstrating that they have faith in their art. Among these we must mention Eduardo Saravia, Óscar Flores, Francisco Ramos, Juan Paredes, Alejandro Jovel, Rolando González, Jorge Gámez, Mariano Espinoza. Finally, José Amaya, a student of Roberto Franco and companion of “Chicho”, has returned to El Salvador after several years touring the Americas and Europe.
In 1994, the Centro de Documentación Teatral was opened in San Salvador, which includes an important collection of original masks from this region.