A Central American country, the Republic of Guatemala (Spanish: República de Guatemala) was, for centuries, part of the Mayan civilization that extended across Mesoamerica before the region was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Guatemala’s independence from Spain was declared in 1821 (see Latin America).
Evidence of the use of puppets in the Pre-Hispanic cultures of the Maya and K’iche’ (previous Spanish spelling: Quiché, one of the Maya ethnic groups) is found in the Manuscript of Chichicastenango, also known as the Popol Vuh (The Book of Counsel) or “Mayan Bible”, which was transcribed and translated into Spanish during the early years of the 18th century by the Dominican priest, Father Francisco Ximénez.
Furthermore, the recent discovery of a monolith suggests that the Mayan people used puppets for religious purposes. More than three metres in diameter, the monolith is known by the name “Monument 21” and was discovered in the Mayan region of Bilbao, Guatemala. It presents the figure of a man with a large headdress, a loincloth and a necklace. Both arms are outstretched. In the left hand he holds the figure of a bird with outspread wings. In the right hand of the male figure is a hand (glove) puppet with elaborate clothing. This discovery, of which the Guatemalan anthropologist and writer, Carlos Navarrete Cáceres (b.1931), became aware of in Mexico, is important in the history of the puppet in both Mesoamerican and American civilizations in general.
Ritual games of the ancient religion of the Maya and K’iche’ (Quiché) – in Spanish, palo volador (flying post or mast) and juego de pelota (ball game) – remain an important source of inspiration in Guatemalan folk theatre. Specific adaptations for puppets from stories in the Popol Vuh include (translated into Spanish) Juguemos con el sol, juguemos con la luna (Let’s Play with the Sun, Let’s Play with the Moon) or Los dioses jugadores de pelota (The Gods as Ballplayers). The performances inspired by this text are still very much alive, as evidenced by Los gigantes o La historia (The Giants or History) and El palo volador, a ballet-drama that can be seen in the villages of the Guatemala plateau.
Another type of narrative recital, the perras, is a unique theatrical expression of “creole” Guatemala. In it the perreros, or “storytellers”, use gestures, mime and certain voice and body movements to relate their stories. These players appear at almost anytime and without particular reason and perform for whoever wants to listen to them. In addition, texts from children’s literature, folk tales, and more particularly Guatemalan fables by Fray (Father) Matías de Córdoba, José Domingo Hidalgo, Antonio José de Irisarri, and Simón Bergaña y Villegas were equally read or presented in the schools. Guatemalan writer, Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967, owes a good part of his fame to the rich Mesoamerican culture (Leyendas de Guatemala Legends of Guatemala, 1930, Hombres de maíz Men of Maize, 1949); a number of his texts were adapted for the theatre and for puppets.
Among the Guatemalan troupes performing with puppets today there is Grupo Teatral Centauro (also called Compañía Teatral Centauro), directed by Luis Fernando Juárez (est. 1987), the Grupo Diez Junior (Teatro de Actores), directed by Ricardo Martínez (est. 1991), Compañía de Teatro para Niños Bravo (Teatro de Actores, est. 1992), and Teatro Latino de Guatemala. The Compañía Armadillo, founded in 1998 by Alfredo Bergmann and directed by Guillermo Santillana, focuses on education, dealing with themes such as the rights of children, discrimination, and violence. It also produces workshops designed for the young people of Latin America. Its most recent work is La luna y el sol (The Moon and the Sun, 2002), which is also based on the Popol Vuh.
- García Mejía, René. Teatro guatemalteco. Época indígena [Guatemalan Theatre. Indigenous Epoch]. La Habana: Casa de las Américas y Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Cádiz, 1993.
- Teatro de Muñecos en Hispanoamérica [Puppet Theatre in Latin America]. Bilbao: Centro de Documentación de Títeres de Bilbao/Centro de documentación teatral, 1990; (republished in 1995 and 2001).
- Uriona, Roberto. Juguemos con el sol, juguemos con la luna [Let’s Play with the Sun, Let’s Play with the Moon]. “Telones y Entretelones” series. Buenos Aires: Libros del Quirquincho, 1987.