According to the sacred book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, “the history of puppets and men of wood started before the creation of men by the gods and before the men of corn inhabited the earth”. As Mané Bernardo, Argentine puppeteer and author, stated, “primitive man discovered his dancing shadow on cave walls and was fascinated. Later, he created aesthetic clay figurines, but feeling a need to see them move, he broke them into parts. He articulated the head and members, and his need to express himself compelled him to make them live, to make them represent or transfigure all that his soul was keeping inside and that he imperiously wanted to communicate to the world that surrounded him.”
Alejandro Jara, an expert in prehistoric puppets, asked the question: “Where did the authors of the Popol Vuh find the idea to illustrate their texts with allegories of ‘living, walking and talking puppets built out of wood’ if not from the images that surrounded them in their daily lives?” The history of Pre-Columbian American puppets makes us assume that these inhabitants were profoundly marked by animist beliefs and man forged links with his divinities through certain rituals in which the puppet sometimes took an important role. Several Native American civilizations, Aztec, “from Teotihuacán”, Maya, Inca, Arawak, Amazonian, Calchaquí (Argentina), indigenous peoples from the Pacific shore and Native North Americans, dominated the manufacturing and manipulation techniques of puppetry (see Native American Puppetry). Many articulated figurines with holes in their heads, either string puppets or glove puppets made of clay, rock, wood or other materials, were found in different sites and among different people.
The Códice Florentino (Florentine Codex, 1577) is a compilation of Spanish and Nahuatl texts assembled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1500-1590) during the Spanish conquest of the Americas and considered a crucial source of information about pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples. It refers directly to the religious and profane function of the puppeteer. One of these texts mentions a type of entertainer who “makes the gods appear, jump and play” and holds “in the palm of his hand, an object that he can manipulate to move or dance, creating amusement or wonder in the spectator”. One of these objects, called muchachuelo, is directly linked to articulated clay figures found in certain archaeological sites. Alberto Mejia Barón owns an important collection with a particular Olmec puppet dating from 1300 BCE given to him by a sorcerer who used it during healing sessions. This figure is entirely articulated including the mouth and the tongue. Other articulated clay statuettes have been found dating from the 4th century CE that were 35 centimetres high with arms and/or legs independent of the body but attached to it by natural fibres, giving them a certain mobility.
Most of the figures discovered in Mexico have typical characteristics of the “Teotihuacán” culture with, nevertheless, local variations. Their ornamentation is very diverse. Some have earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants and tattoos. Others have foot ornaments. Aside from the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs, other lesser known civilizations revealed important findings like those of the San Agustín civilization in the Magdalena River Valley in Colombia. Archaeological findings show that this civilization flourished starting from the 6th century BCE. Its sculptures in the form of monoliths reveal the existence of rites during which masks and animated objects were used. Later, the Quimbayas created articulated figurines made of gold and representing fantastic beings.
In El Salvador, small, mostly female sculptures that could be considered puppets have been unearthed. These “Bolinas figurines”, discovered in the 1950s by the archaeologist Stanley Boggs, belong to the pre-classical period and were determined to be associated with the Olmec civilization according to Roberto Gallardo. Their function remains a mystery and their craftsmanship suggests that a small string could have been used to manipulate their arms.
With the arrival of Europeans in Latin America, traditional native cultures merged with those of African, as well as European, people and a number of indigenous cultural elements were destroyed. In Mexico, for example, the Inquisition forbade “pagan” exhibitions, causing the demise of indigenous puppetry. However, some native populations were able to preserve their traditions by hiding from colonizers.
During the time of colonization, puppets contributed to the propagation of the Catholic doctrine. Franciscans as well as other religious orders used puppetry in their depictions of pastorals and mysteries (autosacramentales) that were, in fact, well received by the indigenous populations. This custom then spread from country to country in the region.
However, the Catholic Church was unable to completely eradicate popular puppet shows which consisted of mostly burlesque-style short plays with accompanying guitar music, performed in taverns, courtyards or public squares. Most of the puppeteers constructed their own puppets to make them look Spanish, copying their traits and costumes, and mimicking their behaviour. These travelling entertainers went from village to village with their portable puppet stage. Their satirical and critical tone, aimed at the Spanish colonizers, reflected a social discontent and was taken up in countries like Mexico and Chile, perpetuating this rebellious tradition over time. Several centuries later in 1940 Mexico, the creation of the character Don Ferruco by Gilberto Ramírez Alvarado (1910-1990) served as anti-fascist propaganda. In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, from the 17th century and during the entire 18th century, these puppeteers and entertainers travelled throughout these countries with their trestles, but the distrustful authorities would refuse them access to theatres. For a long period of time, performing in a theatre was reserved for foreign artists, initially from Spain and Italy. One of the very first puppeteers who obtained permission to perform in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil during the second half of the 18th century was the Spaniard Joaquín Olaez y Gacitúa (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers). Meanwhile, the first theatres showing automata, some inspired by the Spanish máquinas reales, sprang up starting from the 18th century in countries like Argentina, Mexico and Cuba.
National Genres and Characters
From the 19th and throughout the 20th century, very popular national characters appeared. In Mexico, Don Folías (1828) was a puppet whose neck and nose would elongate as it became angrier. In Uruguay, Misericordia Campana (1840) became a kind of national hero, characterized by the capoeira or head butts it would give during arguments. In Chile, Cristobito and Mamá Laucha were popular, even as they shed their Spanish origins and assumed Chilean traits. These emblematic puppet theatre characters also included João Minhoca (1882, Brazil) a small, very clever black man, who arrived on the scene during a diversification of the society of that time. In 1914, Sergio Londoño Orozco (1880-1944), one of Colombia’s most representative and best known puppeteers, created Manuelucho Sepúlveda. Cuba’s Pelusin del Monte was created in 1956 by Dora Alonso (1910-2001), a novelist and prominent figure in children’s literature.
Among the important popular puppet traditions, Brazil stands out from all other Latin American countries by its mamulengo, a genre still alive today, even though in danger of disappearance. Based on improvisation with a constant exchange between puppeteers and the public, it is characterized by a very important role of music as well as social criticism in its dialogue. Other ancient popular traditions have also survived in Latin America, in particular the processions of “big heads” and giant puppets, coming from colonial religious ceremonies, like Corpus Christi. These can still be found in Brazil and at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the visit of the famous Italian marionette (string puppet) troupe Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca to several Latin American countries created a great stir. Subsequently some of the pupari (Sicilian pupi showmen) settled in Argentina in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca. In Mexico, the marionette puppet company Rosete Aranda was active during most of one full century from 1835 to 1942.
However, it was glove puppetry that was preferred by the most representative of puppeteers. This type of puppetry was particularly useful in educational situations. In this respect, Cuba was the country that most developed this educational function, starting from the 1959 revolution, when the government supported the creation of several permanent puppet troupes. Other countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and especially Venezuela incorporated puppetry arts in their university curriculum.
The 1950s witnessed the most significant theatre puppetry artists in Latin America. In Mexico, the teacher Roberto Lago (1903-1995), co-founder of the Teatro Guignol which operated between the end of the 1940s and the mid 1950s, created the Grupo El Nahual with Lola Cueto (1897-1978). Lago proved a great influence not only in his country but also in Venezuela. Aside from his research work on the origins of Mexican puppetry, he was one of the great dramaturges of children’s theatre. His newspaper, La Hoja del titiritero independiente (The Independent Puppeteer Newspaper) was a benchmark and brought many Latin American and worldwide puppeteers into contact. Mexico was one of the countries that distinguished itself by using puppetry for literary campaigns in which the character of Don Ferruco, created by Gilberto Ramirez Alvarado, played a vital role.
The Argentines Mané Bernardo (1913-1991) and Sarah Bianchi (1922-2010) were also fundamental to the promotion of puppetry arts in Latin America, travelling to the most remote regions in Argentina and other countries. Works created by Mané Bernardo are highly respected and studied in universities while her student and friend Sarah Bianchi’s work to this day remains a reference for many puppeteers.
The itinerant tradition is mostly represented by Javier Villafañe (1909-1996), who travelled the entire sub-continent with his cart, contributing to the development of puppetry arts through his shows, conferences and workshops, especially in Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile. He also left an important repertoire, and his La Calle de los Fantasmas (The Street of Ghosts) has been regularly performed for many years by several troupes.
The Contemporary Scene
A large number of troupes currently in existence were created in the 1970s. After years of experimentation, these groups have now come together in the search for a specific aesthetic language beyond the varied techniques of manipulation. In fact, during the 1990s puppet theatre gained strength across Latin America. In addition to traditional glove puppetry, other techniques – rod puppetry, string puppetry, shadow theatre, black (light) theatre, mixed techniques, visible manipulation, object theatre, tabletop puppetry – are now being explored. Actors, objects, puppets, music and dance intermingle in current trends in Europe and the United States. Another technique in vogue is “las cajas misteriosas” (mysterious boxes) where the spectator views a short performance through a peephole. The pioneers in this domain are Mariana Frare in Rosario, Argentina, Mónica Simões in Brazil, and the Baúl Teatro in Monterrey, Mexico. New companies of puppeteer-storytellers, like Las Mentirosas in Mexico and Zaguán in Chile, have revisited and incorporated in their work ancient traditions from Guatemala and Honduras called perras.
Puppetry is also being used to a greater extent in the field of therapy, for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, muscular illness or bone disease, and is especially practised in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile (see Society and Puppets – Social Applications of Puppetry).
Aside from festivals, a number of museums are helping popularize local puppet traditions. In Argentina, the Museo Argentino del Títere was created in Buenos Aires by Mané Bernardo and Sarah Bianchi. Meanwhile, another museum was created in La Plata by Moneo Sanz. In Brazil, there are the Museu do Mamulengo, the Museu Giramundo created at Belo Horizonte in 2001, and the Museum of Popular/Folk Art, Museu Casa do Pontal, situated in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In Mexico, there are the Museo Nacional del Títere – Huamantla, the Museo-Teatro La Casa de los Títeres de Baúl Teatro in Monterrey, the Museo Rafael Coronel at Zacatecas, and the Museo del Títere de Querétaro (Puppet Museum of the State of Querétaro). In Uruguay, the Museo Vivo del Títere (Living Museum of Puppetry) can be found in Maldonado. In Chile, there is the travelling exhibits of the Fundación para la Dignificación del Teatro de Muñecos (FAMADIT). Venezuela has the private Títeres Artesanales del Mundo (Puppet Craft World) belonging to Norma R. Bracho. Forum and sites are increasingly being devoted to puppetry, especially in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
In whatever form, the art of puppetry in Latin America is alive and well with no hint of disappearing anytime soon.