Officially the United Mexican States (Spanish: Estados Unidos Mexicanos), Mexico is a federal republic in North America, bordered on the north by the United States of America and to the south-east by Guatemala and Belize. In Pre-Columbian Mexico, before first contact with Europeans and later the Spanish Empire’s conquest and colonization of the territory from the early 16th century, many cultures flourished in the region, notably the Olmec, the Toltec, the Teotihuacán, the Zapotec, the Maya, the Totonac, the Cholultec, the Huastec, and the Aztec (see Latin America).

Archaeological findings as well as records from chroniclers have shown that Pre-Columbian articulated dolls existed in Mexico since long ago. Proof of this comes in the form of five clay “puppets” from the Olmec culture (1300 BCE), 40 centimetres tall, with articulated limbs and heads, belonging to the Alberto Mejía Barón collection.

Pre-Columbian Figures

The sacred book of the Mayas, the Popol Vuh (“Book of the Community”, “Book of Counsel”, or more literally as “Book of the People”), states that, “the history of the muñecos and men of wood started before the creation of men by the Gods and before the appearance of men of corn on Earth … ” As suggested by Alejandro Jara, a researcher who took a great interest in prehistoric puppets, one can only wonder where the authors of the Popol Vuh found the idea to illustrate their texts with allegories of living, walking and talking “puppets built out of wood”, if not in the images that surrounded them in their daily lives.

The Códice florentino (Florentine Codex), a compilation of Nahuatl texts, assembled by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún during the Spanish conquest and a crucial source of information about the Pre-Columbian indigenous world, mentions an interesting allegorical passage which is at the heart of the myth of puppetry: “Our lord, master of things all around, thinks whatever he wishes, determines whatever he wishes and amuses himself. He holds us in the palm of his hand, he moves us according to his whim like toys and, like marbles, we spin around without direction as he laughs at us.”

For Alejandro Jara, these “objects” mentioned have a direct link to the archaeological findings of articulated clay figures that we can consider as being the oldest puppets found in sites corresponding to the Maya, Totonac, Cholultec, Toltec and Aztec cultures. All these puppets were 6 to 35 centimetres long. Their arms, legs or all their limbs could be moved independently and were attached to their body by natural fibres. Most of the figures retrieved have the characteristics of the Teotihuacán culture, while others have more regional traits (like the smiling articulated figures of the Totonac culture). Only one of these has a hole at the top of its head suggesting a string manipulation from above. These figures also have very varied decorations: earrings, necklaces, tattoos, foot ornaments. Some have loincloths; others are naked with male and female sexual organs clearly defined. Ten of these are on display at the Anahuacalli Museum in Coyoacán, in the south of Mexico City. The Huastec figure, made of whalebone, reminds us of certain statues found in Greek and Roman sites – even though it is older than European figures.

All of these articulated puppets could certainly be manipulated in the palm of the hand. The manuscripts of Father Sahagún state that a type of entertainer existed who would present himself at court with a bag from which he would pull out figurines that he would name before making them dance, jump and sing.

A few years ago in Bilbao (Guatemala), a monolith dating from the Mayan Era was discovered showing, among its figures, a puppeteer (see Guatemala). This important discovery was published in Mexico by the anthropologist Carlos Navarrete who also mentions a sculpted stone from Chinkultic (an ancient Mayan city) in Chiapas, dating from 800 CE, representing a standing character, elegantly adorned, holding in its right forehand a puppet – half-man, half-animal – from which sprout out two “símbolos de la palabra” (symbols of words) as if it were speaking. A few centimetres from him is a character with Mayan traits who looks in awe at this strange figure. This image could be looked at as the representation of a puppeteer or ventriloquist.

When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he was accompanied by two puppeteers, Pedro López and Manuel Rodríguez. We know that Cortés very much liked puppet shows, and other records, one by Cortés himself, attest to the existence of the presence of puppets in the indigenous culture. During the Spanish conquest, however, indigenous puppeteers were considered as idolaters and sorcerers possessed by demons and were forced into hiding from the Spaniards. The Inquisition outlawed puppet shows, as it considered puppeteers to be merely heathens trying to make money by mocking civil and religious authority. Indigenous puppeteers disappeared around 1530.

Colonial Mexico

Theatrical performances were first seen in Mexico around the 1530s with scenes taken from the Annunciation and the Nativity and, during the Corpus Christi celebration, with mysteries such as Adán y Eva, La Tentación del Señor, San Gerónimo y San Francisco (Adam and Eve, The Temptation of Christ, Saint Jerome and Saint Francis) and, performed inside the San José de Naturales Chapel, El Juicio Final (The Last Judgement). In 1569, a certain Spaniard, Juan de Zamora, asked permission from the Municipal Council of Texcoco to present three puppet shows during Lent. His petition assured the Inquisition of the inoffensive and extremely moral character of the proposed performances, and the Viceroy himself, Martín Enríquez de Almanza, gave his agreement in the name of the Inquisition authorities.

It was at the beginning of the 18th century, as the population of New Spain reached one million people, that the arts, literature, theatre, including puppet shows, experienced their splendour. Shows were placed under the watchful eye of the authorities, as shown by an account of a trial of a puppeteer (identified as a “jugadores de manos” hand player in the accusing document) called Antonio Farfán, whose performances were suspected of being “poco cristianas” (not very Christian). Other documents such as solicitation for authorizations, often drafted by municipal clerks – as puppeteers were for the most part illiterate – also reveal strict scrutiny by authorities. Toward the end of the 18th century, using poverty as motivation, women would argue in favour of putting on puppet shows as a means of survival for their family. Puppeteers were often considered as a potential public danger whether in Spain, Argentina or Mexico where a record exists of the corregidor (court officer) Don Bernardo Bonavia y Zapata, who complained of the lack of respect that these entertainers had toward his function and toward the law.

However, despite this hostility, travelling puppeteers crisscrossed towns and villages with their burlesque and extravagant shows and performed during dancing balls, cockfights or bullfights, and in taverns and inns or on the public square when local authorities would allow them to.

The 19th and 20th Centuries

Mexico’s independence in 1810 brought with it a flourishing of the performing arts (circus, dance, and puppetry) and local troupes with their specific characters and stories swarmed the country. The Coliseo became more and more successful while puppet theatre developed as well. Even though still shunned from privileged society and “enlightened” milieus, puppetry remained a popular art imbued with a spirit of protest. In 1818, the puppeteer Fernando Campusano was given a fine of twenty reals due to the insolence of his puppet Don Folías, a very popular and very much Mexican character always surrounded by his entourage, the amorous and angry El Negrito, the barker and narrator Juan Panadero, the wife Procopia, and La Mariquita.

In 1822, a competitor of the Coliseo appeared: El Teatro de Gallos (Rooster Theatre), built in an old enclosure (a palenque), under the direction of the comic Luciano Cortés. In an apathetic political context, his actors, made out of wood and rags, attracted a public who took delight at the jabs taken against the government.

However, the most iconic company in the Mexican history of puppetry, was the Rosete Aranda, founded in 1835. At first only performed during fairs, festival celebrations, and in working-class neighbourhoods, their shows became very famous both internationally and in the country where they play in the most prestigious theatres in the capital. The troupe remained family-run until 1942, when the company was sold to Carlos V. Espinal.  Espinal provided an effective business structure for the company and renamed it Empresa Carlos V. Espinal e Hijos: Compañía Rosete Aranda (Carlos V. Espinal and Sons Enterprise: Rosete Aranda Company). It gave its last performance in 1962. The collection grew to more than 5,000 puppets, some of which are now housed in three institutions – the Museo Rafael Coronel in the state of Zacatecas, the Museo Nacional del Títere – Huamantla (National Puppet Museum in Huamantla), Tlaxcala, and the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts). The puppets represent anonymous and historical people (from Moctezuma to Charlie Chaplin); their costumes and techniques are deemed works of art.

The influence of the Compañía Rosete Aranda on Mexican puppetry of this era was significant. Other companies emerged that continue to operate to this day, such as the Familia Herrrera (Herrrera Family) of Cuernavaca. Another encompasses the puppets of Eleno Flores of Aguascalientes. For over 150 years, now across several generations, this company has been performing in the tradition of the teatro de carpa (tent theatre).

Other artists contributed to the development of Mexican puppet theatre. In 1906, the Catalan Julián Gumi performed at the López Street Casino Alemán (German Casino). His puppets (in the traditional Catalan vein) were similar to the Lyonnais guignol but were different in their structure and manipulation since they were made of one piece with three holes in the wooden trunk, for the index, middle and ring finger; the hands of the figure being controlled by the thumb and little finger. This puppeteer, who used the güijola (a vocal accessory comparable to the swazzle) to mask his voice, was very successful among the neighbourhood children, but his shows lasted only a few years in the new venue of the Orfeó Catalá.

In 1929, there emerged two “teatro guiñol” (glove puppet) groups, the Teatro del Periquillo and La Casa del Estudiante Indígena. Both were directed by Bernardo Ortiz de Montellanos in collaboration with Julio Catellanos and Juan Guerrero.

The last 19th century-style travelling puppeteer was, without doubt, Francisca Cuevas who could still be seen in midtown Madero Street in 1945. More than eighty-years old at the time, this woman would play harmonica with one hand while making two puppets made of cloth dance with each other.

During the first half of the 20th century, another puppeteer dynasty, the Cueto family, took on a fundamental role. In the mid 1930s, several artists and writers congregated around Germán and Lola Cueto. Some of these artists were linked to the Mexican muralist painter movement, among who were Graciela Amador, Elena Huerta, Angelina Beloff, Germán List Arzubide, the muralist painter Julio Castellanos, Juan Guerrero, Roberto Lago, Enrique Assad, Ramón Alva de la Canal and his sister Loló, all of whom were interested in the universe of puppetry for different reasons. From these artists were created the troupes Rin-Rin and Comino (from the same name of the puppet whose character became the most famous of all Mexican theatre puppets), then later, the Nahual troupe. The 1930s performance of Comino vence al Diablo (Comino Triumphs over the Devil), in the presence of the Education Minister, Narciso Basslos, was a decisive moment in the dissemination of Mexican guiñol (glove puppetry) throughout the country.

Two groups were then formed, one lead by Loló Alva de la Canal, and the other by Graciela Amador under the guidance of the Cueto family, but also with the support of the Ministries of Education and Fine Arts. Both groups had support from the Departamento de Bellas Artes (Department of Fine Arts), at the time under the direction of the musician Carlos Chávez, who eventually integrated both groups into his official troupe, Teatro de Guiñol del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (Guiñol Puppet Theatre of the National Institute of Fine Arts). The troupe developed between 1949 and 1955, travelling extensively throughout the country and with several international trips to Venezuela and the United States. Subsequently, other groups, like that of Gilberto Ramírez Alvarado and his famous character Don Ferruco, merged with this movement which expanded thanks to a campaign of literacy and public health conducted all over the country.

During the 1950s, using puppetry, the institute in charge of indigenous affairs  (Instituto de Asuntos Indígenas) launched an educational and health campaign among the Chiapas communities. The participation in this campaign by the theatre professional Marco Antonio Montero and the author Rosario Castellanos, both of whom trained local puppeteers, gave birth to the Teatro Petu (which is the pronunciation of the name Pedro in the Tzotzil language).

Meanwhile, in 1959, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, Pedro Carreón Zazueta founded the Teatro Guiñol of the Universidad Autonoma of Sinaloa (Autonomous University of Sinaola) in 1959. His work with puppets continued until his death in 1999. His efforts spawned many new puppeteers who now populate north-eastern Mexico.

However, with the advent of television, and mostly because of the suspension of educational campaigns in the countryside, puppet theatre significantly declined. This happened despite the efforts of Roberto Lago, who had been part of the original group of supporters at the Ministry of Education. He continued publishing La hoja del titiritero independiente (The Independent Puppeteer Newspaper) until his death and disseminated puppetry through other writings and exhibitions.

Despite the absence of any official home for this art, a renaissance of Mexican puppetry occurred in the 1970s, with many groups using the most varied of techniques. Certain institutions, like the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (Mexican Social Security Institute), used puppeteers to carry out their cultural programme message. This engendered the formation of more troupes, which also caused conflicts between each other because of increased competition.

In 1981, a group of Mexican puppeteers, having returned with new enthusiasm from the XIII International UNIMA Congress held in Washington, DC (1980), decided to establish UNIMA México. Since then, the movement has expanded and new initiatives have been launched. The state government of Tlaxcala created the Museo Nacional del Títere (National Museum of Puppetry) with its research centre in the town of Huamantla. It establishes relationships with similar institutions in other countries and organizes an annual international puppet festival.

Several groups came into view between the 1970s and the mid 1980s. These include the Marionetas de la Esquina, created by Lucio Espíndola who leads his workshops and performs in Mexico since 1977; the Títeres Tiripitipis company, created in 1979; the Gente Teatro de Títeres y Actores, a theatre of puppets and actors created in 1981 by Cecilia Andrés; El Clan del Dragón, founded in 1979 under the direction of Guillermo Murray; and Baúl Teatro (Trunk Theatre), established in 1986 by Elvia Mante and César Tavera. The teacher, educational psychologist and puppeteer, Virgina Ruano y Vargas, has also provided training in puppet manipulation and applications for educational purposes since 1960. For their part, Mireya Cueto and her son Pablo continued in the path created by Germán and Lola with El Tinglado de los Títeres (The Puppet Platform), established in 1980, and Espiral (Spiral) in 1989.

Other notable individuals and troupes of the 1980s and 1990s include Carlos Converso, Argentine-Mexican director of the group Tríangulo (Triangle), which was recognized in 1984 with the Rosete Aranda Award for best puppet production for Pandemonium. Raquel Bárcena created the group La Ventana (The Window) in 1996. Also worth noting is the Centro de Documentación Sobre Teatro para Niños y Títeres (CDTIT, Documentation Centre for Children’s Theatre and Puppetry), established in 1994 and located inside the Museo La Casa de los Títeres (Museum House of Puppets) in Monterrey. Furthermore, since 1998, the magazine on Mexican puppetry, Teokikixtli, has also played a very supportive role.

In recent years, at the behest of the same puppeteers, a number of festivals have been established to spread and popularize the profession. These include (with their year of founding) – Festival Internacional de Títeres de Tlaxcala (International Puppet Festival of Tlaxcala, 1985), Festibaúl Internacional de Títeres de Monterrey (International Puppet Festival of Monterrey, 1993), Festival Pedro Carreón de Sinaloa (1997), Festival de Títeres de Veracruz (Veracruz Puppet Festival, 2000), Festival Titerías D.F. (2003), Festival de San Miguel Allende (2003), Festín de los Muñecos de Guadalajara (Feast of Puppets of Guadalajara, 2005), Festival Internacional de Títeres de Morelia (International Puppet Festival of Morelia, 2009), as well as the festival organized by the Skene de Guanajuato Group. These are among the diverse local initiatives that keep puppetry alive in Mexico.


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