An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 5, 2003 - Issue 84
Monkey Business brings Traditional Stories to Life
by Philip Burnham / Correspondent / Indian Country Today
credits: Writer Diego Méndez Guzmán models a jaguar mask at House of the Writer headquarters in San Cristóbal, Mexico. (Photo courtesy Phillip Burnham.)
CRISTÓBAL, Mexico - Under the bright lights of an outdoor basketball
court in the rugged Sierra Madre of southern Mexico, a poor campesino
and his wife gesture in silence. Their hushed words float off like a plume
of wood-smoke in the frigid air at 5,000 feet above sea level. When a
stagehand crawls out and sheepishly passes them a microphone, the world
suddenly comes alive.
audience roars. Its the first night of the annual Maya-Zoque Festival
of Indian arts, held last November in the Chiapan village of Coapilla.
"Workers in the Other World," a tragic-comedy about the high
hopes of Mexican Indian migrants to the United States, is leading the
theater, called Monkey Business, is unconventional and so is their bag
of stories. Tonights audience will see a slice of the American dream
rarely shown north of the Rio Grande: the emigrants story of hardship
is a poor Mayan farmer living in Chiapas. Rumors of big money in the north
turn his head. Ignoring
his grandfathers advice to stay put, he sets off with wife and child
in search of America. Exit stage left.
crafty coyote smuggles them across the border; a racist boss, Don Tomate
(wearing a giant tomato mask), scorns and exploits them; a bungling lawyer
refuses them help because they have no papers. The tedium and fatigue
of fieldwork will finally bring them low.
loooooove you" the coyote teaches the gullible pair, a magic
phrase that will open every door for them in the north, he brags, even
with La Migra. In fact, its about the only English spoken in a play
that takes place, for the most part, in Arizona and Florida.
actors are Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya speakers from San Cristóbal
de las Casas, a hundred miles away. The audience speaks Zoque, an unrelated
Indian tongue. The only language all of them share is Spanish, a second
or third idiom for many, and a "foreign" tongue for the one
million Maya from Mexico and Guatemala estimated to be living in the United
plays end when Tumin dies of AIDS, rowdy burlesque seems to have
given way to low melodrama. For an Indian audience in southern Mexico,
it is hardly an exaggerated - or isolated story.
migrants] abandon their children, their families, their own people in
looking for a better life in the north," says Leticia Méndez
Intzín, an actress in "Workers" and president of House
of the Writer (Sna Jtzibajom), a non-profit cooperative that runs
the ones who tell about the restrictions theyve suffered. They go
to find another world, and they come back and dont recognize their
own culture anymore. They no longer know how to value where they come
where they come from is the business of House of the Writer and its theatrical
arm, Teatro Loil Maxil. The aptly-named Monkey Business Theater
brings the communal ethic of the Maya to village theater, Méndez
Intzín explains from the rooftop of headquarters in San Cristóbal.
plays are written by the 10 members who improvise ideas around popular
issues including emigration, education and womens roles. Over time,
scripts are modified through give-and-take discussions with audiences
in outlying communities. Monkey Business has visited Boston, Milwaukee,
New York, Washington, and played deep into the South to good reviews.
politics play a part in what they do, Monkey Business is a stew of myth,
farce, historic saga, and contemporary soap.
of the Writer was born in 1982 when a group of Maya informants for the
Harvard Chiapas Project, a Harvard-based Native study whose funding was
about to expire, appealed to a group of anthropologists for financial
backing. The next year, Cultural Survival, a non-profit based in Cambridge,
Mass., ponied up $3,000 for a modest Maya-run cultural program in San
groups founding members decided the stage was the best way to reach
a large Native public. But the Monkey Business performers were timid at
first. Some were reluctant to play in their own communities. Not used
to the glare of bright lights, the performers chose hand puppets as a
"safe" medium for meeting the public.
the start they did traditional tales. As their confidence increased, they
dropped the puppets and turned to "conventional" theater under
the leadership of New York stage director Ralph Lee.
was just one problem. While Monkey Business could act with great verve
and skill, their performances were brief. As soon as they struck set and
left town, the stories and tales went with them. They decided they needed
a permanent forum for their message. And their biggest enemy wasnt
television or pop radio or indifferent parents, it was people who didnt
know how to read.
half the native population of Chiapas is illiterate. While many public
schools boast of being "bilingual" (Spanish and a native language)
Méndez Intzín and her colleagues say the claim is flimsy.
1987, House of the Writer established a Native literacy program. Selected
men and women train as teachers in San Cristóbal for two weeks
before going into the communities. The course lasts six months, using
workbooks and texts in Tzotzil and its cousin language, Tzeltal, produced
by House of the Writer. More than 6,000 diplomas have been awarded to
everyone from primary school children to community elders, many barely
literate in Spanish.
Maya reading public has been created from scratch. Twenty years ago, literatures
in Tzotzil and Tzeltal didnt even exist. But with the help of friends
such as Robert Laughlin, curator of Mesoamerican Ethnology at the Smithsonian
Institution, who co-directed the creation of a standardized Tzotzil script,
all that has changed. Today, House of the Writer publishes stories, novels,
workbooks, and Monkey Business plays in one or both languages, usually
with parallel Spanish versions.
result is an uncertain tie to the mother tongue of most Mexicans. Spanish
is the very enemy of diversity in the linguistic controversies of Mexicos
heavily Native states like Chiapas and Oaxaca.
many Monkey Business performances in communities are given in Spanish,
since some performers dont speak all the different Native idioms.
of the Writer is still looking for a steady patron. Since 1983, the non-profit
has depended on foundations (Ford and Oxfam International, to name two),
individual donations, and money from Chiapas state, but gets little federal
backing. As one member puts it, bureaucrats in Mexico City prefer "art,
not politics." Housed in a dim workshop on the Calle Tonalá
off the main city market, Sna Jtzibajom can afford neither a prime
downtown location nor pricey city performance venues.
Cristóbal, a beautiful colonial city of 100,000 has a large Maya
population. Indian people sell flowers, fruit, and chickens in the marketplace.
Children approach tourists with woven belts and Zapatista dolls, tugging
coyly at a strangers sleeve in the main plaza.
young Maya men wield shovels and pickaxes, digging up streets to lay underground
cable to banish unsightly phone wires from colonial neighborhoods. One
hears stories about how Indians doing the grunt work of street construction
today, were forbidden from walking on the same sidewalks of San Cristóbal
not many decades ago.
Guzmán grew up in nearby Tenejapa and is a well-known Chiapas writer,
called by some the first Mexican Mayan novelist. The author of numerous
books of fiction (in Tzeltal), his stories, like those of Monkey Business,
are a weave of ancient legend and raw personal experience.
young people, students from the villages, dont want to recognize
who they are, theyre ashamed by their past. But those of us with
heart and soul go back to the villages," said Guzmán.
of the Writer is for those who come back from the north - and those who
never left in the first place. Books, plays, schoolrooms, videotapes of
ceremonies and prayers - the Maya teachers and actors are using the very
tools that displaced their ancestors or charmed away their children to
resurrect an ancient tradition.
In her native Tzeltal, Méndez Intzín says, "we would like to teach our culture to our children." The words, though soft-sounding, are defiant. Shes currently learning Tzotzil herself, she says, no surprise in a House of many rooms where the line between doing and watching, between teaching and learning, is barely visible.
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