From the Mouths of Puppets

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David Lauer
The Indigenous Theatre Company performs in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

It can be tough for young people to get the attention of their elders–but there’s nothing like dressing up as a giant bird on stilts to turn their heads and open their ears. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, a puppet-theater troupe allows indigenous youth to speak out on matters that are traditionally the province of elders, reports Resurgence (May-June 2010).

The youth are Tarahumaran Indians, who live in a remote and wild part of central northern Mexico. As in many traditional cultures, they don’t have much of a say in community affairs: “The elders ‘transmit’ sacred, cultural wisdom and exercise power, but the conversation is mostly one-way,” writes Resurgence. “Yet it is young people who hold the key to the future, possess new knowledge, and face challenges that their elders may not fully appreciate.”

The Indigenous Theatre Company, an eight-year-old project overseen by the nonprofit aid group the Community Technical Consultancy, has helped ease this generation and communication gap. The company’s youth puppeteers travel long distances to gather and work collectively, writing scripts and songs and constructing puppets–sometimes hand puppets, sometimes “huge, colorful, cardboard machinations”–from reused materials such as cardboard, old sheets, and house paint. * Their work touches on issues such as migration, genetically modified corn, seed and forest conservation, community problems, regional myths, “exemplary lives and others less so.” The scenes they create in their outdoor performances are as vivid as they are memorable: “Colorful deities on stilts strut through snow-dusted forests, cardboard horses lurch from between boulders, and graceful cranes cross windswept plains.”

Tens of thousands of Tarahumarans live in small, poor towns amid environmentally destructive logging and mining operations, depending on subsistence agriculture for survival. The puppet troupes give the youth in these communities not just an artistic and social outlet, but also a healthy boost of self-esteem: “Through the auspices of the puppets, they can express concerns and viewpoints they may not otherwise have the confidence to raise and, since the puppeteers travel to other communities with their plays, they also see more of the world, helping to conquer shyness and to affirm themselves as builders of their own destinies.”

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