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Monkey Business Theatre

Monkey Business Theatre

A history of and collection of translated plays from Mexico's most renowned Mayan theatre group.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

June 2008
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351 pages | 6 x 9 | 35 halftones, 2 maps |

In 1983, a group of citizens in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, formed Sna Jtz'ibajom, the Tzotzil-Tzeltal Maya writers' cooperative. In the two decades since, this group has evolved from writing and publishing bilingual booklets to writing and performing plays that have earned them national and international renown.

Anthropologist Robert M. Laughlin has been a part of the group since its beginnings, and he offers a unique perspective on its development as a Mayan cultural force. The Monkey Business Theatre, or Teatro Lo'il Maxil, as this branch of Sna Jtz'ibajom calls itself, has presented plays in virtually every corner of the state of Chiapas, as well as in Mexico City, Guatemala, Honduras, Canada, and in many museums and universities in the United States. It has presented to the world, for the first time in drama, a view of the culture of the Mayas of Chiapas.

In this work, Laughlin presents a translation of twelve of the plays created by Sna Jtz'ibajom, along with an introduction for each. Half of the plays are based on myths and half on the social, political, and economic problems that have confronted—and continue to confront—the Mayas of Chiapas.

  • Foreword: The Visitors' Question (by Carter Wilson)
  • Preface: Recollections of a Ghost (by Ralph Lee)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Pronunciation and Translation
  • 1. Looking Back, Looking Forward: In the Beginning
  • 2. Febrero Loco: A Live Theatre in the Making
  • 3. The Theatre on the Road: The Great Adventure
  • 4. Personal and Social Impacts
  • 5. The Immokalee Special: Social Action in Florida
  • 6. The Future
  • The Plays
    • The Loafer and the Buzzard
    • Who Believes in Spooks?
    • Deadly Inheritance
    • Jaguar Dynasty
    • Let's Go to Paradise!
    • From All for All
    • Torches for a New Dawn
    • The Story of Our Roots
    • Workers in the Other World
    • When Corn Was Born
    • Mexico with Us Forever!
    • The World Turned on Its Head
  • Appendix 1: Individuals Referred to in the Text
  • Appendix 2: Members and Former Members of Sna Jtz'ibajom
  • Appendix 3: Length of Service
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Robert M. Laughlin is Curator Emeritus of Meso-american ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Sna Jtz'ibajom is a Mayan writers' cooperative based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.


When I first landed in the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, in 1957 as a graduate student in anthropology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City, I never dreamt I would spend the rest of my life exploring Tzotzil Mayan culture. Transferring to Harvard University, I began my fieldwork in Zinacantán, accompanied by my wife, Mimi. The first task was to learn Tzotzil. We became the house guests of a young man, Domingo de la Torre (Romin Teratol in Tzotzil), a puppeteer whom I had met the year before at the National Indian Institute. He agreed to be my teacher, enabling me to collect myths and tales, and a year later, dreams (Laughlin 1977, 1976). In 1963 Domingo and his next door neighbor, Anselmo Pérez Pérez (Antzelmo Péres Péres), were my chief collaborators in compiling an English-Tzotzil, Tzotzil-English dictionary. As part of this project, they accompanied me on two visits to the United States in 1963 and 1967. In that capacity, they produced the first Mayan descriptions of the United States, appearing in Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax (1980). The publication of The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán (1975), with its 30,000 entries, was then the most comprehensive dictionary of a New World language. This gave me particular satisfaction because ever since I had entered Mexico, I had heard all Indian languages referred to as dialectos—mere dialects.

In 1982 my life took a new turn. I became, to my surprise, an advocacy anthropologist. It happened that I was codirector of a conference in San Cristóbal, "Forty Years of Anthropological Research in Chiapas." Earlier, three ex-members of the Harvard Chiapas Project—Antzelmo; Romin's son, Xun, of Zinacantán; and Maryan Kalixto of Chamula—had asked for my help in creating a Tzotzil-Tzeltal Mayan cultural association. I urged them to speak to the participants of this meeting to plead their cause.

The complaint was one often heard by foreign researchers: that they extract their data like miners extract ore, cart it away for processing elsewhere and leave nothing behind. "You have awakened our interest in our culture," the informants told the scientists. "You have published many studies, but always in other countries where we never see the results. . . . We would like at least to put on paper our customs for the sake of our children and grandchildren." (Breslin 1994, 80)

Cultural Survival responded with a grant of $3,000 seed money, and so was born Sna Jtz'ibajom, as it is called in Tzotzil and Tzeltal: The House of the Writer.

With the title of literary coordinator of the cooperative, I have served as a sort of impresario, seeking funds outside of Mexico, arranging international theatre tours, and serving as introducer and moderator on tours to the United States. Being a cofounder of Sna Jtz'ibajom, and its oldest member, when in Chiapas I participate in the association's meetings, offer advice, and make corrections in the spelling of the Tzotzil texts. Previously, together with Ralph Lee, I was intimately involved in the creation of the plays regarding the script, casting, costuming, and so on.

In 1985 the members had been writing and publishing bilingual booklets for three years. The booklets were designed so that each Tzotzil or Tzeltal paragraph was matched on the facing page with the Spanish translation. But we soon learned that if the books were read at all, it was only in Spanish. The school system, not bothering to teach literacy in the native languages, had encouraged an ignorance and disdain of them that was difficult to surmount. Spanish was the language of civilized people; why bother with the other?

It occurred to me that perhaps we could gain a readership if we had puppets to project the folktales in the booklets. It was a vain thought (we added no readers), but our puppet theatre gave Sna a new face. I made this decision knowing that twenty-five years before, the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (the National Indian Institute), with the aid of the novelist Rosario Castellanos, had introduced puppet theatre to "civilize" the Indians. Despite its popularity, it conferred no prestige on the Indian puppeteers, whose communities had no history of staged performance. All that we would call "theatre" occurred in religious celebrations of saints' days and Carnival in which the performers were religious officials whose scripts had been handed down orally for generations. Although many of these performances traced the histories of the towns, there were no Mayan dramas of war and sacrifice, such as the Rabinal Achí (also known as the Dance of the Trumpets), which has survived for hundreds of years in Guatemala (Tedlock 2003).

To initiate this experiment, we hired Amy Trompetter of the Bread and Puppet Theatre to give us a two week workshop. For Amy it was a frustrating affair. The actors did not want to parade around with giant puppets. They did not want to be seen. Amy persevered, showing them how to make papier-mâché hand puppets, how to put them in motion, and how to make a portable theatre.

To her distress, the first skit they chose to perform was a folktale that tells of a newlywed whose wife's head mysteriously disappears at night to eat corpses. But Amy succeeded. In two weeks they were on the road, after naming the theatre Teatro Lo'il Maxil, literally Monkey Talk Theatre, but which I have named in English the Monkey Business Theatre. Now, performing for the first time, the actors cowered behind the curtain. They were so nervous, cramped in the enclosed space, that their bodies became soaked with sweat. They chugalugged cane liquor to give them the courage to open their mouths, to sweep away their embarrassment. Chavela recalls, "I had no idea of how to move my hands, my voice, all that! They tried to teach me, but my hands grew stiff" (Laughlin 1991/1992, 45). Antzelmo, a highly respected shaman, not only did not wish to be seen in his community in the role of a puppeteer, but he did not even want his voice to be heard and recognized. The members limited their participation to showings in towns where they were not known.

However, Manvel remembers of the puppet theatre, "While you are acting with the puppets you feel as if that puppet were you yourself, you have fun; if the public responds to you and you give them some advice or you make them laugh or scare them you feel at ease, very pleased, just like the people" (Pérez Hérnandez 1992).

But the personalities of the puppets became an integral part of our society. When a representative of the Inter-American Foundation came to inspect our project, the troupe provided her with "an unorthodox profile" of its members, drawing on the characters of a tale in which Zinacantec merchants are castrated by the Guatemalans and then saved by a team of animals and natural forces:

MARYAN: Thunderbolt, who makes so much noise, but is, indeed, the strongest leader

ANTZELMO: Whirlwind, who rushes around to make sure that everything is in order

XUN: Fog, who approaches each problem from every conceivable angle until we are so befogged that we always accept his solution as being the best

XAP: Hawk, who dives down, knocking us aside to do what he knows is right

MATYO: Blowfly, who eagerly tackles all the dirty jobs, washes his hands clean, and cheerfully begins again

TZIAK: Butterfly, who glides about silently, observing everything, and then keeps us well-informed

The puppeteers write the dialogue in Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Spanish and learn the lines by heart, but there is tremendous liberty, creative invention, and improvisation when the puppets are in action. Some of the puppeteers are adept at including the public by having the puppet direct questions to them. And at the end of the performance, a puppet demands that the public clap hands.

In the beginning, presentations of the Theatre in the communities required the approval of the civil officials and cooperation from the schoolteachers, who often provided benches for the audience and announced the Theatre's arrival over their loudspeaker. Before long, the troupe had gained such popularity that it was receiving fifteen to twenty invitations a month. Generally, the stage is set up at the courthouse door or what in many communities is the social center of the town: the cement basketball court. The children sit or stand in front, behind them the men, and in the rear, the women, sometimes on school benches. For a time, the puppet theatre became a basic ingredient of school holidays. The children's "folk dances" and the daylong basketball tournament would be followed by the puppet theatre, often in very remote hamlets that could only be reached on foot (Laughlin 1999, 495-496).

The puppet theatre had its first performance in San Andrés Larraínzar, then in four other Tzotzil towns, three Tzeltal towns, and San Cristóbal. That same year Xun and Antzelmo traveled to the United States to perform as puppeteers at Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, and in a Newark ghetto garage. At SUNY, where all the students were lying around in their bathing suits on the first warm day of the year, we all saw our first ATM. Antzelmo wondered how the man could fit in such a confined space to be pushing out the dollars to us.

The year 1987 was a prosperous one for Mexico. Accordingly, we performed not only at traditional fiestas and graduations, but also at the inauguration of new schools, clinics, and town water systems. The Theatre's repertory expanded beyond folktales to include didactic spoofs of alcoholism and Western versus herbal medicine. Performances in Jalapa and Mexico City followed three productions at the K'inal Winik festival at Cleveland State University, where the mythic Long-Haired Devil skit accompanied the historical Battle of Chamula, and the didactic exposure of the disaster of bilingual education.

A popular puppet piece was The Devil Priest,

based on a timeless folktale from Zinacantán which recounts how a village priest made use of numerous tricks to seduce local women. The priest is presented not as a mere human gone astray, but rather as an incarnation of the devil, thus providing insight into Indian attitudes regarding the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church; those who have committed moral transgressions have therefore earned the dubious distinction of having passed into the oral tradition. Laughlin observes that "the Zinacantec does not bear fools or priests lightly. . . . Here the vagaries of priests, their amorous adventures, are the subject not of humor (as in similar Spanish stories), but outrage." (Frischmann 1991, 122)

By 1989 the puppeteers had become so skilled that in Austin, Texas, in a skit involving a Tojolabal shaman, Antun invented his version of the Tojolabal language with no American in the audience realizing it was pure gibberish. In addition to the skits mentioned above, they now wanted to address social issues comprehensively, so they dealt with (1) family planning, (2) deforestation and wildlife depredation, (3) racism, (4) indentured labor, and (5) land rights, especially of women.

The future of the Monkey Business Theatre was decided by an unexpected event in 1987 at the ninth Taller de Lingüistica Maya in Antigua, Guatemala, where the members of Sna, together with Guatemalan Mayas, decided upon a standard alphabet for all the Mayan languages.

After our puppetry was roundly applauded, Nicholas Hopkins and Kathryn Josserand shoved a stack of papers at us, saying that this was a Ch'ol folktale and that the puppeteers had performed so well they should act out the tale the next day. The Indians' response was "How dare they?" As we ate our lunch in the market, our one mestizo member [Palas] enthusiastically read with determination a synopsis of the folktale, but no one would listen, as they called for basket after basket of the tiny Guatemalan tortillas. Retiring to the hotel room, he began to read the story. Soon the puppeteers were sitting up, listening to the dialogue, and when he got on the floor and demonstrated the paddling of a canoe, everyone became a paddler. They learned the lines, acted out their parts, giving the role of Thunderbolt to the senior member, who threatened to act his part naked unless he were given some cane liquor first. Lacking a woman performer, Matyo was chosen to be Frog, wearing a green dress. They decided I should be the Crocodile and rolled me up in blue plastic sheeting, instructing me to take a bite out of Antzelmo, the Thunderbolt's leg. It was the memory of this performance that a year later bolstered the puppeteers' confidence enough that they considered becoming actors in live theatre. (Laughlin 1999, 496)


“Sna Jtz'ibajom is perhaps the best known producer of Mayan-language theatre in Mexico, in continuous operation for more than twenty years. . . . Smithsonian anthropologist Robert Laughlin, who has been involved with the group from the outset, is in a unique position not only to provide the translations, but also to provide a deeply informed personal perspective of their development over more than two decades.”
Tamara L. Underiner, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, School of Theatre and Film, Arizona State University


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