Skip to main content

Monkey Business brings traditional stories to life

SAN CRIST?BAL, 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.

The audience roars. It's 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 card.

The theater, called Monkey Business, is unconventional and so is their bag of stories. Tonight's audience will see a slice of the American dream rarely shown north of the Rio Grande: the emigrant's story of hardship and loss.

Tumin is a poor Mayan farmer living in Chiapas. Rumors of big money in the north turn his head. Ignoring his grandfather's advice to stay put, he sets off with wife and child in search of America. Exit stage left.

A 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.

"I 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, it's about the only English spoken in a play that takes place, for the most part, in Arizona and Florida.

The actors are Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya speakers from San Crist?bal 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 States.

At play's 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.

"[The migrants] abandon their children, their families, their own people in looking for a better life in the north," says Leticia M?ndez Intz?n, an actress in "Workers" and president of House of the Writer (Sna Jtz'ibajom), a non-profit cooperative that runs the theater.

"They're the ones who tell about the restrictions they've suffered. They go to find another world, and they come back and don't recognize their own culture anymore. They no longer know how to value where they come from."

Remembering where they come from is the business of House of the Writer and its theatrical arm, Teatro Lo'il Maxil. The aptly-named Monkey Business Theater brings the communal ethic of the Maya to village theater, M?ndez Intz?n explains from the rooftop of headquarters in San Crist?bal.

The plays are written by the 10 members who improvise ideas around popular issues including emigration, education and women's 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.

Although politics play a part in what they do, Monkey Business is a stew of myth, farce, historic saga, and contemporary soap.

House 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 Crist?bal.

The group's 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.

From 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.

There 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 wasn't television or pop radio or indifferent parents, it was people who didn't know how to read.

Nearly half the native population of Chiapas is illiterate. While many public schools boast of being "bilingual" (Spanish and a native language) M?ndez Intz?n and her colleagues say the claim is flimsy.

In 1987, House of the Writer established a Native literacy program. Selected men and women train as teachers in San Crist?bal 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.

A Maya reading public has been created from scratch. Twenty years ago, literatures in Tzotzil and Tzeltal didn't 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.

The result is an uncertain tie to the mother tongue of most Mexicans. Spanish is the very enemy of diversity in the linguistic controversies of Mexico's heavily Native states like Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Still, many Monkey Business performances in communities are given in Spanish, since some performers don't speak all the different Native idioms.

House 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 Tonal? off the main city market, Sna Jtz'ibajom can afford neither a prime downtown location nor pricey city performance venues.

San Crist?bal, 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 stranger's sleeve in the main plaza.

Meanwhile, 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 Crist?bal not many decades ago.

M?ndez Guzm?n 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.

"Many young people, students from the villages, don't want to recognize who they are, they're ashamed by their past. But those of us with heart and soul go back to the villages," said Guzm?n.

House 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, M?ndez Intz?n says, "we would like to teach our culture to our children." The words, though soft-sounding, are defiant. She's 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.