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Pagan Street Theater Performs El Güegüense: a Tale of Native Resistance Against Colonialism (Photo Gallery)

The story of El Güegüense is a prominent fixture of the five-day festival honoring saint San Sebastian performed by a Pagan street theater.

Every year, in the third week of January, the Nicaraguan city of Diriamba is the stage for a frolicking, five-day festival honoring its patron saint San Sebastian. Although the festival is Catholic in nature, one of its main ingredients is the performance by local actors of El Güegüense (pronounce: way-wen-say), a pagan street theater dating back to the 17th century that mocks the efforts of the Spaniards to oppress the Native Nicaraguans.

El Güegüense is more than a comedy and a satirical play. Songs and dances accompany the performance. In this way, it might very well be the oldest musical ever produced in the Americas. The author is anonymous. Nicaraguan historians think the play was conceived in the early 17th century by a well-educated Native or Mestizo who hated the Spanish. The text was originally spoken in Nahuate, a language that was widely used in pre-Columbian Central America.

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There are many versions of the play. The text was published for the first time in a book in 1942. The play is performed every year by groups from Diriamba’s poorer neighborhoods who keep the tradition alive by making costumes and masks. The adults in those groups teach their children the text, the songs and the dances. In 2005, UNESCO declared El Güegüense a part of the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

El Güegüense is an elderly, cunning Indian trader who tries at all costs to avoid paying taxes to the colonial regime. For this, he’s summoned to appear before the Spanish governor in Diriamba. While the governor and his underlings try to persuade Güegüense to pay taxes, the Indian trader uses his mastery of language and doublespeak to confuse his opponents. In the end, El Güegüense outmaneuvers the Spanish so much so that he succeeds in letting one of his sons marry Suche Malinche, the daughter of the governor.

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Practically every Nicaraguan knows El Güegüense. A large part of the Festival of San Sebastian, including the pagan street theater, is broadcasted every January live on Nicaraguan television. El Güegüense is considered an essential part of the Nicaraguan psyche that struggles to find its identity in a world of oppression. The name El Güegüense is also used to describe politicians who say one thing with their mouth, but communicate something entirely different with their acts.

In the play all the pagan street theater actors and dancers wear masks. Some speculate that in colonial times this was necessary to hide the identity of the Native actors from the Spanish. The Spanish governor and his underlings all have whitish masks with large mustaches and blue or light-colored eyes. The Natives, El Güegüense and his two sons, have masks with vague mustaches and wear much simpler costumes than the Spaniards. The beasts of burden of El Güegüense all wear horse masks.

Rolando Ernest Tellez, the man who translated El Güegüense in English, says this about the piece: “It is a pioneer representative work of the Mesoamerican dramatic art and the foundational piece in Nicaraguan literary tradition. It is a colonial critique, a humorous poetry, a counter-discourse of the oppressed, a proclamation of human equality and an example of the triumph of culture over power.”

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This story was originally published January 13, 2017.