El Gueguense: Nicaragua’s Irreverent Trickster
By Tony Reichhardt

One of the earliest examples of a Native North American comedy, El Gueguense was proclaimed a masterpiece of the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind" in 2005 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The 20th-century Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra called the play's wily antihero, El Gueguense, "the first character in Nicaraguan literature." In fact, most people in the country grow up knowing about him the way children in the United States learn about Johnny Appleseed or Br'er Rabbit.

Each year in mid-January, during the feast of San Sebastian, the play is presented in the streets of Diriamba, a city of about 35,000 people in Nicaragua's Carazo province. Masked performers, accompanied by dancers and musicians, parade through town, stopping to recite their lines and trade jokes with the crowd lining the streets. You might also see a staged version performed at the National Theater in the country's capital, Managua. But the number of Nicaraguans, particularly young Nicaraguans, who have actually seen El Gueguense performed is dwindling. And that has some in the country's arts community worried that this treasured piece of their cultural heritage will disappear.

Which is why, on a Saturday afternoon last October, I sat in a packed theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., watching an excerpt from El Gueguense put on by Nicaragua's Ballet Folklorico. Dancers in brightly colored, hand-carved masks cavorted around the stage to the music of marimbas and flutes. Some were dressed as mules, or machos. Others looked like colonial-era Spaniards. And winding among them was El Gueguense himself, the old trickster.

The ballet company included El Gueguense in its program of 14 dances from Nicaragua in part to keep the ancient work alive for modern audiences. Even many of the company's young performers had known only vaguely of the play before beginning rehearsals, says Ronald Abud Vivas, founder and director of the 38-year-old Ballet Folklorico Nicaraguense. As part of their preparation, he says, the dancers studied the origins of the play and how it has been interpreted through the centuries.

The excerpt presented by the dance troupe, lively though it was, gave only a taste of the whole work, the plot of which goes something like this: The title character (the name may or may not derive from huehue, the Nahuatl word for "elder") is an older man brought before the colonial governor on various minor charges. In a series of comic exchanges, El Gueguense, who deals in contraband items, pretends not to understand the governor and twists his words around to insult him. Eventually the old man fools the authorities into thinking he's rich and arranges for one of his sons to marry the governor's daughter, the Lady Suche-Malinche (La Malinche was the Nahua woman who acted as interpreter to the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes). Meanwhile, a number of masked mules—perhaps representing the Native population oppressed by colonial rule—dance but never speak. As the play ends, El Gueguense has gained the upper hand and has navigated around the authorities' rules through trickery. Yet he remains wistful for bygone days, "the time of the blue thread" (perhaps a reference to a particular dye used in pre-Colombian Nicaragua), when life was better. "Let me recall old times, that I may console myself with that," he says in one of the play's closing lines.

As to what this allegory means, scholars have spent decades trying to figure that out. Most concede that some of the original meaning (or at least some of the subtleties) has likely been lost in the endless translation and reinterpretation of an evolving piece of street theater. The first to translate El Gueguense into English was the North American folklorist Daniel Brinton, who published his version in 1883. Brinton had gotten the text from a German linguist, Karl Berendt, who in turn received it from Juan Eligio de la Rocha, a lawyer and scholar in Nicaragua who had copied down the text as performed in the city of Masaya sometime after 1840.

By then, the play was at least 100 years old, and probably older. Les Field, a University of New Mexico anthropologist whose 1999 book The Grimace of Macho Raton examines the various meanings of El Gueguense to modern Nicaraguans, interviewed an indigenous scholar of the work named Flavio Gamboa, who was told by his own grandfather that the play was originally performed in Mangue, a language spoken in that part of Nicaragua at the time of European contact.

By the 18th century, though, many people of mixed Spanish-Native heritage had switched to speaking a hybrid of Spanish and Nahuatl, which became the common language in that part of Central America. The version of El Gueguense written down by Brinton is mostly in Spanish but has Nahuatl words sprinkled throughout.

This mixing of languages accounts for many of the double or triple entendres delivered by El Gueguense and his sons—most of them at the expense of the colonial authorities. Many are sexual in nature, as the old man jokes about who might be sleeping with whom. No one is spared his barbs, not even his own family. At one point, he calls his younger son, Don Ambrosio, an "evil-eyed brat." A few lines later, the son refers to his father as "you old humbug."

For audiences of the time, hearing such jokes may well have been cathartic. It would have been painfully evident to 17th-century Nicaraguans that the Spanish authorities and the Natives who worked for them held the reins of power. And it would have been a source of great pleasure to see those authorities ridiculed openly in the streets, if only once a year.

Jaime Serrano Mena, an architect in Diriamba who is among a small circle of modern scholars of Nicaragua's most famous theatrical work, thinks the governor in the play, whose name is Tastuanes, could well have been an Indian himself when the play was originally performed. In the colonial world, all aspects of culture were mixed—political power, economics, race, and sex. Through humor and suggestion, El Gueguense talks about all these things more honestly than do many other, more sober works of art. In that sense, the play is deadly serious in its aim. Field calls El Gueguense "a carnival not of play but of power."

Surprisingly, with its sometimes not-very-subtle lampooning of authority, the work was never permanently banned, even by the Spanish colonial authorities who were the target of much of its humor. Rather, El Gueguense became incorporated into the religious festival of San Sebastian. In the early 19th century, public performances were temporarily suspended because of the play's bawdy language and themes. But for the most part, says Serrano, it was allowed to be performed as a way for ordinary people to blow off steam and "protest" something they couldn't protest in more overt ways.

In a country that prizes poetry and art, El Gueguense survived as a symbol of the Nicaraguan people's humor and endurance in the face of often greedy or capricious rulers. In 1970, when the Somoza political dynasty was still in power, Pablo Antonio Cuadra wrote a short story called "Return, Gueguense," in which the old trickster appears in modern Managua to expose the same kind of hypocrisy and mistreatment that audiences had laughed at in the 17th century.

With political change again coming to Nicaragua this year—Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, who governed in the 1980s, was reelected in November—El Gueguense is sure to be interpreted in fresh new ways. Along with encouraging performances like the recent one in Washington, D.C., by the Ballet Folkl6rico, UNESCO's recognition will help in supporting the artisans and performers who have kept the work's tradition alive, including the mask makers who carve the distinctive heads seen weaving through the streets of Diriamba each January. So there's good reason to believe that El Gueguense will survive for another 300 years, dancing, joking, and winking to the crowd just as he's always done.

Tony Reichhardt is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg, VA.

National Museum of the American Indian, Spring 2007, pages 26-31

© 2007 Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian