In the seventeenth century, somewhere in the streets of a small colonial Nicaraguan city governed by the Spanish authorities and inhabited by indigenous and mestizo people, a comedy play of high cultural value was born. Expressed in the play was a rejection of the Spanish domination in a mocking, ingenious, and creative way. Over time this theatrical piece transformed into a national symbol for its protesting character that identified the Nicaraguan people. Three centuries later the UNESCO declared this work “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
This historical play, by a unanimous author, is “El Güegüense o Macho Ratón”, the first literary Nicaraguan work, pertaining to the Nahuatl culture. Learn more about the history and contents of this comic masterpiece.
History of the piece
The El Güegüense play found its existence in the city of Diriamba, located in what is nowadays the department of Carazo. There are different theories regarding the date when the work was created. It is know with certainty, however, that Nahuatl was the original language of the play. The play was presented as street theater, right under the noses of the colonial Spanish civil and military authorities.
People from the area of Diriamba had already shown their strong character in opposition of Spanish domination ever since the arrival of the first conquistadors. In approximately 1522 the captain Fernández Dávila met with a local tribe headed by the chief named Diriangén. The indigenous people courteously received the foreigners and listened to the demands that included surrendering to the Spanish crown and conversion to Christianity. After asking for a brief period for consideration, the locals returned with fury and attacked the invaders.
This historical episode is nowadays considered to be the first war against foreign interveners in Nicaragua. Due to technological advantages the Spanish decimated the tribe of Diriangén and the survivors were subjected to the Spanish rule. A century later, descendents of these survivors might have been the creators and first witnesses of a play that demonstrated a pacific resistance against the foreign rulers.
El Güegüense continued to be presented on the streets, and it was orally transmitted from one generation to the other. It was not until 1942, however, that the piece was written down and published as a book for the first time, and it took another eight years before the music was recorded for the first time.
These days the El Güegüense dances and presentations have become part of the cultural expressions in honor San Sebastián during the regional festivities in Diriamba which takes places in the third week of January. Although professional folkloric ballets now also include the Güegüense dance in their repertoire, and despite the fact that many schools and theaters throughout the country regularly perform the entire play, the festivities in Diriamba offer a unique chance to observe the El Güegüense play performed by descendents of its creators: the inhabitants of the community of Diriamba.
On November 25, 2005, the UNESCO gave the “El Güegüense o Macho Ratón” play worldwide recognition by proclaiming it Patrimony of Humanity. The news message can be read here.
El Güegüense is an attractive and interesting play as a result of various components that make it a comic ballet: the speech, music, and dance, as well as the theatrical costumes of the actors. These costumes are similar to the clothing originally used in the play, with the exception of some modifications and enrichments that were made over time.
The name of the play comes from its main character, ‘El Güegüense’, which is derived from the Nahuatl word ‘huehue’, meaning ‘old man’ or ‘wise man’.
A total of 14 characters are included in the play. There are three mestizos: Güegüense and his sons Don Forsico and Don Ambrosio; four Spanish authorities: Governor Tastuanes, Captain Alguacil Mayor, the Royal Clerk and the Royal Assistant; three women: doña Suche Malinche and the two ladies that accompany her; and four beasts of burden referred to as ‘machos’: Macho-moto, Macho-viejo, Macho-mohino, and Macho-guajaqueño (also called Macho-boaqueño).
The costumes of the different characters are remarkable. The Spanish are dressed in elegant, colonial clothes with spangles and high stocking, and they have masks that show a white or light-brown skin, a mustache, and blue or light-colored eyes. The mestizos use masks with a vague mustache, and they wear a straw hat and more simple clothing. They go barefoot or wearing sandals and they carry a rattle with a metal point. The beasts (“machos”) walk barefoot and use vests with spangles and horse masks, horsehair rope, and they carry a metal rattle as well. The ladies have no masks and use long dresses, necklaces, and earrings.
The Güegüense describes himself as a merchant who travels between the different colonial territories of Mexico and Central America in order to sell his goods. His sons are his helpers: don Forsico is his right hand whereas don Ambrosio is his detractor. The four animals are his beasts of burden used for doing heavy work.
Governor Tastuanes is the highest authority and Captain Alguacil Mayor has the political power. The Royal Clerk and Royal Assistant are local government officials. Doña Suche Malinche is the daughter of Governor Tastuanes and the other ladies are her servants.
The plot has a total of 314 lines (according to the first written version). Below follows a summary of the story.
The Güegüense is visited by Captain Alguacil Mayor, who summons the Güegüense to go to the Royal Cabildo to arrange payment of taxes. When the clever Güegüense is facing Governor Tastuanes he uses his ingeniousness to convince the governor of setting up a marriage between doña Suche Malinche and the Güegüense’s loyal son, don Forsico. This way the Güegüense evades having to pay taxes to the authorities he so despises. When speaking, the Güegüense often uses unruly phrases with a double meaning and he frequently imitates a deaf person to mock and ridicule the authorities. He glorifies his marvelous merchandise, which he checks on various occasions. According to his son don Forsico the merchandise is real, but the other son, don Ambrosio, angrily classifies them as being false, accusing his father of being a fraud and a cheater. The play ends with festivities at the Royal Cabildo.
Alternating the spoken parts, various dances are performed during the play. Originally only the beasts would perform these dances, according to certain studies, but nowadays the Spanish characters participate as well. In some untraditional presentations performed by professionals, the dances are carried out with creative choreographic innovations.
The work has 14 pieces of music, but currently only six songs are played in traditional presentations. The music is made with original instruments, and it demonstrates the cultural syncretism that is expressed throughout the whole play by combining a pito (flute) and an indigenous drum, with a violin and a European guitar. The songs are completely instrumental and their varying fast and slow melodies have clear indigenous and Spanish influences.
The author of El Güegüense is unknown and there are even several other theories regarding his background. Some say he was an educated mestizo who was tired of paying taxes, or a priest with great knowledge of Nahuatl and Spanish, instead of an indigenous author.
The literary version of El Güegüense also has allowed for a wide variety of interpretations. According to some, the Güegüense was a hard-working, smart, and prosperous merchant who did not want to pay taxes to the Spanish crown. To others, the Güegüense was a small, skilled merchant but also a rascal and a fraud, who used his many skills to fool the Spanish authorities not only to evade taxes but also to have his son marry the daughter of the governor.
Whichever interpretation is the right one, this excellent and vibrant work expresses the resistance of a nation against foreign invaders, and it constitutes one of the most important cultural heritages of the Nicaraguan people, to whom the Güegüense play forms a worthy representation of their character: rascally, clever, and rebellious.