An Old Dancer
I remember the setting well because the name captivated me: Ruinas del Gran Hotel. It was exactly that: the remains of a luxurious building that, from the 1940s until the earthquake that destroyed Managua the day before Christmas Eve of 1972, had lodged distinguished guests and stars of the international jet set. It was located on Avenida Roosevelt, in what had begun to be remembered in my childhood as “Old Managua”, a had-been downtown full of ruins and besieged by the ghost of continuing war that did not allow the luxury of reconstruction. It was the Nicaragua of the eighties, the country of Sandinistas and Contras that vanished from international newscasts soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Seeing the Güegüense for the first time was part of a delicious pact with my mother, who rewarded my studiousness by taking me to shows. The interior of the Ruinas seemed oblivious to the sordidness around it. It was all light and movement: hats with golden tops adorned with tall feathers and loud colors, red, purple, green; sequins reflecting fluorescent lights, multiplying the colors of wide skirts and undulating handkerchiefs; damsels with Spanish fans and flirtatious curls; violins, guitars, drums, laughter, and masks. Masks, above all: some with chalk-white faces, huge blue irises and blonde mustaches; some with brown faces and black mustaches; and the most intriguing of all, the long black faces of the mules which, endowed with men’s bodies, were shaking a rattle with one hand and dancing in a row, sometimes galloping and sometimes stumbling like drunkards.
La comedia del Güegüense o Macho Ratón is a work of unknown author that, according to researcher Carlos Mántica, possibly dates back to 1675. Daniel Garrinton Brinton translated it to English and published it for the first time in 1883. It is a combination of dances, music, and comedic dialogue written in a mix of Spanish and Nahuat, a local variant of the lingua franca of the Mesoamerican peoples that had been conquered by the Aztecs. It deals with a traveling merchant, an Indian or mestizo (a person of European and American Indian race), called Güegüense. As he travels through Nicaragua, a Spanish-born governor tries to bribe him. But Güegüense, feigning politeness and postponing the payment with dances and misunderstandings, gets the governor to pay him instead. The governor offers his daughter’s hand in exchange for a cut of the supposed (and nonexistent) riches of the merchant.
The dances of the Güegüense are a living tradition in Nicaragua. Each January, during the festival honoring Saint Sebastian, patron of the town of Diriamba, the Güegüense takes to the streets. Performances by the National Folkloric Ballet and other dance groups, sometimes accompanied by the National Orchestra in civil functions and gala events in Managua and abroad, attest to its adaptation as a symbol of national identity.
The work’s literary merit has been debated. In the nineteenth century, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío wrote that it was of a work of “primitive simplicity”, with a monotonous dialogue and scant plot. José Martí, another great figure of Latin American modernism, called its language a “crude dialect,” but nonetheless saw the work as a “masterful comedy.” Philologist and literary critic Pedro Henríquez Ureña warned in 1938 that there was “little to be gained” from its study.
Other critics have showered it with superlatives: “the masterpiece of American Indian picaresque” (Carlos Mántica); “a masterful piece of street theater” (Milagros Palma); “the first expression of protest” in South America (Reyna Sirias-Ortiz); or “the key piece of national identity” (Jorge Eduardo Arellano).
In 2005, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the Güegüense Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This designation recognizes its uniqueness and carries along concrete measures to safeguard it.
The Güegüense plays out the clash between Spanish authorities and the native peoples of the Americas. Many consider it an allegory of indigenous resistance to colonial exploitation or of the onset of the mixture of races known as mestizaje. Political agendas have played a part: it was during the Sandinista era (1979-90) that the interpretation of the work as an expression of a people’s combativeness against foreign exploitation gained popularity; while the persistent and easy interpretation of it as the foundational moment of mestizaje downplays the difficulties of coexistence in a multiethnic nation with serious socioeconomic differences.
The word güegüense comes from the Nahuatl language and has been variously translated as “honorable elder” and “rascal” (Mántica). These meanings reflect the ambivalence of the character, who on the one hand is ingenious and skillful, with an old man’s know-how, and on the other is vulgar, deceiving and given to usury—as his own sons remind him several times in the dialogue, to the audience’s amusement.
The Güegüense reflects the colonial image of the mestizo as a dishonest and vile person. It is this image that Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a Spanish captain, seeks to vindicate himself from when he writes the first part of his Comentarios reales (1609), a history of the Incas written in elegant Spanish prose. According to Harvard Professor Doris Sommer, one of Garcilaso’s strategies for authorizing himself is to flaunt his native knowledge of Quechua, hinting at the ridicule the Spanish conquerors were exposed to because of their verbal ineptitude before the Incas. Another strategy is to postpone his chronicle with disconcerting preambles.
The Güegüense is also the story of a mestizo who undermines colonial authority using his mastery of two languages and delay. But his ploys are different: he uses misunderstandings that carry insults, hyperboles that erect riches where none exist, and, above all, dancing. Each time the governor tries to talk about his payment, Güegüense proposes a new dance. Fourteen dances later, it all ends in a wedding to Güegüense’s benefit. If Garcilaso’s elegant prose somehow protected him from being accused of duplicity, Güegüense engages in duplicity without qualm, joyfully embodying the stereotype and exceeding the word as his locus of action. If Garcilaso metaphorically moves through different places of enunciation in his text, disconcerting and yet attracting the reader (Sommer), when Güegüense dances he executes a literal movement through the performance space—which can be a theater as well as a street—inviting the spectator to also participate bodily, with her laughter and her senses fixed in the spectacle.
More than allegorizing a conflict, the Güegüense represents a successful negotiation. The protagonist is not a simple model to follow. He is rather an anti-hero who can arouse both sympathy and rejection in the spectator. For a country eager to overcome a history of armed conflicts and institutional corruption, it is a good way to start a self-critical dialogue about the different options at hand when resolving conflicts and surmounting obstacles.
But beyond its possible historical, literary or didactic value, for me the Güegüense has a living value that I associate with my childish awe that night at the Ruinas del Gran Hotel—knowing how to turn seemingly insurmountable situations into reasons for laughter and joy in art, despite all expectations.
Alba F. Aragón is a PhD student at Harvard University’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. She is currently putting together a team to film a documentary about the Güegüense. If you are interested, she can be reached at aragon@ fas.harvard.edu.