The artistry of the Güegüence


Por Alba F. Aragón

Fotos cortesía de Irene López


El Güegüence has accompanied me for years, first as the colorful childhood memory of a folklore presentation I saw in Nicaragua in the 1980s, before I left the country, and then, years later, as one of my preferred research topics as I pursued my doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

I imagine that on a subconscious level I wanted to connect the world of the freezing Boston winters with the world I carried inside of me. I’ve also realized that in my literary investigations, I gravitate toward historical texts because they seem surrounded by an atmosphere of calm and distance that allows me the illusion of control over my subject. The focus on history also gives me the privilege of drawing from the texts more freely than I could with contemporary ones, which seem to be in constant movement, awaiting the latest interpretations and the random trajectory of the new. I have used the word “illusion” precisely because I am well aware that the past is also subject to changes, to new interpretations and unforeseen reincarnations.

Thus, just a few months ago, I was surprised to see photos in the news showing young men in Monimbó, Nicaragua, defending barricades against the government, some wearing the mesh masks typical of folkloric dances like El Güegüence. The images took me back to Susan Meiselas’ iconic photograph from 1978 showing three guerrillas preparing to launch homemade grenades with their faces concealed by folkloric masks, in the same indigenous barrio of Masaya. I have always been moved by the eloquence of that photo, by the feeling that in spite of the masks, the men portrayed are making strong eye contact with the viewer, their bodies boasting of their youthful strength and calling upon the spectator to participate in the violence of the insurrection.I find the Meiselas image simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. What is beautiful for me about the photo is probably inseparable from my admiration of the ideals of those men and women who risked their lives for a free and just Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s, which coincided with the first years of my life, years in which the word “revolution” would have sounded like a euphoric future to the adults around me, who at that time were young people themselves. It is a hard irony that today those masks, destined for a popular festival, should be on the streets once again in a new scenario of repression and rebellion. But it is not just chance that these evocative masks should reappear in this current situation, because El Güegüence is a cultural resource of everlasting value for Nicaraguans.

Susan Meiselas, “Youths practice throwing contact bombs, Monimbo, Nicaragua” (1978). ©Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Used with the author’s permission.

La comedia del Güegüence or Macho Ratón is a drama whose author is unknown and which possibly dates to the mid-17th century. Considered “the key work of [Nicaraguan] national identity” (Jorge Eduardo Arellano) and “a masterpiece of indigenous American picaresque” (Carlos Mántica), El Güegüence includes dances, music and lines written in a mix of Spanish and náhuat, the lingua franca of the peoples of the Meso-American region of the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast. The work tells of the comings-and-goings of a traveling merchant, a mestizo (mixed race man) by the name of Güegüence, through a province of Nicaragua. The governor, who represents the colonial authorities, seeks to levy taxes on him, but Güegüence takes advantage of misunderstandings, double meanings, and dances to confuse the governor and persuade him to give his daughter in marriage to his son in exchange for Güegüence’s supposed (and nonexistent) riches. El Güegüence dances have been kept alive as a popular tradition in the feast of San Sebastián in Diriamba, in the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, and are also represented by folkloric dance groups in civic functions and cultural events both at home and abroad. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed El Güegüence A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

In my inquiries into El Güegüence up until now, I have focused on literary rather than performative aspects; I have sought to discover its origins and expand critical dialogue about the work. In a past issue of ReVista, I shared some of my thoughts on the subject. I’m pleased to have the opportunity here to delve a bit more into three aspects that seem particularly interesting to me: the authorship of the work; how it represents mestizaje (racial mixing), and the possible ways to interpret its message of protest or of social critique.

With respect to the first theme, much has been speculated about the possible author; to me, it seems more suggestive to think that there was not one single and autonomous author, but an authorship coming from multiple actors and media. According to Professor Raúl Marrero- Fente of the University of Minnesota, the concept of authorship in the colonial era did not presuppose total control or textual authority over what was written, as suggested by the very etymology of the word, which comes from the Latin verbs agere (to act), augere (to grow), auieo (to unite) and from the Greek noun autentim (authority). This implies that the text precedes the writer and that the author acts on something already existing, developing it, making connections, and, in any case, receiving their authority from tradition (or from God, in the case of a religious text). Because of this, I think that the observation of Nicaraguan expert Jorge Eduardo Arellano is absolutely correct when he says that El Güegüence “did not have … someone who wrote it from beginning to end, without any antecedent, conceiving it as original and completely their own.”

Moreover, if we consider the editorial history of El Güegüence, it becomes even more clear that there is no direct line from the pen of a single author. To begin with, the work was transcribed (compiled from the oral tradition) in the mid-19th century by Nicaraguan linguist Juan Eligio de la Rocha. Two of de la Rocha’s manuscripts were obtained and combined by the U.S. linguist Carl Hermann Berendt in 1874. The U.S. archaeologist Daniel Garrison Brinton translated the text compiled by Berendt into English and published it in 1883. El Güegüence came to us in Spanish through the Nicaraguan jurist Emilio Álvarez Lejarza, who in 1942 transcribed and partially translated the text compiled by Berendt. Later, in 1968, Nicaraguan linguist Carlos Mántica—another important scholar on the subject—translated to Spanish Brinton’s English version and study of the play.

With just a glance at its editorial beginnings, it is clear to see what an adventurous path the Güegüence has traveled, and what riches it carries along! In a way, all of the scholars mentioned above have served as authors in the colonial sense—acting on something that already exists, developing it, making connections, basing their work on tradition. If we wish to view the process through a modern lens, we only have to think about Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ suggestive idea that translation is not a simple transference from one language to another, but the transformation of one text into another. In this sense, I find it fascinating that today a text so closely associated with Nicaraguan national identity (which for many is synonymous with its “essence”) is the product of so many transformations. The fact that the work comes to us by way of the United States suggests yet another interesting dimension: the way that power relationships are not only reflected in the work’s plot, but also in its editorial history. El Güegüence is not only about Spanish colonization; it comes to us as a result of exchanges between actors such as Berendt, situated in the epicenter of Anglo-Saxon colonialist discourse, a forerunner of the field of anthropology in the 19th century, and the mestizo subjects which that discourse attempted to define, catalog, and master. It is precisely these subjects who, from the “margins” of the Central American scholarly environment, take El Güegüence from the archives of U.S. universities to articulate the work’s significance to their own identity and culture.

The evolution of El Güegüence as a performative event adds yet another level of richness and complexity to the process of authorship. The efforts of artists such as the folklore expert Irene López with her book El Gran pícaro: una recreación basada en la historia de El Güegüense, introduces new elements to its interpretation, imagining original performative aspects that were never collected and traditions eroded by time. Professor E.J. Westlake, who studies the current cultural and political significance of El Güegüence at the hands of different cultural agents, considers López to be the work’s “interpreter and guardian” because of her successfully balancing the work in terms of art, scholarship, and tradition.

Another aspect of the work I find particularly interesting is its representation of mestizaje (racial mixing). Generally, it is understood that the protagonist of El Güegüence is a mestizo, and that the wedding of his son and the governor’s daughter is an alliance of indigenous and Spanish, that is, an allegory for mestizaje. This interpretation fits well with the deeply embedded vision of Nicaraguan culture as mestizo. The historian Jeffrey L. Gould has called this idea, which arose in the 19th century, “the myth of mestizo Nicaragua,” because it suggests a seamless union between the indigenous and the Spanish and presupposes the eradication or non-existence of indigenous communities such as the Atlantic Coast Miskitos, who as a matter of fact share the country with its mestizo majority. Together with this observation is the fact that at the time of the composition of El Güegüence in the mid-17th century, the process of mestizaje was still happening. I think it is interesting to think of Güegüence as a character prior to mestizaje (or outside the pact it represents). After all, in colonial society, a wide range of social groups coexisted at different levels of exclusion from, assimilation to, and resistance towards the power of Spaniards and criollos (Latin American-born descendants of Spaniards). Among them was the ladino or the Spanish-speaking indigenous person, who, according to Francisco Rodríguez Cascante of the University of Costa Rica, was considered by criollo society as “astute and canny, capable of seeing the exploitation of indigenous people and convincing them to use means of resistance…a rootless subject [who] alters the established order and perpetuates chaos.” Although this commentary refers directly to the representation of the ladino in the Guatemalan chronicle Recordación florida, written from 1680 to 1699, I see echoes of this social type in El Güegüence. The chaos that the ladino could sow involved convincing indigenous people to move somewhere else to avoid taxation. Likewise, Güegüence is a wandering character avoiding tax payments. He not only speaks Spanish, but he rebels against the power relations codified in the use of the language. When the Alguacil Mayor—a kind of High Sheriff—charges him money in exchange for teaching him the necessarily grand terms needed to address the governor, Güegüence sarcastically responds, “Friend Captain Chief Alguacil, I have given my money for nothing, if these are to be my words; and shall I not bargain for a book in Spanish, to read these prayers out of when I come before [Governor] Tastuanes?” (Brinton, 29) However, Güegüence ably uses Spanish, evoking nonexistent riches—gold that he doesn’t really have—to take advantage of the governor. I find his ambivalent attitude, this apparent contempt towards language despite having an acute awareness of its utility (an attitude captured visually so well by the movement of dancing bodies), to be a more fascinating representation of how Güegüence undermines the powerful than the idea of mestizaje, because mestizaje brings with it a pact that ultimately does not alter the status quo. This is not to say that El Güegüence does not refer to mestizaje, nor to deny that it is made up of both indigenous and Spanish elements. It is more a matter of thinking of mestizaje as a conflictive process and to imagine attributes that the protagonist could have embodied for prior audiences.

Another fascinating aspect of the social order referred to in the work is that, according to scholars, the authorities represented were probably not members of Spanish high society, but descendants of indigenous nobility holding some high administrative positions. If we add this to the fact that patron saint festivities was not an atmosphere shared by the Spanish elite, then El Güegüence essentially appears to be “a call to introspection, to self-criticism” (Arellano). After all, no one escapes being made fun of in El Güegüence. The basic problem presented is the province’s administrative disorder, summed up from the beginning by the governor’s command: “My son, Captain Chief Alguacil, suspend in the quarters of the leading men the music, dances, songs, ballets and such things, and bring that good-for-nothing Güegüence…” (Brinton, 11). As the action continues, this command becomes a formula that all the characters repeat at different points, as if it were a condition for advancing the plot, which depends precisely on mocking the command. Everyone mouths it without fulfilling it, while both the authorities and their subjects dance and make pacts so they can continue on with their fun, theft and favor- granting. If this pact is an allegory for mestizaje, then mestizaje is the object of criticism. If Güegüence mocks the governor by making him believe that he possesses riches that warrant giving his son the hand of the governor’s daughter in marriage, the protagonist himself is the subject of mockery. Again and again, each time he opens his mouth, his stepson Don Ambrosio insults him and denounces him with phrases like: “That’s what you deserve, Güegüence, you old humbug” (Brinton, 11). Güegüence’s questionable character is continually denounced from inside the work itself. Thus, if Güegüence is a “prototype” of national character, he can only be so in a satirical key. Personally, I’m inclined to think that it is the irreverent spirit of the work as a whole that touches us Nicaraguans to the core, since laughter and mockery are escape valves to which we tend to resort to in the most trying circumstances. El Güegüence continues on because of its fluid nature, its capacity for adaptation, laughter and movement. In that sense, it is a work for all time.

Alba F. Aragón is Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts, where she teaches Spanish language as well as Latin American and U.S. Latino literature. She was born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua in the eighties. She received her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University in 2012. Her research primarily explores the significance of fashion and the dressed body in 19th- and 20-century Latin American literature and culture. She has also translated Central American women’s poetry for literary anthologies.



She wishes to express her gratitude to Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Irene López and E.J. Westlake for their generous attention to her questions and for providing valuable research materials.


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