From Trotsky to Puppets

Graciela Monteagudo is an Argentinean organizer,   street heater maker and performer who has coordinated   puppet and street theater actions as part of protests   in Buenos Aires, Puerto Rico and throughout the US   and Canada, against the World Economic Forum, the   School of the Americas and the G8. She also works   with Bread and Puppet in Glover, Vermont. Her use   of art and theater for liberation grew out of her   organizing for human rights in the post-dictatorship   years in Argentina. Graciela coordinates the   argentina autonomista project,an exchange program   between people of the US and Argentina. Her   recent show “Que se vayan todos, a cardboard piece”   is currently touring Universities and community   centers in the US and Europe. Monteagudo spends   time in Vermont and in Buenos Aires with her 8-year   old son, Jan.The comments below were delivered to   “Another World is Possible; a Workshop on   AlerGlobalization” in San Miguel Allende, Mexico,   August 4-14, 2004.

Some Background

I was born in 1959 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My mother was a maid for middle-class families and my father owned a small metalworking shop. When I was growing up, Latin American social organizations were starting to feel the warmth of the Cuban fire spreading through the world. Students and workers organized, some with theory and strategy, some with pseudo-Marxist tactics and a few guns. Salvador Allende fell in a blood bath in Santiago de Chile in 1973, and in 1976, Isabel Peron, Juan Domingo Peron’s conservative widow, surrendered the government to a military junta. Repression, oppression, torture and disappearance swept the continent.

After a brief stint as an activist in high school, when the social organizations went undercover, I tried to lead a normal life, ignoring, like many Argentinean people, the fact that thirty thousand people were disappeared, two million had gone into exile, and the military ran over 300 concentration camps. In 1981, I crossed Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine center of power, and saw the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and a few small leftist political parties. I found out that the Madres de Plaza de Mayo were the working-class mothers of people who had in most cases been kidnapped in the middle of the night from their homes. The mothers confronted the dictatorship in the streets, and although some of them were disappeared, they succeeded in bringing international attention to the issue of brutal human rights abuses by the U.S.-government- backed military regime. In 1984, I entered the University of Buenos Aires as a philosophy student. I joined the student union as a human rights activist, becoming deeply involved in the struggle against the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment plans.

The Trotskyist party that I joined out of sheer ignorance in 1984 proved to be the place where I would discover that abuse of power, authoritarian politics and corruption were not only predominant in the post dictatorship Argentinean society but also inside the leftist parties. In 1990, I was violently expelled from the organization along with twenty of my friends. We started working on a nonhierarchical collective. Because of our anti-authoritarian politics and our democratic methods, we had a lot of student support and were elected as student representatives to the board of directors of the school. Along with other organizations in a similar process that had integrated in a political front, we formed La Mano (The Hand).

The crisis forced me to rethink my life and my activism. After watching an international puppetry festival in Buenos Aires, I started taking Commedia dell’Arte and Puppetry classes with an anarchist artist who passed on to me some books that illustrated the politics of the soviets towards leftist opposition. I started questioning the theory of the vanguard and focused my efforts in democratic collaborations. At the same time, La Naranja (The Orange), the nonhierarchical group I co-founded, helped organize direct-action resistance to the economic and social policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (which included the privatization of the education system that would lead to make education unaffordable to the majority of the Argentineans. During this process I started working on big puppets and performances.

Under the direction of a group of artists who worked very closely with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, we traced thousands of silhouettes on paper and pasted them all over Buenos Aires. They served as a reminder that some people were not there anymore, although they had not really left. When the city was covered with silhouettes that represented those who were disappeared, their existence and our will not to forget them were powerfully presented.

In 1994, while performing puppet shows for homeless children in Bahia, Brazil, I met Bread and Puppet Theater and felt that I had found the school of street theater I needed. Bread and Puppet, through hard, perfectly organized work, built hundreds of puppets. Thanks to thousands of hours of rehearsals and the collaboration of artists from all over the world, the Vermont-based company has mastered the technique of street theater with deep political content and outstanding aesthetics. Bread and Puppets creates and performs, locally and internationally, as many shows as possible on issues such as human rights, poverty, labor, ecology, politics and power or lack of it.

Shortly after this meeting, I moved to Vermont and joined the company. I was impressed with their level of organization. In one week they taught approximately 100 volunteers a complex show, The Passion of Chico Mendez, which we performed twice on one weekend. The format of the show is what Bread and Puppet calls a ‘passion play,’ inspired by the Catholic tradition of the Stations of the Cross. Every scene is in a different space and a brass band takes you from one scene to the next. Each group rehearsed separately but all the scenes came together during the final rehearsals.

After working as a full-time company member for a year, I was able to direct one of the scenes of the same play at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. By watching Peter Schumann, the artistic director, and other senior puppeteers I learned how to incorporate hundreds of people who do not define themselves as artists into huge street shows and pageants. Not long after I arrived, I started working with a small company on an indoor show based on Mr. Budhoo’s letter of resignation to the IMF. Budhoo was the chief IMF officer for many years and resigned denouncing the Fund for the destruction of the Third World economies. We were dressed up as ‘business men’ – with cardboard wings on our backs and simple white cardboard masks with the word “teeth” written on them. We built sand castles and then destroyed them by jumping on them. The scene was dimly lit. For two weeks I had dreams with Bread and Puppet images. The energy of Peter’s puppetry reached deep into my mind.

I was in awe of Peter. However, I also became critical of the hierarchical structure of the company. Schumann’s artistic vision is incontestable. I think many of us recognize Peter Schumann as an outstanding artist who will have an impact on puppetry similar to Brecht on theater. Despite the fact that Schumann has final say on artistic decisions, there is a lot of space for creation and collaboration in the earlier stages of the rehearsals and from that combination stems a long list of amazing cultural ‘insurrectors’ and popular artists. Bread and Puppet Theater has created a language of street theater that has deeply influenced the visual images and performances of protests in the United States. The puppetistas, through the politics of the anticorporate globalization movement, are taking those techniques and have begun experimenting with new ways of leading horizontal creation processes.

Street theater actions in Argentina

In 1996, after working for a year and a half with B&P Theater, touring in all kinds of spaces and for all kinds of occasions, I went to Argentina to help coordinate the creation of a street puppet show to be performed at the protest that would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the most brutal and violent dictatorship Argentina ever endured. Tamar Schumann, an American dance theater director, and I traveled to Buenos Aires to work with a group of activists organized by members of the former Naranja group from my old University activist circle. Through group discussions and rehearsals we came up with a very simple dance and puppet piece. We built huge cardboard hands, simple costumes, and had one stilter. The stilter had a death mask, wore a military uniform and carried the U.S. flag. This character dragged a dummy with a paper bag on its head, dressed as a worker, representing the disappeared. Women wearing white tunics held the hands. They represented the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, whose distinctive symbol is a white scarf around their heads. Characters with a Carlos Menem (the then president of Argentina) mask danced with a shovel, as if burying the disappeared.

After ten days of intensive rehearsals, we were able to perform a piece that moved along with the protest, honoring the resistance of the Argentinean people, especially the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The women dressed in white would lift the dummy up in the air and subsequently lose the disappeared to the Carlos Menem character, representing the fact that Menem like many other politicians were trying to bury the memory of our disappeared. The action repeated itself over and over again, symbolizing a struggle over the human rights issue: would the military and the politicians, with the aid of the United States, prevail over the people and force them to forget the repression, or would the people, led by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, rescue the memory of the disappeared and honor their struggle? The question, like the actual situation, was left unanswered.

Apart from Tamar and myself, there were no professional performers in the group. However, we were able to create an interesting street theater show through a democratic process of discussions. Although I very much wanted to direct the piece, I limited myself to a few suggestions concerning the characters and gave some ideas on how to use the hands. Tamar choreographed the piece. The rehearsals were interrupted many times when proposed movements implied statements which contrasted wit the messages intended by the activists. Whenever that happened, Tamar and I would facilitate a democratic discussion until we could agree on a movement that reflected the intended message of the group. This process helped clarify our analysis of the repression and how it served the interests of various sectors of society. The process of this workshop helped the organizational efforts of La Naranja. The process of building and rehearsing helped them meet and work with people who were not interested in doing activism without an artistic outlet. It enabled them to bond with people in a way that no meeting or assembly would allow.

>From Bread and Puppet I learned how to build puppets fast, but more importantly, how to work with big groups of people who do not define themselves as artists. Peronally, I was able to integrate both worlds -the Bread and Puppet proficiency in creating street theater with the activist world where creation can be horizontally attempted and art can be used as a tool for direct action.

We went back to Buenos Aires in 1998, this time to work the children of the disappeared, HIJOS, and a group of young activists organized by my friends in the former Naranja. With them, Tamar and I worked on a collective process of creating a street performance for a demonstration in front of the home of a police officer, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, who ran several concentration camps in Argentina during the last dictatorship. He was also responsible for the disappearance of sixteen high school students. The kidnapping and disappearance of these children, who were protesting high bus fares, is known as The Night of the Pencils. We planned to carry out our demonstration in the tradition of the Escrache. The demonstration was called “Escrache a Etchecolatz’. Escrache is slang for exposé. Thousands of people get together and make a lot of noise to alert the neighbors that a mass murderer lives among them.

Among the left in Argentina, HIJOS has a privileged status as they are, literally, children of the disappeared. Many of them witnessed the violent abductions of their parents and some saw their parents tortured or killed. A few of them had been returned to their biological families after being raised by military-regime people who had illegally adopted them as newborns after their mothers were killed. I admired their courage and their zeal. Two weeks before Tamar, Jan, my then 3-year old son and I arrived, one of their Escraches had been violently attacked by the secret police. Police interference did not deter the HIJOS demonstrators, but it did heighten their awareness of risk and safety. As a result, very few of them actually participated in the performance. They did provide us with a working area at a union hall and during the protest itself they gave us a prominent space.

Their banner opened the march and immediately after came approximately fifty performers with oversized cardboard pencils, engaged in a dance in which ten characters with masks of Etchecolatz’s face would put the performers with the pencils down. A little later, the performers with the pencils regrouped and used their pencils to make the Etchecolatz characters fall. The scene repeated itself over and over again. When the protest arrived at Etchecolatz’s building, his bodyguards threw a tear gas grenade from the 10th floor and dropped some heavy objects on the crowd. Everybody disbanded. A little later, they regrouped and organizers made speeches. At the end, the police attacked the crowd with tear gas. Everybody scattered, some people seeking refuge at what used to be my school, because the police are not allowed to go into the universities. However, the police threw tear gas grenades inside the building and people got hurt when trying to break open windows for air. The pencils were lying all over the streets. A friend saw one of them being dragged away by a homeless woman, late into the night.

Insurrection, repression and street theater in Argentina

In July of 2002, I returned to Buenos Aires once more, this time with David Solnit of Art and Revolution. Six months before, on December 19 and 20, 2001, Argentina had been the site of a spontaneous uprising against the IMF and the political and economic system. The civil society was united in the slogan “Que Se Vayan Todos”, they all must go, meaning that the entire political class must leave the stage -every politician from every party, the supreme court, the IMF, the multinational corporations, the banks — everyone out, so the people could decide the fate of their economically crippled country themselves.

In the face of ever increasing poverty and total economic meltdown, the people of Argentina had found enough hope to continue resisting, and had mustered sufficient creativity to start building practical alternatives to the despair of capitalism. So that the banks would not crash following a massive withdrawal of savings by the middle class, who feared a devaluation of the national currency, the government imposed a “corralito,” effectively blocking people’s access to their own money. The uprising exploded on December 19, after smoldering in the interior of the country for several years.

That morning, hungry Argentine families looted stores. Posterior investigation seems to point in the direction of Carlos Menem’s thugs, who, in an effort to unseat the government, spread false rumors about potential attacks from other barrios and started looting. Thanks to the IMF structural adjustment policies and the local governments who followed its recipes, 20% of the population was unemployed and there were hardly any government plans in place to feed the hungry. More than 50% of the population is below the poverty line.

The government, led by Fernando De La Rua of the ‘Radical’ party, responded to the looting by declaring state of siege. He had not even finished his TV announcement, when people took massively to the streets, banging on their pots and pans. The police attacked despite the presence of children. The Argentines resisted throughout the night with stones, sticks and a occasional molotov. First the Minister of Economy, and later the President, resigned. The state of siege had been defeated in the streets by the popular rebellion -but at the cost of at least 35 lives. Five were killed by the police in Plaza de Mayo where the government offices are. This movement created popular assemblies, in which middle class people met to discuss their situation and possible actions through a direct democracy process. The assemblies called for “cacerolazos,” ritual banging of pots and pans.

Within two weeks four more governments resigned. Finally, Eduardo Duhalde, a conservative peronist senator, was elected. He had previously traveled to the US, and talked with G.W. Bush about replacing De La Rua . Argentina was now on a high-speed collision course, with the needs and desires of its people on one side, and the demands of the IMF, the inept government, and global capitalism on the other.

When David and I arrived, the assemblies of Buenos Aires were smaller but they were starting to organize takeovers of buildings and empty lots. We built puppets in a bank that had gone bankrupt three years before. The neighbors cleaned it up and established a space for organizing, popular arts and culture. Another assembly, Flores, took over an abandoned clinic and had started a free health care program for people who worked at over 80 factories ran by workers.

The Anibal Verón, an unemployed independent organization who had recently suffered the brutal repression of one of their piquetes (roadblocks), was organizing for a day of street protest against state terrorism. The three assemblies we visited wanted to be part of this and we decided to create a street theater piece with giant puppets and props. We facilitated workshops with these assemblies and with the unemployed workers and their children at their own neighborhoods. Sharing our meals and sometimes spending the night with the Anibal Verón folks had a tremendous effect on me. I could not get this image out of my mind: Darío Santillán, in utter agony, being dragged out of the train station by the cops who had executed him. When the police shot at him, he had been helping Maxi Kosteki, an artist involved in the unemployed movement, who was also shot and killed by the police.

We built dozens of puppets with several different collectives who in turn collaborated with the assemblies, street theater groups, radical students, feminist and autonomist groups. We also built puppets with an MTD and two popular assemblies. The process was far from smooth and I was constantly confronted with the reality that we had a small budget for street theater in a country faced with a brutal downfall into poverty and hunger. In the past, many of the radical activists and organizations who worked in poor communities refused to feed people as part of their organizing for fear of attracting those who were hungry but unwilling to commit to the struggle to some extent. This made sense in Argentina before the collapse of December 2001. At this time, the progressive organizations help people feed themselves.

Since mid nineties, the piqueteros organized piquetes (roadblocks) to force the government to pay the meager unemployment subsidies that are always on the verge of being cut or cut. When these workers had a job, they would strike for their right to a salary to support their families. Deprived of employment and conventional collective bargaining power, they blockaded roads to stop the circulation of goods. In this way, they gained the attention of the multinational corporations and the government who are responsible for their plight. They also fed people with “ollas populares”(soup kitchens), fed the children at the organizations daycare centers, made bricks at their coordinated microenterprises, manufacture crafts and recycle clothing. We participated in the olla popular and we shared our meals with our friends. The piqueteros were not willing to starve to death because of the corporation’s profits.

Three weeks before the assassination of Maxi and Darío, Oliver North met with the Argentine government. Shortly afterwards, when the piqueteros of Buenos Aires announced their intention of doing a piquete on July 26, the Eduardo Duhalde government warned them that such tactics would not be tolerated. On that day, the police attacked one of the piquetes, the one coordinated by the Anibal Verón. Two were killed and over a hundred people were arrested, beat up and tortured at the police station. The hall of the “Izquierda Unida,” a leftist political party, was raided. The government started a 48-hour campaign against the piqueteros, accusing them of being violent. Fifty thousand people took to the streets against state terrorism. Finally, the newspapers published the pictures that show how Darío Santillán was executed by the police over the dying body of Maxi Kosteki.

On July 26 around 5,000 people got together to protest state terrorism under the Puente Pueyrredón Bridge, main southern access to Buenos Aires, where the piquete had been repressed by the police the month before. For the first time since I started working with street theater, I saw a massive presence of puppets and props in a protest in Argentina. The protest was crowded with dozens of oversized cardboard puppets built after three weeks of intense discussions, construction and rehearsals. I coordinated the construction of a mobile collective mural about the repression. Around those walls we built a show based loosely on a Bread and Puppet piece about Carlo Giuliani’s death in Genoa in 2001. We were able to successfully convey the message that the piqueteros of Buenos Aires are honest families who are struggling against corporate globalization in defense of their right to life, dignified employment, and social change.

In 2003, a populist government was elected. Under the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the piquete tactic lost consensus. Although important groups of piqueteros continue to organize major piquetes, many have given up on that tactic that seemed to have worked well under blatantly repressive neoliberal governments but lost social consensus as the middle class’s economic and social situation improved. Autonomist organizations like MTD Solano, La Matanza, and others are instead focusing on being self-sustained and organizing their communities around their own microenterprises.

After reflecting on the situation of the social organizations in Argentina and their creative insurrection against a doomed system, a few friends and I decided to help create the argentina autonomista project (aap). The aim of the aap is improve the information and communication flows within Argentina and between activists there and the rest of the world. The aap has a website ( with information about the movements in Argentina and organizes delegations and internships of people from the U.S. and other countries who are interested in the struggle for a better world. The aap is touring a puppet show to raise awareness of the struggle of the Argentinean social movements and establish partnerships with other social organizations. The puppet show is used as a historical and political introduction to presentations by Argentinean organizers.

Theatrical Strategies and Ideologies

Augusto Boal traces the history of theater from the Greeks to Bertolt Brecht (Theater of the Oppressed) and reflects on the way this practice was taken away from the people -how it was transformed from a free celebration of everybody to a hierarchical event where a few would be on stage and the rest are passive spectators. Boal argues that Aristotle’s ‘coercive system of tragedy’ shows how moral values and political coercion were forced on the population. Under Machiavelli, theater represented exceptional individuals further removed from the people. In the bourgeois theater, the individual is shown as directing the world; in Brecht’s theater, the social forces are shown as modeling and dominating men and women. The individual is no longer a subject but an object of social forces, determined and oppressed by them. However, the Brechtian character is divided. As Boal points out, he is both subject and object. He is the object of surrounding forces and the subject of his own actions. In this way, he can understand and act so that he (and by extension the reader/spectator) can alter himself and improve his situation.

Boal claims that his theater is complementing what Brecht started by destroying the barriers that separate spectators from actors. In his theater everybody is a protagonist, necessary in the battle for social change. While Brecht’s poetics is that of an enlightened vanguard, where the spectator does not delegate power to the actor to think for him, but does delegate power to the actor to act for him, Boal attempts a poetics where the spectator does not delegate this power to the actor, but thinks and acts for himself.

I’m concerned with how we produce our art, what kind of dialogues we establish when working together. As a collective, how do we deal with power in our own process? I think that social change will come out of people who are working as a community, and that a community is built when people can work in democratic ways. When we take our puppets, props, banners and stilters to the streets,we are attempting to communicate through these artistic, democratic processes political messages in ways that can not only appeal to the general public, but inspire them to engage their own everyday struggles in new ways.

The importance of puppets in the streets was proven during the Seattle protests against the WTO, and in other conventions and summits that followed. The police in these instances seemed to understand the impact of puppets and street theater and have been very diligent in arresting puppeteers, raiding the warehouses where puppets were being built and confiscating props and tools used for building them, in a vain attempt to reduce the power of the protesters. A graffitti in Buenos Aires reminds us that the enemy is not that huge, we are just looking at it on our knees.

Leave a comment