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  • Modernizing Message, Mystical Messenger: The Teatro Petul in the Chiapas Highlands, 1954–1974
  • Stephen E. Lewis (bio)

The Mexican government’s National Indigenist Institute (Instituto Nacional Indigenista, or INI) was at a crossroads in early 1954. Three years after opening its pilot Indigenist Coordinating Center (Centro Coordinador Indigenista, or CCI) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, the INI had managed to launch several development projects in the highlands despite the hostility of local ladinos (non-Indians) and the indifference and distrust of most Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya communities. The INI operated nearly fifty bilingual schools, called Literacy Centers, but attendance figures were low, especially for girls. It had built four medical clinics, but most highland Maya still turned to shamans when they fell ill. Although water-borne and flea-borne diseases ravaged the indigenous population on a seasonal basis, most Tzeltals and Tzotzils resisted the INI’s vaccination and hygiene campaigns and refused to permit the encasement of their sacred springs. The INI also had trouble selling its consumer cooperatives. In short, it had established a foothold in a complicated region, but most Tzeltals and Tzotzils were reluctant to embrace its development programs.

The INI’s initial success in Chiapas was largely the result of a well-planned, anthropologically informed strategy. Using ethnographic data gathered by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and the University of Chicago, indigenistas trained a corps of bilingual indigenous cultural promoters (promotores culturales) to push INI programs in education, infrastructure development, agriculture, and public health in their home communities. Through the promoters, [End Page 375] the INI hoped to overcome more than four centuries of tense, exploitative ethnic relations in the highlands.

If indigenous cultural promoters helped the INI get started in the region, the CCI’s Department of Visual Aids created a variety of media to win more lasting indigenous support for INI programs. Surely its most successful innovation was a bilingual bicultural hand-puppet theatre, the Teatro Petul. Beginning in late 1954, the CCI used the puppets to promote all of its major development programs, particularly those related to education and public health. According to INI staff reports, children and adults talked and even argued with the puppets as if they were human. In some cases, adults queried Petul, the lead puppet, about birth control and marriage strategies, and children asked questions about the afterlife. In other words, while the CCI used Petul to promote its modernizing agenda, the highland Maya assimilated the puppets into their lives and—to a certain extent—they appropriated them.

This article relies primarily on the monthly reports of INI personnel who worked with the Teatro Petul in highland Chiapas. Historians are generally reluctant to draw so heavily on sources that are official in origin, but, in this case, the decision is merited, largely due to the nature of the INI’s pilot Coordinating Center in San Cristóbal. Here, in the 1950s, the INI introduced and experimented with its development plans, and INI staff produced reports that were refreshingly crisp and self-critical. They celebrated “successes,” to be sure, but they also reported on failed projects with brutal honesty.1 On occasion, the reports contained language that was variously paternalistic, essentializing, and even racist, and often said as much about the indigenistas as they did about the indígenas. Still, when used with appropriate care, reports from this particular Coordinating Center at this particular time can provide us with a reasonable approximation of how the Teatro Petul (and other innovations) fared. Given the lack of non-official written sources on this time period in highland Chiapas, these documents provide the best—and only—glimpse into the Western Hemisphere’s leading indigenista program at the height of its creative and intellectual power.

The Unlikely Emergence of the Teatro Petul

The Teatro Petul had a largely accidental birth. It was the product of the many limitations that hampered the CCI’s Department of Visual Aids in the early 1950s. The Department produced educational films, but showing them [End Page 376] required traveling by horseback on slippery footpaths to remote communities with a projector and an electric generator in tow. Meager budgets placed additional restrictions on film production...