A forceful expression of protest against colonial rule, El Güegüense is a satirical drama well known throughout Nicaragua, which is performed each year from 17 to 27 January during the feast of San Sebastián, patron saint of the city of Diriamba in Nicaragua’s Carazo province. El Güegüense, a synthesis of Spanish and indigenous cultures combining theatre, dance and music, is considered one of Latin America’s most distinctive colonial-era expressions.
The earliest texts were probably composed in the early eighteenth century. All together, they comprise 314 stories transmitted in Spanish, Basque and Nahuatl, the lingua franca of many Latin American peoples. The stories revolve around encounters between the Spanish colonial authorities and native Americans, represented particularly by the central character, El Güegüense, whose name derives from the Nahuatl term güegüe, a powerful elder figure in pre-Hispanic Nicaragua. The Güegüense defends himself against charges levelled against him by the colonial authorities through a series of clever verbal manoeuvres. Rather than directly confronting or challenging an authority, he attempts to appear consistently co-operative and compliant, while utilizing subterfuge to undermine Spanish authority.
Interspersed in street processions, the plays are generally performed by eight main characters supported by dancers. Violins, guitars and drums provide the musical accompaniment. Costumes, wooden masks, hats and other attributes differentiate the various characters. For example, Güegüense carries a whip while the Macho Raton is represented by a stylised horse head derived from indigenous folk tradition.
The tradition is familiar to most of Nicaragua’s predominantly Spanish-speaking population owing to the nationwide television coverage of the annual Saint’s Day procession. In fact, it is so well-known that Nicaraguans have coined the expression “to put on the Güegüense’s face” to refer to someone who outwardly appears to comply with authority while working subtly to undermine it.
Despite its popularity, El Güegüense is in danger of declining, and possibly disappearing, owing to several factors: the country’s severe economic crises, insufficient national and local support for performers and a lack of interest among young Nicaraguan people. Most of the custodians have only temporary employment and therefore little means to produce and maintain the objects related to the ceremony. In addition, many of those who are very active in transmitting their knowledge to future generations are already between 60 and 70 years of age.