A crowd watches a giant handmade puppet, in Chiapas, MX

The Healing Power of Laughter

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen writes about his return trip to the Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas, where he collaborated with Wise Fool New Mexico and other artists to bring laughter to Zapatista communities in the midst of ongoing hostilities. 

Moshe Cohen

We head back to San Cristobal for a day of rest (Easter Sunday) and then off to Oaxchuc where we perform for a beautiful crowd of mostly traditionally-dressed women and kids. It’s in this town that we finally discover the local interpretation of the headless puppet we incorporated in our show. We had created it to represent a government/military/politician type person: Faceless and beyond reach, always demanding papers and giving speeches about nothing. The clowns eventually disrobe this character to reveal a tiny man inside, a weasel who has nothing to offer.

Lo and behold, the people are seeing a whole different thing, something not political at all. Rather, there’s a very popular myth of a headless ghost, reinforced by another popular myth saying that people’s heads are cut off to build new road surfaces. The next day our show is canceled and we spend the time searching out a political poster of the PRI candidate and making it into a head for our politician puppet. As we were to see later, this became a big hit and dramatically changed the local interpretation of our show!

We leave at dawn the next day to drive for three hours along a terrible dirt road and perform in the tiny community of San Jose La Nueva. The women of the town greet us with excitement, saying the children there have never seen a clown. As the show unfolds we begin to realize it’s highly unlikely anyone there has ever seen a clown. Although they seem to be enjoying it greatly, they look pretty confused and overwhelmed! It’s a rather confusing show for us too, as we had to leave our musician and one of our clowns sick in bed and it’s a stretch to do the whole show without them.

On the 27th we head out to Nicolas Ruiz with great anticipation. We had heard many tales of this town, which had been fighting to remain an autonomous community since before the Zapatista revolution. We arrive at the community center where we’re greeted by the women’s association and whisked away to eat and relax. Our show is set for that evening and there are many plans made for other events which will follow our performance. The audience is huge, surrounding us and enjoying the show with peals of laughter. They’re especially appreciative of our PRI candidate head!

Afterward, the local marimba band treats us to a performance and people stage a reenactment of an historical battle between the town and the paramilitary forces. It’s scary and a bit upsetting to see kids dressed up in black uniforms, throwing firecrackers at each other and dying, but it’s also a powerful means of preserving oral history, which the strength of the community depends upon. The next day we lead a giant-puppet building workshop with about 70 kids. They work in teams, with an incredible understanding of cooperation, and the puppets they create are beautiful! When the puppets are finished, our women hosts proudly lead a procession through the town square. They had painted a banner commemorating our visit, which reads Payasas Sin Fronteras 2000. We leave our mark with painted faces and a stash of supplies for future art workshops. It’s hard to say goodbye to the town of Nicolas Ruiz, but we pack into the van and headed back to San Cristobal for our last show of the journey.

We arrive at La Colonia Cinco de Marzo on the 29th of April, under gray and rainy skies. This colony of displaced people, who have been driven from their land and homes by the low-intensity war, clings to the edge of San Cristobal’s tourist town and smells of sadness and illness. As we set up our show, we befriend a small posse of kids and send them off to inform the community that the shack, which serves as both school and meeting house, is now officially a clown school for the day and nothing but fun is to be had! The little wooden room is soon full to overflowing with kids making small rod puppets. Women with babies in tow peek in the door, but they soon join in when they find out clown school is for all ages. That tiny, dark space is a crazy, hectic and glorious scene of mayhem and creativity as we churn out puppets and wait for the rains to clear.

Eventually we have to start in the drizzle, but our diehard crowd sticks with us and we have a great show despite the weather. It’s all the sweeter for the presence of our guides and friends from the Cordinadura who arrive en masse to see the show. After we pack up and are about to head out, we’re invited into the meeting house once again, where we’re thanked for remembering the poor and bringing laughter to those who are so often forgotten.

An incredible last show is quickly followed by a night to remember, as the people of the Cordinadura throw a going-away party for us. Our guides honor us by telling us that they had been more than a bit skeptical about bringing a bunch of gringas to the communities. They had thought it a ridiculous waste of time, an idea that would only serve to make us Americans feel better. On the contrary, while traveling with us they saw people open up their hearts to us like never before, and they realized the importance of this work. It’s a great gift to know that our guides, who work hard within the movement every day, see the transformation and healing power of laughter first-hand, and are changed by it.

A big thanks to Payasos Sin Fronteras for their collaboration and of course to all you folks who helped make it happen!

(Photos copyright and credit to Jamie Smith)

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