Puppets on Cuba’s chest

This interview could also be called “How a book saved a chapter of Cuban culture”, because that’s Mito, verdad y retablo: El Guiñol de los hermanos Camejo y Pepe Carril, volume published by Ediciones Union written by Rubén Darío and Norge Espinosa.

This book cannot be left once opened. Cannot be closed once read. It enlightens and twists you. It plunges you in that “greater Trinity for the national scene” founded by the National Puppet Theatre, which gave flesh and sap to Pelusín del Monte-considered the national puppet and expressly asked to Dora Alonso, who dazzled the entire Cuba and took his firelight beyond.

Mito, verdad y retablo: El Guiñol de los hermanos Camejo y Pepe Carril, makes you live with its findings and falls, the circumstances surrounding artistic creation in Cuba, either during the hatching of the 1960s than in the gorge of the 1970s. And when putting away the shadows, definitely, also becomes a healing book.

One of its authors , Rubén Darío Salazar Taquechel (Santiago de Cuba, 1963), has taken Cuban art to several continents. His curriculum is overwhelming. In recent years he has just won the Avellaneda Plate and the Omar Valdés Special Prize, both for the work of life. In 2014, the play Cuento de amor en un barrio barroco, performed by Teatro Estaciones –theater group he has headed since its inception in 1994, earned the Villanueva Critics Award and Caricato Prize (UNEAC) for best staging.

Artistic director, actor, puppeteer, theater researcher and professor of theater, settled for years in Matanzas; Rubén Darío is primarily an indefatigable spirit. This meeting could not fail to be.

What is the genesis of the book and what circumstances surrounded its conduction?

It is important how much you devote yourself to a profession or a job, having clear that this election was not a whim but a conscious and necessary decision: in my case, and also an in love decision. I grew up in front of Santiago de Cuba Puppet Theatre: entering the small room of San Basilio Street was reaching the castle of dreams.

When I graduated as an actor at the Higher Institute of Arts in Havana, in 1987, I knew that I would always be linked to puppets and not for lack of options in the theater for adults, but because it was what interested and interests me.

I went to Matanzas; Teatro Papalote was there, a group of national and international reference. While touring with that group by France, I participated in the Charleville-Mezierez World Festival of Puppets, there I found the Romanian master puppeteer Margareta Niculescu. In the dialogue she mentioned t he Camejo brothers and Carril, she knew them since the 1960s, when they went to Romania with the National Puppet Theatre.

My head began to spin as an uncontrollable wheel. I knew those names as who has read about something historical, mentioned in a class or theoretical seminar; but without judgment of the true value of those names that still throb in the memory of international personalities. I was unaware that their meanings would make me understanding so many milestones, gaps and silences. It was 1991, and as soon as I get to Cuba, I decided that would be my main task , attached to my work as an actor, learning, investigating, and scrutinizing our national puppeteer lineage.

I had no idea what I would find, indeed, it was not easy. On these essential names, apart from silence, there were many accommodated and fearing people, who preferred the silence, the almost total ignorance of a bright and defining legacy for the whole history of Cuban theater.

After so much research of newsletters, albums and memories … What is, according to you, the main contribution of this amazing trio to Puppet Theatre, Performing Arts and the Cuban culture?

The immeasurable work of Camejo brothers and Pepe Carril, along with their incredible team of puppeteers, actors, directors, technicians and advisors, ranges from the initiatory period of 1949 to the 1980s. Carril joins them in 1956, although he already worked with puppets in Mayari since 1952 or earlier. They mark a before and after in Cuba and the Americas theatrical history.

Carucha, Bertica and Pepe Camejo, under Pepe Carril, in the 50s / Photo courtesy of the author
Carucha, Bertica and Pepe Camejo, under Pepe Carril, in the 50s / Photo courtesy of the author

One of our interviewees, the brilliant cartoonist, illustrator and engraver José Luis Posada, who worked as a scenic designer with them- said the Cuban puppet theater was BC and AC, like the definition of time referring to Jesus Christ, which has the same initial letter, Before Camejo and After Camejo.

The rescue and promotion of the most authentic Cuban culture was a formidable task, either coming from peasant culture as Pelusín del Monte, created by the unforgettable Dora Alonso- or from African influences through investigations by Lidya Cabrera, Miguel Barnet or Rogelio Martinez Fure; passing through the musical contributions of authors such as Leo Brouwer, Marta Valdes, Olga de Blanck and Hector Angulo, just to mention some names.

The search for a different visual image –I go back to Posada and Raul Martinez-, of C uban texts created for them by Abelardo Estorino or José Ramón Brene; the puppeteer recreation for children and adults, without prejudice, of international musical and literary works signed by Debussy, Prokofiev, Valle Inclan, Tagore, Fernando de Rojas, Giraudoux, Alfred Jarry, Mayakovsky, Lorca or Saint-Exupery; dancing expressiveness of choreographers like Guido González del Valle and Ivan Tenorio … all that defines them as pioneers of an undeniable forefront in our view, makers of art applauded and admired on the island and beyond.

They achieved a height in the genre that we still pursue as something unattainable, but ours, and is the pride of this nation. In the splendid moments of their work, people of culture said that the Alonso, Revuelta and Camejo all were in Cuba.

A two-hand written book is usually a formidable challenge. What was the strategy adopted by you and by a critic, poet and playwright as Norge Espinosa? Where did you find communicating vessels, and how did you overcome the points of disagreement?

Since 1999 we began field research, based on interviews and personal testimonies of firsthand witnesses. The research in books and magazines started a little earlier, I was helped by the sensitivity and interest in puppetry of my colleague and friend Yanisbel Victoria Martinez. She went on to study at the Charleville-Mezieres International Institute of Puppetry, in France, and from there she continued helping me; but it was not the same, there was much to investigate and discover here.

The master puppeteer from Las Villas Allán Alfonso gave me the coordinates to get to Carucha Camejo who lived in New York. The Beltran-Camejo family of Cuba became a great ally to get the book that everyone knows. Today the family that remains in Cuba is my family, also those who are outside, for stronger reasons than consanguinity; reasons relating to the exposure of a heritage that belongs to us, too long in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity like this.

Norge Espinosa, not only my colleague, but also my friend and the brother that I do not have; offered to go on with me in the investigation. We both experienced hearty and revealing interviews: I thank him to trust me, accompany me with his wisdom and special talent for writing to form a publication that made us happier than unhappy. We had to listen to quite a few harsh testimonies, speaking of injustice, extremism and oblivion; then compare their reality with documents that exist, speaking of very difficult times for the national culture.

We had no points of disagreement; a work like this must grow in communion of ideas, in the healthy and frank exchange fleeing from useless grandstanding to achieve goals such as ours. Norge had a very good idea to conceive the book as a novel, a decision that I approved and he completed with an overview of the country that did not exclude anything. The political and economic milestones that our country lived were included along with the artistry of all genres.

A book like this is in unison, a party, an unveiling and a pain. How much has it left you as a human being and as a professional of theater for children? How do you interpret in the light of today, from your position artist and Cuban, those unfortunate moments of dogmatism and censorship of the seventies that ended with a fertile and tireless creation as the one of Camejo and Carril?

I always try to be consistent with what I do, defend and love. I did not devote myself to Puppet Theater only for receiving applause after the show; but to conquer for this beautiful and ancient profession, the necessary dignity, respect and place it deserves for everything special that defines and enhances it. With this criterion as a weapon and shield, I dedicated myself to organize events around the world of altarpieces, actions that are not confined only to the national level. Everyone should know what is done here now, our origins, covering many more personalities and groups than the Camejo brothers and Carril, although their work was and still is a creative paradigm to study and follow.

Publishing books, making exhibitions, workshops, seminars, teaching at the University of the Arts on the puppeteer universe, complement and fill me. In this endeavor and consecration is the hand of all those dead and alive that precede me and accompany me right now, with an identical passion in dreams and purposes. It is a legacy that I carry with me as a pride that has nothing to do with arrogance, but rather with a desire to share all that I possess as a human being and as an artist.

That is the vital summary of a book like Mito, verdad y retablo… also the notice and warning in capital letters that what happened in the so-called Gray Quinquennium is something that should not be repeated. The cultural and human cost is priceless; it leaves wounds and so strong gaps that border with the disappearance of the best of our cultural heritage.

There are many ways to die: undercutting, exclusion, silence. Invisibility in life is a way of dying that later or earlier will claim justice required. I hope it was a mistake not to repeat ever, for the good of the wonderful utopia of this homeland dreamed by Martí with all and for the good of all.

Tell us about your immediate projects, the scene, research, the letters…

I was born in Santiago de Cuba, son of a mambi and unionist family whose last name is Taquechel, it is something that always accompanies me as an artist, the warrior and avenging spirit of my ancestors. For me, it is essential that mixture of sensitivity and courage, it is the mark of all my projects, supported by a creative team that helps me meeting my dreams and chimeras.

Teatro de Las Estaciones is my other family, the one I formed 20 years ago with my partner Zenén Calero. It is full of virtues and defects that I assume on each new purpose. I live here and now with eyes in the past and the future as an uneasy watchman, head of a household that is always with doors and windows open.

We premiered in 2014 two very different projects for children: Cuento de amor en un barrio barroco, a Caribbean musical scene with puppets and live orchestra (Miguel Faílde Orchestra) starring the highly original music of my countryman William Vivanco, and with him as the main maker of a performance that appeals to Antillean fairy tales. The other staging is for adults and is called El irrepresentable paseo de Buster Keaton, a tribute to Federico García Lorca, to his link with surrealism and contemporary anxieties of the men, love, death, all spiced with objects, artifacts, music and dance.

In 2015 I will be back on the steps of Martí, and I think of a new project for adults inspired by a famous opera that speaks of sensuality and freedom, therefore I investigate about the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque, which is pretty much, and analyze the link between the puppets and the lyrical art, which many do not know and has seed here in a work written by Carpentier and Caturla, in 1931.

I write every Friday on “Retablo Abierto”, my column in the Cuban cultural magazine La Jiribilla, and I am preparing a new book with the correspondence that I held for nearly 10 years with Carucha Camejo. In her letters, Carucha always wrote me not to forget her, legitimate aspiration for someone who had Cuba and its puppet theater sitting on her chest as an eternal talisman….



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