UTRGV Student Theatre Group Reaching New Heights … Literally

Giant puppets wow children at performances

by Maria Elena Hernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – It’s hard not to notice the latest additions to the UTRGV theater department: They’re 11 feet tall.

The towering figures are puppets called mojigangas, which originated in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. People place the puppets on their shoulders, making them much larger than life.

“They built these puppets to parade them around the streets, and they dance around,” said Lucero Rodriguez, a UTRGV senior from Reynosa with a double major in theater and applied mathematics.

Rodriguez is president of the UTRGV Latino Theatre Initiatives, a student organization working to include more Latino culture into theater in the Rio Grande Valley. The university’s Transforming Our World Strategic Plan awarded funds to the organization for the puppets.

Building them involved a bit of a learning curve. Rodriguez had never actually seen the mojigangas used in Mexico. The group watched videos on YouTube to learn how to make them.

“They were using bamboo wood, and they were using machetes,” she said.

Because of safety concerns, the students took a different approach.

“We tried to think of a more practical way to do it, but still have the concept and bring the culture in,” Rodriguez said.

The early prototypes are scattered near the completed mojigangas like fallen soldiers, reminders of the feverish work to complete the puppets before LTI’s April 25 deadline, so the organization could feature them in a show at an elementary school.

Lucero Rodriguez, president of the UTRGV Latino Theatre Initiatives, stands on a chair to pose with the UTRGV mojigangas, enormous puppets the student organization made this spring. The group is including the 11-foot-tall puppets in a play they’ll be performing in October in Brownsville and Edinburg. In the play, a girl’s homemade dolls come to life. Photo: Maria Elena Hernandez/UTRGV

Dr. Eric Wiley, a theatre professor in the UTRGV College of Fine Arts whose spring acting class helped construct the mojigangas, said there were times when they debated whether to cancel the show.

“But we just stayed up late,” he said. “We came in earlier and we just persevered. Some people who were in LTI before and have graduated, they came and helped us. My wife came in and helped us. Everyone was pitching in. The costume people stayed up late and we got it together.”

The hard work was well worth it, when the group performed for students in Donna and Brownsville, he said.

“Oh, it was thrilling,” Wiley said. “It was so much fun for the kids and for us to finally get these puppets out there.”

Including the mojigangas in a play is outside their traditional use.

“Normally, you would find these giant puppets in street parades. And we hope to do that also,” Wiley said. “What’s different about these puppets is that they are actually made for a play that I wrote for them.”

Rodriguez said the mojigangas definitely made an impression on the young audience.

“They were super excited. They were smiling and every time the puppets would come in, they were like, ‘Look, look at that one,’” she said. “It’s something magical for them.”

Performances of the play, complete with mojigangas, are planned in October at the UTRGV Performing Arts Center in Edinburg and at the TSC Performing Arts Center in Brownsville.

The puppets also are expected to make an appearance in a Day of the Dead event, and the theater group hopes to collaborate with the university’s mariachi and folklórico groups in the future.

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