Autism knows no boundaries. It pays no attention to skin color, language, or nationality. In Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico, a puppet maker discovered that some children who had never talked before could talk to his puppets. For 30 years, José Octavio Azcona y Juárez has been creating monos de calenda for festive occasions, which are frequent in Oaxaca. This state in southern Mexico has the largest population of indigenous people in North America and has a myriad of traditional celebrations.
Monos, as they are commonly called, are gigantic dolls carried in parades by strong, young men because they weigh over 20 pounds. They have huge floppy arms filled with pillow stuffing and dance to the rhythm of the band as they march through town. The puppet carrier has a peephole at the waistline, but folks seldom notice because they are laughing at the funny puppets with big eyes and wide smiles, dressed in colorful, mismatched taffeta clothing draped over a frame made of carrizo (a bamboo-like local reed).
Because he wants this centuries-old tradition to continue, Jose began making miniature monos that could be carried by children. Especially popular are his representations of television cartoon characters. “If they start young, they will still be fond of the puppets when they get older,” he says, telling about a 25-year-old man who still has the first mono he bought. He is now the supervisor of the Monos de Calenda for La Guelaguetza, a major festival in Oaxaca attended by people from all over the world.
It was quite by accident that José noticed his friend’s child with autism talking to one of the child-sized puppets. “He never talked before,” José says, “but there he was, laughing and chatting away to the puppet.” Not only that, on Father’s Day, the child made him a poster-sized card. Child-like scribbling said, “You are like a father to me.” A small balloon and red ribbon decorated the greeting. This card has a prominent place in José’s workshop and in his heart.
José explains that he doesn’t have a diploma or any kind of official certification. “Mi diploma es mi corazon,” he says, meaning, “My diploma is my heart.” What he likes most is that the dancing monos make people smile—Mexicans, foreigners, boys, and girls. He sells made-to-order monos and also brings his puppets to daycare centers, schools, and homes for children with mental and physical challenges. His reward for these sessions are the smiles of the children. “Con cada sonrisa que la gente me regala es alimento por me alma.” (Every smile that is given is food for my soul).
His funny, creative puppets have not gone unrecognized. José has a permanent display at the prestigious National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and also in the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca. He gets orders for religious fiestas, birthday parties, and weddings from throughout Mexico. The facial features are made of paper mache and paint—some from his imagination, others bearing resemblance to the purchaser.
When asked which one is his favorite mono, José shrugs. His favorite “customer,” however, is a child with autism who laughs and talks to a mini-mono.
Geri Anderson has had a career in writing for newspapers, magazines, and public relations. In the 1970s and 80s, she was an instructor at Broward Community College in Florida and also worked as a counselor for troubled teens. Geri has written a memoir, Oh Oaxaca, Living, Laughing and Learning in Mexico, about her life in retirement. Articles about her travels in Mexico can be found at http://www.mexconnect.com. Marcus Wilkinson’s blog about all things Mexican can be found at: http://www.mexicancorrido.com
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year