Jessai Flores

In Puerto Rican puppeteer Manuel Morán’s “latinized” reimagination of Pinocchio, “Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio,” “pregunatitis” — or “questionitis” — is a curiosity that proves deadly. Morán’s Lobo, a scheming coyote and a stand-in for the “coyotes” who smuggle Latin American migrants to the U.S., enchants a young Pinocho with promises of a world where “all your dreams come true.” The coyote’s teasing interrogation brings Pinocho to pose too many questions himself, luring him from his studious, nearly-human life in Mexico, past the fences and searchlights of the border to el otro lado, the other side. 

A superstar in the expansive world of Theater for Young Audiences, or TYA, Morán reinvented the story of Pinocchio in 2009, producing a full-length, musical play that playfully incarnates the threatening uncertainties of surviving as an immigrant in America. For its twisted hypnotics, artful readaptation and insistence upon celebrating our loved ones, ourselves, and Latine diasporas, “Viva Pinocho!” is Morán’s favorite script. It also represents Morán’s radiant repertoire of bilingual community-based musical theater which, as it translates classical tales, Latin American folklore and the storytelling legacy of Latinidad into children’s theater, transmits radical hope.

Since founding his TYA organization Teatro SEA — Society of the Educational Arts; also, in Spanish, an invitation “to be” — in New York City in 1985, Morán has crafted original theater expressly for thousands of kids and families, from the Lower East Side to San Juan. “We’re not trying to hide or sugarcoat reality,” he said, alluding to “Viva Pinocho!” “That is undermining the kid’s mind. I am hoping that I could be touching people, touching their life and giving them a sense of purpose, to find themselves.” The challenge to stage stories that are culturally affirming for Latine kids, young adults and families historically neglected by U.S. arts institutions inspires Morán. He continued, “I feel that through theater, I can say ‘it is fine to be bicultural, it is fine to be bilingual.’ It’s actually fantastic. And … [you can] build your own reality.” 

The story of Pinocho’s journey embodies Morán’s educational mission of offering kids truth, purpose and the creative fabric to craft their own realities. Marketed as a dreamy, lucrative “lugar muy bonito y divertido,” the “other side” turns out to be anything but: Pinocho encounters an amusement park, modeled loosely after Carlo Collodi’s Land of Toys in the Italian novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” where young migrant workers toil under the menacing grin, the lurid laser-blue gaze, and the deafening voice of Uncle Sam the “carnival operator.” Here, all immigrant entertainers must constantly amuse and appear amused: marionette dancers “controlled by strings” suffer from fatigue and manipulation while skeleton mariachi singers afflicted by “forgetful disease” — or “dejar de ser” — forget the lyrics to “Cielito Lindo.” Meanwhile, not one character can pronounce Pinocho’s name correctly, a reminder of his otherness as an extraño or, as Uncle Sam puts it, an “illegal alien.” With Uncle Sam’s betrayal, we realize the darkness of the Coyote’s insistence that Pinocho simply douse his uncertainties with laughter.

But Morán intentionally offers Pinocho a way out from the play’s tragedies — family separation, immigrant labor and cultural exploitation, the menace of “dejar de ser” — with a chance to define his own future and for the audience to define theirs. Upon Pinocho’s triumphant rescue of his father from a U.S. Navy whale-submarine, the narrator explains that “there are people who say” Pinocho returned home to study and support his father, while “otros dicen” that he returned to “al otro lado” to fight for immigrant rights and the eradication of the “Forgetful Disease.” Pinocho resists Uncle Sam’s exploitative demands to “pay off your debt,” instead using his bravery to fight for his community and his loved ones.




Morán grew up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, where he first discovered his love for puppetry in the patios of his elementary school. One day, the troupe of Puerto Rican puppeteer Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero (1923-2003) paid Morán’s school a visit. A vigorous TYA advocate, former director of the Yale Dramat and the subject of Morán’s dissertation, Lavandero founded the Miniteatro Infantil Rural, a “rolling theater” that traveled far and wide across Puerto Rico to entertain kids — and a young Morán counted himself among them. Complete with live musicians, actors and puppets, the company performed Lavandero’s “La Plenópera del Empache,” or “The Bellyache Opera,” a story of a young boy whose gluttonous appetite lands him a stomach ache, a fortune-telling and a punishment. “I was mesmerized. It was my first time actually seeing live theater … and that really gave me a purpose. I found my passion,” Morán recounts. Upon his return home, he revealed his ambitions to his family and began assembling boxes for puppet theaters from the spare materials of his father’s furniture store. As early as third grade, Morán had a show up his sleeves. And thankfully, Morán’s family supported his vision — phrased carefully, at the time. “I had promised my mom: okay, I cannot be a lawyer or a medical doctor, but I will be a doctor of theater!” he reminisced with a chuckle. At 16, Morán entered the University of Puerto Rico’s drama program, then continued his postgraduate studies of educational and musical theater at New York University. 

Now an award-winning TYA director, producer, actor and playwright with a child of his own, Morán wishes to inspire kids just as the pioneering Lavandero did years ago. This April, Morán and his company relaunched his puppet festival Títeres pa’l campo — “Puppets for the Countryside” — in Puerto Rico, where they performed and workshopped in schools, plazas, libraries and theaters, some located in his hometown of Vega Baja. Teatro SEA is also active in Stamford, Connecticut, where they performed Morán’s latest play, “César Chávez and the Migrants,” in late April at the Charter Oak Cultural Center. 

Morán says that the thrills of youth theater depend first and foremost on community access. “The majority of the work that we do, it doesn’t happen on stage,” Morán said. While Teatro SEA welcomes families often into its live theater at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center in Manhattan, some of its most fruitful work comes from performing in hundreds of schools, parks and libraries. “We are in the communities … there’s never been a disconnection between our community and the creators.” Bringing theater to where kids reside might not carry the glamor of SEA’s well-equipped theater, but meeting them where they are — sometimes long distances from the nearest arts center — energizes theatergoers and the theatermakers alike. On numerous visits, young spectators and their caretakers have approached Morán to share tales from their youth. Morán said, “Some people come to us and say, ‘Ah, my mother used to tell me this story … what are you going to do with that story?’”

Such adventures can spark revelations: when Morán decided to make a play about Pedro Animal, a Dominican folktale passed down orally, the interviews he conducted with elderly Dominicans in Washington Heights’ senior centers helped him reconstruct the legend. Sitting beside Morán, they regaled him with memories and jokes — some more bawdy than others. “They were feeding me with stories,” Morán said. After much research, his comedic puppet show “Pedro Animal Falls in Love” emerged as the romantic end — to be performed this May at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Stamford, Connecticut. And one might read “Los Grises,” one of Morán’s more recent works, as a love letter to elderly storytellers. This pantomimed, Bolero-, Tango-, Mambo-swinging play celebrates senior community members who take their audiences down their “memory lanes.” In “Nico y el súper abuelo,” a child struggles with the loss of his abuelo, finding healing in soccer and cello, his grandfather’s own beloved hobbies. “We have lost so many grandpas and grandmothers … [these past two years],” said Morán. “Who’s talking to the kids about that?” 




What fuels Morán and his company’s creative work is the people they serve, and a desire to bring pride and laughter — real, freeing laughter, worlds away from the sort demanded by Lobo the Coyote — to their largely bilingual, immigrant communities. Amid a lack of representation in theater, young Latine audiences often find themselves lacking the “feeling that they are owners of something,” said Morán. He continued, “We’re in this limbo, you know, in this in-between where we do not belong here, or we do not belong there.” Thanks to the vibrant visibility — a tango-dancing Cinderella in “Cenicienta Tanguera” — enchanting rhythms — a band of Mexican guitarristas in “César Chavez” — and even the fragrant aromas of Moran’s productions, the immersive medium of puppet theater helps reverse these anxieties. “Not only do you hear the expressions, the accents, the rhythms, the smells [of our cultures] — in some of those cases we include real food!” 

As Morán’s vast repertoire illustrates, for a diaspora or a neighborhood or a child or a wooden puppet to build their own reality, the past needs reimagining — an endeavor of immense educational value. In these efforts, Morán finds utility in classic European children’s folktales: stories like Cinderella, Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which some might consider tired relics of the Western canon, Morán sees as worthy blueprints whose “Latinized” rewriting can fulfill his communities’ needs. 

“Some people like to look at [my rewritings, and say,] ‘What? You’re doing classical tales?’” Morán said. “Yes! Because for me, they are a tool to motivate new audiences to come to the theater and to see something you know.” Hence Morán proposes Pinocho’s sombrerito and the airs of “Cielito Lindo” as a cure to the “Forgetful Disease” and the elegant tango dancing and live Argentinian band in “A Tango Dancing Cinderella.” Even the molcajete sitting on the three little bears’ dining table reveals Teatro SEA’s attunement to the details that allow spectators to feel at home — and feel that they own the story. 

The smiling, arm-waving “Watchman” narrator, present only at the beginning and end of “Viva Pinocho!”, attests to the warmth Morán conveys to his audience. “Ahhh it’s you … acérquense, no tengan miedo! Don’t be scared, it’s just me,” he hollers in his opening salutation to the audience in SEA’s theater. Morán’s cheery welcome brings families into a chorus of chuckles and even compels a youngster, conquistado el miedo, to scream blissfully: “meeeeeeeeeeee!” And in a burst of music, the Watchman renders each of the suitcases washed up in his “Lost & Found Station” into a jukebox boasting melodies from across Latin America. Finally, Morán’s deft shape-shifting in “Viva Pinocho!” adds another layer of familiarity to the show: his presence is constant but ever-changing as he adopts every one of the play’s characters, masked, marionette-wielding or, as the Watchman, his face fully visible

Still, much of Morán’s most empowering work belongs to what he calls “cultural preservation,” the puesta en escena of folktales rooted in the oral traditions of Caribbean and Latin American indigenous peoples. “I’m very committed to my culture,” he explained, and SEA’s modern reclamation of centuries-old folktales — like Puerto Rico’s “Juan Bobo” and Cuba’s “Cucarachita Martina” — reconnect families with their own culture. For one, Lavandero’s “Bellyache Opera,” the same show that captivated Morán as a young boy, now features in SEA’s original repertoire, accompanied by an array of Afro-Puerto Rican plenas, a bomba-inspired genre of popular song some label as a periódico cantado, steeped in humor. Often, Morán discovers some adults attending his shows without kids. Their justification? “They’re all [like], ‘no, no, we’re coming to see the show by ourselves. We want to remember [this] story that my mother told me.” The pleasure of seeing age-old folklore revived onstage through music and dance calls out to just about every generation.

For Morán, preserving the culture also means celebrating Latine heroes and heroines. “We need heroes, we need people that look like us, that sound like us, and that … have done extraordinary things,” he said. This is where SEA’s collection of biográficos come in: Morán has produced puppet shows dedicated to Frida Kahlo, Roberto Clemente and most recently, César Chavez. In each production, actors personify the icons themselves, or embody them through puppetry. Regardless, a puppeteered partner is always on hand — literally. 

In one scene of “Mi superhéroe Roberto Clemente,” a salute to the baseball player and humanitarian, actors lift up a puppeteered Clemente gracefully to the moon, where he dreams of playing ball — only to descend softly into his mother’s arms, swaying to the rhythms of her song. Morán’s play even represents Clemente’s tragic death — after a plane crash, his body was never found — leading to conversations with young spectators about how they’ve worked through family tragedies. “In my case,” Morán added, “I always try to end in a celebration because I feel even if there’s a tragedy, we are [still] celebrating [their legacy].” In another production, “The Pura Belpré Project,” an actor dressed as Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City and a pioneer of Latine youth theater, reenacts her magical “Bilingual Story Hours” in parks, schools and libraries — just as Belpré did decades ago. Morán hopes to center his next biográfico on Miriam Colón, his late friend and the founder of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. “I feel that she has not been given the credit … We are doing theater in the United States, Latino theater because her — she opened the doors for all of us,” he said.

The centering of actors as well as puppets — as Morán reminded me, “it’s not [purely] a puppet show” — serves to make las bellas artes a living genre where the intimate relationship an actor, puppet, and audience share feels as loving and as human as if Myrta Silva, Celia Cruz or even Juan Bobo themselves were living and breathing before the crowd. 




“La Cucarachita Martina,” a worldwide sensation native to Cuban folklore and resurrected by Belpré in New York’s public libraries decades ago, is the story of a cockroach who, wooed by a parade of creatures, finally chooses to marry a mouse. Morán’s rock-and-roll recreation of Martina is a testament to his theater’s reverence for music and dance: in her first song, Martina sings the first lines of “La Cucaracha,” a Mexican folk song that parodies, for one, cockroaches’ inability to walk on two legs: “La cucaracha, la cucaracha-a-a-a … ya no puede caminar-r-r, porque no tie-n-e, porque le fa-a-lta-a-a-a-an — las dos patitas de atrá-á-ás.”

Despite the “Cucaracha” anthem’s insistence that Martina and her kin cannot walk, Morán’s cucaracha can walk — and stand, dance, sing, fly, twirl, hover — with just as much liveliness as the show’s ebullient emcee who, clad in a green suit and Converses, narrates Martina’s adventures. In the joy of Morán’s Martina, there is something especially liberating: the play’s silliness, from its towering puppeteered dalmations to its outspoken hens to its emcee’s buoyant steps, invites its audience to take a deep breath and laugh.

As Morán explains, the landscape of children’s theater has shifted dramatically since the time of Belpré, Lavandero, and Colón. Governmental and institutional investment in children’s theater has dwindled in recent decades, making Martina’s musical reincarnation — whose folkloric value might not appear “relevant” to every corner of the funding world — ever more radical. Today, youth arts are among the first to fall victim to budget cuts, and the powerful rarely fail to sideline children’s theater. “[The prejudice against TYA] is really ridiculous,” Marón lamented. “Because it takes the same amount of work, the same amount of resources … You know, why are we seen as a second class kind of theater?” Meanwhile, since the turn of the century — and amid natural, financial and political disaster — Puerto Rican youth arts programs are more under-resourced than ever. 

Despite these frustrating realities, the same hope that Morán instills in Pinocho motivates his own reactions to TYA’s neglect: “[My solution is] basically doing more!” he said. For Morán and his company, “more” means co-hosting puppet festivals in Puerto Rico and showcasing the island’s artists; bringing the Pura Belpré Project to every corner NYC; resurrecting Lavandero’s late director’s “Miniteatro Infantil Rural” in order to reach young Puerto Ricans in the farthest corners of the island; co-curating a museum exhibit at the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute on the history of Puerto Rican puppetry; directing a documentary that chronicles pan-Caribbean puppetry and interviews its stars; transforming his plays into a series of books; organizing virtual talleres and theater festivals to teach a generation of young learners how to build puppets and dance to capoeira, bomba, and plena and calling for New York City budget justice and BIPOC arts investment. 

On March 21, Teatro SEA celebrated the International Day of World Puppetry by debuting Morán’s latest play on Chavez — “it’s not a holiday, but for us puppeteers it is.” In our conversation, Morán didn’t hide his passion for his art form: “Puppets are magical … They’re an amazing theatrical resource,” he told me. And for anyone intent on exploring puppetry, Morán’s advice is reassuringly simple: “There’s not a science to it. It’s really learning by doing, so don’t be afraid to dig into it.”