The Making of El Museo del Barrio's Three Kings Puppets By: Polina Porras Sivolobova

El Museo del Barrio
Jan 5, 2017 3:18PM

A journal entry by Polina Porras Sivolobova, maker of El Museo's Three Kings puppets that march with us during our annual Three Kings Day parade and celebration, taken place in the streets of East Harlem NYC. 

Image by Sol Aramendi

In 2009, I was commissioned by El Museo del Barrio to create three puppets for their annual Three Kings Day Parade, celebrated on January 6th. The idea was to create a mobile set of puppets which would replace the previous, extremely heavy puppets. I designed and constructed three wearable puppets each 14 feet tall and 15 pounds. They represent the Taino Three Kings: Gaspar, Melchor and Balthazar. The story of The Three Kings, or Los Tres Reyes, is one of hope. As the legend follows, the three wise men traveled an arduously long distance, believing that they would find an infant to offer their gifts to along the way. The Taino Three Kings, that is, the indigenous, Caribbean three kings, are iconographically marked by references to Caribbean landscapes and culture. Tropical trees, flowing oceans, and Caribbean flowers, and animals permeated the voyage of the Taino kings. Likewise, the gifts of the indigenous kings are not the traditional gold, myyrh, and frankincense, but instead, include trees, bats, celestial domes, and turtles, all of which, are symbols of Taino cosmology.

Polina Porras' original sketches for puppet designs.

In designing these puppets, I wished to both translate these universal elements of hope and altruism, as well as retain the Taino cultural aspects that distinguished the kings. I integrated these themes into the humanlike characters that I created, which I anticipated would resonate with the Latin American communities residing in East Harlem in New York City. 

January 6th in New York is typically a frigid day, yet, the Latin American and Caribbean celebrations of Three Kings Day provide spiritual warmth through festivities lush with color, dance and song. I was, subsequently, compelled to design vibrant and colorful puppets. The portable aspect of the design can be attributed to the philosopher and movement specialist Chris Moffett, who developed the simplistic, light structure that enables the puppeteers to walk with ease throughout the mile-long march. As they walk, surrounded by Madrinas, Padrinos, camels, musicians and children, they gracefully turn their heads to the parade-goers and offer a welcoming gaze. Children and adults alike are amazed at the height and seemingly autonomous movement of the puppets, they ask, how can these enormous figures be walking by themselves? 

The secret: a professional puppeteer wears each puppet on a backpack, and the puppeteer is hidden from the audience’s view. 

This year, my Taino Three Kings puppets mark their seventh year; they have since become part of El Museo’s collection and iconography. Attuned to El Museo's historical roots as a site for Puerto Rican educational, cultural and artistic exchange, the puppets are visited by school children and high authorities alike as they sit patiently in El Cafe waiting for their turn to walk in the parade. I will never forget how during their inaugural parade in 2010 a woman exclaimed in a voice of high excitement “Mis reyes, mis reyes, ahi van mis reyes!” At that moment I realized that one of my goals as an artist had been reached: I had created works of art that were immediately accepted into the hearts of my community. The Kings were her kings.

Article edited by: Daniella Brito

El Museo del Barrio