In Alba Garcia’s ‘Yo Soy Taíno,’ Puppets Tell the Story of an Abuela & Granddaughter Surviving Hurricane Maria

Photo courtesy of Alba Garcia

Seasoned animator and director Alba Garcia was deeply impacted when Hurricane Maria ravaged her homeland of Puerto Rico. The hurricane killed over 3,000 people and left survivors without access to basic necessities and electricity for months. While she now lives in the U.S., Garcia has family who still lives on the island.

The inaction and insensitivity on behalf of the United States government, in the face of such tragedy, pushed her to rethink what she knew about Puerto Rico’s history. She revisited the banishing of indigenous Taíno culture done by colonization. Although she had primarily only worked in stop-motion animation at the time, Garcia ventured into working with puppets when presented with the opportunity to explore the identity of her people in a new format.

Her beautifully handcrafted and piercingly informative short film Yo Soy Taino (I Am Taíno or Dak’toká Taíno) may remind you of Jim Henson’s work, but it’s enhanced with an idiosyncratic flare particular to Garcia’s artistic sensibilities. Produced with the support of Henson’s daughter Heather Henson, who has continued her father’s puppetry legacy and offers opportunities for diverse creators, Garcia’s eye-opening project is an indispensable didactic tool for Puerto Ricans to know their past. I Am Taíno is also a strong statement in favor of independence.

With dialogue in Spanish and Taíno, the 13-minute film revolves around an encounter between Puerto Rican grandmother Abuela Yaya (voiced by Amneris Morales) and her curious granddaughter Marabelí (Vianez Morales) following Hurricane Maria. Abuela Yaya teaches the young girl words and phrases in the Taíno language. She also offers her a crash course in the ways the United States has deliberately hurt Puerto Rico’s economy and tried to erase their multiracial heritage — a mix of Taíno, Spanish, and African traditions.

Ahead of the short film’s debut on HBO Latino, Garcia talked to Remezcla about the ideas that inspired the story, the process of creating the puppets, and her future projects.

How did you get started in filmmaking and in stop-motion animation specifically?

My father Alberto Garcia Soto was a director of photography in TV. Since I was a baby, I was in the TV studios. He taught me how to do special effects using green screen and camera movements while in a dolly. Since, I love the magic of cinema. My love for stop motion grew because I loved The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton’s works. Later, after graduation, I got to work on the MTV stop-motion series Celebrity Deathmatch, a dream job of mine. Unfortunately they canceled the show. Now live puppetry is my new found love inspired by my dear friend Heather Henson.

How did the idea to tell this story using puppets come about?

I met Heather Henson, who has a company called IBEX Puppetry and curates an event called Handmade Puppet Dreams Film Series. Each year she looks for three artists, commissions them and gives them a grant to make a movie with handmade puppets. She told me that she hadn’t seen anything done about Taíno culture, which she knows because she focuses on helping indigenous artists tell their stories. She asked me if I would be interested in doing a film about it, but with puppets rather than using stop motion. I was in the middle of production on another project and wasn’t sure I could do it. Weeks later I went to visit my family in Puerto Rico, and when I came back my flight was the last one out before Hurricane Irma hit. Irma caused damages, but not as much as Hurricane Maria two weeks later. When I saw what had happened with Maria, and the terrible abandonment of the United States toward Puerto Rico, I called Heather and I told her, “I’m going to take on your offer.”

What was your writing process like? What kind of research did you do?

I started doing research about our culture and our history, specifically the way the United States invaded us and the laws they put in place in order to hinder our economy. It opened my eyes to learn all these things that I was never taught in school even though I studied in Puerto Rico my whole life. I spoke to historians and anthropologists in Puerto Rico, so I could learn about the Taíno culture and also our history. From the beginning I knew I was going to write something about a grandmother and her granddaughter, because these characters represent my grandma and I. Both of my grandmothers were Tainas. The idea of having the format be this little girl asking her grandma questions came from my own relationship with them. We have to ask our elders questions because education has been watered down so that children don’t learn what really happened. We want to show the short film in Puerto Rican schools, so children see it. We want them to recognize their identity and their history.

Alba Enid Garcia and Heather Henson. Courtesy of the filmmaker.
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Looking at how the United States treated one of the worst crises to take place in the modern history of Puerto Rico — doing the bare minimum or nothing at all to help people — we need to think about how we are going to move forward. Puerto Ricans should have the opportunity to be a sovereign country. Many people don’t know our history and don’t know we were an independent nation in 1897. We were ready to be sovereign, but then the U.S. invasion happened months later. Spain gave us back our power and the U.S. took it away. Hurricane Maria opened Pandora’s box. Puerto Ricans shed their blood on behalf of the United States in every war, and they couldn’t even give us water when we needed it most.

How were the puppets created? What were the challenges of working with them?

My husband, Julio Garay, and I use our basement for our animation projects. I designed the dolls and drew storyboards detailing how the dolls had to move. We wanted them to be realistic, not exactly like the ones Jim Henson created, but with our own style. I wanted the outside to be made of fabric, but also for the eyes and eyebrows to have movement. For less than $300, he made his own 3-D printer that was used to create the mechanisms or animatronics that went inside the puppets to allow for these motions. But we also wanted the mouth to be manipulated by a puppeteer using his hand. The eyes were moved remotely, while the mouth was moved manually. Each puppet required five people to work them behind the scenes: one person for the mouth, one person for the body, two people for the hands and another one moving the eyes via remote control. We shot the film at Jim Henson’s home in Manhattan because they have a space there, but the rest of the stop-motion animated sequences you see in the film I animated them by myself in my kitchen.

What are your you working on now?

I am currently animating the last takes on my new stop-motion short film Dangerously Ever After based on the children’s book [of the same name]. I’m also shooting Qiya, a short dark fantasy, horror live-action film with a creature and fantastical characters inspired by Peruvian myths. This film is a protest against the detention centers at the border. I want to bring awareness on the seven immigrant children that have died at these camps.

Yo soy Taíno airs throughout the month on HBO Latino starting July 1 and is available on HBOGo and HBONow.