Marisa Jahn

Marisa Jahn talks about El Bibliobandido

El Bibliobandido and schoolchildren, La Muralla, Honduras, 2010.

Marisa Jahn is a New York–based artist, writer, and executive director of the arts organization REV-. Here, she discusses her 2010 project El Bibliobandido, which she created with the support of nonprofit Un Mundo for the largely illiterate village of El Pitál, Honduras. The work is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem as part of “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” through October 21.

I IDENTIFY AS AN ARTIST AND A WRITER. Sometimes in the past, I’ve identified as an activist, although I find the term activist a little problematic. The Bibliobandido work is one in which all of those habits come together.

El Bibliobandido began when I was teaching K-12 bookmaking to encourage literacy in San Francisco public schools, among other places. At the time, my friend Rachel McIntire, who’s also a cofounder of REV-, said, “You know, I’ve been doing development work in this place in Honduras. They have the biggest library in the region, and they have an illiteracy rate of 80 percent. You should go and do a project there, because those schools are really lacking. They would love for you to come and do something.”

I showed up in El Pitál, a village of about 450 people, and said, “I’ll teach a class on bookmaking.” They gave me all the kids—a hundred kids—to teach for the whole week. Pedagogy in Honduras is largely based on rote learning, so this sort of interactive, haptic, and artistic instruction was thrilling for the students. The question then became how to continue the bookmaking project—in neighboring villages as well as El Pitál—in a self-perpetuating way after I left.

Many of the neighboring villages were lesser-resourced and difficult to access, so I began looking at different types of bookmobiles. Historically, there have been bookmobiles on camels, on horses, on burros . . . I came to realize, however, that in order to make the bookmaking project stick, it needed a human element or a fantastical element.

I began thinking of various captivating, fantastical characters that I had previously encountered or researched. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley there was this character called Pink Man. He would “fly” through campus in a pink unitard riding a unicycle. There were different myths about where he came from. He just made everybody’s day. Or there’s Mr. Peanut: In 1974, an artist named Vincent Trasov ran for mayor dressed as a tap-dancing, larger-than-life Planter’s Peanut. Mr. Peanut used his campaign—which won 7 percent of the vote—to draw attention to the lack of good candidates, galvanizing an otherwise disenfranchised voter constituency. There was also Antanas Mockus, a Colombian mathematician, philosopher, and politician who became mayor of Bogotá in 1993. While mayor, he often dressed up as Super Citizen, a costumed superhero created to get the denizens of Bogotá excited about citizenship.

It took about two years, from 2008 to 2010, to come up with a culturally relevant, funny, and slightly threatening character that could perpetuate bookmaking in El Pitál. The resulting figure was El Bibliobandido: a brightly costumed, book-hungry villain on the back of a burro. He came into town one Sunday and left a note on the library door: “My name is El Bibliobandido. I’m ravenous for stories, and stories give me sustenance. Those who don’t feed me, beware.” The police even showed up at the El Pitál library to inspect the note and look for suspects, and the police never show up for anything! The note still circulates around in the community, and people can still recount that mantra, rote.

After El Bibliobandido left his note, we turned to the kids and said, “You know, this guy was a real terror. We don’t want him to come back, so we’d better start making books to appease him.” We then taught the children how to write or illustrate stories and turn them into books. The next month, El Bibliobandido would return to collect them. The whole thing kind of magically worked.

In 2011 I found out that two children from the village had continued the project after I left. They had been doing it every month for the past year with the support of Un Mundo, a local group of community organizers that I had worked with to get the project started. The children had it ritualized so that the third week of every month is Bibliobandido week, during which fifteen or so adults and kids get together to plan a new drama and sometimes invent new characters. They select a village for a “visit” from the story-hungry villain, which always afterward prompts a bookmaking workshop to produce stories that could slake El Bibliobandido’s insatiable appetite. Now there are eighteen participating villages and five hundred kids involved in this whole charade.