For a long time, I only had one human puppet in my ‘troupe’- ChiCha. Chicha was a little baby that I built after my kids were firmly ensconced in elementary school and I was processing that shift into a different stage of motherhood. ChiCha’s skin color is exactly the same as mine.
I had been asking myself for a long time whether I was really making an impact in the world. Was making kids laugh enough? Sometimes that answer was ‘yes’ but also there was a nagging pit in my stomach that the world was calling on me for more socially conscious work. In 2014, after the murder of Eric Garner and the riots that followed, I was standing in my kitchen asking myself how I would answer my children when they asked what I did during my lifetime to address systemic racism.
I read an article about proximity and its effect on racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory behaviors. When people have a friend, a sibling, a co-worker that is gay, Jewish, African American etc., they are less likely to traffic in hate and believe negative stereotypes against that population. I decided that it was time to build up the human puppet department of Jilly Puppets and make some new friends for my students.
In my 20’s, I lived in an African American neighborhood of Philadelphia. There was a little girl who lived next door to me, Marquise, who was the kindest, sweetest person I knew. When I started designing the African American girl puppet, I contacted Marquise, who is now a grown woman, to ask her if she would be comfortable with me constructing a puppet in her image.
The Marquise puppet is just like the real Marquise-kind, sweet, loving, and fun. I sometimes tell stories with Marquise, but often she helps me to get the kids up and moving as we explore music and dance together at the beginning of the class. The kids love to hold her while they are dancing.
In 2015, Donald Trump insulted a reporter with a disability and the same time, anti-immigrant rhetoric was surging during his campaign. I created Nando, who is Latino and also wears hearing aids. In every class now, Nando and I teach American sign language to the kids. Representation matters. The children are watching us. They are looking to us to learn how to treat others.
When my youngest daughter was in first grade, I used to hang out with her on the playground after school. There was a little boy named Fernando who took a shining to me, and every day, he would come over with his cousin, to tell me about his day. Nando wears hearing aids and one time he and Jonny were telling me about his ear surgery. Relating to surgery, I bent down and turned my head, “If you look into my eyeballs from the side, you can see the lines where the laser cut my eye when I had eye surgery!” The boys stared into my eyes for what felt like a long time, and then asked, “Is that why you are so wrinkly???”
It’s been years, but Fernando still runs into my arms for a hug when he sees me around town.
Sammi was crafted after the current administration began the rollback of Trans rights. Sammi is non-gender conforming. Kids are often very aware of “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” but they really are learning just how to be human beings.
I am not heavy handed with anything other than kindness and treating others with respect.
Raffi is a young Brazilian boy, with dark skin and curly brown hair. I have had many students see themselves in Raffi, and it is a glorious thing to have a child recognize their identity in a celebratory setting. Raffi is a capoeirista; he practices the Brazilian art of capoeira.
Raffi is the child representation of my capoeira teacher, Rafael. Rafael is a wise, patient, loving man who has been my capoeira teacher for over six years.
A friend of mine works in a dance company with dancers of all kinds of physical abilities. She asked me to make a puppet for her teachers, so that students would see dancers like them! When I started building the puppet, who was to use a wheelchair, I was very surprised to see that I had made myself as a little child.
I have never felt “normal”. My mother was very sick and died when I was a child, so I never felt like I fit in. I identify very strongly with people who are considered different in some way.