The Legend of El Bibliobandito

As a visual arts educator I often find myself looking for new ways to present art to my students. There are the very obvious ways of presentation — you look at an image, a painting, a print, or a sculpture, you discuss that art work, and then you make something. Every now and again I find myself presented with a project that allows a lot of room to get just a little crazy and stretch the boundaries of what it means to teach and the following project has been just that.

I work in visual arts education with at-risk and under served children in New York City. When I first started working with one organization in particular I discovered they had a curriculum writer; at first, I will admit, I was completely averse to this but I have since grown to love working with lessons written by other people. Every semester I am handed a stack of projects and artists to present with plenty of wiggle room to edit, expand or stretch what that project is for my students. The project I am about to tell you about is one where I was able to stretch the boundaries of what art is and present it in an unusual way.

I was in my staff meeting getting the run down on this proiect about a character who steals art I instantly said out loud, “Oh we’ve gotta dress up and do this! I will be the Bandito!” I knew that wanted to present this project  as the artists who created the character originally intended.

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Photo Credit:Cheryl Passwater | Photos used with permission of Free Arts NYC

The Legend of El Bibliobandito is the story of a masked outlaw that rides through town on a burro, ravenous for stories, and terrorizes little kids until they offer him what they’ve written. It was put together by the artist collective REV (co-founded by artist Marisa Jahn) in 2010 where the organization collaborated with the residents of El Pital, a village in the jungles of northwest Honduras, to invent a character named El Bibliobandido (Spanish for “story thief”). The objective was to stimulate literacy in a region with an eighty percent illiteracy rate. When this group staged El Bibliobandido galloping through town, many believed the character was real and all one hundred school children began writing stories. The police arrived to chase down the bandit and the performance was so compelling that a group of fifteen dedicated volunteers and eighteen participating villages – some with hardly any books or paper – have continued to invent new “episodes” performed on the third week of every month (or Bibliobandido Week), followed by story-writing workshops.

When I went to present this project to my students I chose to show them the video made by the townspeople about El Bibliobandito instead of traditional printed and paper images which is what what my students typically receive. It is rare that I get to present work digitally or video work to students and I felt this would be a better way to get the project across. My students were immediately enamored with the video, some of them asking to watch it again, many asking me if the bandit was actually real. I of course told them it is a true story and that I bet if we started making books El Bibliobandito might come see our class. I did this project in three of my classes and every class was excited about the prospect that this book bandit would come steal their books; some of the kids going as far to say how they were going to “kick Bandito’s butt”, others how they are going to “hug Bandito.”

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Photo Credit:Cheryl Passwater | Photos used with permission of Free Arts NYC

My students worked ferociously for two class sessions to get their stories done and what came out was amazing…titles such as The Pool, Justin Bieber Gets a Job, Batman vs. Robin and more. We talked about books, asking questions like ”What is an author?” “What is an illustrator?” “What is a title page?” The kids got to work writing and illustrating these highly crafted books and it was amazing! I watched kids with low literacy skills learning new words, kids with high literary skills helping the kids with lower literacy skills, imaginations gone wild, stories gone rampant, beautiful illustrations, and near dead silence the majority of the time they were working because they were so absorbed in the project! It was amazing watching literacy and art merge in such a powerful way.

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Photo Credit:Cheryl Passwater | Photos used with permission of Free Arts NYC

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Photo Credit:Cheryl Passwater | Photos used with permission of Free Arts NYC

As the kids continued working on this project they kept asking if El Bibliobandito was real and if he was really going to come to New York to our class. Little did they know that the Bandito would in fact, be coming to our class to steal their stories. While it would have been amazing to have the original Bandito and the artists collective REV to come to New York, that wasn’t possible. However, we were able to get other people outside of our class to dress as the Bandito. The day El Bibliobandito showed up he burst into our classroom dressed as a bandit, nearly scaring us to death, taking books in his bag and racing off.  The kids looked on with a state of shock and awe and we knew we had Bandito success.

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Photo Credit:Cheryl Passwater | Photos used with permission of Free Arts NYC

As the semester has been winding down my students regularly talk about the bandito. We’ve talked about where he is now, wondering if other kids are making books, curious if he might come back. And, when we’ve discussed our projects from the year, the kids repeatedly say that El Bibliobandito is by far one of their favorites. When I think about learning and about stretching boundaries and teaching in unusual ways I think about Bandito and I am reminded that it’s my responsibility to expand what art is and how it’s presented to my students.

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