Over 700 community members have signed an online petition urging that El Teatro Campesino continue holding winter theatrical productions of La Pastorela and La Virgen del Tepeyac at Mission San Juan Bautista. The theater announced in August that it would cease performances at the Mission (an annual tradition for the last 47 years) due to renovations, including the installation of pews that would take up the performance area El Teatro used in years past.
The news felt like a punch to the stomach for Salinas resident Claudia Meléndez, who has attended the holiday plays for the last 15 years.
“I love it. I think it’s a very beautiful tradition,” Meléndez said.
For her, the mission performances also serve as a way for the Latinx community to celebrate its culture, especially in today’s political climate.
“Anything that demonstrates how noble our culture is, how integral we are to this community, it’s very important,” Meléndez said. “To think that Teatro wasn’t going to be here to show every year a Christmas tradition that does exactly that was very painful.”
Not content to just sit with her arms crossed, she wrote an open letter to Bishop Daniel Garcia in Voices of Monterey Bay asking him to arrange to keep El Teatro Campesino’s holiday plays at the Mission. She requested to meet with the bishop the week of Sept. 16, but was told he was out of town. She had not been contacted as of Oct. 4.
Days before her letter, Meléndez began an effort to keep the local holiday tradition alive with an online petition. As of Oct. 8, her petition had received 785 signatures.
El Teatro Campesino manager Christy Sandoval said the artists are grateful for the show of support from the community and to hear how important the plays are to them. The challenge, however, serves as a reminder that La Pastorela did not begin inside the Mission and has been interpreted in various ways, including puppet shows and street performances.
“We are excited with the creative opportunity that this unexpected circumstance brings,” Sandoval said. “It will be a big change for people that have been familiar with the show inside the Mission for nearly 40 years. We know our playhouse is significantly smaller, but it is a theatrical space where we can explore new possibilities.”
Sandoval added that El Teatro Campesino intends “to keep these performance traditions alive and come together in community and love during the holidays.”
California Missions Coordinator Jewel Gentry said securing the pews because of safety and health concerns has all the ministries and performance partners facing different conditions in staging and use of the historic church, but that it was El Teatro Campesino’s decision to not restage.
“Because of this, the Parish of San Juan Bautista has now scheduled events through the end of January,” Gentry said. “We, of course, hope the best for everyone as they are an important part of the San Juan community.”
San Juan Bautista resident Jackie Morris signed the petition and told BenitoLink she was shocked and upset when she first heard the plays would not be performed at the Mission.
“I can’t imagine it anywhere else,” Morris said.
Thirty-seven people who signed the petition also left comments as to why it was important to them for the tradition to continue.
“Even as a child, I can remember so vividly how the shows would impact the audience. We’d see guests from all over the world, leaving with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes,” Ixiim Flores wrote. “And for the local community, these shows are a tremendous family tradition. Something positive to bring to our local community. We need things like this.”
Meléndez said she did not expect this much support from the community.
“I’m really blown away,” she said.
Despite comments from community members saying that her petition efforts won’t change anything, Meléndez said change is always possible.
“This is important for every person of Latino background, not just in the tri-county area, but in California,” Meléndez said. “We are not going to be finding these types of productions anywhere else. We are just going to lose a lot and we can’t allow this to happen. We have to do something about it.”