While the El Teatro Campesino production of “La Pastorela” is a San Juan Bautista staple, how that came to be is a story in itself.
“La Pastorela” began as a weathered script given to El Teatro founder Luis Valdez by Longina Montoya, the grandmother of El Teatro member Noe Montoya. It was a true treasure, the version of the play as performed in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, for centuries. Longina had grown up with this play and had taken it so closely to her heart that she was able to perform it in its entirety for Valdez, who recorded her words and music.
“Every village in Mexico has its own Pastorela,” Valdez said. “And there are hundreds of them in Mexico City.”
The play has an ancient tradition, starting with the shepherd’s plays in Medieval Europe. It is the story of shepherds traveling to Bethlehem to seek the newborn baby Jesus as they are beset on all sides by demons who work to tempt and trick them away from their journey. In a classic fight of good against evil, St. Michael and a host of angels defeat Satan and Lucifer at every turn to free the shepherds to complete their journey. In the Spanish versions, St. Michael, Satan, and Lucifer become San Miguel, Satanas, and Luzbel.
Missionaries brought the play with them to Alta, California, and it became the first Christian theater in the New World. The tradition caught on and grew.
When Valdez adapted the script, the play’s length became an issue.
“As Doña Longina described it, it was an event that took place in her town on Christmas Eve, all night. It took nine hours to perform,” he recalled. “The songs as she sang them were all really, really slow. We knew we did not have nine hours and we knew we wanted to perform it as a puppet play so we had to pick up the pace.”
El Teatro’s debut “La Pastorela” performance was indeed a puppet play in 1975 to an audience of around 100 people.
“There were only three or four performances,” Valdez said. “It was just an experiment.” Unsatisfied with the small venue and the limited ability to perform, the next version was staged on the streets of San Juan Bautista in 1977. The performance would begin toward the end of Third Street, passing through town and turning on Mariposa Street, where the final scenes were staged in front of the Mission church, which served as the arrival in Bethlehem.
“We performed it from intersection to intersection on Third Street, stopping at each intersection to stage a scene. The audience followed us as we made our way through town.” Valdez and his brother Daniel played Satanas and Luzbel in these performances, with two of Valdez’s young sons, Kinan and Anahuac, playing angels and devils.
“We added some lanterns for the shepherds to carry to provide light for the performances, but the big difficulty was that it was cold and only 300 people at the most could follow us,” Valdez said. “It was not orderly at all, it was chaotic.”
This second version of the play was free and relied on audience donations to survive. “We did not make much money, but it was always a labor of love anyway. It was just meant to be a gift to our new home in San Juan Bautista. We wanted to establish a tradition.”
In the earliest days of the Christmas shows, El Teatro Campesino performed “La Pastorela” and “La Virgen de Tepeyac” annually. The group performed “La Virgen” in the Mission church starting in 1971, and “La Pastorela” continued as a street play.
In 1980, heavy rain stopped any thought of performing the street spectacle.
“We did not know where to take our audience,” Valdez said. “The pastor of the Mission, Father Amancio Rodriguez, opened the doors to us and said, ‘Come on in, you can do it in here.’”
But it quickly became too much work to put on both plays in the same month, so El Teatro began alternating them; “La Pastorela” was performed on odd-numbered years and “La Virgen de Tepeyac” was performed on even-numbered years.
Moving to the Mission gave Valdez the chance to expand and enhance the play. “We added songs, we added dances. I wrote more dialogue,” he said.
It was around this time that El Teatro added one of the play’s dramatic highlights, Luzbel’s song “Una Corona de Espinas.” It is performed in a mock crucifixion scene.
“That was not a song Señora Montoya gave us. That’s a Conchero song, another tradition we were trying to link with. It was originally spoken dialogue, but I thought it would play better as a song.”
The song is powerful moment in the play, when Luzbel merges with the figure of Christ as a means of temptation to the shepherds.
“He reveals to them their own mortality, which is a new invention in the piece,” Valdez said. “It is a confrontation, with Luzbel telling them the story of their Saviour, that he was born poor, he will die on the cross, screaming, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It is a crossroads in the piece.”
This year’s “La Pastorela” takes place in the El Teatro playhouse after being staged at the Mission for decades. Moving the play to a smaller venue creates its own problems, but the core of it has not changed. The text and the songs are intact. The staging changed out of necessity, but the new location allows different sets, as well as projection screens and special effects that were not possible in the Mission.
Valdez said he does not mind the change in venue at all.
“It began to come kind of automatic over the last 40 years,” he said. “It certainly was less fresh than it was when it was in the streets. This time, by moving it into the Teatro, it has revived it. It has become vital to us to rediscover the play.”
He added that they aren’t going to pretend the El Teatro Campesino playhouse is the Mission.
“The space is much tighter, but the intimacy is not something that can be taken for granted. We are talking about the story of a Saviour that was born in a manger after all. We are not exactly in a barn, but we are in a packing shed and that’s pretty close.”
Nothing is an accident, Valdez believes.
“I believe the Creator ordained that it was time to renew this piece, to bring it back to life on a different scale in a different place. I don’t think that moving the story back to our packing shed playhouse is going to demean or discount from the story in any way. I think it will enhance it in unexpected ways. We don’t need a cathedral to tell the story of Christ.”
This is the final week of performances for “La Pastorela,” with performances scheduled Friday Dec. 20 through Sunday, Dec. 22. Tickets are available at https://www.brownpapertickets.com.
Other related BenitoLink articles: