The first thing Mauricio Samano remembers about the United States is the sound of the Border Patrol agent’s barking dogs as he hid in a locked box for the crossing from Mexico. It has been a long journey from there to the stage at El Teatro Campesino, where he has a major role in this year’s production of “La Pastorela,” the story of pilgrims searching for Bethlehem.
Samano, 41, was born in Colima, Mexico, and raised by his great-grandfather after his mother came to the U.S. to look for a better life. He was about a year-and-a-half old when she went away; his great-grandfather was 80 years old. When Samano’s great-grandfather passed, he had to make his own trip across the border.
“I came to America as an undocumented migrant,” Samano said. “He had it arranged for me before he died and two of my aunts brought me over. I had no say in the matter. I actually turned 16 on the trip. I spent my whole birthday on the bus.”
His uncle met him in Tijuana, bringing along a “Coyote,” a man who smuggles people across the border.
“They put me in a van and there was a coffin-like box in the back. They put me inside the box and gave me a key to lock myself in from the inside. We spent three or four hours in line at the crossing and that is when I discovered I was claustrophobic.”
Samano recalls the border crossing.
“I remember hearing the dogs and thinking I was done,” he said. “The guards came into the van and lifted the box I was in by one end so my head was on the bottom. I could hear people talking but I did not understand any English. After an eternity, we finally were moving again.”
After his uncle stopped long enough to make sure Samano was safe, the next stop was in San Diego.
“My uncle knocked on the door and said ‘OK, get out. Are you hungry?’” Samano was starving. His uncle said, “You’re about to find out what American food is all about.” They went to McDonald’s and he got his first meal in the states: a Big Mac.
“I had never seen a burger in my life and it smelled delicious. Ever since then, every 6th of November, I go and get a Big Mac so I can be taken back to that day and reminded of that time.”
Jobs were limited, but after only two days working in the fields, Samano knew that was not what he wanted.
“I have a lot of respect for the campesinos, but I could not see me doing that work,” he said.
His mother and stepfather sat him down and said “If you want to go to school you have to commit. You have to learn the language and get a job.”
He got through four years of high school in only three by taking night classes to earn credits, and graduated in the top 25 of his class. In all that time, none of the students or teachers knew he was undocumented. Not even his best friend knew his secret.
“I never said anything to anybody because I was afraid if anyone found out somebody would say something,” Samano said.
After high school, he took a job as a dishwasher and moved on to Cabrillo College where he also excelled in his studies, graduating with top honors.
In 1999, he discovered El Teatro Campesino.
“A friend of mine was taking dancing classes with Janet Johns at Cabrillo and I joined him,” he said. Besides teaching dance, Johns helps to choreograph El Teatro productions and performs with them regularly. Her dance company, Esperanza del Valle, performs at El Teatro every year at the Dia de Los Muertos celebration, and is also featured in the bi-yearly production of “La Virgen de Tepeyac.”
Samano came to El Teatro as a volunteer. “For two years, I worked in the background,” he said. “Anything they needed, I did it. Cleaning up the lobby, taking tickets, being a stagehand, whatever there was to do.”
In 2001, director Daniel Valdez got Samano onstage as an actor, making his debut in “La Pastorela.”
“I was one of the shepherds, and as an understudy for one of the major shepherds,” Samano said.
When he met Valdez, Samano discovered they had a surprising connection. Back in 1987 when he was living in Mexico, one of Samano’s aunts gave his great-grandfather a copy of Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre,” which his great-grandfather played all the time. “Unbeknownst to me, the man standing behind Ronstadt on the cover was Daniel Valdez,” Samno said. Valdez sang, played guitar and helped arrange the album. “I was so surprised to recognize him.”
After almost 20 years with El Teatro, Samano reflected on his early experiences.
“My first Pastorela was intimidating but I remember the sense of family, this thing of unity and celebration left and right. I remember the people bringing their little kids and it was very appealing to me. I ended up bringing my little sister into it and she stayed for 10 years.”
Now that he has gained his citizenship, Samano’s fear is gone and he is proud to tell his story, as well as proud to carry on El Teatro’s tradition.
This year, Samano plays the role of Cucharon, one of the shepherds seduced by the power of the devils. With Valdez acting as vocal director and his grandson (and namesake) Daniel Valdez acting as musical director, there is something special for Samano in this production of “La Pastorela.”
“I met little Daniel Valdez when he was one year old and running around El Teatro,” Samano said. “I have watched him grow up, picking up the traits of the music. Last summer I got to see him as musical director for ‘La Cortina de la Lechuga’ doing his thing all by himself. I kept thinking ‘I used to carry this little guy around and now he’s bringing it.’”
He pays particular attention to the young actors, reflecting on the time when he was young and alone with his great-grandfather. One young actor in this year’s production, Adam Luna, plays a junior devil. He said Samano has helped him a lot.
“This is my second time working with him and I am excited,” Luna said. “He teaches me what to do and how to react. He is teaching me how to be a good actor.”
“One of the things I like is seeing the little kids,” Samano said. “You see them really getting into it, really taking direction, really owning it. It is one of the precious things about it. Because we are playing. We are all playing. Then at some point, it clicks and it all becomes real.”
The community of El Teatro Campesino flows outside the playhouse in San Juan Bautista, allowing new opportunities for the talented performers and crew.
“There are a lot of chances to use what we have learned here, to expand into other productions or even start our own,” Samano said. “The training we get here you don’t get anywhere else. And I continue to learn here.”
Performances of “La Pastorela” continue on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 22. Seating is limited. Tickets are available at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4423012.