For almost fifty years, El Teatro Campesino has been performing traditional Christmas plays in San Juan Bautista, with the most popular being the biennial production of “La Virgen de Tepeyac.” Teatro founder Luis Valdez used a Spanish colonial play as his source and has steadily modified it over the years to fit new stage settings and productions, from a tiny converted movie theater to a full pageant in the church at Mission San Juan Bautista to the newest incarnation as a radio play.
This story is rooted in the early history of Mexico following the Spanish Conquest. In 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Chichimec peasant later known as Juan Diego, four times in Tepeyac, asking him to build her a church. In the last apparition, Mary instructed Juan Diego to gather roses in his tilma (cloak) and present them to the Archbishop. When he opened his cloak to show the flowers to the Archbishop, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on the tilma.
The piece is based on an original manuscript Valdez received from Dr. Jorge Huerta at the University of San Diego around 1970. “It was a four-person liturgical drama—all words and in very formal classical Spanish. It is unclear as to when it was written or by whom; it was most likely written by an anonymous monk and is very much a product of the 17th century. But it was definitely a piece that was written to catholicize the Indians in Mexico. It was heavy on liturgy and heavy on symbolism.”
Valdez presented his first stage adaptation of the manuscript in December 1971, the year El Teatro Campesino moved to San Juan Bautista.
“We had just moved into town that summer,” Valdez said, “and we were using the little theater, La Calavera, which now is part of Jardines De San Juan. We built a platform that jutted out into the audience and we had 50 seats. We didn’t know if we would get an audience at all, but it exploded that first night.”
A huge crowd showed up at the door for that first performance, and El Teatro did its best to pack as many people as possible into the tiny theater.
“Before the first show, we figured we could fit maybe 75 people in there at most,” Valdez said. “But people kept coming so we jammed in 100 people. Even in the middle of the show, they kept coming and banging on the door. Phil Esparza had to go out and organize the crowd. We ended up having to do four performances, one right after the other. We started at 8 and went all the way to midnight.”
It was a success for the fledgling theater, with around 500 people attending that first evening.
“Right away, it occurred to me that we needed a larger space,” Valdez said. “So I went over to see Monsignor Rodriguez at the mission and asked if we could move in and perform. He agreed, so we held the next performances there and we packed the place.”
At that time, the Mission San Juan Bautista had not undergone the restoration that opened the naves flanking the main nave, and the arches inside the mission were still bricked up.
“We were forced to perform it all on the altar,” Valdez said. “People way in the back of the mission could barely see what was happening, but they came anyway.”
The first performance was much different from the play as it was later presented. There were only a handful of actors and it lacked a full musical accompaniment. The company had experimented in rehearsal with recorded music which, Valdez said, was a “disaster,” so two guitarists provided a minimal score.
“It was tough going until 1976 when they restored the three naves,” Valdez said. “Once they opened up the naves, we had new space and it increased the adaptation. Year by year, we added music, including songs from the Chicano movement itself. Earlier, in Fresno, we had met Capitan de Danza Andrés Segura, who brought Aztec dancing to California and that was something we introduced into the play as well.”
In 2000, the music of the play was formalized after Tim Tompkins and his wife Francis joined the musicians.
“That first year was all about working out parts and scoring,” Tompkins said. “It was going over scribbled notes way into the night, after all the rehearsals. It was a huge job putting it together. There had been some scores but they did not represent the keys or the arrangements we were doing.”
One of the key moments in the play is the duet between the Virgin and Juan Diego, the song “Ay Hijo Mio” composed by Daniel Valdez.
“The character of the Virgen has to be very special,” Valdez said. “And the fact that she sings in an operatic fashion gives her a very special quality as a character onstage. We started working on that character from the start, from her very first appearance in the upper balcony choir loft.”
The plays created an economic boom in the town during the holidays, according to Valdez. “Christmas in San Juan used to be a fairly dead time,” he said. “But our plays could bring in around 10,000 people a year and they would come to eat and shop before the performances. The businesses have always been very supportive of us and it also helped the mission with fundraising with their share of the money we raised. When they restored the Guadalupe chapel, they had to put in a hardwood floor. A lot of the money used in that renovation came from the Teatro performances, we are happy to say.”
In 2019, changes to the pews in the mission made the production of the traditional plays no longer possible. In response, the production of that year’s Christmas play, “La Pastorela,” was restaged in El Teatro’s playhouse at 705 Fourth Street in San Juan.
At that time, discussion had already begun as to how the 2020 production of La Virgen would be staged, with one concern being the large audiences that this play drew, much larger than for “La Pastorela.” When COVID-19 hit, a plan evolved to present La Virgen as a radio play, with Valdez working with the production team to reimagine the work.
“I believe that the radio adaptation is a natural extension of the material,” Valdez said. “The dialogue speaks for itself but the chassis of the play is musical interpretation. We call it our folk opera. I added a few characters and restructured the dramatic progression of the action. It now begins with the colloquies that the Nahuatl spiritual leaders had with the Spanish when they saw them trying to impose Christianity, saying, ‘You come here with a definition of God—we know God. We have worshiped him for centuries.’ This is a real liturgical document that exists that I adapted for this version. And I introduced the concerns the Indians had about Juan Diego’s conversion. All of that comes through and makes for easy listening, I think.”
No matter how the play is presented, whether in a small, cramped theater, or in the grand staging of California’s largest mission, or in a radio production, the message of hope and redemption is still clear.
In his final interview, the late Noe Montoya, who played the role of Juan Diego to critical and popular acclaim, suggested the radio version will fill a spot which a live production couldn’t.
“It is universal and it is also curious as to why ‘La Virgen de Tepeyac’ is not being performed in the mission this year,” Montoya said. “How many more people will be able to tune into it on the radio or over the internet who never would have been able to come to San Juan Bautista? There is something there. Whenever there are obstacles in the way, there’s La Virgen, here to guide us.”
View A performance of “Ay Hijo Mio” from a performance of La Virgen del Tepeyac in 2008 with Noe Montoya as Juan Diego and Olgalydia Urbano as La Virgen here.
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