La Pastorela (The Shepherds)

Latinx Christmas Tradition

There is no Christmas season without these pastoral dramas of the Nativity. Whether in remote  towns or in the big Mexican cities, pastorelas set the stage for the whole of December and leave us, through their playful language and funny situations, the most important message of the season: Good always overcomes Evil.

Pastorelas are plays that recreate the biblical passage where the shepherds follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the Christ Child. In order to reach the birth place of the Redeemer, they have to experience a series of changes in fortune and confront the Devil, who will do everything possible to prevent them from completing their mission. It is at that moment that the  Archangel Michael intervenes to defend the shepherds on their journey.

History of La Pastorela

In Tenochtitlan, the great capital of the ancient Mexicans or Mexica, people entertained themselves with an art form that combined song, theater and dance. Performances were greatly enjoyed in the plazas and open spaces, where the actors tended to make jokes, pretending they were drunk, sang and gave recitations for the townspeople, who thundered their applause.

When the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521, these specialists ended up with no work and no stage. This situation actually lasted for a very short time, however, because the Franciscan monks who arrived in the New World between 1523 and 1524 quickly became aware of the Mexicas´ artistic sensitivity and took advantage of it to lay a bridge between two cultures that had nothing in common.

The pastorela tradition is said to have begun in a little town called Acolman, a short distance from the Teotihuacan pyramids, where the Franciscans arrived in 1528. Other versions say that Cuernavaca, in the State of Morelos, was the birth place of this deep-rooted tradition. Whether Acolman, or  Morelos, the fact is that the force behind them were the Franciscans, and the artistic ability in the indigenous people.

Within a very short time, the indigenous people took over the entire production of the pastorelas. They were the actors and musicians; they produced the sets and made the costumes. They are even thought to have translated or written the texts in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, fundamental to the evangelizing mission.

La Pastorela in California

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.

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.

This year, 2021, La Pastorela is being produced as a radio play. Earlier, classic performances are available on video, all productions of El Teatro Campesino.

Las Pastorelas A Centuries Old Christmas Tradition

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