Provided photo | Robert Eliason, El Teatro Campesino
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Your Excellency Bishop Daniel E. Garcia,
Welcome to California’s Central Coast. I had the opportunity to meet your predecessor on a couple of occasions, and perhaps there will be a similar chance for me to meet you in person. I trust that you’ve been received warmly by the kind and generous communities that make up Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties.
Before I tell you the purpose of my letter, I want to tell you a bit about myself. I grew up in Puebla, Mexico, the second oldest city established by the Spaniards upon their arrival on this continent. It is said that the foundation of this colonial city began with a letter from the bishop of Tlaxcala in 1530, Julián Garcés, to the Queen of Spain outlining the need for a Spanish settlement between Mexico City and Veracruz. Hernán Cortes had arrived in the continent in 1519 and claimed these lands to belong to the Spanish crown, and as such, they were being rapidly populated by clergy, soldiers, and noblemen alike.
According to legend, Bishop Garcés dreamt of a valley with woods and meadows crossed by a river and dotted with fresh-water springs on fertile land. In this dream, he also saw a group of angels descending from heaven and tracing out a city. He went in search of the place he had seen in his vision and he found it five leagues from the monastery. That’s how Puebla de los Angeles, the city of my birth and my youth, was born. Maybe because of that, Puebla is a very religious city: locals like to claim that we have one church for every day of the year, although it’s more likely we have under 300 of them.
Having grown up in a city of many churches, it is only natural that I was also raised very religious, but my family took it a step further: my parents enrolled me in a Catholic school devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe. So, not only did I attend mass every Friday, I attended mass in a chapel dedicated to la Virgen Morena, the brown incarnation of the Blessed Mother of God. And I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that having grown up with a divine image who looked like me, who had the same skin tone I have, has been a powerful influence, my saving grace, the reason why I have the strength to address you now. If Juan Diego found strength in Her to talk to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, why can’t little Claudia write a letter to Bishop García?
You see, your Excellency, I have a petition to make, and it has nothing to do with building a basílica. It’s much simpler than that. Would you please arrange for El Teatro Campesino plays to continue being performed at Mission San Juan Bautista? Since you only arrived in January, you probably haven’t had a chance to experience their beauty and spiritual power. And if you don’t intervene, chances are you won’t now, because El Teatro announced last week it will cancel its performances at the Mission after new pews are installed for safety reasons. Surely, there’s more than one way to achieve safety. Surely these plays and the cultural and spiritual healing they offer are worth a bit of a pew redesign.
El Teatro Campesino, an American institution of Latino roots, began performing its Christmas pageants at the mission 47 years ago. The two different plays alternate years: one year El Teatro stages “La Pastorela,” the re-enactment of the birth of Jesus Christ. On the alternate year they perform “La Virgen del Tepeyac,” a re-enactment of the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. While I love both plays and have tried to attend every year for decades, it is the Virgen del Tepeyac that holds a very special place in my heart. And it’s not just the fact that I grew up learning about la Virgen Morena and how she appeared to San Juan Diego. It is also that, in Luis Valdez’s interpretation, I began to make peace with my shared Indigenous and European backgrounds.
See, your Excellency, at my Catholic school I never learned that the Spaniards slaughtered the Indians, my ancestors. I came to learn that in my older age, in the United States, at the university, and I’ve been very angry at that. I even became angry at the Church because Cortés and his soldiers were claiming the land of the “New World” in the name of God to be ruled by the Spanish monarchs. Surely, a God that allows the slaughter of human beings cannot be a generous, kind god, can he? This is the anger I carried for many, many years, an anger that still raises its ugly head from time to time.
But Valdez’s Virgen del Tepeyac came to the rescue. Inside Mission San Juan Bautista, watching the Blessed Mother of God appear to an Indigenous man and call him My Son, Xocoyotzin, in his own language, made me understand the Conquest in a different way. Guadalupe, with her glorious brown skin and her knowledge of Nahuatl, gave us Indians the humanity Spanish soldiers wanted to deny us. The Mother of God chose an Indian to be her envoy. The Mother of God chose us, brown-skinned people, to be her children. Delivered inside the walls of a mission, built with Indigenous labor and suffering, this play has redeeming, healing powers.
We are at a time in our history when we, Latinos in the United States, are in great need of healing. We are a time when our humanity is being attacked mercilessly in the form of White Supremacy and detention migrant camps at the border. There are very few institutions that elevate our culture and our traditions to the level that El Teatro Campesino has done, and losing one of its most important venues will be a terrible blow, not just for the group, but for the town of San Juan Bautista itself, for all Latinos in the United States. The productions bring thousands of people to the town every year, people who spend money dining and purchasing goods when coming to the play.
Knowing Luis Valdez and his team, I’m sure they’ll continue putting on amazing performances at their playhouse, but neither “La Virgen del Tepeyac” nor “La Pastorela” will have the same spiritual force they can achieve inside the mission walls. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Upon learning of the Teatro’s cancelation of its yearly performances at Mission San Juan Bautista, I began a petition that has received 67 signatures. I’m sure I’ll get a lot more.
While I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my faith in the Church is not what it used to be, I also believe in honesty, so here it is: I may not be the faithful Catholic I once was, but I still believe in la Virgen de Guadalupe, Tonantzin, Nuestra Madre. She crosses borders for her children, appears on trees at county parks, and leads us in struggles small and large, from wars of independence to immigration marches. If there’s anybody who can move your heart to action, your Excellency, it’s Her. I’m praying She does.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.