Signatures, faith, and El Teatro Campesino: A second open letter to Bishop Daniel E. Garcia

Art for El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac | Julie Reynolds Martinez, aka “Coco”


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Your Excellency,

Remember me? It’s little Claudia. I wrote to you recently about El Teatro Campesino and its plays, the ones that were recently cancelled after 47 years of being performed at Mission San Juan Bautista. I have good news for you. Remember I began a petition asking you to intercede so El Teatro Christmas celebrations could remain at the Mission? Well, the petition has received 584 signatures.

Considering that you preside over a region that has thousands of souls, 584 can be seen as a very modest number, but to me it’s a small miracle. It means that there are at least 583 people so far who agree with me that Mission San Juan should host these Christmas celebrations. It means that I’ve tapped into something that should be explored further. It means that 583 souls are praying with me to move your heart. I’m deeply grateful and humbled.

But before I go on, I wanted to share something else about me. Remember in my previous letter I mentioned I’d attended Catholic school? I was driving around with my best friend a few days ago, and I was reminded of why it is I like helping others so much. Or rather, how I began to show this inclination, if you wish, at a very early age. The nuns as my school would come around every October to remind us that it was Missions month, and that it was our obligation to raise money to contribute to the Church’s mission.

It never felt like an obligation to me. I’d happily wake up early every morning to mash the beans I’d cooked the previous night, fry tortillas, chop lettuce and tomato, whip up sour cream and shred chicken so I could sell tostadas. I’d make about 30 of them and I would sell them for two pesos each and all the money I’d make I would donate to las misiones.

Sixty pesos felt like a lot to an 8-year-old who only got five pesos allowance every month or so. I would also go around collecting the envelopes that the nuns sent home to us, and I gladly accompanied our school’s principal, Sister Trini, to a nearby church to collect money for the missions after each mass. It felt great to be asked and it felt even better to know I was contributing to something I deeply believed in: spreading the love of God around the world.

You see, your Excellency, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Church, to my parents and grandparents, for something deep and precious I gained all those Fridays kneeling before the Virgin of Guadalupe: I have faith. I won’t say that my faith is unshakable, but it’s pretty strong. It’s a faith that sustained me as I left my country, my parents, my siblings, the view of two volcanos I love, and the smells of pelonas and chileatole on Sundays.

It’s a faith that pushed my writing for eight years until I was able to publish my first novel. It’s a faith that told me I could write in English, when many of my friends encouraged me to write in Spanish — my first language. Would I be able to write in English, make a living while writing in a language that was not my own? Many doubted it, but I had faith. And here we are: I may not be Shakespeare, but God made editors for a reason.

A reporter called me today and, when I told him about the petition, I could even see him shaking his head. “Well, if the pews are already installed, if the church has already spent thousands of dollars on them, then it’s a pretty done deal, right?” I could hear the skepticism in his voice, a “why bother?” And for a second or two, I doubted myself. Why do this, if it’s already a lost cause?

I had to remind myself of other causes that could have been felt  as lost when people fought for them. Slavery. Segregation. Independence. These, of course, are immense causes that in no way compare with my modest quest to return El Teatro to Mission San Juan Bautista.

What I’m trying to say is that, when you face great obstacles, you need to believe in something deeply, your faith has to be very strong, your cause has to be worth pursuing it until it comes to fruition. And I believe in El Teatro Campesino performing at the Mission, at a sacred space that elevates their art to the realm of the spiritual, is a worthy cause.

I wrote to you why before, so I won’t bore you with those details. But I wanted to add something that occurred to me after I wrote my first letter: El Teatro Campesino is worth defending. I know they are a strong institution and they’re taking this setback in stride, but I know it will be a financial blow for them.

Like hundreds of Latino organizations nationwide, El Teatro lacks deep-pocket backers or wealthy patrons. El Teatro has survived on grants and donations and the goodwill of thousands of supporters, many of whom have modest backgrounds just like Teatro itself. El Teatro relied on the income it received from the Christmas performances, something I know not because I’ve examined their books or anything of the sort. I know because it was hard to get tickets to the annual events, because they sold out and the proceeds would sustain them for the rest of the year.

The Teatro playhouse simply does not have the same capacity as the Mission by any stretch of the imagination, so while the plays will continue on, they will not bring in as much revenue as before. The town of San Juan Bautista itself will be affected financially.

There are times when I wake up in the morning and I listen to the news and I feel like the earth is opening up and swallowing us up whole. There are children being caged at the border, separated from their families and denied even the most basic hygiene products. Thousands of acres of land are burning in the amazon. Another deranged man has grabbed a weapon of war and killed eight people on the street. The world indeed feels like it’s falling apart.

And I tell myself: these are times when we need, more than ever, to defend what we believe in, to defend our humanity. El Teatro Campesino has brought humanity and dignity to thousands of farmworkers nationwide for decades, and every year they stage plays that reminds us that God is a lot closer to us than we often realize, and to me that’s worth defending. We need a healthy and thriving Teatro on the Central Coast, in California, in the United States, for many more decades to come. We need their Christmas plays at Mission San Juan Bautista.

So from now on, I’ll get up every morning to mash beans, fry tortillas, chop lettuce and tomato, and get more signatures for my petition. I’ll write articles and enlist more supporters. I’ll call bishops, fire marshals and politicians. Faith moves mountains, and it may even move pews here and there.

Once again, I humbly and respectfully pray my Faith, and la Virgen de Guadalupe, will move your heart to action.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.  Or sign the petition here.


Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.