Looking toward 2020 El Teatro Campesino moves forward with end-of-year celebrations

Altar at Mission San Juan Bautista |


Story and Photos By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Fall has arrived and brought along its usual gifts: crisper air, changing colors, the slowing down of nature that precedes the cold winter months. It’s the season of harvest, when we take stock of the blessings we’ve received during the year, shed decaying leaves, and prepare the celebrations that root us in who we are, the rituals that remind us the death of winter is temporary. Among those celebrations, Day of the Dead is my favorite, precisely the rooting that my ephemeral existence demands year after year. And among Day of the Dead celebrations, those organized by El Teatro Campesino have a special place in my heart.

When El Teatro Campesino announced in August, with “mixed emotions” that it was ending its Christmas performances at Mission San Juan Bautista, representatives also said they would nonetheless continue with the cherished tradition and would soon advertise their fall activities.

True to their word, Teatristas recently led several puppet-making workshops for the annual Day of the Dead events, which will take place Nov. 1, 2, and 3 at their playhouse. They held auditions for “La Pastorela” (The Shepherd’s Tale) this past weekend, and they’ll be hosting an altar-making workshop on Oct. 24. Life goes on, even when fall comes, even in the dead of winter.

When I launched my petition campaign to save El Teatro performances at Mission San Juan Bautista, I did so out of pure reaction. I did not consult with anybody from Teatro, I did not research the facts that led to the decision to move the performances to El Teatro’s playhouse. All I had was a press release that oozed pain and my own hurt at seeing a tradition I love being pushed away in the name of safety. And I’m sick and tired of seeing lawyers — the guardians of safety and lawsuits — spoil life as we know it, so I jumped into action without much thought.

The petition has so far garnered 789 signatures — far more than I envisioned. As I suspected, El Teatro performances at this sacred space have been cherished by many people who would like to see them return over and over again. So I wrote a couple of open letters to Bishop Daniel Garcia asking him to intercede so “La Virgen del Tepeyac” and “The Shepherd’s Tale” can continue to be presented there. Then I wrote an email to the Diocese of Monterey asking to speak to Bishop Garcia directly.

I received my answer last week.

The petition was “was created and addressed outside of the Parish community,” which has “led to some confusion in the broader community,” a Mission representative said in an email. “Because of the health and safety issues related to securing the pews, we now have different physical conditions which we must adhere to. This has impacted all our many ministries and of our performance partners in what is now physically possible as far as staging and use of the historic Church space.”

Of course I knew the pews were bolted to the ground — several people had said so. But I refused to believe it would be an impediment. I still do. Call me naive, but I believe in miracles.

Although I consider myself a frequent visitor to San Juan Bautista, I had not visited the Mission since the performance of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” in December, hence I had not seen the pews now firmly attached to the ground. I realized it was time to pay a visit, so I headed over there on a recent fall morning.

The place is just as I remember it: whitewashed walls, towering pepper trees shading several picnic tables, cactus trees against the walls, the presence of history thicker than its adobe walls. A couple was celebrating its nuptials on the picnic grounds, and three others were getting married inside the temple. I walked in to take some photos and to say hello to La Virgen de Guadalupe. If was going to continue on this quest, I needed her advice, guidance and support.

At some point after I launched my little quest I realized it would take a lot of resolve to see it through. I’m not just dealing with pews bolted to the ground but also with very strong beliefs; a powerful, ancient institution and a community organization that’s had its share of heartbreaks. History is not on El Teatro’s side, just like it wasn’t for the Indians who lived on these lands and saw their lives upended when los padres arrived. Little people have little chances against big ones.

Then again, we have a powerful weapon the padres themselves handed down to us: faith. Faith moves mountains, as they say. David did defeat Goliath.

Given the timing of El Teatro’s announcement, I knew there was very little chance their Christmas presentation would be staged at Mission San Juan Bautista this winter. These productions take months to prepare, and if the pews were already installed, there was no way they would be removed so quickly.

But there’s 2020. And 2021. San Juan Bautista will experience this winter what’s like to lose hundreds of patrons, and perhaps they’ll join my little quest. Together, we may be a bit bigger. Together we could be David. Together we may be able to bring El Teatro plays back to the Mission. After the winter, spring inevitably shows up again.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.


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.