Transplanted, the flower grows A new chapter in the storied life of El Teatro Campesino’s Pastorela

Sylvia Gonzalez (left) plays Bartola and Xóchitl Ríos-Ellis plays Gila (right) | Photo by Robert Eliason


Story by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Photos by Robert Eliason 

Pastorelas were brought to this continent by Spanish priests in the 16th century in their quest to convert the neophytes. It is said that Fr. Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of what the Spanish empire called the “New Spain,” ordered the first performance near the Great Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, to try to teach Christianity and indoctrinate the indians into a new religion. How many times has the “Shepherds Play” been performed since then? How many times has it been adapted and reborn?

Add another mark to the chalkboard with the latest El Teatro Campesino adaptation to the beloved Christmas tale. The new version, forced to accommodate a return to El Teatro’s Playhouse, gives it a contemporary spin and renewed relevance.

Some readers will remember that El Teatro Campesino, the legendary theater group born with the United Farm Workers’ grape strike, was forced to move its Christmas pageants out of Mission San Juan Bautista when permanent pews were installed earlier this year.

At the time, one of the Teatro members said they were very disappointed but determined to ride the storm. We’ve had ups and downs, he said. This will be no different.

With three months to prepare for a new venue — which itself had to be remodeled — they set to work. The result is a modern twist to the old tale, a tradition that feels as contemporary as the vilification of asylum seekers.

First, the stage. The traditional theater seating arrangement at El Teatro’s Playhouse, a converted packing shed, could have probably accommodated the comings and goings of angels, devils and pastores. But it would have been awkward. So the interior was remodeled, the seats arranged around a circular, raised platform that literally serves as center stage. Epic battles waged are lit by the platform’s red lights, cherubs and demons rush forth and escape through three entrances.

“The new seating opens it up and makes new artistic and creative decisions,” said Phil Esparza, Teatro’s executive producer. “We wanted to preserve the continuity of the Pastorela, which has a lot of traveling. (The new configuration) opened it up and preserved the spectacle aspect of the show.”

Second, the ladies. A woman has been cast as Archangel San Miguel probably for as long as Luis Valdez directed the tale — even Linda Ronstadt played the role in the movie version. As Esparza puts it, everyone wants to be the devil. The angel, not so much. But having two women representing the forces of good and evil is truly dramatic, and it’s only the second time it’s been done, according to Director Kinan Valdez.

“My thing is having representation of women in supreme power (positions) as often as possible,” he said. “I’m trying to open that door to allow those choices to be made by other directors if they want to. Last time it was attempted, nobody followed.”

It’s not the first time Kinan Valdez cast a woman in a role traditionally held by a man. For his production of Zoot Suit at UC Santa Cruz in 2017 he also had a woman play the Pachuco.

The biggest change to La Pastorela perhaps comes from the transformation of the angels and devils — a change that will not be revealed to keep the element of surprise. Suffice to say this is where the contemporary spin comes into play.

Kinan Valdez first participated in La Pastorela when he was four years old as one of the shepherds. This is technically his fifth time directing the play, and he was brought in because of his experience, Esparza said. The adaptation to the new space had to be done quickly, and although it was a big challenge, it wasn’t unprecedented. In the past, the theater group has had to adapt to new requirements, new hurdles. This was just another one, and it manifested itself when the theater company exercised its memory muscle and tried to do ways the way they always did at the church.

“It was almost a physical force … almost like an embodies memory. You feel it in your body,” Kinan said. “Anybody who’s done it before — walking the length of the mission, the sense of timing, the music, where the audience is sitting. Those become the things people who have done it already remember in their bodies, it’s the tradition that has been embodied for 40 years, certain ways of teaching and learning that (cast members) bring to other community members. As much as I knew we were going in a new direction, my default was (to do it) how we were doing it in the Mission, and I had to remember and recognize it and have the courage to change it. I think of it as a force. In the rehearsal you could see it. It was a palpable energy, a beautiful thing, a memory of how things used to be.”

For Kinan, the exercise of bringing the Pastorela to a venue less than half of the size of the mission, where it’s been performed for four decades, was akin to transplanting a flower that used to grow in a lush garden.

“The playhouse is its new soil,” Kinan said. “The tradition is a long one, and going from one year to the next does not make a tradition in the long haul.”

This flower has been safely transplanted, at least temporarily, and is now awaiting its new home, another pot, perhaps bigger, who knows. For now it’s alive and protected and worth contemplating.


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.