Christy Sandoval | Provided photo
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
To say that El Teatro Campesino has gone through a lot in the last couple of years is an understatement.
Midway through 2019, the icon of Chicano theater lost the venue where the company has traditionally staged its Christmas pageant, its largest production of the year. Mission San Juan Bautista administrators bolted new pews to the floor, which prevented the free movement of actors during “La Pastorela” or “La Virgen del Tepeyac.” The plays had been staged for nearly half a century at the mission, and with less than three months to go, the company scrambled to move the performance to El Teatro’s playhouse. That meant a loss of revenue because the playhouse capacity is a lot smaller, but the tradition would live another year.
This year, we all know what happened. No more than 10 people could gather, preventing the staging of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” during this holiday season. Live theater everywhere has been dark for 10 months.
But in the true spirit of rasquachismo, a guiding aesthetic of the Chicano movement, El Teatro performers set out to make do with what they had and pivoted to bring La Virgen del Tepeyac to their audiences. The troupe is making available an archival performance and a new radio production. And again, the tradition lives on.
Voices of Monterey Bay interviewed Christy Sandoval, general manager and education director of El Teatro Campesino, to talk about her history with the company and the challenges the company faced this year. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Voices: How long have you been with the troupe?
Sandoval: My first show with Teatro was 15 years ago. It was “La Pastorela,” I’d just joined as a community member. Then I performed in “La Virgen.” In 2007 I was fortunate that, under the direction of Kinan Valdez training a new ensemble at the time, I had the role of La Criada. I was fortunate for the last 12 or 13 years to be part of the ensemble to learn more and take more of the responsibility. And here I am.
VOMB: Where did you grow up?
CS: I grew up in Watsonville. I did not know a whole lot about El Teatro Campesino, I joined after high school. A friend of mine who had been part of the community shows pulled me in, I just never left after that. I knew I had teatro interest, I did Shakespeare “12th Night,” (and) “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in high school. My first opportunity outside high school was Teatro Campesino.
VOMB: You played La Criada in the 2008 version of La Virgen del Tepeyac (and now we learn you played it three times). La Criada is the maid who serves Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop who demands proof from Juan Diego when he says he’s seen the Virgin Mary appear to him. How was it to play that role?
CS: It was really fun. Actually I played it for three years, and after three years I was good. It was another opportunity to learn, it was one of my first major plays as an ensemble member of the company. I got to watch others and learn the process. Throughout my years at Teatro I’ve had opportunities to direct plays now. Playing La Criada was fun, playing inside the mission was a totally great experience. (La Criada) is the comic relief of the show, that was fun.
VOMB: El Teatro Campesino had been performing its Christmas shows for over 40 years when word came down they could no longer do it. How was the transition to leaving the Mission?
CS: It was challenging. Because it was sort of late in our season, the pivot was so quick, we were in fight-or-flight mode. We had to make things happen, and we didn’t have a lot of time to process the immense loss of the venue. Working on the radio production this year with audio from 2018 was very emotional; like a year later it was settled we would not be performing in the mission. But it was at the same time an opportunity to shake up the artistry of the company. We worked with an essential group of collaborators. (The play is) a tradition, we know what the show is, we know what the music is going to sound like, and this was a chance to grow artistically, to add projection. We wanted to maintain the route aspect, but the show became very intimate.
VOMB: This year, in addition to the 2008 production of “La Virgen” now available on video, you also produced a radio version. Tell me about that.
CS: Looking back on Teatro’s history, that’s never been done before. It’s usually the corrido that has music. When we’re rehearsing, we take a step back and we say let’s do the radio version of this. We’re not on stage, not acting, just listening to music and saying lines with full intonation, a radio read. But doing it as a process to be heard, that has never been part of teatro’s performance history. We’ve been about being in person, creating theater by any means necessary, any place is a potential stage.
Most of our work has been in person, performing, bringing teatro to the community to experience it. So we were well equipped for change. It was never a question of “Are we going to be able to offer this Christmas show?” In the end we knew we wanted to keep everyone as safe as possible and limit contact, so what would (a show) look like? Audiences in cars? An outdoor concert would require a whole infrastructure and it didn’t seem feasible, the weather was a factor. The radio version produced remotely was very technical and would be asking much more of the actors, they had to be their own technicians. In the end it was the safest option for everyone involved.
VOMB: What have been the biggest challenges that El Teatro has faced this year?
CS: Everybody’s been pivoting to virtual platforms and offerings, and we’re doing our best to keep up and also play in those fields. But our audience base is so unique, we serve K-12 students with education programs, we have the older generation that’s still part of the movimiento during the Chicano movement, la huelga years and everything in between. One thing we’re conscious of is how to bridge that gap.
Older audience members may not be able to navigate some of the new virtual ways of engaging, and we don’t want to lose them along the way. But this is a good opportunity to capture younger audiences through social media; with online content, one of the challenges is to continue to serve everyone equally given where they are. So how do we make it easy for them to experience teatro, since we’re going to be in this for a minute.
VOMB: What do all these changes say about El Teatro Campesino?
CS: Our motto has been “by any means necessary,” which has been there from day one. It has a certain energy; the ganas, I guess. It was our founder, Luis Valdez, I believe who said “you don’t know your full potential until you’re faced with these limitations. That’s when our true creativity emerges and we can really reveal to ourselves what we’re capable of. It’s a combination of being resilient but also “by any means necessary.” These are our stories, these are our cultura and messages of hope, that’s one of the guiding things with la Virgen. This, of all years, we need to share the story, we need people to believe in something to keep their spirits alive and active.
VOMB: El Teatro lost one of its veteranos on Thanksgiving Day. Noé Yaocoatl Montoya died on Nov. 28, nine days after announcing on Facebook he had tested positive for COVID-19. Do you want to talk about how that’s been like for you?
CS: It is a tough loss. He’s been a part of so many generations of teatristas, that’s such a beautiful thing and, at the same time, it is overwhelming because, how do you begin to encapsulate what this person meant to so many people and there’s so many people he touched. Some of the younger generation think of him as tío, friend, hermano; to some even younger he is el maestro.
That came about after he played el maestro during one of our corrido shows. In the very essence of the word, in his knowledge and teaching of indigenous instruments and native ways he opened up so much for young Chicanos and Chicanas coming into their consciousness. He is some of the most beautiful human spirit you can find. It’s still hard to believe. A lot of us are working remotely and can’t really grieve together and really celebrate and honor him, it’s hard.
We would like to do something for him possibly next month around his birthday. It’s another point to connect with various generations he connected, we’re all connected. That’s a beautiful thing he brought so many people together, that’s his life’s legacy. And he did record some of his music for this radio production, he was just about done before his passing. His spirit is in the radio production as well.
VOMB: What makes you stay with El Teatro?
CS: I still ask myself that sometimes. It was so welcoming, refreshing. The stories that are being told, the history, the culture, I came right around the age when I was coming into my own political consciousness; every performance is an opportunity, every day was a chance to learn and grow. I really got drawn into the educational work I was starting to do. One of the principles of El Teatro is to learn; that’s really been a founding principle for myself. I’m still learning to this day; there’s so much history and teatro embodies and represents every artistic opportunity. There’s hands-on art making, stories that get presented on the stage, adapting to this pandemic time, the human creativity is something very special. That’s what’s kept me around.
The archival version of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” is available for free on Vimeo until Dec. 31, 2020, but Teatro will be glad to accept donations. Visit ElTeatroCampesino.com to find the link to the video and the radio performances.
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