If you grew up in California, you already know about La Posada, Christmas tamales, and the beauty of flickering luminarias. But I must admit that this gringo had to do a little digging to figure out what Los Pastores was about and its origins. Here's some of what I've come across thus far...
In medieval Europe, “miracle plays” were acted out by clergy as a way of teaching Bible stories to the illiterate masses. Eventually, those same masses began performing the plays themselves. But the storylines, characters and details of these folk dramas changed and became cheekier and racier over time. The Church banned these plays in the 15th Century.
In Spain, such plays were called autos del Nacimiento, and despite the ban, they were pressed into service again in the 16th Century to teach Bible stories to the illiterate natives of the New World. What was probably a relatively unadulterated version of Los Pastores (from the Church’s point of view) was used by Spanish missionaries in Mexico to relate the story of the Nativity.
Again, Los Pastores – sometimes called La Pastorela – was adopted by the public, and performances were moved to the town square. And again, the storylines, characters, and details of these folk dramas changed and gradually became more comical and entertaining. What had been a straightforward story of shepherds traveling to Bethlehem became a comedy. It was sort of the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” version of the Nativity.
Although many versions exist, Los Pastores generally involves lazy, dim-witted, bumbling shepherds who can barely be talked into getting off their butts to go see the new Savior. As they travel, they are alternately protected by angels and tempted by the Devil and his minions with various distractions. An irascible hermit encountered along the way helps the shepherds stay the course. The story ends with the shepherds delivering gifts at the manger and the Devil admitting defeat.
Los Pastores was first brought to Alta California by the Franciscan missionaries. One version of the play was written in 1803 by Fr. Florencio Ibanez of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. Some have cited this as the first play written and performed in our state. And it certainly made its way to our own mission town of San Juan Capistrano. At a 1922 meeting of the Orange County Historical Society, member Bessie Carrillo shared José Juan Olivares’ stories of 1850s Capistrano, including a mention of the Los Pastores players visiting "some of the houses," where they "always found a good dinner prepared for them."
A number of communities in Orange County still performed Los Pastores in the 1920s and 1930s. Many who had fled the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) came to California, bringing their traditions with them. The biggest and perhaps most popular local Los Pastores production was put on by the residents of the Santa Fe barrio in Placentia. But the play was performed by various groups in many local communities, including Anaheim, Buena Park, La Habra, El Modena, Delhi, and Placentia’s La Jolla barrio.
|Shepherds urging Bartolo to rise. San Antonio, Texas, 1893. Photo courtesy American Folklore Society.|
In a 2008 Orange County Register article and again in a 2013 article for Somos Primos, O.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Aguirre recalled the involvement of his grandfather, Jose Aguirre, who led the annual rehearsals and performances in Placentia from 1920 until his death in 1934. The Aguirres had already performed in the play for decades in Michoacán, Mexico before coming to the United States in 1918.
“For several weeks, nineteen men and two young boys, who played the female parts a la Shakespeare, practiced and memorized their lines at Jose's barbershop,” said Judge Aguirre. “Jesus Ortega, a fellow from Corona, California had memorized the entire “cuaderno” (script of the play). He would sit in the barbershop with one leg crossed over, slightly bent over with one hand on his forehead, smoking a cigarette and patiently reciting the lines whenever an actor forgot his cue or his lines…”
“Bedecked in colorful gowns, grotesque, brightly painted, hand-carved wooden masks, swords and staffs, the entourage would perform at a predetermined home,” said Judge Aguirre. Each performance lasted about two hours.
“…The play was presented at pre-arranged homes several times during the Nativity season,” he said. “After the performance the actors were treated to a Christmas feast of tamales, menudo, beans, rice, greens, fruit, cakes, bunuelos, sweet bread, hot chocolate and spirits. The troupe performed all over Orange County and even Los Angeles County. In 1933 they presented in a home in the Simon’s brickyard neighborhood in Montebello. My Dad who was 13 years old played the part of Gila, a female Angel… My great uncles Cistos Raya and Marcial Aguirre played shepherds. My uncle Sydney Aguirre and great uncle Luz Guerrero portrayed devils. My grandfather acted the role of Lucifer. He hand-carved and painted the elaborate wooden mask which had a serpent protruding from the mouth.”
Aguirre also outlined the first portion of the Placentia version of the play, beginning with a chorus singing about the joyous arrival of the Savior. The hymn’s lyrics are fairly universal except for the last bit in which tamales are offered to the Holy Family.
“Suddenly Lucifer appears resplendent in a flowing gown with a grotesque, brightly painted wooden mask,” said Aguirre. “He curses his fall from grace, asserts his control over man, then hides when he sees seven shepherds approaching. They are plainly dressed but carry elaborately decorated seven-foot crooks and beaded satchels.”
Tebano, one of the shepherds, enters and proclaims that an Angel appeared to him, announcing the birth of Christ, and telling them all to travel to Bethlehem. The rest of the story unfolded from there.
The performances of Los Pastores in La Habra were so popular that even the rehersals were crowded with the actors family members, who seemed pleased to hear the story again and again. The presentations themselves drew people from all over north Orange County, according to Gonzales: “The group added a procession and singing, ‘led by men [in brilliant costumes] carrying staffs with beautiful colors and adorned with bells.’”
For the 1928-1929 holiday season, two performances of the play were given by a group from Delhi under the direction of adult education teacher Mrs. Jessie Hayden. The group performed one night at the Logan barrio night school and another at the Fairyland Dance Hall, 2701 S. Main St., in Delhi.
|Devils with shepherd boy. San Antonio, Texas, 1893. Photo courtesy American Folklore Society.|
“…Most of the cast has been familiar with the various roles for years,” reported the Santa Ana Register. “Members of the cast planned and made their costumes and stage settings,… The Spanish orchestra with Miss Ruth Frotheringham at the piano, presented several Spanish selections between the acts and Miss Henrietta Armendares sang two Spanish songs.”
(In 1934, Hayden would complete her master’s thesis at Claremont College: The La Habra Experiment in Mexican Social Education, which would cite her experiences with productions of Los Pastores in Orange County.)
In their coverage of the 1931 Delhi production, the Register noted that at least 20 different versions of the play were performed in various parts of Mexico at the time, and that the version director Pablo Lopez had selected came from Zacatecas. It was called “The Coming of the Messiah,” and it included roles for more players than most versions, but it sounds like the storyline was a bit of a train wreck.
It began with Lucifer calling together his vices: Sin, Avarice, Pride, Anger, Envy, etc., and sending them out into the world to wreak havoc in the world. The Register article continues,…
“The next scene shows the shepherds awakening in the cold dawn, calling to one another, joking, complaining of the climate and the scarcity of food. The all pray that God will bless their labors and increase their flocks. Then the shepherdesses go to care for their hens and doves and the shepherds depart.
“The second act opens with a little dove scene between the shepherds and shepherdesses. There is a song, “I Shall Die, I Shall Die, Unless You Comfort Me.” Then Lucindo comes from Bethlehem and all ask news of the Messiah. A present brought for one of the shepherdesses proves to be a rat to frighten her; notwithstanding, there is soon a double wedding and a wedding feast. “Let us go to Bethlehem,” cry the shepherds, but the devil comes and opens a box of snuff to confuse them. The only one he can deceive is poor Bato, who is tempted by food and wine. Bato eats so much that his stomach begins to ache. He sings, “I Am Dying,” but the other shepherds cure him. An angel appears announcing the nativity. The final scene shows the shepherds kneeling in adoration before the manger, singing their glorias.”
Both the 1929 and 1931 Delhi productions were held in January rather than the usual pre-Christmas timeframe. More interestingly, it seems that these particular productions involved, or may have been instigated by, those teaching English and “Americanization” to new immigrants from Mexico. Once again, it was being used as a teaching tool.
But clearly, the schools were not always involved. In her book, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936, Lisbeth Haas described an incident in another Delhi production of the play:
"...A resident related his version of the play to the neighborhood priest orally; the priest then wrote it out into the script, but eliminated those parts he considered irreverent or satirical. Los Pastores was rehearsed in a pool hall donated by a community member... When performing the piece, the actors reinserted all the omitted passages and performed it the way they had in Mexico. The actors even sent to a pueblo in central Mexico for the masks used in the play.”
In a faint echo of the 15th Century, clergy once again tried and failed to reign in the popular folk tradition.
But it was the changing times, not censorship, which brought the local performances to an end in the late 1930s. The play’s undertaking required a great deal of “time, effort and expense,” writes Gonzalez, and the tradition was put on indefinite hold by the deepening Depression, as well as “by the 1936 pickers strike, by the 1938 flood, and finally by the war. The coming of age of the second generation in the 1940s did not include the oral and visual tradition known as the Pastorela.”
I’m unaware of anyone performing the play in Orange County today, but the tradition lives on in several more professionally staged productions in New Mexico and Texas. A movie version, “La Pastorela,” with Linda Ronstadt, Cheech Marin and Paul Rodriguez was released in 1993. (Yes, I've ordered a DVD. But no, it hasn't arrived yet.)