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Los Pastores, A Christmastime Reenactment

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The star, the stable, the shepherds, the angels, and the baby Jesus are a story that has been told for two thousand years in as many ways as mankind can invent. I saw and heard it told in San Antonio one time in a way that was completely new to me and I have never forgotten it.

It was December of 1966, and I had just moved to San Antonio to go to work for HemisFair, the world’s fair that was to open there in April 1968. Several of my new colleagues invited me to go out to San Jose Mission one night to see a performance of Los Pastores, a medieval mystery play that is a reenactment of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. I knew about mystery plays from a college course in theatre history, but I was entirely unprepared for what happened that night.

The performance was outdoors and it was bitterly cold, but there were three hundred people in the audience. The play was three hours long, in Spanish, and no one left until it was over and the shepherds had reached the stable in Bethlehem in spite of the devil’s attempts to divert them. The performers were on a raised platform, the audience sat in folding metal chairs, and bonfires blazed behind the chairs in a futile attempt to keep the audience and the players warm.

Radio personality Henry Guerra kept up a running commentary in English through a loudspeaker so that the non-Spanish speakers would know what was going on, but the elderly lady beside me moved her lips all through the performance. She knew every word of everyone’s lines.

The actors were from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on San Antonio’s West Side, where the play has been performed at Christmas time for more than a century. The script they used was brought from Mexico by Don Leonardo Granado, who came to San Antonio from Irapuato, Guanajuato in the 1890s and sold raspas, sno-cones, from a cart on San Antonio’s West Side. Granado had played in Los Pastores as a boy in Mexico, and he wrote the script out from memory in an old ledger and began organizing performances on San Antonio’s West Side in 1913.

In 1949 Father Carmelo Tranchese, the priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe, revised and shortened the script (the original version could run to eight hours) and that is the version that I saw at San Jose. There are now two Pastores troupes in San Antonio, one at Our Lady of Guadalupe and one at Holy Rosary Catholic church. Each performance is an act of devotion on the part of both the players and the audience.

What I remember most vividly about the performance I saw, besides the cold, are the costumes. There were 24 people in the cast – Joseph; Mary; the Archangel Michael; 12 shepherds and a shepherdess; 7 devils; and a hermit. The shepherds wore satin capes with ribbons tied to them and cowboy hats decorated with flowers, and carried ganchas, shepherd’s staffs, wrapped in ribbons and tinsel with all sorts of geegaws dangling from them – one had a goldfish bowl with goldfish swimming in it suspended from the crook. Gila, the shepherdess, was dressed like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, with a full skirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and ballet slippers. Michael the Archangel, who is always played by a girl or a very young boy, was wearing a short white dress, white stockings, white sneakers, cardboard wings, and a white crown.

The hermit wore a tattered cassock and an old man’s rubber mask with a long white beard and carried a huge rosary, with beads the size of baseballs and a cross a foot high, with which he warded off the devils. His staff had a doll’s head impaled on its top. The devils were the most elaborately costumed of all. They wore black pants and shoes, red satin shirts, and black capes with their names emblazoned in sequins on them – Luzbel, Satanas, Belzebub, Astarot, Esturiel, and so on. Luzbel, the chief devil, wore a sort of feathered crown with a black veil over his face and a wig whose long hair draped over his shoulders.

The plot is simple. The Archangel Michael announces the birth of the messiah to the shepherds, and they determine to go to Bethlehem to pay homage to him. Along the way they meet a hermit, who decides to accompany them. Luzbel and his devils also hear the news, and try to prevent the shepherds from completing their journey by a number of tricks and ruses.

St. Michael finally intervenes and wrestles with Luzbel, eventually leading him away in chains; the shepherds arrive at the stable, where they are welcomed by Joseph and Mary; they kneel and adore the baby Jesus, represented by a doll, and then they invite the audience to join them on the stage in adoration.

Comic relief is provided by the fact that Luzbel and the devils are invisible to the shepherds except when they assume disguises, which they indicate by doffing their capes, but are always visible to the hermit and to St. Michael. Many of the lines are sung, and are in the form of rhymed couplets.

My friend Michaele Haynes is a San Antonio anthropologist who has worked with the local Los Pastores troupes for the past 10 years. She tells me that many of the roles are hereditary, and are passed from father to son or elder brother to younger brother. For instance Richard Vasquez, who plays Luzbel with the Holy Rosary troup, inherited the role from his father and elder brother. Some actors start at an early age, according to Haynes.

Victoria Rodriguez took the part of St. Michael when she was 7 and had to learn Spanish in order to perform it. She played it until she was 18 and left San Antonio to go to college; she is now a Ph. D. candidate at Stanford, working on a doctorate in bilingual education.

This year Los Pastores troupes from San Antonio will perform all through December, not only in San Antonio but also in Goliad and Floresville. There will be performances downtown on Market Square, at the Witte Museum, at the Madonna Neighborhood Center, at the Institute of Texan Cultures, and, on December 20, at San Jose Mission. If you go to that one I advise you to wear long underwear.

Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas.

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