A young angry Chicana feminist weaves her way through ugly election politics to make friends with others, learn about cooperation, and help the shepherds get to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Jesus.
How’s that for a spin on the Christmas story? A blend of headlines, humor, and miracles.
It’s par for the course for the Tucson-based Borderlands Theater and their annual production of A Tucson Pastorela, a show that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
Pastorelas are pastoral dramas recreating the journey of the shepherds in search of the Christ child. Following the Star of Bethlehem, they encounter obstacles along the way. The main obstacle is the Devil who tries everything to stop them until the Archangel Michael saves the day. The main message? Good overcomes evil.
The tradition of the Pastorela is believed to have started near the ancient city Teotihuacan. Spanish missionaries were inspired by the plays performed by indigenous people, who used theater to share important stories. The missionaries, not surprisingly co-opted the tradition to convert the indigenous to Christianity. La Pastorela was one such story.
Borderlands Theater began the tradition under the direction of Barclay Goldsmith, who founded the company and directed BorderLands 25 years before handing the reigns over to Marc David Pinate.
This year’s production was directed by Katherine Monberg and written by Milta Ortiz, a playwright who moved to Tucson from the Bay area and has written the play since 2014.
“It’s a beautiful nativity story that we all know. Even if you’re not Christian or Catholic you still get the story. It’s a classic hero’s journey,” Ortiz said.
But with some local and irreverent twists.
Playing with Politics
While on the surface a holiday pageant “sounds light and fun and fluffy,” Ortiz says La Pastorela is all about politics and headlines.
As the writer, her job is to reflect on the past year, pulling out the most poignant or outrageous news stories and poking fun at them, Ortiz said. “No one is safe.”
Ortiz said her favorite jokes are the most irreverent. This year, the play even poked fun at “the stereotypical angry Chicana that’s coming into consciousness,” a character influenced by her own past, she said.
“I remember being that angry Chicana feminist. You need that perspective at first, but over time you realize you can accomplish a lot more by not being so angry.”
So this year’s protagonist learns a similar lesson. “She really comes around to understand: ‘Instead of building walls, let’s build bridges,’” Ortiz said.
The production has a team of ghostwriters that assist in the creation of the play. Early on someone proposed incorporating the indigenous and environmental struggle at Standing Rock, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I knew I wanted to put ‘Water is life’ into the script,” Ortiz said, citing the water protectors rallying cry. “But how could I make that funny?”
She ended up incorporating Arizona state ballot measure to legalize marijuana, making some of the protagonist’s fellow activists lag behind on their way to the protest because of their, ahem, passion for that issue.
“Sometimes I wonder if it goes too far but then I remember, it’s theater. And it’s Tucson!” Ortiz said.
Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump figured prominently this year, and Ortiz said she had to re-write some of the play’s lines after the election. “I knew this year would be women-themed again. But I thought we would be celebrating women empowerment.”
And while BLT leans to the left in its politics, as a non-profit theater organization they don’t endorse political candidates. Ortiz says La Pastorela is for everyone. “It’s actually a great way to community to come together and laugh about the year’s crazy political goings-on. Everyone gets the joke,” Ortiz said.
A Place-Based Production
A mainstay in Tucson’s theater scene, La Pastorela is at heart a place-based production. “It’s very Tucson-centric, with Tucson references,” Ortiz says. Including protagonists you’d find in Tucson, like a Chicana feminist.
Although this year national headlines stole the show, Ortiz says the Pastorela reflects Tucson culture in a variety of ways. Most significantly, the play communicates reflects a spirit of inclusion that characterizes Tucson culture.
“Ever since I got here, one of the things I notice about Tucson is how inclusive a community it is. You can be who you are,” Ortiz said.
She wove that message into the play. “It’s about working together and love.”
Even the angry young protagonist has a moment of awakening, when she speaks up for unity, working together and tearing down walls, Ortiz said.
Upholding and Evolving a Tradition
In a production with a 20-year run, tradition runs deep. Some of the cast and crew have been with La Pastorela since its inception, like Jim Klingenfus, the musical director.
The costume designer, Elizabeth Blair, has done the costumes for the production for the last 16 years, Ortiz said. This year Blair’s baby will appear on stage for the final nativity tableau.
Another mainstay is Gertie Lopez, an accordion player from the Tohono O’odham Nation and leader of the band, Gertie ‘N’ the TO Boyz.
Pinate says the long-time cast and crew are important for upholding tradition. “They’re very staunch about the keeping the writing, the structure the same. Even in rehearsals, they can be very resistant to changing even tiniest aspect,” he says. “But it works. I get it.”
Ortiz agrees. “It’s about keeping some of the traditions and then growing them into new things. It’s a balance.”
In typical folk tradition fashion, as stories get passed on people sometimes forget their origin. With La Pastorela, Ortiz said she can’t always remember what she wrote and what already existed. She says she usually writes about 85 percent of the script.
“You have to keep things the same because the audience loves to come in and say it with the actors. That’s part of tradition,” she said.
Ortiz said the play has historically been written in iambic pentameter. “But it’s really hard to write that in today’s language. Mine is definitely more hip-hoppy. The beat and rhythm of it especially.”
For La Pastorela the audience also plays an important role in upholding traditions.
“We have audience members who have seen it for 20 years,” Ortiz said. “People come home for the holidays and they go see the Pastorela. We have so much chaos in the world it’s important that we get to see this good triumph over evil.”
Borderlands Theater’s director Marc David Pinate agrees and says the audience comes expecting to be warmed. “During the holidays — as cheesy as it might sound — people’s hearts are maybe open in a way they’re not the rest of the year,” he said.
Pinate sees the role of Borderlands Theater, in part, as maintaining community rituals like La Pastorela. “This kind of theater with singing and multigenerational performers — it’s about coming together as a community.”
While Borderlands Theater plans to continue the tradition of La Pastorela for years to come, Pinate says he wants to grow the element of spectacle in the future. This builds on recent productions the company has staged in more non-traditional venues, such as this season’s shadow puppet theater production, Sonoran Shadows, which was presented in two neighborhood parks, as well as Standing with Saguaros, presented in Saguaro National Park. Both productions were donation-based, making theater accessible to audiences who might not otherwise see them.
Next year Pinate is considering presenting La Pastorela in an outdoor space, bringing back big puppets and live mariachi music and baile folklorico. “Like a parade, it’s a spectacle. That has to happen outside so it wows everyone,” Pinate said.
Pinate also wants to use a crane to fly the angels in at the end. “People will say, ‘You can’t do that. It’s hard and expensive and risky.’ But we’ll see.”
It is a show about miracles, after all.
BorderLands Theater founder Barclay Goldsmith gives the history of A Tucson Pastorela:
Borderlands Theater had long considered doing something that celebrated Christmas on the Border. There was Las Posadas at the El Carrillo School but we wanted to see something in addition to this Tucson model.
There is little mention in Arizona Historical Society records of other productions in Tucson. The Teatro Campesino, in Delano, California, produced a well-known version with its own scandals in the 1980s that can still be seen today online. The DeGrazia Museum also produced a version one year in the early 1990s, I believe. I saw it. Some of it was in old Spanish. It had been performed in Mexico for the Yaqui Communities in Mexico and was often in Latin, though it was not permitted to actually show the Devil on stage in the Yaqui versions, as I understand.
In 1995 Annabelle Nuñez and I drove to Southern California to see Posadas and Pastorelas. We decided to go with a Pastorela we saw in San Diego, developed at the Old Globe but ultimately produced at the San Diego Rep. The Rep had given funds to Max Branscomb, a local San Diego producer and playwright, to visit Pastorelas in Mexico, which now is home to more than 2,000 productions each year in villages and large churches throughout Mexico.
This production set the model for Tucson. It had very lively shepherds, was very multicultural in casting, and had lots of traditional carols. The songs were often in Spanish and often known only by Latino/Chicanos in this country but also included more recognizable songs by Joan Baez, Paul McCartney, and others.
Max Branscomb wrote La Pastorela for Borderlands for about seven or eight years. He would come to Tucson, meet with company members, and learn about local issues to incorporate in the dialogue. The larger issues or “the Temptations” were often the same here as in San Diego: deportations, baseball, Sarah Palin, etc.
The late Albert Soto played the Devil for many years. He had a big fan base. The late legendary Frank de la Cruz had very clever take on things. Gertie and the TO Boys, a Waila Band, started playing for the production about 15 years ago. I can’t imagine doing the Pastorela without Gertie.