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A Tucson Pastorela
A Tucson Pastorela

The Pastorela is a Nativity folk drama in which the main plot line revolves around the journey of the “pastores” (shepherds) trying to reach Bethlehem (Belén). A bright star from the heavens guides the Pastores on their way. In Belén, a baby has been born that represents hope for the world, a gift from God, el Niño Dios. Along the way, the pastores are met by an evil prince (Satan, Lucifer) and his evil (yet not-too-bright) companions who try to tempt the pastores and divert them from their path. But God is on the shepherds’ side and has sent an angel (Michael or “Miguel”) to help them fight Satan (whose defeat usually unfolds when the pastores come to their senses and realize that Satan’s promises are shallow, while God’s gift is enduring).

OK, but that’s just the standard plot line.

What makes the Pastorela a beloved folk event is something else.

First, while there are stock characters that remain as “types” in each staged play (the young shepherdess, the lazy young pastor or shepherd’s dog Bartolo, the devil, the archangel, etc.) in each community, writers are allowed to exercise creative license and make these “types” stand in for current events and local characters.

This makes for truly inventive and comical scenes, mostly taken from pop culture (as the devil is made to represent politicians or shallow TV personalities). One year, in Tucson, the devil appeared as Donald Trump tempting the pastores to become his “apprentices.” In the late 1990s, in Austin, Texas, the Devil and his assistants were portrayed as Real Estate Developers. In one production, the temptation the pastores faced was the fame offered by “American Idol.”


The archangel Miguel also disguises himself in artistic and pop-culture ways to intervene against Satan. The pastores, in turn, have been interpreted in many ways: as migrants, as women escaping domestic violence, or displaced workers, or activists fighting gentrification, etc. The Devil and his assistants are always a source of comic relief: they fumble, are full of themselves, and misunderstand the true value of things (i.e. not money but love; not titles, but honest work, etc.). It is this flexible narrative structure and the possibility of inserting coded messages of many kinds within the basic plot that make Pastorelas appealing to both religious and secular audiences alike.

Devil in a Pastorela
Devil in a Pastorela

Let’s review some basic Pastorela facts.

• The roots of La Pastorela go back to Medieval Spain and Italy (somewhere circa the 16th century). St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have started the tradition of Christmas pageants in Italy, using real animals and a baby. There is at least one record of Princess Isabella watching a Christmas play in 1487. There is a also a record of a Nativity play produced in Tlatelolco, Mexico in 1530. In 1595, the first “Coloquio de los Pastores” (a seminar for Pastorela-aficionados) was held in Sinaloa.

• Spanish priests introduced folk dramatizations in the Americas as a pedagogical tools sure to catch the attention of indigenous peoples, many of whom had elaborate folk dramas, festivals, and other festivities in their own cultures.

• In New Mexico, more than in any other region of New Spain (even Mexico!), the Pastorela was only one of many other folk dramas ritually taught and liturgically performed by the Spanish and the indigenous groups. Among the most popular, we can name Los Comanches, Moors and Christians, and The Lost Child.

• For most of its history, Pastorelas existed only as oral literature. In the 19th century they began to be written down as “scripts” that were then adapted by local playwrights.

• The 1960s, with the birth of the Chicano movement, began to see a revival of interest in Pastorelas.

• The town of Belén, New Mexico (how appropriate!) is believed to produce the longest-running consecutive Pastorela anywhere in the Southwest.

• In December 1991, PBS brodcasted under their “Great Performances” series a Pastorela produced by El Teatro Campesino, written by Luis Valdez. Linda Rondstadt, Paul Rodriguez, Freddy Fender, Lalo Guerrero, Flaco Jimenez, and Cheech Marin (among other stars) were casted in some of the traditional roles. Entertainment Weekly said that the production [deserved] “to become an annual TV event.”

• As is the case with carnivals and other festivities that allow symbolic inversion (in Mexico, for example the burning of the Judas at Easter or the “calaveras” verses composed around Day of the Dead), the Pastorela offers one of those unique times when the folks can comment critically on authority figures without fearing retribution (it’s all in good fun, after all).

Characters from a Pastorela
Characters from a Pastorela

Tucson has had its own original version of the Pastorela for the last 17 years. Produced faithfully each year by Borderlands Theater, the Tucson production has at least one significant innovation among Pastorelas worldwide; it is the only one staged with Christmas songs sung to the rhythm and tunes of original Tohono O’odham “waila” music. The idea came a few years ago to BT’s Artistis Associate Director Eva Tessler; she found the perfect musical complement to the traditional Pastorela in the sound of Gerty and the T.O. Boys.

On Preview Night this year join University of Arizona Folklorist and Tucson Meet Yourself Program Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez in an interactive session following the play: learn more about how the classic Shepherd’s Play first emerged, how several different versions exist, the meaning behind the folklore and much, much more. And share your own favorite experiences, characters, and plots, from the many performances of Borderlands’ A Tucson Pastorela!

Here are details on dates, times, and tickets.

DECEMBER 20-23, 2012
Tucson Convention Center,
260 S. Church Ave.

PREVIEW – 1/2 PRICE TICKETS AND KIDS ARE FREE: December 20, 7:30pm —
$12 General & Senior, $6 Student, Free children 12 and under

$24 General and Senior, $12 Student,
$7 children 12 and under
Opening Night Celebración with postres, plus meet and greet the ghost writers and performers!

REGULAR PERFORMANCES: December 22, 7:30pm
$19.75 General, $17.75 Senior, $12 Student,
$7 children 12 and under

SUNDAY MATINEE: December 23, 2pm
$19.75 General, $17.75 Senior, $12 Student,
$7 children 12 and under
Special performance by Ballet Folklorico Tapatio before Sunday’s matinee!

RESERVATIONS: (520) 882-7406

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