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La Pastorela: An Old Los Angeles Christmastime Tradition

La Pastorela, 1931 (header)
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In the Los Angeles Plaza on Christmas Eve 1861, brothers Pío and Andrés Pico produced a grand Pastorela, a popular Christmas folk drama brought to Los Angeles by Spanish friars and Californio settlers. Historian W. W. Robinson recounted in his book “Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo”:

The last play of the Pastores, as recalled by [Arturo] Bandini, took place in the Plaza on Christmas eve of 1861. Rancheros and townsmen patronized the numerous booths that had been set up for the occasion. The air was filled with the cries of the vendors of tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, candy, and fruit, as well as with the twanging of guitars, the shrieking of violins, and the voices of singers.

As an old man, Arturo Bandini waxed nostalgic on the Christmases of his youth in his book “Navidad: A Christmas Day with the Early Californians”: “Gaily decorated and festooned carretas, prancing horses, and splendid horsemen were a common enough sight for us, but the Pastores—Ah! that was something that occurred but once a year during Navidad—Christmas time."

With medieval roots, La Pastorela (also known as Los Pastores) told the nativity tale of the shepherds as they followed the star of Bethlehem. La Pastorela was among the first theatrical productions staged in Southern California, and Spanish missionaries used the musical drama to teach the neophytes Christianity. Still staged today, La Pastorela features a relatively small cast of characters: a handful of shepherds (the “Pastores”), a drunken hermit (“Ermitaño”) who joins them, a devil (“Luzbel”) and several minions who try to stop the shepherds, and Archangel St. Michael who ultimately saves them. Throughout Mexico and the Southwest, these musical folk dramas were performed in private homes as well as public spaces. In Los Angeles, public Pastorelas were performed around the town plaza, the center stage for the pueblo’s religious festivities.

La Pastorela (1931)
The cast of a 1931 Pastorela performance. Photo from the December 1931 edition of Touring Topics. 

While historians and musicologists in Texas and New Mexico have documented the Pastorelas in their regions, there have only been scattered attempts to study it in Southern California – until now. John Koegel, a music professor at California State University Fullerton, is writing a book about Mexican musical theater in Los Angeles and, in an interview, articulated the rich history of the La Pastorela in the city. “La Pastorela was mostly an amateur tradition that reflected popular piety – a folk expression of strongly held beliefs performed as theatrical and musical entertainment.” As Koegel notes, specifics about the play’s history can be elusive.

1883 Los Angeles Herald advertisement for Los Pastores performance
An advertisement for a Pastores performance from the Los Angeles Herald 

One challenge in understanding this tradition in Los Angeles is that although local archives preserve complete playscripts with song lyrics and dialogue, they do not include the music that accompanied performances. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County resides a Pastorela manuscript purportedly dated 1839 that was owned by Antonio Coronel, a respected public figure in nineteenth-century Los Angeles. In his memoir, Bandini mentioned Coronel’s important role in producing La Pastorela for St. Vincent’s College (the predecessor of Loyola Marymount University). Bandini was thrilled to be cast in this production as the Archangel even if his tissue-paper angel wings caught fire when an elderly near-sighted women held her candle too close to him. The flames were extinguished by the actor playing the devil, an irony not lost on Bandini, who described the moment he went from “white angel to fiery devil.”

Old Southern California periodicals abound with mentions of Pastorela performances. In 1883, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Los Pastores was so popular that another performance was given in February at Turnverein Hall on Figueroa Street. Just over 100 years ago, the Hidalgo Club, a Mexican mutual aid society, revived La Pastorela for performances in several halls in the Plaza area. The December 1931 issue of the Auto Club’s Touring Topics magazine documented performances of Los Pastores given by Mexican agricultural workers in La Habra, Fullerton, Corona, Upland, and Placentia. The reporter explained that the previous year, “a group organized and trained at Placentia by an almost illiterate orange picker gave more than 25 performances between Christmas Eve and February, traveling all over Southern California in an open truck.”

While the general premise of La Pastorela remains the same, renditions evolve to reflect the times. When PBS broadcast Luis Valdez and El Teatro Compensino’s La Pastorela in 1991, the devil took several forms – Hell’s Angels, a wealthy Californio rancher, and a Middle East sultan. In the 2016 version performed at the Frida Kahlo Theater, evil was represented by a diabolical character named Donald. La Pastorela continues to be performed on the old Plaza, across from the Pico House and Olvera Street, its performance following another Los Angeles Christmastime tradition, Las Posadas.

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