The Seventh Mexican Pastorela Festival

In 1998, in my capacity as artistic director of PUENTE, a Victoria, B.C. theatre group by and for immigrants in Canada, I attended the Community ’98 Congress in Havana, Cuba. One of the delegates was Arturo Morell, director of the Pastorela Festival in Mexico. When Morell explained that pastorelas were fables derived from the Christian tradition about the struggle between good and evil, I realized that they were similar to an Ethiopian story which we had just dramatized succesfully for our play “Story Mosaic”. This gave us the idea that PUENTE Theatre could create a pastorela in Canada and present it at the first Latin American Festival of Pastorelas that Morell was planning for1999.

The mandate of PUENTE theatre is the exploration through theatre of the immigrant experience in Canada. The main question we had to answer to produce a pastorela was: what is evil and what is good for the immigrant? Exploring the questions and finding the answers theatrically would be the focus of our work.

Our play had to be written and performed in Spanish, and it had to consider the different language abilities of PUENTE’s multicultural actors. I proposed the project to Jaime Silva, a Chilean poet and playwright, and the author of several plays with a religious theme. He knew the immigrant experience well, having lived in Montrealfor several years. Through e-mail correspondence, a project developed joining the people and traditions of Chile, Canada and Mexico. The pastorela itself is an example of integration. It brings together the medieval Spanish Christian traditions with the indigenous Mexican celebrations. Modern pastorelas are also influenced by popular theatrical expressions as well as products of the modern communication media.

Aware of the novelty of this project, Arturo Morell decided to come to Victoria for two weeks to teach us the requirements of the pastorela form. We worked from a script-in-progress provided by the author and using PUENTE’s rehearsal methods, which include the creation of images, physical theatre, improvisation, mask work and collective creation. Little by little the play was shaped and polished, until the Pastorela of Juan Tierra the Immigrant was completed. It was a poetic fable which told Juan’s story. A young peasant driven by economic necessity to leave his family in an unidentified Latin American country, he takes his faithful dog as his only companion and sets out full of illusions of a better life. When he reaches his Never Never Land, his destination, the Devil, who appears in various disguises, attacks him with Fear and Doubt, tempts him to forget his roots, incites him to give himself over to untrammeled ambition, makes him fail and plunges him into despair. After many ups and downs, Juan, aided by the Archangels and guided by the “Skeletons of his Grandparents”, manages to find stability and the wisdom to accept his new life without losing his pride in himself and his identity.

The play followed the pastorela form. It told the story of a hero’s journey towards a higher destiny and how the devil attempts to sidetrack him through different temptations and distractions. Many of the characters were traditional ones, essential in every pastorela: Lucifer and other devils, the shepherds and the archangels Michael and Gabriel. There were allegorical characters integral to the immigrant experience: Doubt, Fear, Melancholy, and a robot symbolizing Technology. Lucifer uses disguises such as that of an old woman, a malevolent Santa Claus or a flashy Television announcer with his helpers Miss Rich and Miss Waste.

It presented situations well known to immigrants, including having to work in dead-end jobs, falling into the temptation of denying one’s identity, looking for easy money, forgetting one’s family back in the homeland, finally acknowledging one’s roots and claiming one’s place in the new society. The scene of the Skeletons of the Grandparents, honouring Latin American mestizaje with the Indian grandmother and the Spanish grandfather, had great emotional impact. The end of the the play gave a vision of Canada’s multi-ethnic condition when the actors appeared dressed in traditional costumes from their homelands and the Archangel Michael wore a cape embroidered with buttons, a traditional garment of the Haida natives of the west coast of British Columbia. This image may be considered a cliché in Canada, but for the Mexican audience Canada’s multiculturalism was new and surprising.

The Pastorela Festival took place in the former convent of San Lorenzo, in the historic heart of Mexico City. It is a reconstructed colonial building, with many patios which had been arranged as performance venues. The presentations began at 11 A.M. and went on all day. The groups came from the various Mexican states and from barrios of the City. The participants included all types of people: theatre professionals, students, seniors, trade unionists, blind children, policewomen, hospital workers, even whole families. In 1999 PUENTE was the only foreign representative. In the 2000 Festival there were delegates from Peru, Bolivia and Spain. More foreign participants are expected for 2001, and this time we hope PUENTE will again represent Canada.

In the neighbourhood surrounding the convent demons, angels, burros, peasants, saints and archangels- characters in the different pastorelas- were wandering about. It was surprising to see the many types of tails, horns and wings and the diversity of costumes which were, mostly, carefully conceived. The presentations were so numerous that it was impossible to see them all. We had to make do with seeing parts of several pastorelas and talking with the other participants. We were always received with great affection and respect. The “Canadians” were objects of great interest.

This essay is not the appropriate medium for an extensive analysis of the phenomenon of the pastorelas in Mexico. The Mexicans are the experts in the field. Mine is the vision of the visitor who came from another world for a moment to join this very singular one. The pastorelas I saw surprised me by their diversity, their colour and especially by how uninhibited they were. The irreverence was extreme. The archangel Michael was characterized as a wrestler and St. Joseph as a cuckold. There were gay saints, angels engaged in all sorts of sexual games and devils who got up to extreme antics. There was no limit to the freedom with which the sacred subjects were interpreted. The devotion was expressed in the familiarity with which the popular genius dealt with the central themes of the pastorela. The pastorela always implies a discussion and a definition of good and evil. Some of the ones we saw made interesting philosophical statements about the nature of the two, while others focused on social and political criticism. Still others exploited the farce and the theatricality of the genre.

The pastorela was originally a powerful tool for evangelization, but its function is now changing. The Festival itself has become an instrument of social and cultural development. In providing a format and a space for the presentation of pastorelas it facilitates the organization of many groups. These produce a theatre piece and also have the opportunity to express themselves as a social entity. In the play they can voice their demands, their criticisms and their affirmations. As far as I know, the only condition that needs to be met so that a group can be allowed to participate is that the play meet the basic conditions of the pastorela form. Wisely, the organizers think that providing the participants with the opportunity to see what others are doing will improve the work of the less experienced groups. The categories of “professional” and “amateur” mix with great ease in this place. The Mexican Festival of Pastorelas seemed to me truly a “space of freedom”, limited only by the form, which of course implies the weight of tradition and religion. A possibility for the future is a festival in which the plays deal with the universal theme of the struggle between good and evil and which allows for the participation of non-Christian cultures. I think this would be an extraordinary cultural event.

The Pastorela de Juan Tierra el Inmigrante was welcomed with extraordinary warmth by the Mexican public. The audience seemed moved and flattered by the fact that we were using a form created by them. Instead of resenting it and accusing us of cultural appropriation, they considered it a homage. Many could identify with the problems of the immigrant, since there are few Mexican families who don’t have at least one member who has emigrated to the North in search of better economic conditions. At the end of the presentation we received many embraces, requests for photos and autographs and invitations to perform in other neighbourhoods and towns. Our participation in the First Latin American Pastorela Festival was a positive exercise in theatrical and cultural integration and exchange, and it reaffirmed our decision to continue to be a wide PUENTE (Bridge) for theatre between nations.

Printed in Alt.Theatre June 2002