El Teatro Campesino's La Pastorela
Nation and virgin as great performances

by Kathleen Newman

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 87-91
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

On December 23, 1991, the Public Broadcasting System aired EL TEATRO CAMPESINO'S LA PASTORELA: A SHEPHERD'S TALE as the seventh new program of the season in its Great Performances series.[1][open notes in new window] El Teatro Campesino, an internationally renown theater troupe, has presented bilingual theatrical versions of the pastorela at the San Bautista Mission in California since 1975. The decision to make a television special of the pastorela signals a new phase in the cultural politics of the Teatro, one of the most interesting aspects of which is the appropriation of an explicitly latina activist discourse to combat a monolithic concept of our national culture, a concept inherent in the Great Performances series, as we shall see below, despite the obvious commitment to diversity of the producers of the series.

I would like to examine two interrelated aspects of the Teatro's televisual pastorela: (1) the gender politics of the drama itself, and, specifically, the representation of the Virgin; and (2) the television special as part of the Teatro's ongoing political project to change the definition of our national culture, specifically, how the concept of performance is deployed to transform the public sphere in the United States-understanding public sphere to be that current spatial metaphor for the utopia wherein all members of the nation are inscribed, albeit serially, as equal citizens.

The broadcast of EL TEATRO CAMPESINO'S LA PASTORELA on December 23 was followed by a very brief documentary, EL TEATRO CAMPESINO: LOOKING BACK AFTER 25 YEARS, written and directed by El Teatro Campesino founder and artistic director Luis Valdez. The documentary, employing archival footage of the early days of the Teatro, highlights the Teatro's first actos with the United Farmworkers, the establishment of the Teatro's permanent home in San Juan Bautista, the Teatro's twenty-year anniversary celebration, and the training of the next generation of actors/activists. Having stressed the Teatro's commitment to family and to the "humility of the campesinos," the documentary ends with the following voiceover narration by Valdez:

"Like the past, the future belongs to those who can imagine it. The Teatro is now creating films and videos which we call electronic theater in order to embrace that past and create that future. El Teatro Campesino stands at the threshold of the twenty-first century, its hands in the earth and its heart in the sky."

This poetic contextualization of the Teatro's televisual pastorela, directed by Valdez and produced by Richard Sow, starkly contrasts, of course, with that of Entertainment Weekly in its schedule of television programs the week prior to the showing:

"Here's the best new Christmas special of the year; a boldly unconventional version of a pastorela, or shepherd's tale, the centuries-old Spanish variation on the Nativity story. Writer-director Luis Valdez (LA BAMBA; ZOOT SUM has brought the tale up to date by centering it on Gila (STAND AND DELIVER's Karla Montana), a poor Mexican girl who has a vision of the angel St. Michael, played in glowing white wings and without a trace of campiness by Linda Ronstadt… it deserves to become an annual TV event."[2]

The New York Times, more circumspect, wrote:

"Luis Valdez's musical retelling of the journey of the shepherds to Bethlehem; with Linda Ronstadt, Paul Rodriguez and Cheech Marin."[3]

Neither Entertainment Weekly nor The New York Times mentions that this pastorela is an adaptation of El Teatro Campesino's theatrical production, or that what may seem "unconventional" in the production is, in fact, a theatrical style. Neither mentions the role of the Teatro in the Chicano politics and culture in over twenty-five years (with Entertainment Weekly going so fan as to designate the character of Gila as Mexican rather than Chicana or Mexican-American). Both stress Valdez' reputation and the national fame of some of the singers and actors involved in the production. For neither is this an event deserving of greater note than any other television special.

In fact, the "performance" should have been of great national note. While it is certainly not the first time the Teatro's work has appeared in PBS, the inclusion of the Teatro's pastorela in the Great Performances series associates the Teatro with a national program whose status, in its own advertising in the national press, is simultaneously that conservator of U.S. cultural heritages and promoter of a transnationalist appreciation of popular culture. Indeed, there was extensive advertising for the six preceding programs of Great Performances — EVERYBODY DANCE NOW: VIDEO DANCE FROM JAMES BROWN TO M. C. HAMMER; Paul McCartney's LIVERPOOL ORATORIO; Paul Taylor's SPEAKING IN TONGUES; A CARNEGIE HALL CHRISTMAS; Samuel Barber's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; and Lorca's THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA. In these ads, the pastorela was recontextualized, by adjacency, as simultaneously akin to lyric opera and oratorio, African American choreography and popular dance, and Spanish drama.

While each program in itself necessarily expressed a specific politics of culture, the Great Performances programming sequence suggests that the works of U.S. artists included here are to be considered part of an transnational repertoire: transnational, rather than international, because the national origin of each work — the specificity of the historical conjuncture of its creation — gives way before an emphasis on the repertoire of an elite cultural network. For example, Lorca's drama is advertised not as a work of Spanish drama — or translation thereof (with a historically-specific analysis of gender and class power asymmetries) — but as a vehicle for the actress Glenda Jackson. So too, this pastorela was not advertised as an achievement within the Chicano cultural movement or U.S. theater history, but as a vehicle for Linda Ronstadt, Paul Rodriguez, Cheech Marin and Freddy Fender. While it is not surprising that the national name recognition of two singers and two comedians, as well as Valdez' work as a film director, would structure the promotional materials for the pastorela, the seeming media disinterest in the Teatro's history, and in the causes the Teatro has promoted, serves to foment an elite version of the national culture, one in which aesthetic qualities — here, high television production values — are expected not to be infused with political content. Though the producers of the Great Performances series, by means of the programs they have selected, may well be working against an elite definition of our always diverse national culture, the series itself defines culture monolithically.

Fortunately, the Teatro achieved in its televisual production of the pastorela exactly the opposite of a homogenized "great performance" or "instant popular classic." Though El Teatro Campesino's televisual pastorela is twice removed from its original community performance context, the Teatro was able retain the vitality of the theatrical and community performances. It did so, as we will see below, through alternations, on the one hand, of a relatively jaded manipulation of star discourse with a quite serious valorization of the work of latino artists, and, on the other, of the narrative deployment of citations of Hollywood films and Chicano art with an inventive address to the audience, which we might call "iconic address."

Also, the televisual pastorela adds to the theatrical pastorela a framing story, that of Gila, a contemporary, disaffected teenager who rediscovers the importance of family. Given that Gila is the daughter of farmworkers and lives "in the camp outside of town," the televisual pastorela makes explicit class divisions in the United States. Impressively, the Teatro's televisual pastorela transforms a "musical retelling of the journey of the shepherds to Bethlehem" into a examination of the political implications of the "humility of the campesinos."

In tone, save for the final encounter with the Virgin and the niño Jesus, the televisual pastorela is principally comic. The framing story, which some consider a citation of THE WIZARD OF OZ[5], concerns an teenager, Gila, who is upset because her family cannot afford other than cheap gifts for her younger brothers and sisters at Christmas. She resents her family's poverty and misunderstands her parents' geniality and affirmation of community. When Gila is hit on head accidentally during a midnight performance of the pastorela at the Mission (i.e., ETC's theatrical pastorela), she dreams that she journeys, as one of the pastores, to Bethlehem — thus enacting the pastorela — and, after speaking with the Virgin, awakens to find her faith in family and community renewed. In Gila's pastorela, the pastores and hermit with whom she travels are rescued three times by San Miguel from their tragicomic encounters with Satanás (Paul Rodríguez) and Luzbel (Robert Beltrán). Though the underlying topics of the encounters may be quite serious (abuse of paternal authority, alcoholism, sexism, sexual abuse, etc.), most of them are filmed with comic intent and are signaled as broadly comic.

For example, when Gilda's father, Bartolo, is possessed by a large devil, his body is so inflated that the pastores have to sing him to his feet so he can accompany them. In another comic moment, in an encounter with El Cósmico (Cheech Marin), a con artist pretending to be one of the three wise men, there is a slapstick chase scene (bedeviled pastores running after belly dancers). As a wry test of young love, Gilda's "pastoral" love interest, Bato, is transformed by Satanás into a cholo[6] in a red, low-rider Chevy who drives away with a diabla to the time of "Black Magic Woman." This signaled comic intent — as opposed to the work's humor (some of which is sexist and some of which deploys stereotypes in problematic ways) — serves two purposes.

First, it affirms not only the "humility of the campesino" but the innate wisdom of such humility, of campesino values. The good sense and good humor of the pastores can only be overcome by Satanás' illusions temporarily: the solidarity of the pueblo ultimately is not undermined by the temptations of wealth. Second, it defers the contemporary audiences' confrontation with a patriarchal gender system. Specifically, the contemporary audience is not required to assess the meaning of the insistence in the text of Gila's "purity" as a virgin until such time in the narrative that this "purity" can be configured as feminist.

This is one of the most interesting aspect of the Teatro's televisual pastorela: the creation of a televisual icon of the Virgin, the very iconicity of which subtly shifts a predominantly patriarchal narrative into a feminist address. The early references in the dream sequence to Gila as the Virgin ("our innocent one") become explicit when, toward the end, Gila tells the Virgin Mary that the child Jesus reminds her of her baby brother. This is the baby whose life the audience knows Gila has saved from the falling lectern that knocked Gila unconscious and precipitated the embedded pastorela that the audience is viewing. When Gila returns to consciousness, she is in the Mission, surrounded by her family and the actors from the theatrical pastorela in the same fashion as the manger scene and, indeed, her baby brother is placed into her arms. However, what appears as a tableau of female subservience within a patriarchal family actually mobilizes a latina feminist discourse. Here, not only is the family figured as equivalent to the community and therefore a place of security against the race and class oppression of the larger society, but women are figured as the activists whose gender politics enable both resistance to oppression and social change.

This latter figuration is achieved through the televisual pastorela's manipulation of the specific icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This icon from Mexican and Mexican-American popular and religious culture was promoted as a political symbol by Chicano muralists in the sixties and seventies, then transformed by feminist artists in the eighties into perhaps the image of latina feminism. The televisual pastorela cites Yolanda López's well-known tripartite representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a young woman jogger (herself), a seamstress (her mother) at work, and a seated elderly woman (her grandmother) to suggest, from the opening sequence, in which Gila is shown jogging home, that Gila is a feminist. What artist and critic Amalia Mesa-Rains has written of López' work is no less true of its citation in EL TEATRO CAMPESINO'S LA PASTORELA:

"López's Guadalupes are mobile, hardworking, assertive, working class images…This repositioning becomes both satire and provocation, while retaining the transfigurative liberation of the icon. By breaking the bonds of Guadalupe and setting her free, López attests to the internal familiarity of the image and the powerful influence on her own family members. The art in this series does not simply reflect an existing ideology; it actively constructs a new one. It attests to the critique of traditional Mexican women's roles and religious oppression in a self-fashioning of new identities."[7]

Gila's "self-fashioning," presented at the level of plot as a feminist reaction to the male pastores' seeing domestic labor as women's responsibility and as her own exorcism of the "devil in her" that prevents her from appreciating her family (as campesinos humildes), becomes in the final scene of the program an explicit address to the audience. After all the characters have said their goodbyes in the courtyard of the Mission (and Gila's has invited the new boyfriend Bato to tamales with her family), the shots recreate the three feminist generations, showing first Gila, then her mother, and, finally, Linda Ronstadt, as the "real" San Miguel, hovering over the Mission, ascending, sword drawn, to be a matriarchal protective star over Gila's farmworker family. The closure of the Teatro's televisual pastorela depends on the feminist version of the Virgin of Guadalupe in which three generations of women remake the world. Moreover, in a final close up of Ronstadt as the female higher power, Ronstadt looks directly at the audience and smiles. Critique and self-fashioning becomes an address to the national audience, interrogating the audience's self-knowledge, its knowledge of the various identities of which the national culture constantly refashioned.

This highly political address to the audience is sustained by the combination of a rasquache (barrio vernacular) aesthetic and the concept of performance expressed through the televisual pastorela. As Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has argued in "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,"

"Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino were among the first to recognize and give universal significance to the multifaceted, bittersweet experiences of la plebe (the working class). A rasquache sensibility both deliberate and unconscious marked the presentational style, tone, and worldview of El Teatro Campesino. Achingly beautiful theatrical actos (skits) captured the tragicomic spirit of barrio life. In a dialectical interplay of social fact and mythic-religious overtones, actos became scenarios of ethnic redemption and social resurrection."[8]

EL TEATRO CAMPESINO'S LA PASTORELA, while maintaining high production values, works against the elite aesthetics generally associated with the Great Performances series (see, for example, the set design of LA CASA DE BERNARDA ALBA) by employing in the dream sequence rasquache costumes, set design, and special effects: Ronstadt's angel costume is a cross between a Roman soldier and high school cheerleader with Christmas-pageant "homemade" wings; Luzbel resides in a just-down-the-road, Mad-Max-Meets-Las-Vegas inferno; Luzbel and San Miguel fight each other with effects right out of bad science fiction films from the fifties (with a laser-eyes stare-fight and the mirror image of bad theatrical make-up clinching the final battle between good and evil). But it is clear from the interweaving of the levels of community, theatrical, and televisual performance in this Great Performances pastorela that the rasquache aesthetic purposefully foregrounds the Teatro's definition of performance as the transformation of the place of performance; the public sphere. The rasquache aesthetic effectively dismisses any attempt at Great Performance cultural homogenization, i.e., the Teatro is not performing for a unitary cultural space, but for the chaotic, undeniably rasquache, truly inventive, everyday space inhabited all citizens. While a community pastorela extends the traditions of the pueblo (foregrounding the diachronic) and the Teatro's theatrical pastorela affirms Chicano culture (foregrounding the synchronic), the Teatro's televisual pastorela does both of former and goes a step fun her, asserting what sectors of U.S. society deny: our national identity is, and has always been, multiracial, multilingual, multicultural.

Luis Valdez, in a section on training young actors in the brief documentary EL TEATRO CAMPESINO: LOOKING BACK AFTER 25 YEARS, which followed the televisual pastorela, expressed a practical, "do what you can do" philosophy of performance; the attempt itself will define the limits of what is possible. This "popular" wisdom is evident in the shifts in star discourse within the Great Performances production. As mentioned above, the advertising, focusing on only four of latino stars, indicated that these stars among the various members of the cast were considered, at least by PBS, to have national name recognition. Thus, in part, the casting did "what could be done" in preparing the reception of the production at the national level. The portion of the audience not Spanish-English bilingual might watch the show for the participation of the Ronstadt, Rodriguez, Marin, and Fender. The latino audience might have been interested in the show for these stars as well as Robert Beltrán, Lalo Guerrero, Flaco Jimenez, Lupe Ontiveros, and Little Joe and the Familia with Dr. Loco (José Cuellar), among others. However, in the dream sequence, after the pastores have three times been saved by Saint Linda, Valdez radically shifts the tone of the production by means of introducing an explicitly latino star discourse. After the rasquache portrayal of the comic events leading to the defeat of Luzbel and his banishment from the earth, when the pastores have arrived at twilight at Bethlehem (a barn in California's farmland), the camera very slowly pans across the faces of the "Star Latino Pastores" to slower, more sacred music than has been heard previously.

The audience is given the opportunity to witness on the faces of the latino actors, as stars, that mixture of the sacred and the secular which create "scenarios of ethnic redemption and social resurrection." The close ups serve to let the star express the emotions of the pueblo, to embody the collective — quite a different attitude towards, and definition of, celebrity than that of the entertainment industry as a whole. Thus, when the pastores enter the barn, finding Joseph and Mary to be campesinos and the Holy Family to be surrounded by people who are clearly not actors, but rather farmworkers, redemption is both sacred and secular: the Christ story expresses "the humility of the campesinos." Light comedy has given way to serious politics: the sacred and secular combine in the pueblo, power is in the pueblo. Humility, then — being humble in nature and in (class) origin — defines that power.

In the final section of the dream sequence pastorela, the passion of Christ, seen though the crown of thorns, and Luzbel's final song before his banishment, filmed in close up on the actor's face (Beltrán), at last neither distorted by the black veil or appurtenances of demonic, "ugly" makeup, are moments meant to resonate with other, more grand, less humble representations of the story of Christ. Yet this latter emphasis on evil having a human face, in combination with the analysis of power presented in the pastorela, also serves to make the location and definition of the audience extremely important in the production of meaning. By synthesizing of community and theatrical pastorela in the program for a national television audience, the Teatro stressed the value of seeing the national as if it were the local. The national performance is suggested to be the same as a performance for one's community, to create the same sense of equality among audience members. Thus the address to the audience is radically democratic.

Yet this radically democratic address, in turn, reveals that, in the Teatro's televisual pastorela, the Virgin, too, becomes but a performance: teenage joggers, campesina mothers, and feminist angels — the contemporary matriarchal trinity which undercuts the reconstitution of the patriarchal family — are only momentarily sacred figures. In the final scenes, the deployment of Lopez' three virgins in the Mission courtyard is counterbalanced by the casual presence of Father Guido Sarducci (comedian Don Novello), that is, by the Father who is not a father. Thus, the "iconic address" of Saint Linda/ San Miguel, who is the Patriarch who cannot be a patriarch, (that is, Ronstadt's smile to the viewers) projects outward to a newly fashioned, once-and-again imagined public space in the United States.In that public space, "at the threshold of the twenty-first century," El Teatro Campesino has projected a nation structured by a sense of community, not divided by gender, not dividing the sacred from the secular. Performance, then, in EL TEATRO CAMPESINO'S LA PASTORELA: A SHEPHERD'S TALE is for the present nation, but formative of a future, more just nation.


LA PASTORELA: A SHEPHERD'S TALE can be purchased for $19.95 and rented for $9.95 from El Teatro Campesino. For further information regarding other Teatro Camp esino flints and videos, contact Tina Sandoval, El Tealro Campesino. PO Box 1240. 705 Fourth Street, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045. 408/623-2444. Fax: 408/623-4127 (editors' note].

1. A version of this article was presented at the first "Console-ing Passions: Television, Video and Feminist Studies" national conference, organized by Julie D'Acci, Mary Beth Haralovich, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Lynn Spigel, University of Iowa, April 3-4, 1992.

2. No. 97 (Dec. 20. 1991), pp. 62-63.

3. National edition, Sunday, Dec. 22, 1991. p. 20Y.

4. The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, Nov. 29, 1991.

5. I believe the differences between Dorothy's adventures in OZ and Gilda's journey to Bethlehem, in terms of narrative events or approach to (sacred) authority, are so great that this citation serves but to locate this story as "American."

6. This negative figuration of cholos contrasts with their positive image in much of Chicano art. See Marcos Sanchéz-Tranquilino and John Tagg, "The Pachuco's Flayed Hide: The Museum, Identity, and Buenas Garras," particularly Figure 7, in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985, eds. Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (Los Angeles: UCLA Wight Gallery, 1991), pp. 97-108.

7. "El Mundo Feminino: Chicana Artists of the Movement — A Commentary on Development," Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985, p. 137. See also the interview with Lz5pez in the documentary CHICANO PARK, co-produced by Marilyn Mulford and Mario Barrera, 1988.

8. Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation. 1965-1985, p. 159.