Los pastores (pronounced lohs pah-STOH-rays) means “the shep-herds” in Spanish. This is the name given to a Mexican folk drama that tells the story of the SHEPHERDS’ pilgrimage to the newborn Christ child. The play is also referred to as La Pastorela, which means “the pastoral” or “the country story” in Spanish. Performances of this play usually take place in mid to late December.
The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE (2:8-20) states that an ANGEL announced JESUS’ birth to a group of shepherds and encouraged them to make a pilgrimage to BETHLEHEM. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found the Christ child, confirming the words of the angel. The story told in Los Pastores is loosely based on this Bible passage.
The roots of the Shepherds’ Play can be traced back to the mystery or miracle plays of medieval EUROPE (see also NATIVITY PLAY). These plays began as brief interludes during church services in which the clergy enacted simple versions of Bible stories and religious doctrines. These liturgical dramas began sometime around the tenth and eleventh centuries. The clergy used them to teach elements of the Christian religion to a largely illiterate population. The plays proved popular and, eventually, folk performers began to stage them in public arenas. Many changes accompanied this shift. The new folk dramas embroidered the original plots, adding humorous and racy dia-logue, characters, and events. These innovations caused the Church to ban these performances in the fifteenth century.
Many of these plays dealt with the stories behind the Christian holidays and were performed on those days. The Shepherds’ Play was one of a number of stories enacted at Christmas time. During the fifteenth century several Spanish authors developed elaborate written versions of The Shepherds’ Play, or Los Pastores. These plays featured coarse and comical shepherds who entertained audiences by responding to the great events surrounding the Nativity with fear, greed, and confusion. In fact, the amusing antics of the shepherds nearly eclipsed the solemn story of the Nativity.
In the sixteenth century Spanish missionaries came to MEXICO to convert the native peoples to Christianity. The Native Americans not only came from very different cultural backgrounds than did the Spanish, but also spoke very different languages. In order to bridge this gap the missionaries decided to use mystery plays to teach them Bible stories. They introduced Los Pastores sometime during the sixteenth century.
Like the mystery plays of medieval Europe, Los Pastores eventually passed from the hands of the clergy and the church grounds to the hands of the people and the public plaza. This transition produced similar results. Although the basic outline of the story remained the same, the play continued to evolve along the same lines it had followed in Europe. Over time new characters and events were added to the play. The drama evolved into a comedy in which the Devil tries to distract the dull-witted shepherds from their quest and heaven’s angels intercede to keep the oafish pilgrims on course.
PLOT AND CHARACTERS
Although the plots may vary somewhat according to local traditions, a number of main characters appear in every version of the play. The starring roles go to the shepherds. They are portrayed as lazy, thickheaded, and easily distracted from their quest by opportunities to eat, sleep, or flirt. In fact, these less-than-heroic shepherds must be coaxed and even argued into setting out on their pilgrimage. At some point they encounter an elderly though spunky hermit. The hermit helps keep the shepherds on their course and entertains the audience with his sharp tongue. A scheming Devil appears throughout the play, sometimes disguised to fool the shepherds and sometimes in a traditional red costume complete with horns and a tail. He and his minions attempt to lure the shepherds away from their pil-grimage by appealing to all their weaknesses.
Often, the play also includes the angel GABRIEL, who announces Jesus’birth to the shepherds, and the archangel Michael, who descends from heaven to protect the shepherds from the Devil’s temptations. Sometimes a host of angels must battle a squadron of devils in order to protect the boorish travelers. At last, however, the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem and present their GIFTS to the Holy Family. The play ends with the Devil conceding defeat.
Local townspeople, schools, and even semi-professional acting groups present versions of Los Pastores. The drama is usually staged in some public place, like a plaza or a church, but may also be presented at someone’s home. It may last anywhere from half an hour to several hours. Actors use dialogue, song, dance, verse, costume, and melodramatics to convey the story.
This Mexican folk drama may be found in numerous towns and cities in the United States, especially in areas where many Mexican Americans live, such as the southwestern states. Some American folklorists point out, however, that fewer and fewer folk perfor-mances are given each year. Instead, the tradition is being carried on by professional and semi-professional actors. The city of San Antonio, Texas, at one point hosted dozens of amateur troupes dedicated to the presentation of Los Pastores. Today only one amateur group remains, bringing about twenty performances a year to churches, missions, or people’s backyards between Christmas Eve and CANDLEMAS, February 2. In addition, the San Antonio Conservation Society presents the public with a more formal, professional version of the play each year at the city’s San José Mission.