BorderLore: Culture and Folklife in the US-Mexico Borderlands
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   December 2008


Yes.....It is that time of year once again.....when the forces of good and evil battle it out to for the souls of  humble folks. There is no doubt that "La Pastorela"  has become one of the most enduring traditions in Latin America, Mexico, and anywhere that these borderlands extend....
tucson pastorela Cast members of Borderlands Theater in Tucson in a recent production of "A Tucson Pastorela" (photo from Arizona Daily Star)
Chances are that wherever you may find yourself reading this electronic news-magazine at this moment, there is a Pastorela taking place near you. 
The Pastorela is, in essence, a Christmas play or 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 two 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).
ninos pastores
 Niños actuando roles de pastor con ofrenda ó regalo y angel en una Pastorela de comunidad
(Source: Flickr Photos) 
OK, but that's just the standard plot line.
What makes in fact the Pastorela the beloved folk event that it is, 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 (in Tucson, the angel once appeared as Elvis; last year he was an R&B soul singer). 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.
devils NYC
albert soto TC coverCover of Tucson Citizen featuring the late and beloved Albert Soto as Satan.
A few weeks ago, BorderLore sat with New Mexico folklorist Enrique Lamadrid to talk about the enduring power of Pastorelas. You can listen to the entire interview by clicking here, but here's an excerpt of what this brilliant observer of border culture had to say:
la madrid working
"La Pastorela is one of the most enduring of the traditions because it's one of the most versatile. Should I say "one size fits all?" I mean, the Pastorela plot, the Pastorela situation, the Pastorela condition -which is the condition of all humanity --is useful [for many different kinds of theatrical stagings].....We are all human beings on the road to Belén, we are all peregrinos, we are all looking for epiphany....the sense that there must be something happening on this earth that is greater than what we see around us --all the problems, the suffering...all the worldly things, there must be something better and we want to find a road to get there; so the concept of epiphany is at the center of it all.....what is epiphany? It is the appearance of something divine within our midst --something eternal, something greater than anything that surrounds us, something that would give us hope."
OK, but 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).

Read a comentary on the PBS Pastorela from a feminist media scholar perspective here

 tucson past image
Tucson has had its own original version of the Pastorela for the last 13 years.  Produced faithfully to a faithful following 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 (click here and here to learn more about Waila).   The idea came a few years ago to BT's Artistis Associate Eva Tessler; she found the perfect musical complement to the traditional Pastorela in the sound of Gerty and the T.O. Boys.
Last week, I sat down with BT's Producing Director Barclay Goldsmith to talk about the company's commitment to the Pastorela and some of the highlights of the last dozen plus years.....
BorderLore:  Why do you keep doing the Pastorela as part of your annual season?
Barclay: Well, the most basic answer is because it is a tradition.  I suppose there are times when traditions wear out, but this seems to be a tradition that the community responds to. Also, at a time when art forms are rapidly evolving, the Pastorela is a chance to combine a folk tradition with new material; the structure of the play doesn't change, but the commentary on social events does. In a way it's also possible to think of Pastorela as a time of community atonement for past sins and past evils; this tension has always been part of Pastorelas, it is the reason why people in most parts of Mexico perform the play in the streets, as a kind of public ritual out in the open.
BL:  What kinds of issues are addressed this year by the social commentary in the play?
B: We usually have a local sub-plot running throughout the main plot of the shepherd's journey. Without giving too much away, this year we have a young Tohono O'odham man trying to reach town to make the auditions for the UA football team and along the way, in the desert, he meets up with the pastores who happen to be crossing the O'odham reservation.
BL: I see, there's a resonance there of some of the local controversies about crossing Native lands and the migration situation....
B:  Well, something like that....we like leaving it open for interpretation. Because we use a collaborative approach to writing the script (San Diego playwright Max Branscomb writes the body of the script and then we have local writers like James Workman and Juana Martinez add material, plus we have a committee that layers even more material into the structure) there are many references that I don't get at all, because I don't watch too much TV or stay informed about popular culture much. But the public knows --especially the young people-- these references and they get it; this is a part that always intrigues me about Pastorela. It's a real generational challenge.
BL: What have been some of your favorite Tucson Pastorela adaptations?
B: I really liked one we did about 6 years ago, where we featured one of the characters as Jim Corbett, who started the Sanctuary movement in Tucson (read more here). Last year was also great, when suddenly the shepherds and the angels break out into song to the tune of New York, New York (I am sorry, I try to keep my love for musical theater under wraps most of the time).
BL: Music is a big part of what makes the Tucson Pastorela unique....
B: The music shows a big part of the cultural mix of this region; so much of this richness is under the radar for most people. It's amazing to me when I hear German Christmas carols played with a Waila accordion; one year Gerty's band played a few notes of Bethoven's 5th Symphony and it all blended in so nicely; one year they played Cole Porter. It's really a wonderful thing to notice, all of a sudden.
Dec 19 and 20 @ 7:30PM
Dec 21 @ 2PM
Leo Rich Theater/ 260 S. Church Street
Reservations 520-882-7406
Note of Interest to Researchers:
The Southwest Folklore Archives at the Special Collections Library of the University of Arizona contains close to a dozen copies of various Pastorelas (dating from 1837 to 1961) collected by Juan B. Rael as sources for his book "The Source and Diffusion of the Mexican Shepherds' Play" (1965). These are primarily different local versions from places as diverse as Cajititlan, Jalisco; Cuba, New Mexico; Zacatecas, Saltillo, and Tonala, Jalisco. The original manuscripts are housed in the Stanford University Library. But the copies in the UA archives were sent unsolicited by Mr. Rael in 1967 to the Folklore Committee at UA.
Researchers can go to Special Collections and request Manuscript SWF 001, Box 1, Folders 10-29.
Play that Funky

 If you have never heard of NORTEC (or ever listened to their music or for that matter worn their t-shirts), then consider yourself officially borderculture-deprived.
This musical phenomenon --concoted in the late-1990s in Tijuana-- has written a new page entirely on what we usually think of as "border music" (i.e. those transnational vernacular Norteño
sounds like corridos and banda that some love and some, well, not so much).
But, what exactly is the Nortec sound? Well, slow down partners....this is what the Collective says about itself:
"Nortec collective is not a band or a group but a series of compilations created in (and about) Tijuana Mexico where electronica, norteño and tambora music come together with visuals..."
To begin with, there are 7 different producers of Nortec samplings. They go by names like "Panoptica," "Bostich" and "Fussible." The sampling process, up to date, has been somewhat of a mystery; when it works, it works and you get to hear you something "different" that is....well, different. 
Pay attention to this self-description:
"Nortec is specific to Norteño culture and the sights and sounds of Tijuana," says Panoptica's Roberto Mendoza. "The little taqueria shops, the donkey painted like a zebra, the big pickup trucks, the narcos and the judiciales, the massive grupero pop concerts... all of that is what makes the city so special and so bizarre for outsiders. We're recycling our environment electronically. We filter the rhythms with software plugins, we sample the tuba and create another kind of melody from it, we take pictures of the tianguis and distort them with Photoshop plugins, we deconstruct environmental video footage in Adobe Premiere."
as reported by Xeni Jardin in the Silicon Valley Reporter
tijuana sessions

Watch video here  for 
 "Tijuana Makes me Happy"  
And here to watch the video "Tijuana Bass" on Yahoo Music
Want to hear the Nortec Collective do a bit of authoethnography?
 OK, but enough self-taught ethnomusicology....
Now, there's help available for the borderlore-hungry musical fan.
The ethnomusicologist and all-around good friend of BorderLore Alejandro Madrid (University of Illinois, Chicago) has published a wondeful book; the first, in fact, to offer detailed accounts of the Nortec music's composition process and to locate the musical phenomenon within the broader cultural contexts of which NORTEC itself is both a part and helps to produce.
This is Alejandro Madrid:
The reason why his visual might be important is because you are likely to hear again and again about this borderologo (that is not a real word, by the way; only a Spanglish sorta-kinda term of endearment for border-focused academics).
The book is entitled:
"Nor-Tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World"
(you can get it at Amazon -click here- or order it from your locally owned bookstore)  
 book nortec
 Praise for the book is on the rise. Here's only one of the several recommendations for purchase that you will find on the Amazon site. This one from none other than literary border Phenom himself Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil's Highway and most recently, The Hummingbird's Daughter.
Here it goes:
"The Nortec Collective stands astride the US/Mexico border creating an art of hope and adaptation. This music represents all that is possible along the new frontier, and it has fomented a movement of art and film and literature that is unique in the world. Alejandro Madrid's masterful study of this brilliant hybrid stands as one of the important texts in the history of the new, shining, borderlands. Nortec sings, 'Tijuana makes me happy.' This work makes us happy to be alive."

 no return sign
Normally, I would not suggest that BorderLore readers spend much time reading customers' reviews on Amazon. But this is the end of 2008 and not many things are "normal" anyways. So, yes....your BorderLore animator recommends Customer's Reviews --there are a couple of reallu interesting points there (notice the one, especially, about intertextuality)
click here
Well, just in time for Christmas....and before we forget:
HAPPY 2009!!
Felices Pascuas  
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