The Alamo Research Center will host an Open House for this upcoming First Saturday at the Alamo on December 7! We will be showcasing a special holiday-themed exhibit as well as some of the treasures from our Vault. You can also enjoy the artwork displayed on the Research Center’s walls.
Inside the Gates has previously detailed some of the images from our Dia de los Muertos Collection. Today, we are profiling another part of that collection that relates to the Christmas-time play Los Pastores, a San Antonio tradition steeped in history.
Los Pastores: A Folk Play for San Antonio
One of the classic folk plays of South Texas is the nativity drama Los Pastores. “Los pastores” means “the shepherds,” and the play recounts the journey of the shepherds to the birthplace of Christ. Along the way to perform their Adoration of the Christ Child, they encounter angels, demons, and Luzbel (Lucifer) himself. Thanks to the oral component of its tradition, Los Pastores is truly a work of folk art that resonates with both young and old.
History of Los Pastores
Los Pastores descends from a tradition of medieval Spanish passion plays. The original version was purportedly written by a famous Spanish dramatist, Lope de Vega. Spanish friars imported the play as a means of teaching Biblical lessons to the native Indians who populated their missions in northern Mexico and south Texas. Legend has it that the first friar to bring the play to the New World was Father Margil in the early 1700s.
Los Pastores is part of the oral tradition of South Texas and northern Mexico. This means that for more than two hundred years, no one wrote down the story. Instead, actors learned their lines from those who had gone before. They had to memorize the staging and the dialogue. Often, details were altered in each retelling. Because of this, we ended up with many different details and encounters although the main storyline is always the same. There are reportedly at least seventy-four published versions of the play outside of Texas and 28 versions from inside the state. No particular iteration is better than another; this is the nature of oral tradition. Written versions did not begin to appear until the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Components of Los Pastores
The primary characters of the play include many of those familiar from the Biblical nativity story. The main protagonists are the Three Wise Men and the twelve shepherds, trying to find their way to Bethlehem to greet the other characters, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus (represented by a statue in some versions). The Wise Men encounter Luzbel (Lucifer) and his seven imps or demons who attempt to prevent them from reaching Bethlehem. Luzbel fights and is defeated by the Archangel Michael, who has been often played by a girl. Additional characters include Gila, the daughter of one of the shepherds and known as the Cook, Bartolo the Hermit, and Cucharon, and Indian character who plays a comedic part (the Jester). Cucharon is a distinct addition from the classic Spanish version of the play, reflecting the development of a tradition that sought to incorporate recognizable symbols and characters from the society built around the New World missions.
Los Pastores is often performed in a backyard or meeting hall. The staging area is usually long and rectangular. The demons enter at one end of space, decorated in brimstone as the mouth of Hell, and the shepherd performers travel toward the other end, decorated to represent the “Nacimiento” or manger of the Christ Child at Bethlehem.
Today, many of the costumes are elaborate and store-bought, but this wasn’t always the case. In small neighborhood productions, this play was performed by people with few resources. They often attached decorative objects from around the home to embellish their devil costume with horns and elaborate cloaks, and the angels dressed all in white. Luzbel and his devils dress in black while the Archangel Michael often wears makeshift armor and wields a sword. Most of the characters, but especially the demons and the Hermit, wore masks. Shepherds each carried a tall staff called a “gancho” that they decorated themselves.
Los Pastores in Modern Times
Performances of Los Pastores can take place at the level of families and neighborhoods as well as being presented as events of public spectacle. Individual performances are called “Pastorelas.” In the early parts of the 20th century, small neighborhood productions were the most common form in which to present the play. Most of these occurred in someone’s backyard, attracting crowds from a few dozen to several hundred. Newspaper reports from the 1910s and 1920s report visitors scouring the streets of Mexican neighborhoods to find a group performing the play.
Eventually, however, the masters of the play grew old and a younger generation lost some of their interest in carrying on the oral tradition. In an effort to retain a unique piece of San Antonio’s cultural heritage, the San Antonio Conservation Society has often sponsored productions of Los Pastores. One of the most popular performances is enacted by the Guadalupe players and takes place each year at Mission San José. This performance is being offered once again this year as it has nearly every year since 1947.
References and Further Reading
VF—Los Pastores- Alamo Research Center, San Antonio, Texas.
Los Pastores: History and Performance in the Mexican’s Shepherd’s Play of South Texas, Richard Flores, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC., 1995.
Los Pastores de San Antonio: An Interpretation, Sarah King, San Antonio, 1908.
A Companion to Los Pastores, the Granados-Tranchese Version, San Antonio, Texas, John Igo, San Antonio College, 1986.
Jaime Espensen-Sturges began working at the Alamo Research Center in February to help with the inventory research project that the Research Center has been undergoing. She became the full time interim archivist and library assistant in August. She says:
I feel blessed to be here at the Alamo Research Center. I’m from McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, and there is nothing I love more than South Texas history except for old documents about South Texas history. I believe that the Alamo was the place where my love of history really started to develop when I read the book The Boy in the Alamo by Margaret Cousins. I have studied Civil War history, women in the Civil War, Argentine folk dance history, the intersections of memory, history, and identity, and South Texas borderlands history. I am finishing my Master’s degree in Public History at Texas State University at San Marcos. My goal is to continue the work of my able predecessors here at the Alamo Research Center to ensure that the materials here are available to researchers and the general public. I believe that this access to our history is critical to how we form ideas about our individual and community identities. In other words, our history becomes very much who we are.
I love being involved with the collections here, and I look forward to helping you with your research or even just preservation tips for your personal family documents.
We are delighted to announce that the Alamo Research Center formerly the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) Library will re-open to researchers on Friday, November 1, 2013 by appointment only. To schedule an appointment please call (210) 225-1071 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We sincerely appreciate your patience during our closure, and we look forward to serving you in the near future.
Our DRT Library at the Alamo is nearing completion of the final phase of the inventory and will be closed temporarily beginning Monday, January 14, 2013. The inventory is a joint project of the Texas General Land Office and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
Although the inventory will result in a temporary closure of the library, the result will be one of the most comprehensive catalogs of Texas history. We look forward to re-opening the DRT Library at the Alamo following the inventory.
Karen R. Thompson
Daughters of the Republic of Texas
The DRT Library is excited to announce that a project to process the Adolph Guenther and Milby Giles Beckmann Family Papers is now complete. The collection is now open to researchers. A finding aid, or inventory, is available through the library’s online catalog and website and through Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO). As reported previously, the sizable collection was generously donated by David and Myrna Langford in December 2009.
The Adolph Guenther and Milby Giles Beckmann Family Papers contain correspondence, financial and property records, scrapbooks, printed material, and photographs that document four generations of a San Antonio, Texas, family. The bulk of Adolph and Milby’s papers are financial and include ledger books, records documenting various family properties in and around San Antonio, income tax paperwork, and files pertaining to the administration of their estates. Two noteworthy items in the collection are an 1850 land patent to Milby’s grandfather John James for land in Wilson County, Texas, and a ledger book maintained by Adolph’s grandfather John Conrad Beckmann between 1859 and 1866 for his blacksmith shop, located next to the Alamo near where the DRT Library now stands.
The collection also contains a significant number of photographs, some contained within albums assembled by Adolph and Milby. Most of the images are of Adolph, Milby, and their relatives, especially members of the Beckmann and Guenther families. The collection includes formal studio portraits and more informal photos. Almost all of the pictures have been labeled with the names of the individuals shown. Photographs document Albert Felix, Marie Guenther, Adolph Guenther, and Milby Giles Beckmann throughout their lives, from infancy or childhood through adulthood. Two noteworthy photographs are family portraits of Carl Hilmar and Dorothea Pape Guenther with their children, daughters- and sons-in-law, and grandchildren, dated 1893 and 1895. The collection also contains Albert Felix Beckmann architecture photographs; images of San Antonio, including many of early-twentieth-century floods; and pictures of the Guenther-Beckmann family business, Pioneer Flour Mills.
The DRT Library will be open this coming Saturday, December 1, and visitors will be invited to come and explore displays of rare and unique documents, photographs, books, and artifacts.
Protected and housed in our secure, climate-controlled vault, these original materials are exhibited infrequently, although library patrons can access them for individual research projects. Many of the items on display, including those related to the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, cannot be seen anywhere else.
During December’s First Saturday Exhibit, visitors will be able to see:
- “‘The Bright Gladness of Christmas,’” highlighting photographs, greeting cards, and other holiday materials.
- “Treasures from the Collections,” showcasing a sampling of some of the most significant items in the DRT Library’s holdings.
- “The Alamo through Time,” featuring a selection of historical photographs of the former mission and its vicinity.
Visitors will also be able to explore the original artwork in the library’s reading room.
The exhibit is free and will be open to the public from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm. Patrons will not be able to conduct research while the exhibit is on display.
This weekend’s event is part of a new series of First Saturday Exhibits, which take place on the first Saturday of each month in conjunction with living history activities at the Alamo (http://thealamo.org/visitors/events_details.php). We will post reminders and additional information here at “Inside the Gates” as each subsequent exhibit draws closer. The dates of our 2013 First Saturday Exhibits are January 5, February 2, March 2 (Texas Independence Day), April 6, May 4, June 1, July 6, August 3, September 7, October 5, November 2, and December 7.
The first two days of November mark El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican cultural tradition and national holiday that is also celebrated by Latinos and, increasingly, non-Latinos across Texas and the United States. In honor of this holiday, we’re highlighting a selection of photographs of people cleaning and decorating family grave sites, an important traditional component of El Día de los Muertos. A small number of pictures appear to show flower and food vendors, who were probably located near the cemetery. Most, and possibly all, of the photographs were taken by Dick McConnaughey. His San Antonio address, stamped on the back of the photographs, allowed us to date them to around 1951, the year McConnaughey was listed at that location in the city directory. Preliminary research indicates that the pictures were taken at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cemetery #2.
As celebrated today, El Día de los Muertos combines elements of the pre-Hispanic religious beliefs and practices of Mesoamerican Indians with the Catholic holy feast days of All Saints (the November 1st commemorative festival of all Christian saints and martyrs known or unknown) and All Souls (the November 2 liturgical day commemorating all the faithful departed). El Día de los Muertos pays tribute to those who have passed and is a celebration that invites the deceased to join the living in a festival of eating, drinking, and rejoicing. Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer write in The Skeleton at the Feast that the holiday “is a time of family reunion not only for the living but also the dead who, for a few brief hours each year, return to be with their relatives in this world” (14).
Several sources at the DRT Library describe family altars as being at the center of El Día de los Muertos, serving as “thresholds between heaven and earth” and “sites for encounters with the dead.” According to a 1994 Texas Highways article, “altars to loved ones and religious icons are common elements in many Hispanic Catholic homes, but near El Día de los Muertos, families often expand the altar to incorporate an ofrenda,” or offering (43). While the ofrendas placed at graves or added to household altars vary between regions and individuals, several items are considered essential, including candles and yellow marigolds to help draw the spirits home. Delicacies such as mole sauce, tamales, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and sugar skulls are also usually part of the ofrenda.
Sister Rosa Maria Icaza, a professor of Hispanic culture at San Antonio’s Mexican American Cultural Center, observed in the 1994 Texas Highways article that “Halloween tends to be more of a joke. Halloween celebrations, which focus on costumes, masks, and masquerading as other people, remove the reality of death happening to us personally. The Day of the Dead is playful, but it still reminds us of the people who have died and acknowledges that we will join them” (45).
References and Further Reading
The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer
El Día de los Muertos vertical files, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library
“Día de los Muertos” by Christian Clarke Cásarez, University of Texas at Austin feature story