First Saturday Exhibit on December 7- Los Pastores
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.