La Pastorela, the tale of the shepherds on their way to Bethlehem in search of the promised newborn babe, has a lot of history behind it. That Bible story came to the New World with the Spanish troops and frailes who occupied the New World, of course, and while accepting that account, the indigenous peoples interpreted in terms of their own experience. La Pastorela tells the story of Gila, the shepherdess who receives a visitation by the Archangel Gabriel, with the mission of persuading her family of pastoral people to travel to witness the promise of new birth and salvation. The zip and the zest of the spectacle comes from the arrogance and determination of Luzbel the beefy devil and his forces as they try to stop the shepherds' progress.
This Christmas enactment has as strong a place in Mexican and Tejano culture as does the Santa Claus tradition for the Anglos, and it makes for a much more exciting story. We take it for granted that Santa will clock in on time every Christmas Eve, but the humble human striving of this band of rural folk faces really fearsome opposition.
Austin's Tejano community began staging La Pastorela back in 1997 in a City of Austin warehouse that stood at the current site of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center. It was a cooperative effort from the very first. The pride of the community and their attachment to this celebration are evident in the meticulous two-page chronicle of the evolutions of the play over the years since that time.
The first script was a compendium, drawn from ten other versions. Directors, versions and approaches have changed, and the relatively informal Austin Latino Theatre Alliance has evolved the approach of using a different director every year. As in much popular theatre and street theatre, the texts have frequently referred to contemporary issues and events, integrating them into the action. For example, director Patricio Villarreal Ávila's text for this year's version has one of the campesinas make a couple of tart observations about Arizona, and the hermit traditionally featured in the story is a homeless woman.