The traditional La Pastorela performance, Most recently held at Garcia Opera House, will go on this year at San Miguel Parish Hall.
John Larson | El Defensor Chieftain

After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shepherd’s story of the first Christmas, La Pastorela, will return on Saturday, Dec. 10.  The theater group La Gran Pastorela de Belen will perform this traditional story in San Miguel’s Parish Hall at 1 p.m.

La Pastorela begins with the singing of traditional Spanish songs followed by the entrada of the actors from the back of the audience.

The birth of the baby Jesus is announced by Archangel Michael, which Lucifer tries in vain to discredit. When the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem, they worship the Christ child and one by one offer their humble gifts to Mary, except the lazy Bartolo, who’d rather sleep than see the baby Jesus.

Each of the shepherds tries to wake Bartolo, and finally coax him to see the Niño. When Bartolo looks upon the baby Jesus, he is overcome with emotion and guilt – shameful for ignoring the child.

The play concludes with the singing, in Spanish, of popular Christmas carols, such as Silent Night and Feliz Navidad.

Presentation of the story has been a traditional part of the Christmas season in Socorro thanks to the efforts of the late Bobby Romero, who for many years took on the responsibility for producing the play featuring elementary school children. Sheri Armijo and Ricardo Berry took over that responsibility for seven more years.

Armijo said to keep it in a historical perspective it’s always performed in the original language.

“It wasn’t even written, it was passed on orally in the beginning, and it was all archaic, traditional Spanish, so there are a lot of archaic expressions and poetic expressions that would not translate well into English,” she said.

The Pastorela originally staged in Nuevo Mexico could run up to three hours long.

“Our show runs about an hour and a half,” she said. “But, in the past, sometimes if you had a community where a lot of people wanted to perform, you would add in all these extra parts,” Armijo said she has seen evidence of performances in Spain where there would be more than one demon.

“They had a Devil dance,” she said. “And San Miguel, too. He could be portrayed with a band of angels.”

There are approximately 70 documented versions of the Shepherds’ play in New Mexico.

The earliest Socorro version was in the possession of Juan Julian Torres in 1886. Torres was Socorro County Clerk from 1882-1886.

Anastacio Torres directed a Socorro group from the early 1900s through 1933, and in 1953 Salomon A. Apodaca, a sheepherder in the Socorro area, led a revival of the play with the Socorro Knights of Columbus.

The play has been presented by Los Pastores de Belen for over 30 years. Members of the group are Socorro’s Armijo in the role of Gila and her husband, Ricardo Berry as Lucifer.

“This would mark my 12th year of playing Gila,” Armijo said. “Gila is in charge of keeping all those men in line, and making them behave.”

She also feeds them.

“All they have is mutton, but they have grandiose dreams of eating tamales, green chile stew, and desserts,” she said. “And when they ask her for those things, she gives them mutton stew again. It’s a very comical scene.”

Historical writings cite a nativity play considered a predecessor to La Pastorela that was presented in 1530 in Tlatelolco, Mexico. There was also a Coloquio de Los Pastores produced in Sinaloa in 1595.

Over time many communities throughout Nuevo Mexico performed these “miracle” plays.

Using an early manuscript found in Las Nutrias in 1972, La Gran Pastorela de Belen’s archaic Colonial Spanish presentation is not too different than a performance would have been 200 years ago.

La Gran Pastorela de Belen, a group of amateur actors, has kept the tradition alive for decades.

The Belen group has performed the play in many places in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

It is a play, or pageant, interspersed with morality and other Christian principles in romantic prose and a bit of humor.

Long before books and movies, people preserved faith and culture by telling stories. La Pastorela is the result of that oral tradition.

Armijo said the play is one of the ways used to teach children about the Nativity.

“It’s the story of simple shepherds invited by an angel to go see the Christ child in Belen,” she said. “As the shepherds make their way to Belen, they falter with human weaknesses.”

Armijo said the play keeps the Spanish language alive in New Mexico by blending elements of Golden Age Spanish poetry and colonial New Mexico folk expressions.

“It’s a devotion first and foremost, and historically it’s really important to me because it goes back to the Golden Age of Spain and even to Greek roots,” she said. “Some of our shepherds’ names come from Greek characters. And our chorus is like the classic Greek chorus which helps tell some of the story

through songs.”

The current script comes from the village of Las Nutrias.

The Friends of El Camino Real Historic Trail Site has sponsored La Gran Pastorela de Belen’s play for the past several years. This year, Socorro’s beloved Christmas event will be presented at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, in the Parish Hall at San Miguel Church. Refreshments will be served following the performance.

“It’s good to keep the tradition alive because it is a lesson in living history,” Armijo said.