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HEAR ME ROAR: Sylvia Gonzales plays the devil Luzbel in El Teatro Campesino's reimagining of 'La Pastorela.'

The Divine She

Women take the principal roles in El Teatro Campesino's latest twist on 'The Shepherds' Play'

By Denise Vivar

IN 1965 in the verdant fields of California, as Cesar Chavez was leading the grape pickers on strike, El Teatro Campesino was born. From the back end of a flatbed truck, Luis Valdez took to the fields with his agitprop productions in an effort to support the striking workers, as well as to educate and entertain those workers still in the fields.

His actors were themselves farmworkers, many of them illiterate. There were no scripts or props or lighting. "It was crude and rude and lively, but it mattered," says Valdez.

In the following decades, El Teatro Campesino went on to success in Europe, Valdez's play Zoot Suit was produced on Broadway and the company sealed its reputation as the nation's premier Chicano theatrical company. Now at home in San Juan Bautista, with Valdez's sons at the helm, El Teatro continues in the spirit of evolution.

The company produced its first holiday play 41 years ago and continues this tradition yearly, alternating between its adaptations of the traditional La Virgen del Tepeyac and La Pastorela, or The Shepherds' Play, an enactment of the Nativity story.

La Pastorela was traditionally performed outdoors, with the audience following the cast in a progression as the shepherds made their way to the site of the nativity, the final scene ending up in the Mission San Juan Bautista itself (familiar to fans of Hitchcock's Vertigo).

Variations on the theme have included a light-hearted musical comedy and a more cynical version, with characters represented as cyborgs from nuclear power plants and rock stars with bleached hair and spikes.

This year, there are no mohawks, but this is no sleepy drummer-boy version of the Nativity. The company's current production of La Pastorela is a pageant of passion, excitement and contemporary humor—not to mention gender parity—uncommon in a Christmas play.

Freshly reinterpreted by director Kinan Valdez (Luis' son), it introduces the revolutionary character revision of Luzbel, or Lucifer, attired in black-leather bustier, spiked boots and long red gloves. Lucifer is not a cross-dresser, but a busty, lusty woman-born woman played by Sylvia Gonzalez.

To make things fair, the archangel San Miguel is also a woman (Jillian Mitchell). And like the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, as well as countless Westerns, the good guy—or, in this case, woman—rides the white horse and sports the white wings. Some things don't change.

These days, La Pastorela is entirely performed in the warmth and shelter of the mission, with the cast moving back and forth from the smoky jaws of hell in the rear of the mission, through the center "pastures" of the nave and onward to the front, where the birth of Jesus takes place. The production is a labor of love, performed by a spirited and well-choreographed cast of dozens, ages 5 to 65, singing and dancing their way to the nativity.

As the shepherds journey to Bethlehem, all hell literally breaks loose, and chaos ensues. There are temptation and deceit, lost love and requital, mighty battles, some modern dance grooves and a visit by Satanas (Satan), Luzbel's shifty and entertaining minion, who appears to a hermit as one Michael Jackson. Gonzalez's singing is magnificent, and she delivers a scene foretelling the crucifixion with chilling brilliance.

You need neither be Catholic nor speak Spanish to commune with the spirit of the play, and although much of it is in Spanish the message is clear: it's all about truth, forgiveness and love.

LA PASTORELA, an El Teatro Campesino production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm and 7:30pm through Dec. 16 at Mission San Juan Bautista, 408 Second St., San Juan Bautista. Tickets are $14–$32. (831.623.2444 or visit

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