Last updateFri, 02 Jan 2015 5pm

Often banned, once vigorous pastorelas lay claim to important role in Mexican folk theater

Mexico’s holiday season folk plays, called pastorelas, were once so controversial — and popular — that Catholic Church officials banned them twice in the 1700s. Over the last few decades, Mexican cultural observers are lamenting their gradual disappearance.

These pastoral plays, which are still performed regularly in rural areas, provide colorful opportunities to observe the ancient intertwining of Mexico’s Spanish and indigenous cultural roots. Performed throughout the Christmas holidays, primarily by amateur theatrical groups and by local religious organizations, the plays represent a graphic — and entertaining — example of the ethnic blending which has been dominated not by Catholic Church dogma as many believe, but by this nation’s own unique, and often secular, traditions and needs.

The “script” of the pastorela, most frequently composed in loose verse, tends to vary from group to group, from one pueblo to another, depending on the author(s) of the production. A group in the Jalisco town of Lagos de Moreno continues to use those words that have been locally handed down verbally for many generations, although several written copies came into existence once literacy became widespread. Other groups simply write down their own versions of the well-known “religious” intention of the pastorela.

The plot

Nonetheless, the plot, or more accurately, the theme, of all the plays is essentially the same. The pastorela usually opens with four devils — Luzbel, Asmodeo, Sin and Lucifer, played by actors wearing fearsome masks — lamenting the rumor that a Savior is soon to be born. Ever-ready to perform evil deeds, Lucifer calls up greed, lust, deceit and all the other human vices, ordering them to infiltrate a group of shepherds, who, inspired by the prophecies of a Savior’s birth and by the appearance of a great star, are on their way to Bethlehem. By employing a wide array of temptations Lucifer intends to lure these pilgrims into sin, destroying their faith and causing them to abandon their search.

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