A wolf generally isn’t the first animal that leaps to mind when one thinks about the Nativity. Yet in “La Pastorela 2006,” that creature took a prominent place right alongside the sheep and donkeys.
The wolf character was one indication of slight adaptations to the Christmas story as presented Dec. 3 at Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Church. La Pastorela featured child and adult actors, puppets and traditional Christmas songs in Spanish. Lasting 40 minutes, it was performed entirely in Spanish except for introductions made in both English and Spanish.
La Pastorela is a traditional Mexican account of performed throughout Mexico and the American southwest. A few wrinkles were added to the performance at St. Catherine, thanks to the creative influence of its organizer, Teatroller (Spanish for theater-workshop), a theatrical coalition of student and community participants at Cornell University that preserves and promotes Spanish, Latin American and Latino cultures.
The Dec. 3 rendition depicted two shepherds — in this case, shepherdesses — journeying toward Bethlehem to see the newborn Lamb of God. Along the way the shepherdesses and their sheep are followed by a wolf, El Lobo, who is told by the devil, El Diablo, that the lamb of God is a real live lamb that should be eaten by the wolf. Yet upon arriving at the manger, the wolf discovers that the lamb is actually the baby Jesus.
“He realizes it’s the son of God, and of course he’s not going to eat him,” explained Carolina Osorio Gil, La Pastorela’s creative director.
Despite the scary creatures, Osorio Gil said the story was presented in a light-hearted fashion and had a cheery ending, with good triumphing over evil and the cast singing Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” to close out the show.
“It was very powerful in a humorous way. It made a good impact on the kids,” remarked Lauren Cowen, who along with her husband, Todd, assisted with La Pastorela by helping prepare the sets and costumes. Their daughter Lily, 7, played two roles — a newspaper hawker near the beginning who announces that the Lamb of God is going to be born, and an angel at the end who battles the devil. In addition, the Cowens’ son Archie, 10, was a first-time puppeteer for the donkey character.
“The devil comes, trying to figure out more information about where baby Jesus is being born, but I’m really stupid,” Archie said in describing his role as the donkey. “I keep talking, but I’m not giving him very much information.”
Archie said his participation in La Pastorela inspired deeper reflection about the actual Nativity story. “I didn’t really ever think about the journey of Mary and Joseph, and all the kings and shepherds and stuff. It made the picture a little bigger to me,” he said.
“Overall, I think (La Pastorela) came out great,” remarked Victoria Blake, 14, who portrayed one of the shepherdesses. She gave special commendation to the many small children for their self-discipline while portraying the sheep.
Victoria is a veteran of the stage in school and community productions, whereas participating in La Pastorela was a first-time venture for Archie. “It was really fun — all that practice kind of paid off,” he said. “Everyone was complimenting my sister and I about our performance; that felt really good.”
A reception took place following the Dec. 3 performance with “food, pinata, the works,” Victoria said. It included culinary items donated by a Mexican-American student group from Cornell, as well as dishes to pass. The pinatas, meanwhile, provided kids with a fun dessert of candies, peanuts and such when they were broken open. Osorio Gil added that a collection was taken up that night to benefit local Hispanic migrant workers.
Osorio Gil said workshops were held throughout the fall in preparation for La Pastorela. “It was a big project to organize. We started organizing in August,” she said, estimating that the event involved approximately 17 families and 50 people overall.
She observed that a Catholic church made a natural setting for this inaugural production because La Pastorela is a Mexican Catholic tradition. In addition, the parish’s pastor, Father Michael Mahler, served for many years as chaplain and director of campus ministry at Cornell.
St. Catherine also offers several Spanish Masses per year. Latino/Hispanic heritage is “a very large subpopulation of people in Ithaca,” said Osorio Gil, who was born in Colombia. Victoria noted that Spanish “was my first language growing up” and that her mother, Elvira Sanchez-Blake, who served as La Pastorela’s music director, is a native of Colombia as well. Meanwhile, Lauren Cowen said her family spent a sabbatical year in Spain two years ago.
La Pastorela was a first-time effort, and Osorio Gil hopes it will become an annual affair based on the great turnout Dec. 3.
“It was fantastic. I was really just happily surprised at the large amount of people that came,” she said, adding that the church setting was ideal: “Oh, it was beautiful, it was very beautiful.”