Traditional Spanish plays return Dec. 9

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Submitted Photo: Adult actors from Belen and Socorro will perform the full-length nativity play, La Gran Pastorela, at the Garcia Opera House on Dec. 9 at 6 p.m.

La Pastorela, the ancient Spanish play depicting the story of simple shepherds invited by angels to visit the Christ child in Bethlehem, will be presented twice in Socorro on Dec. 9. On their way to the holy family, some shepherds fall victim to human frailties, with hilarious and instructive results.

Los Pastores de Belen — “La Gran Pastorela,” the full-length version featuring adult actors from Socorro and Belen, will be performed at the Garcia Opera House at 6 p.m. The familiar Socorro version, “La Pastorela,” a bilingual production featuring local children, will show at the First Baptist Church at the corner of Spring and California streets at 2 p.m.

Both events are free. Refreshments will be served after the children’s production.

Starting in 1976, Socorro’s legendary music teacher Bobby Romero directed the children’s version of the play, casting the city’s entire third-grade class as angels, wise men, the holy family, various animals and many shepherds. Romero and, later, Socorro public school teacher Mayme Aragon continued the tradition until 2005.

In 2007, Cottonwood Valley Charter School Spanish teacher Sherry Armijo and her husband, local district attorney Ricardo Berry, revived the children’s production, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Armijo, who directs “La Pastorela,” said she moved to Socorro specifically because of the community’s dedication to the play, which she said probably arrived in the area with the early Spanish settlers.

“I love the historical value of the play,” she said. “It’s been around since the 1500s.”

The current production features 42 children, all of whom attend local public schools or are home schoolers.

“The play is as much a cultural experience as it is religious,” she said.

The whole production is a community effort, she said. Families and children find out about the play by word of mouth. Volunteers help with costuming and sets, the local Baptist church provides the venue and sound system, and local physician Dr. Eileen Comstock donates her time and expertise as music director. Guitarists George Zamora and Ricardo Berry provide instrumental backup.

Producing the play, even with only about one-seventh the number of children as Romero’s cast, is exhausting, but the effort is worth it for Armijo.

“I’m so happy every time I do it,” she said. “The audience response is always positive, and the parents keep sending their kids. Socorro is the only community that does a children’s version.

“The play is a literary gem. It blends elements of golden age Spanish poetry and colonial New Mexico folk expressions. It’s a wonderful way to keep the Spanish language alive in New Mexico,” Armijo said.

Armijo said historical records from 1886 to the 1930s show a version of the play being staged in Socorro on a regular basis every Christmas. The Knights of Columbus revived the play in 1953.

Roots of the play go deep. Armijo believes elements of the play reveal possible ancient Greek origins, such as the Greek name Bartolo given to one of the shepherds and the use of a chorus to narrate the action.