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Hispano Folk Theater in New Mexico

Enrique R. Lamadrid
University of New Mexico

More folk plays and ritual dramas have been found in New Mexico than in any other Spanish-speaking region of the New World. Over the past four centuries, a wide variety of historical and religious dramas have taken center stage in plazas and churches throughout the upper Río Grande. In the village of Arroyo Hondo, Juan B. Rael grew up with these plays and was impressed by their simple allegorical power and lyrical beauty. His research as a folklorist was concerned with the origins and diffusion of this tradition. Some plays like the spectacular equestrian production of "Moros y Cristianos" ("The Moors and the Christians") are Peninsular Spanish in origin, while most others, like those of the Nativity cycle, are from Mexico with Spanish influences. Only a few plays, like "Los Comanches" ("The Comanches") and "Los Texanos" ("The Texans"), were based on local history in their celebration of the most important military victories of the Nuevo Mexicanos.

The Nativity plays can still be found almost anywhere in New Mexico, even in the late twentieth century, while other religious and historical plays are only produced in certain villages. After a decline following World War II, a groundswell of popular interest in traditional culture began in the 1960s and fostered a regional revival. Now, almost every community boasts a troupe of actors and singers organized by enterprising individuals or families.

Since medieval times, the Catholic Church has used allegorical dramas, the autos sacramentales, to teach religion in Spain and especially in the American colonies. Native people with little knowledge of Spanish could still grasp the most important lessons of Christianity, many of which were carried on the wings of music. Historical dramas sprang not from doctrines of church or state, but directly from the experience of the people as they struggled to survive the wars of the Spanish reconquest and the rigors of life in the New World.

In New Mexico, the Christmas season is initiated with some version, however short or long, of the appearance of the Virgen de Guadalupe, from brief tableaus of Guadalupe revealing herself to the humble Aztec Juan Diego to costumed "Comanche" and "Azteca" dances, and complete performances of the classic play "Las Cuatro Apariciones de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe" ("The Four Apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe"). Next, on the nine days before Christmas, the singing processionals of "Las Posadas" ("The Inns") lead Joseph and Mary through the streets begging for lodging, however humble.

The climax of the season comes with the adventures, antics, and battles of shepherds, angels, and devils of "Los Pastores," short for "El Segundo Coloquio de los Pastores" ("The Second Colloquy of the Shepherds"), the most widespread of the Nativity Plays, which also include "El Primer Coloquio" ("The First Colloquy") and "La Aurora del Nuevo Día" ("The Dawn of the New Day"). On their journey to Bethlehem to take their presents to the Santo Niño, the shepherds are waylaid by Lucifer himself, who tempts a pious Ermitaño (Hermit) to seduce Gila, the beautiful shepherd girl. The audience is amused by the mischief of Bartolo, the lazy shepherd, and the rhetorical prowess and swordplay of San Miguel, the Archangel Saint Michael. One of the impediments of their journey is a snowstorm, which the shepherds lament in the song " Cielo Soberano" ("Sovereign Heaven"):

Las estrellas vuelan
y luego se paran,
absortas se quedan
de ver tal nevada.
The stars fly
and then stand still,
they are amazed
to see such a snowfall.
Since this is a New Mexican folk play, the snow is particularly heavy, and the shepherds worry about their lambs. The sentimental identification with this dilemma is lyrical and profound, since the Nuevo Mexicanos kept large herds of sheep.

The next folk play in the yearly cycle is " Los Tres Reyes" ("The Three Kings"), performed on Epiphany, January 6, complete with its own special music. Another auto of special interest to scholars is "Adán y Eva" ("Adam and Eve"), which is only rarely performed. One exceptional play that Juan B. Rael encountered in his field work in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is " El Niño Perdido" ("The Lost Child"), about the episode in the life of the child Jesus when he disappears and is found days later debating theology with the doctors of the temple. This play has extraordinary music that is reminiscent of the alabado hymns of praise sung by the local Penitente Brotherhood. In two poignant songs the distraught father, Joseph, searches for his son and worries about his frantic wife:

En ver que mi amada esposa
y castísima María
ni de noche, ni de día,
un instante no reposa.

Cual sincera mariposa
que aquí volando el baldón
no encuentra en su corazón
el más mínimo consuelo.

On seeing that my beloved wife
the chaste Mary
not by night, nor by day,
nor for an instant finds repose.

Like a butterfly sincere
that here flies in shame
not finding in her heart
even the smallest consolation.

The Nuevo Mexicanos expressed in their folk theater the same trials, tribulations, joy, and humor that they encountered in their everyday lives. The Holy Land setting of the autos was easily transposed to the landscapes of New Mexico, and the people themselves became the main characters of their own religion and their own history in this extraordinary dramatic and musical tradition.
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