It is a five-hour drive when traffic is kind, although getting out of Los Angeles is always the hardest part. That is five hours if you take Interstate 5, or as we used to call it, the Golden State Freeway, flowing riverlike north-south from San Diego to Sacramento. The road along the Pacific Coast is more beautiful but takes much longer, as beautiful things often do. My father used to call the 5 la rayita, “the little line,” and we knew if we were traveling on la rayita we had to figure out ways to not fight with our siblings. The 5 is a mind-numbingly uninteresting road once you get past the mountain pass, the “Grapevine” by the historic Fort Tejón, which in winter can become treacherous with snow and rain. We Californianos are not good with “weather”; give us sunshine, we know how to deal with that.
As my husband and I set out on this trip it is early December. No snow yet, just gray clouds pooling dark shadows on the landscape as we zoom north. Here and there are reminders of the nature of this particular trip, following the road traced out by California’s earliest missionaries. El camino real, the “royal road,” was a 600-mile path for people and pack animals, the way the Catholic faith made its way from the south to the northern parts of Mexico. Los Angeles is in Alta California, the international border’s painful artificiality made evident by el camino and its history. As missions were established along the path north, they were spaced one day’s ride from one another. Looking out the car window, it is impossible to imagine making such a trip on a burro or on foot. Yet many of our intrepid ancestors did just that.
At the start of the last century, conservationists wanting to keep the memory of el camino alive suspended mission bells from tall, bronze posts resembling the shepherd’s crook as markers on the road. Without official care, the campanas deteriorated. A century later, as our state began to value our history more than the cement expanses of “progress,” replicas were restored to 555 sites. I spot one, the familiar shape, the delicate verdigris color, the reminder of generations who were here before us and the ones to come. It always tells me, “You’re home.”
I walk on the fault for the first time, feeling the earth’s aliveness and mystery beneath my feet. But that is not why I came.
As cities on either side of la rayita give way to fields and the occasional cattle farm (which prompts a panicked rush to close the windows), the valley and the sky open up. The vastness of the Golden State is breathtaking. California is a palimpsest, where new writing is inscribed on top of older words, as the faded texts of the past and the words of the present create surprising new sentences. The names of saints define our state’s geography, and our capital honors the Blessed Sacrament, even if most people today do not know this. On el camino are the missions that birthed our world-class cities—San Diego de Alcalá, San Fernando and San Gabriel in Los Angeles, and San Francisco de Asís—as well as the missions that first settled areas that are now centers for the arts, wine-making and relaxation: Santa Barbara, Carmel, Santa Cruz. One mission church serves as the chapel for a Jesuit university, Santa Clara de Asís, and a precious few have remained protected in communities hidden from view. It is to one of these that our GPS guides us.
After checking into the small Posada de San Juan Bautista, we venture out into the town. On the corner of the old mission church is a well-worn car covered in pictures proudly announcing it is a “bookmobile on a mission-to-mission pilgrimage of the camino real.” San Juan Bautista is the seventh in the network of 21 California missions, most of which still serve vibrant Catholic communities.
Although a small section of the camino still leads to it, the town is tiny and isolated. In the 19th century, the town rejected the Southern Pacific Railroad’s proposal to go through it, leaving the small pueblo frozen in time as an unintentional gift. Because of this, San Juan Bautista preserves the only original plaza from Spanish times in all of California; and the mission church, the largest of all, defines the center of life now much as it did at its founding in 1797. I marvel at the mission’s location, its verdant cemetery resonant with the memories of centuries miraculously undisturbed, as the hillside dips and meets the San Andreas fault. I walk on the fault for the first time, feeling the earth’s aliveness and mystery beneath my feet. But that is not why I came. I came for what will happen this night.
The air is chilly beneath abundant stars, as families huddle together in a line stretching along the mission cloister. Parish-life posters invite us to come back in the morning, when La Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe continues with a town parade, concerts and many delights on the mission grounds. Behind us a young couple tells me they have come from a nearby town, intrigued by what they have heard. In front is a large family, the elderly patriarch wrapped in a bright red Mexican blanket surrounded by three generations of progeny. I note the few visitors speaking English, but most everyone converses in Spanish, joining in from the surrounding areas of the San Benito and Salinas valleys and west to the Monterey coast.
A respected elder, who has been personally greeting members of this unique congregation, takes the microphone. “Welcome,” she says in English, “I want to remind you this is an active parish, it is my parish.” We are in a sacred place and we must behave as such. She switches between languages effortlessly as she explains that what we are about to experience is the world famous theater company El Teatro Campesino in its home, the San Juan Bautista Mission Church. The play “La Virgen del Tepeyac” has been staged at the mission every other year since 1971.
We are in a sacred place and we must behave as such.
I did not know it then, but this is the very last time the play will be performed inside the mission church. Safety concerns and the installation of permanent pews brought this half century of tradition to a close. I am saddened, but grateful to be among the blessed few to experience it.
As the lights dim, the interior of the church is transformed, and the last 500 years seem to vanish. The doors open and the indigenous people enter in their splendid ceremonial finery.
The play, “La Virgen del Tepeyac,” is a masterwork by the award-winning playwright Luis Valdez, born in 1940. His body of work spans decades and defines him as one of the most important living American playwrights, prolific on stage and film, most memorably with his groundbreaking “Zoot Suit” (play 1979, film 1981). His most recent play is the incandescent commentary on migrations by Mexican and Japanese families, “Valley of the Heart” (2014). Valdez’s theater grew out of his social justice commitments, and he founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 to support the work of Cesar Chavez as the civil rights leader organized farmworkers. That his theater company remains headquartered among the agricultural fields of San Juan Bautista is a testament to his continued commitment to creative work that does justice, or as another playwright described it to me, to (agri)cultural work.
Inside the darkened church, the air vibrates with the sound of drums, and the deep wail of a ceremonial conch shell. Incense fills the space, evoking memories of both Holy Week and ancient indigenous rituals. Everything becomes interlaced into a tapestry, two great civilizations, religious traditions, worldviews, are meeting for the first time, and the stage is set by the hymn the indigenous community intones:
Estrella del Oriente
que nos dió su santa luz
ya es hora que sigamos
el camino de la cruz.
(Star of the East,
that gave its holy light
it is time for us to follow.
the road of the cross.)
From this opening moment, the suffering of the indigenous peoples is united to the suffering of Christ; and the road of the cross follows the pattern of the paschal mystery, as they face death and God’s intervention in renewed life. The singers, children, parents and grandparents, all from the local farm worker community, reverently perform the traditional indigenous blessing to the four winds in the center aisle. As will happen throughout the night, the two religious traditions are joined. The singers kneel blessing simultaneously the earth and the Gospels. They sing lovingly that the East has “the soul” of St. John, the North of St. Luke, the West of St. Matthew and the South of St. Mark. As the hymn is sung, several friars and the bishop make their way through the group, stopping at the center of the nave. The encounter has begun.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated on Dec. 12. In 1999 Pope John Paul II, visiting the basilica honoring her in Mexico City, prayed: “Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, Queen of Peace! Save the nations and peoples of this continent. Teach everyone, political leaders and citizens, to live in true freedom and to act according to the requirements of justice and respect for human rights, so that peace may thus be established once and for all.”
The play itself is unpublished. Our university librarians helped me locate an original 1976 copy of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” banged out on a typewriter with handwritten notes. Valdez began with an 18th-century, unsigned script by a friar recounting the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, which, the pages reveal, was then sent to a translator in Mexico City by the name of Enrique Marcito Chino, who encloses a note about the complex nature of Nahuatl and that given more time he should record “a cassette tape,” so they might hear it. What Valdez builds from there embodies the story by adding the inescapable context of a bloody history, mixing the verses of two poetic languages, Spanish and Nahuatl, and weaving indigenous symbols, songs and dances with Catholic images, prayers and hymns.
The story of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” is about the birth of a people.
In Valdez’s telling, acted out between the church doors and main altar, two religious traditions meet and in the midst of unspeakable suffering and despair are loved into becoming a new creation by the mother of the poor, Our Lady of Guadalupe. As the encounter begins, the community cries out: “Do with us what you wish, we are common people, we are mortal. Allow us to die, as our gods have died.” The door of time has opened to a moment of devastation. As they leave the stage, their voices rise in plaintive song to their Madrecita Tonantzin, the venerated mother figure of their ancient beliefs and a name they will bestow on La Virgen. As we witness the horror of battles and destruction, something unexpected happens in an instant that changes history—the indio Juan Diego is baptized. Filled with an indescribable happiness he speaks of a growing “sun within my breast,” while simultaneously the truth of his hard life and the grinding poverty and brokenness of the community call out mournfully to the madrecita in heaven.
The story of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” is about the birth of a people.
The entirety of the play shows how the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe are solidly grounded in the Scriptures, most especially Psalm 34, Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46-56), and Revelation, Chapter 12. The gathered community of farmworkers, in costumes and in the pews, know this; it is why they are here. Valdez presents the Guadalupan tradition as the origin story of the mixed peoples of the American continent and as a defiant act of political theology. As with the God of Israel, it is the indigenous community’s calls that bring heaven’s beautiful response in La Virgen. As she explains, she is present at that moment and at that place to accompany the suffering and the poor. “This is your land,” she tells Juan Diego, “and I am Mother of the land.” La Virgen hears the community’s wounded cries that they are “no one,” answering in multiple ways that they are someone, they are her beloved children. This night, the young and old who fill the mission church feel the abundant love of God and, grace-filled, recognize their own worth. Like Juan Diego, they believe her reassurance of her accompaniment in their suffering and her advocacy on their behalf.
In the sanctuary, each apparition of La Virgen is staged as a new revelation, as heaven opens up and the lights change, the colors are new, her clothes resplendent. As she addresses Juan Diego by calling him Xocoyotzin, her young son, Valdez inserts an unexpected question: Why does she want the bishop to build her a temple and not the indios? La Virgen’s reply is at the very center of Valdez’s interpretation of God’s timeless preferential option for the poor:
You are the indios
you have formed this land
this is why I have come
to end the injustices done in my son’s name.
This is Christ crucified.
Let the Bishop build a temple
to symbolize in America
that the indios are also children of our beloved God.
Because here the indios
in hunger and pain
And so, the morning after the play is staged, the church fills with the faithful at Mass, who then spill out into the mission gardens for the great fiesta and to share food and stories. Coming from miles around to this one sacred place, the community celebrates one more year of fervently believing that the Mother of God has come to console and love them. She brings them new life, and her children fill up the church with the flowers she first brought to them 500 years ago.