Come, all ye shepherds

Posthumous release of Jim Sagel's Christmas retelling personalizes 'Los Pastores'

Posted 12/19/18

'Los Pastores," the Hispano folk drama traditionally enacted at Christmas time, has found a new manifestation in the hands of well-known and beloved New Mexican author, Jim Sagel.An important holiday …

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Come, all ye shepherds

Posthumous release of Jim Sagel's Christmas retelling personalizes 'Los Pastores'

Posted

'Los Pastores," the Hispano folk drama traditionally enacted at Christmas time, has found a new manifestation in the hands of well-known and beloved New Mexican author, Jim Sagel.

An important holiday tradition in Taos, the enactment of "Los Pastores," meaning "the shepherds" in Spanish, tells the story of the shepherds' pilgrimage to see the newborn baby Jesus in Bethlehem as based on the Gospel according to Luke.

The roots of this play can be traced back to medieval times. "Los Pastores" has evolved greatly since then as characters and events were added and the drama became a comedy. Originally a means for clergy and missionaries to teach the Bible in church, its current presentation is a play for the people by the people enacted in public spaces.

Sagel's posthumous novel, "Some Are Born under a Star/Unos Nacen con Estrella," recently published by Museum of New Mexico Press, is a bilingual retelling of "Los Pastores."

Sagel passed away in 1998 at the age of 50, but the legend of his work remains. Sagel was an Anglo from Colorado, who married into a renowned Hispanic weaving family from Chimayó. Immediately immersing in the New Mexican culture, he taught himself with the help of his in-laws to speak and write in Spanish.

His wife, Teresa Archuleta, said in the 2003 documentary "The Unexpected Turn of Jim Sagel" that he was fearless in his learning of Spanish and it made her happy. "We spoke it to learn our culture and love it … we don't appreciate it at times as much as he did, and he made me appreciate it."

His efforts paid off as he went on to win numerous awards for his writing in Spanish. In 1997, Sagel won Spain's El Premio Literario Ciudad de San Sebastián for best Spanish-language play, "Doña Refugio y su Comadre." Sagel was the first person outside of Spain to receive the award.

He was also awarded Cuba's Premio Literario Casa de las Américas for his Spanish-language collection of short stories "Tunomás Honey." Sagel was the second United States citizen in the prize's history to win the prestigious award.

His ability to understand and write about Northern New Mexico culture earned his writing the term "chicanesque" reserved for works that emerge from Chicano communities but are written by non-Chicanas and Chicanos.

Michael Trujillo, the editor of "Some Are Born under a Star/Unos nacen con Estrella," is an associate professor of American studies and Chicana/o studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of "The Land of Disenchantment: Latina/o Identites and Transformations in Northern New Mexico" (UNMP 2009).

Trujillo says in the preface of "Some Are Born Under a Star" that he first learned of the novel when Archuleta showed him the final English version of the manuscript in 2011. He later located the final Spanish-language version with the rest of Sagel's papers and manuscripts housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

Though Trujillo did not have a personal or professional relationship with Sagel, he knew his widow Archuleta well. He wrote about them in a chapter of his book "The Land of Disenchantment" and based it on research that he began in 2000 when he was a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

In an interview via email, Trujillo said of his work editing the manuscript, "Archuleta told me that Jim wanted this book published. I felt both empowered and compelled by her charge. While I was working on the manuscript without Sagel's input, I knew that he would have wanted this."

Author Denise Chavéz in her foreword to "Some Are Born Under a Star" makes a similar comment, "When I was invited to write this foreword, I asked the spirit of Jim Sagel how I should approach this work. 'With love' was the reply… How otherwise would one begin to read and celebrate the words of a man who was not only a friend, but whom I held in high esteem as the voice of my Nuevo México?"

In the traditional renditions of "Los Pastores," the Devil tries to divert the indolent shepherds from their quest to visit Jesus's birthplace. Angels must intercede to help the easily-distracted pilgrims by coaxing them along. In the end, the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem and present their gifts to the holy family. The play ends with the Devil conceding defeat.

Trujillo said, "Los Pastores" is a folk drama without a single author. You might notice, that there is sometimes variation in the names of the characters in differing performance, but I hesitate to call one more correct or more like an original. As a folk drama, I think that play is entirely consistent. I've seen it performed (for instance by the Cordova family) in a way that speaks to the current struggles of Nuevomexicano communities."

In "Some Are Born under a Star," Sagel sets the traditional Christmas play "Los Pastores" in the fictional New Mexico village San Buenaventura (reminiscent of Chimayó). It begins with the birth of a baby boy called Jesús (Jesus in "Los Pastores"). His mother is Marta (Mary). In the first paragraph, readers learn that Marta has only 23 days to live.

"In this Nativity narrative, Sagel invokes a guiding star that shines over Bethlehem and foreshadows the tragedy of this holy mother's death. But the story is not really about that. Instead, it is about the residents of the town who form the cast of "Los Pastores." Each chapter opens with a scene from the single December performance. In particular, we follow the romance of María Elena Mascareñas (born Chacón) and Francisco Mascareñas as well as the travails of the Chacón and Mascareñas clans and friends," the book description read.

Author John Nichols is quoted as saying of the book, "This complex, poignant, irreverent and very rich addition to Jim's life's work makes us feel more alive, and it will be precious for years to come."

Trujillo added his own insight on the book: "While I do not want to spoil the book or center the story around this, when I read the text, I recognize Sagel's own life in the text as well as the life of the people he knew and loved, including Archuleta."

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