Thinking About Relevance

Most academics I know want their work to be relevant to today’s issue’s and concerns. After all, showing how your research sheds light on specific social or economic issues can make it easier to get your work published, to receive grants, and even just have an answer to the ever-aggravating but vital question, “who cares?” In short, showing how your work matters can help vindicate all the time and energy spent on researching what can at times be pretty obscure topics.

I’ve been thinking about relevance quite a bit in my own work recently. To be fair, I think the idea of arts accessibility is an important topic, so exploring that more deeply by considering how the WPA approached it is a worthwhile pursuit that we could stand to learn more from. But I’ve also been thinking about another topic pertaining to art centers, in light of some of the feedback I’ve been getting from the research I’ve shared so far.

Whenever I present, I usually focus on three facets of the Roswell Museum’s programming: exhibitions, classes, and special events. Of the three, one event gets the most attention, and that’s the staging of Los Pastores on December 27, 1938.

Los Pastores is a mystery play that was performed in Roswell beginning in at least the mid-19th century. Mystery plays are dramatizations of the Bible that first developed in medieval Europe, and likely followed Spanish colonists to the Americas. Mystery plays tend to take a lot of creativity with the stories they tell, with devils, angels, and other characters adding elements of comedy or drama to the narrative. While some have been written down, they were primarily an oral tradition, with each region developing its own interpretation.

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Los Pastores is a comedic retelling of the Nativity from the viewpoint of the shepherds. Basically, they hear about the birth of Christ, devils try to intercept their journey, and shenanigans ensue. Eventually all ends well, with the shepherds arriving at the site and paying their respects to the Holy Family. In Roswell, Los Pastores was an oral tradition performed in Chihuahita, Roswell’s historic Hispanic district. Roland Dickey, director of the museum at the time, learned about the play during a visit to Chihuahita, and invited the all-male cast to give a special performance. They did, and it was very well-received, with about one hundred people attending. For comparison, 80-100 attendees at an exhibition opening today is considered good, so this was a high number, especially given that Roswell’s population was about 12,500 compared to today’s 48,000, give or take.

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Tomas Sapiens and Gregorio Dominguez, 1939. Sapiens (left) was the director of the play, and was teaching it to his nephew, Dominguez.

This performance was important for a couple of reasons. One, it was the first time that the play was performed outside of Chihuahita, giving the rest of Roswell an opportunity to witness a unique cultural performance from one of its communities. Second, the play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it.

Let me repeat that. The play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it. When was the last time you heard about Americans responding well to hearing Spanish?

One of the attendees at the “Presenting the Collective” conference I went to last month suggested that I explore this point more deeply in my future research. As has been noted in recent studies, Americans are particularly hostile to hearing languages other than English, especially Spanish. We’ve all seen videos where somebody shouts out “Speak English!” or “Go Back to Your Own Country!” or something to that effect whenever somebody speaks a language other than English.

What’s frustrating about this hostility is that the United States has always been a polyglot region. Texas was home to several German communities for instance, and of course, New York was always home to multiple ethnicities and languages. Some of the most seminal modern literature of the twentieth century plays with different languages and idioms, from Call It Sleep to All I Asking For Is My Body, and a lot of our colloquialisms stem from Yiddish and other languages, whether it’s kibbutz to demarcate gossip, or Italian’s pronto in lieu of ASAP. Some early Americans even advocated making Hebrew the official language of the United States rather than English, as part of an effort to make a linguistic as well as political break from Great Britain.

The western states, where Spanish is most often associated with foreignness, is particularly complicated, as Katherine Beton-Cohen explores in her book, Borderline Americans. Prior to the mid-19th century, territories such as New Mexico and Arizona were territories of first New Spain, then Mexico. The families who lived there had often been there for generations, much longer than the Anglo settlers who moved there in the wake of the Homestead Act. Yet despite their longevity, they are often associated with foreignness, with the Spanish language being associated with un-Americanness.

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The cast of Los Pastores.

This is what makes Los Pastores so important as performance. Like many southwestern communities, Roswell was polyethnic, with the Hispanic population primarily keeping to itself in Chihuahita. For the most part, the museum followed these social and racial boundaries by offering classes in different parts of town, with Hispanic students going to classes in Chihuahita, and white students going to other locations in Roswell. Yet for this one special performance, the Hispanic community shared Los Pastores, a part of their cultural heritage, with their Anglo neighbors. Not only that, they presented it in Spanish, just as they would for their own community. And the audience enjoyed it. Newspapers at the time all commented on the positive reception, and Roland Dickey remembered it as one of the most successful events ever staged at the museum.

I don’t know how this will play into my future research, but in an era marked by hostility toward the different I agree with the student who spoke to me. It’s important to show historic examples of tolerance, because it disspels misconceptions about America being monolithic or monolingual. Not only that, it offers an example of the fruitful exchanges that can happen when we’re tolerant, and how much richer life can be when we embrace and explore differences.

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