¡No Pueden Pasar!

The appearance of Lucifer (aka el Diablo, el Demonio, or el Espiritu Malo) in New Mexican Yuletide traditions

Darrell Dawson performs as the Devil during Las Posadas, Christmas at Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1982. Photograph by Michael Heller. Courtesy The Santa Fe New Mexican Collection, the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/ DCA), HP.2014.14.1336.

New Mexico is a magical place during the holiday season. Farolitos (little lanterns made of a candle in sand in a paper bag), luminarias (bonfires), biscochitos, and tamales abound, and locals and tourists alike enjoy centuries-old traditions unique to our state. Some of the most beloved are dramatizations, often accompanied by music, of the Nativity. Each ceremony has its own regional adaptation unique to the setting in which it is celebrated, but the central messages remain the same.

Las Posadas is the popular reenactment of Mary and Joseph searching for shelter as she is about to give birth. I grew up attending two different versions of this performance, both of them in Santa Fe. One featured the Devil as a character who jeers at spectators from the rooftops, and the other did not. Both versions shared similarities, and as a child it never occurred to me that the Devil might not belong. Recent events questioning the validity of the Devil’s presence in the version on the Santa Fe Plaza sparked my interest. Because he does not exist in every version of Las Posadas, it has often been assumed the Devil is a recent, modern addition to the performance. This idea led to the removal of the Devil from Santa Fe’s Las Posadas in 2017, to the chagrin of some locals; he was reintroduced in 2018.

It’s fitting, then, that I discovered that the Devil’s presence dates back to the earliest Posadas reenactments—not only is he an original member of the cast, but he appears in no less than five different dramas that take place during the Yuletide season.

The four dramas traditionally performed in New Mexico and other parts of Latin America are El Colloquio de San José (The Colloquy); Las Posadas (The Inns), performed sometime between December 16 and 24; Los Pastores (The Shepherds) on Christmas Eve; and Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) in celebration of the epiphany on January 6. The Devil, or Lucifer, appears in all of them, always with the goal of interrupting the actors and singers in jest and play. He has been a main character for centuries, appearing in productions in Medieval Spain.

The three most popular dramas that are performed and celebrated today in New Mexico are Los Pastores, Las Posadas, and Los Tres Reyes Magos. The earliest renditions to reach New Mexico were brought by the Franciscans in the form of the auto sacramental, religious, and allegorical plays of Medieval Europe, and often pitted the seven deadly sins against the seven cardinal virtues. New World incarnations included the battle between good and evil, or the battle between el espiritu santo and el espiritu malo (with good ultimately triumphing, of course).

Even though Lucifer appears under many different names (el Demonio, el Diablo, and el Espiritu Malo, to name a few) depending on the play and who has written the particular version, his guise and mission are always the same. His origins are tied to that of the Archangel Saint Michael, who cast him from heaven. The Devil embodies a symbol of evil; he believes he is the rightful king of heaven and attempts to prevent the arrival, acknowledgement, and celebration of the new Messiah.

The oldest appearance of the Devil occurs in the ancient dramatization Desporos y Celos de San José (The Betrothal and Jealousy of Saint Joseph). The story deals with themes in the Gospel of Saint Luke, which tells of the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, as well as those from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which presents the doubts Saint Joseph had when he hears of her pregnancy. The Devil appears in the play to create doubt and jealously in Joseph. Early versions of this play date to fifteenth-century Spain with a version written by Gómez Manrique, and another from Valencia in 1616. Several more versions were published throughout the eighteenth century. In New Mexico, the play is commonly referred to as El Colloquio de San José, or The Colloquy of Saint Joseph; in our version, the Archangel Michael replaces Gabriel, and frees Joseph of his doubts by battling and defeating the Devil. 

Los Pastores, or the Gran Pastorela as it is often called, deals with events taking place after the birth of the Christ child. The character of el Diablo is front and center. The shepherds are on their way to see the Christ child and are thwarted by the Devil en route. One shepherd, Hermitaño, is charged with looking over a flock of sheep through the night; while the others sleep, the Devil comes to him. The Devil tries to convince Hermitaño to steal away Gila, the only woman in the play, who is betrothed to another. In doing so, the Devil tries to divert attention from Jesus’s birth. Saint Michael swoops in to battle and defeat el Diablo. Early versions of Los Pastores in New Mexico contain text that can be traced back to the famous Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562–1635). An early twentieth-century version existed in Northern New Mexico written by Juan Tenorio. The archives of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe contain at least four different New Mexican versions. Another manuscript in the collection dates the plays to the end of the nineteenth century, and yet another describes a version performed in 1911 in Belen that had been performed annually for as long as the oldest people in the village could remember. The tradition of Los Pastores died out around the 1950s but was revived again by the end of the 1970s.

Los Pastores traditional play; cast members from left to right: Abran Sera (Bartolo), Felipe Perea (Devil), Luis or Perfecto Baca (St. Michael) and Frank Montoya (?) (Hermit), Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1915. Photograph by Aaron B. Craycraft. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), 013695.

Lucifer also appears in the play Los Tres Reyes Magos. This play is an outcome of the celebration of the Three Kings that takes place in Spain and many parts of Latin America today. According to ethnomusicologist Tomás Lozano, the first celebrations date to the third century when a Gnostic sect, the Basilidianos, commemorated the adoration of the Magi. The oldest dramatic text conserved in Spain is the Auto de los Reyes Magos. Written in the middle of the twelfth century, it is the first dramatic work written in a Romance language.

By 1535, a play titled La Adoración de los Reyes appeared in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The play made its way to New Mexico and survived into the twentieth century. It was staged and performed in 1936 and was presented in Ranchos de Taos in 1942. In a version penned by Reyes N. Martinez of Arroyo Hondo, the Devil appears along with King Herod. Both are dressed in red robes, and together they conspire and come up with a plan to deter the Three Kings from visiting the Christ child. 

Los Pastores, 1973. Photograph by Mark Nohl. Nancy Warren: Los Pastores in Belen Collection, Bartlett Library and Archives, Museum of International Folk Art (AR00015.2).

The Caballeros de Vargas resurrected the play in the 1960s, staging a production at the Museum of International Folk Art in 1964 on the Epiphany. Lucifer appears in scene four, confirming to King Herod the realization of the ancient prophecies that announce the coming of the Messiah. The Devil convinces Herod that he can prevent the Three Kings from visiting the newborn child and can be rid of the child for good. An angel appears to Joseph and Mary, and also to the Three Kings, to warn them of Herod’s evil plans.

Las Posadas is perhaps the most widely known of the advent celebrations in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest. Upon interviewing professor Larry Torres, linguist and scholar of New Mexican traditions, I found the Devil regularly appeared in early productions of Las Posadas. The appearance of Lucifer originates from the eleventh scene of The Colloquy of Saint Joseph in which Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem in search of safe shelter. At the orders of Lucifer, three demons fly ahead of them and enter the various homes. The homeowners are influenced by the demons and deny Mary and Joseph entry. 

Los Pastores; left to right: Anastasio Ortiz, Alfredo Romero as El Espiritu Malo, Victor Arellano, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 1939. Photograph courtesy Larry Torres.

In early versions, actors, singers, and musicians traveled from home to home with two playing the parts of Joseph and Mary. Three actors clad as devils appeared at the door denying them entry. In Arroyo Seco, at the last house, a battle took place between the Devil and the Archangel Michael. Once Michael defeated the Devil, all were allowed into the house, the symbol of the stable in which Mary gave birth. Feasting, and merriment followed. In many locations the character of the Devil disappeared, and instead, innkeepers themselves kept Joseph and Mary away. Many reenactments today scattered throughout New Mexico perform the version that does not contain the Devil. For example, in Chimayó and El Rito, there is no Devil. The early version with the Devil still exists along with the versions that have none.

By the 1950s, the Pastores and Posadas traditions had almost disappeared in New Mexico. This is possibly because of the rise in influence of U.S. culture and the decline of Hispano heritage after statehood in 1912. Torres suggests contributing factors could also be World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, all of which took away many New Mexican men, the original actors in such dramatizations. 

Las Posadas did not experience a resurrection until the last third of the twentieth century. The resurgence could possibly be an outcome of the Civil Rights movement, which led many New Mexicans to begin reclaiming their brown/Latino heritage, or possibly out of a desire to preserve the Spanish language and the old traditions that were dying out. What is certain is New Mexican folk plays of the advent season were preserved by the communities from which they originated. In many instances there are no original texts, and written adaptations were commonly based on oral interviews with elders who still had a memory of the old traditions. 

Los Pastores cast with Don Juan Tenorio as El Espiritu Malo, Northern New Mexico, 1945. Photograph courtesy Larry Torres. Tenorio’s version was handed down to Professor Torres of Arroyo Seco, who revived the production of Los Pastores in 1985. The production continued for 35 years with Torres playing the role of the Devil.

In both Arroyo Seco and in Santa Fe, the Devil and Las Posadas came back into popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. In Arroyo Seco, the community revived earlier versions of Los Pastores and Las Posadas. The Pastores play written by Juan Tenorio was handed down to and revived by Professor Torres, who played the Devil for close to 35 years. The Arroyo Seco version of Las Posadas often included the three devils that appeared at various stops along the route. It also included the final battle between Saint Michael and the Devil from the Pastores productions.

The Santa Fe tradition of Las Posadas on the Plaza can be traced back at least 50 years. It was first performed by the San Antonio Neighborhood Association along Acequia Madre on the east side of Santa Fe in the 1970s, or possibly earlier. The neighborhood association held a Las Posadas celebration on December 23 every year. Many who participated claim that this version came from an earlier one from Galisteo.

Darrel Dawson moved into the neighborhood in 1972. He quickly became one of the locals who played the Devil in the neighborhood advent play. In an opinion piece in The Santa Fe New Mexican, dated July 17, 2018, Dawson stated, “The particular version which I participated in was painstakingly extracted in detail from a version previously performed in Galisteo, but long since abandoned…. It included the devil. There may have been few or no other Posadas being performed in the Santa Fe area in the early 1970s.” He also wrote that the entire celebration began in the San Antonio Street neighborhood as a “novena in celebration of the defeat of a big apartment complex that would have destroyed the neighborhood. It was so well performed here (burro and all) bigger and bigger crowds came, forcing it to be moved to the Plaza.”

The popularity and overwhelming crowds in the San Antonio neighborhood for their performances came at a time when the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors began their annual “Christmas at the Palace” open house and celebration on the weekend before Christmas. The staff decided to complete the weekend on a Sunday evening with a production of Las Posadas on the Plaza: the relocated San Antonio neighborhood production. 

The first Posadas on the Plaza to take place was during the winter of 1982 and has continued ever since. During the first ten years the Devil was played by Dawson. Once the San Antonio group stopped performing, the reenactment was taken over by a group from Santa Cruz at the invitation of Orlando Romero, the librarian and archivist at the Palace of the Governors and New Mexico History Museum at the time. He was aware of the group’s production during the novena in Santa Cruz. This group still performs the Santa Fe Plaza version of Las Posadas today with a regular cast of volunteers who surround and accompany Joseph and Mary, along with four different people playing the part of the Devil. Though he is present to shun the weary travelers, the Devil’s final battle with Saint Michael is absent.  

The longevity and popularity of the character of el Diablo in advent folk plays of the Nativity is testament to the widespread acceptance of him as a traditional character. The above renditions are only a small sampling of his appearances and more research needs to be conducted. For example, where did the old Galisteo script come from? Does it still exist?

Even so, the Devil character remains popular and controversial to this day. As Torres states, “Even among the holiest rites in our lives there is always an Evil Spirit that tries to disrupt and undo; he is part of our humanity, the shadow side. Lucifer gives you an alternative view. You get to know your strength, the will to do good, to choose good over bad.”

His purpose is to present a counterpoint; he causes us to think and examine in depth and ultimately do the right thing. Most importantly, each holiday season we mock him in jest, taking great joy in shunning, booing, and chasing him away. 

Music and songs from Los Pastores and Las Posadas can be enjoyed in the listening lounge in the exhibition Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico or by visiting the website of the Museum of International Folk Art at internationalfolkart.org. Video documentary shorts can be viewed in the exhibition and at thewisdomarchive.com.

Nicolasa Chávez, a fourteenth-generation New Mexican, is the curator of Latino/Hispano/Spanish Colonial collections at the Museum of International Folk Art. She co-curated the exhibition Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico with guest curator and folk musician Cipriano Vigil. Much to her delight, her childhood Las Posadas experiences came full-circle when she played the role of the Devil on the Santa Fe Plaza in December 2018.