In Memoriam |
Elvira Gomez de Tafoya: 1933 – 2022

In 1975, while volunteering for the Old Mission, Elvira Gomez de Tafoya brought forth a 200-year-old Santa Barbara Christmas tradition: La Pastorela (A Shepherd’s Play), which tells of the pilgrimage of the pastores (shepherds) to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ. Known as Maestra Tafoya, Elvira was a lifelong teacher who believed in the cultural and educational power of theater. The play brought a new level of art to uplift the Spanish-speaking community, and we are indebted to her.

La Pastorela is a tradition found in several Spanish-speaking places throughout California and Mexico, each city with its own “edition.” Pablo De la Guerra transcribed Santa Barbara’s version in the 19th century, and Maestra Tafoya selected his script for its Shakespearian qualities of changing meter, poetic beauty, and clever humor. While other versions of La Pastorela modernized the script with satire, Maestra Tafoya remained traditional in her direction, preserving the original language, staging, music, and story of Christian redemption.

The shepherds’ journey is interrupted by an epic battle between Lucifer and Saint Michael, who fight for the souls of the shepherds. The powerful story of Catholic redemption is told in rhyming Spanish couplets with music, dance, and staging. Elvira Tafoya, who produced and directed it for more than 35 years, regarded the play as “a gem in the crown of Santa Barbara History.”

Through the decades, La Pastorela has been performed by several community groups including Teatro Campesino and El Teatro de la Esperanza. The play began in living rooms, backyards, local churches, and local radio stations such as La Musical and Radio Bronco. Ultimately, it became a mainstay of the city’s Christmas tradition with performances at La Casa de la Raza, the Mission Chapel, and El Presidio, the latter of which supported La Pastorela for years.

As the director and producer, Maestra Tafoya worked tirelessly to obtain donations, maintain costumes, and coordinate rehearsals. She was persuasive and passionate, in both Spanish and English, gaining community support and recruiting local talent. She maintained all set pieces, props, and costumes herself; you would find her sewing rips and fixing costumes in the nights before the first show. She took on much of the play’s responsibilities as an act of service.

Because of Maestra Tafoya’s experience as a violinist with the S.B. City College symphony, she enriched the production with traditional live music. Hispanic folk songs like “Riu, riu, chiu,” “Pastores de la Cruz,” and “A la Ru” invited audiences to sing along and feel the spirit of the holiday. The music was led by Maestra Tafoya’s daughter, Xóchitl Tafoya, who served as music director and violinist for many years.

Each fall, Maestra Tafoya cast La Pastorela with volunteers who had little to no prior acting experience but who felt the Christmas spirit. Our actors were SBCC students, English as a Second Language students, SBCC faculty, restaurant servers, quinceañera choreographers, Farmers Market accountants, career counselors, Franklin Elementary School family advocates, radio hosts, videographers, music teachers, and more. The script was a challenge to understand and memorize, but the lessons it imparted were universal to all of us. When the rehearsal process would get arduous, La Maestra would inspire us with the Christmas message and remind us of the tragedy of Lucifer’s suffering. She encouraged us to feel the despair of Lucifer’s plea and rejoice in the triumph of Christ’s birth. It was important to her that we embodied the true meaning of Christmas in our portrayal.

Through Maestra Tafoya’s leadership, we broke bread after each rehearsal. She was a stern director but cared for us like a mother, offering her homemade taquitos and hot apple cider. Each year new Pastorela cast members would be welcomed and invited to reunions. Maestra Tafoya would host a formal dinner in her home to celebrate each year’s success. She dressed her table with flowers, silverware, fine china, and name card settings. Gathered around her table the cast would share a delicious homemade feast and then rejoice in song on the Holiday Trolley Tour. She created and nurtured a family that would gather throughout the year; a family we continue to be in her honor.

Forming part of the Pastorela was a gift; it allowed us to be part of a beautiful, historic tradition. Maestra Tafoya’s sweetness and generosity were matched only by her tenacity and vision. She offered the Hispanic and Spanish-speaking community here in Santa Barbara the opportunity to see the beauty of their language and the power within themselves. She nourished our spirits, our hearts, and our bellies with her homemade meals “made from scratch.”

It will not be the same without her this Christmas, but her memory is ever shining in our hearts. Inspired by Maestra Tafoya’s legacy, may our community elevate each other as a family, may we act from a heart of service.

As the pastores say, finally, Con gusto lo haremos por que es muy debido. “We will do it with joy, for it is right.”

Donations may be made in Elvira Tafoya’s honor to the Friends of the Eastside Public Library.


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