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A good shepherd

| Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Folk drama is a tradition from medieval Europe that used staged presentations to convey stories and lessons generally drawn from religious teachings. Begun at a time when the Mass, sacraments and ceremonies were mainly in Latin, these plays were presented in the local vernacular and allowed the audience to participate in the stories more personally than formal religion allowed. The Mexican-American community in the Southwest United States continued the tradition of religious folk dramas, especially in the Christmas-time plays of “Las Posadas” and “Los Pastores.” “Las Posadas” (“The Inns”), based on St. Lukes’s account of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, hews closely to the scriptural story, and is presented in many Catholic schools and parishes, typically as an opportunity to involve scores of children costumed as shepherds and angels.

“Los Pastores” (“The Shepherds”) is a more complicated play, following the journey of a collection of shepherds to the manger where Christ is to be born, and cataloging the efforts of Satan and the forces of evil to block mankind’s salvation. The play includes subtle humor, as when Lucifer tries to discover from one of the shepherds whether the Christ child has been born, and is frustrated by foolish answers resulting from the shepherd’s “misunderstanding” of simple questions. The play often uses local names, with props and costumes anachronistically echoing Mexican-American culture. One version of the play was translated, edited and published by Carmelo Antonio Tranchese in 1949. Years before, Tranchese undertook his own rambling journey as a shepherd, and wrestled with dark forces threatening his flock.

Tranchese was born outside Naples, Italy, in 1880. He entered the Jesuit order, studied in Naples and Malta, and completed his theological studies at St. Bueno’s College in North Wales. Ordained in 1910, Tranchese began his missionary life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before being sent to El Paso, Texas and San Jose, California. In 1932, Tranchese was installed as the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the West Side of San Antonio, home for most of the city’s 85,000 Mexican Americans. Working conditions and wages were pitiable, and housing was dilapidated and disease-infested. Tranchese helped to establish a health clinic that taught disease prevention and offered free vaccinations and medical care. He championed efforts to improve working conditions and wages, and supported local strikes, soliciting provisions and establishing breadlines for striking pecan-shellers.

In radio addresses and newspaper columns, Tranchese noted that government regulated minimum standards for horse and cattle stables; why not be more concerned about people who suffer in squalid housing? In order to address the nationwide crisis in housing, the United States Housing Authority (USHA) was established in 1937; San Antonio began its own housing authority later that year. Tranchese was among the five city housing commissioners, and he immediately set about trying to improve conditions for his flock. Tranchese helped to persuade the USHA and President Roosevelt to approve a major housing project, and in September 1937 the USHA agreed to fund the San Antonio housing program that included the Alazan-Apache Courts for Mexican-Americans.

Opponents of public housing, many of whom were already angered by Tranchese’s support of striking workers, threatened  Tranchese’s life and slandered his character. Of the hundreds of slumlords that needed to be bought out, many demanded excessive compensation for what typically were little more than tin-roofed shacks with dirt floors, scrap-material walls and no indoor plumbing. In response, the USHA administrator ordered the projects stopped in early 1939. Tranchese, oblivious to protocol and filled with a foolish faith, appealed directly to Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited San Antonio later that year; work shortly resumed on the housing projects.

The projects, completed in 1942, contained multiple single-family dwellings, ranging from three to six-and-a-half rooms each, including private bathrooms and kitchens. The developed neighborhoods featured libraries, health clinics, and recreational programs. The USHA required United States citizenship to reduce the applicants who far outnumbered the available units. The occupants of the Alazan-Apache Courts formed a tenants’ association to maintain the project, and their residences were judged by some observers to be “the best maintained housing project in the United States.” More public housing was needed, but the emerging demands of World War II choked off funds and public housing development in San Antonio ceased until the 1950s.

Tranchese continued to push for more services and better housing. In order to keep his community informed and educated about church and local affairs, he initiated the first Spanish archdiocesan Sunday newsletter in Texas, La Voz de la Parroquia, which was circulated throughout parishes in the southwestern United States. He continued to serve his parish and the people of San Antonio, and the once-reviled priest was now honored as “El Padrecito” — a priest of the people. In 1953, he suffered a breakdown, and church officials sent Tranchese to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to recuperate. He spent his remaining years there and died of a heart attack on July 13, 1956. Tranchese surely felt a close kinship with the shepherds of “Los Pastores” — simple men on a journey to meet their redeemer, forced to fool and frustrate evil forces along the way. Faced with Satan’s deep and talented bench, we pray for more good shepherds to lead us.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at patrayram@sbcglobal.net

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