by JULIO MARTINEZ
December 1949, just one week before Christmas vacation, the fifth grade classes of Eastmont Elementary in Montebello were given a special treat: a field trip to the hills of Claremont to witness the annual Spanish-language performance of Las Posadas, performed by The Mexican Players at the Padua Hills Theatre. To hopefully clarify this adventure to her students, teacher Mrs. Rice called upon the one Spanish name in her class. “Julio, would you like to tell the class what Las Posadas is about?” 11-year-old Julio Martinez Jr., not long out of the streets of Manhattan’s Puerto Rican Harlem, volunteered, “What the hell is a posadas?”
Despite this rude intro, Mrs. Rice’s charges soon experienced a joyous theatrical event, told in drama and song, which conveyed the story of a group of Mexican children who celebrate Christmas by re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, searching for room at the posada (inn). When they finally find shelter, the Mexican Players Ensemble celebrate with their youthful audience by breaking the piñata. During the 1940s and much of the 1950s, this annual Spanish-language holiday theatrical event was a staple — a school assembly destination for many elementary and junior high school classes of LA Unified and San Gabriel Valley School districts.
The Padua Hills Theatre was originally part of the Padua Hills Institute founded in the late 1920s by entrepreneur/philanthropists Herman H. and Bess Garner. Padua Hills was a 2,000 acre tract of land, subdivided into a six acre artist colony called the Little Theater Association, with a central dining room, artist studio, shops, and a small theatre. Located three miles north of Foothill Boulevard in the City of Claremont, the Spanish Revival buildings were nestled at the base of the mountains, and surrounded by lush trees and shrubs. The Garners’ intention was to foster and build a relationship with Mexico and its people. The theatre was operated by the Institute, a non-profit educational corporation. Offering courses in Mexican folk music, dance, and Spanish, the Institute was mandated to preserve the Spanish and Mexican heritage of early California.
In 1932, the space became the official home of the Mexican Players (Paduanos), guided in large part by Mexican immigrant Manuel Vera, his wife Sara and their succeeding generations of children, a theatrical dynasty that stretched 41 years. The Vera family traveled extensively to Mexico to document authentic music, traditional dance, folk plays and costumes which were then duplicated at Padua by a dedicated ensemble that considered Padua their home. Vera expanded a five-minute Mexican folk tale of the birth of Christ into Las Posadas, incorporating the music and dances of the original Mexican settlers of California. These efforts were consistent with a larger Southern California movement in the 1930s towards what was called the Spanish Fantasy Past, a nostalgic remembering of a bygone pre-Anglo history.
Despite some political criticisms of Mexican American folk theater, the original 1930s players found opportunities for self-discovery, to forge strong relationships, and to achieve successful careers in theatre and beyond. Participation in Las Pasados and other plays allowed the players to share their artistic talents where elsewhere there were few opportunities for Latino/a actors. For the larger community, it created an atmosphere in which negative attitudes towards Mexican Americans were temporarily averted. And it created a space where Mexican American youth received training in song and dance and utilize these skills in the burgeoning Los Angeles film industry.
There was resistance to this. Bess Garner was primarily responsible for working with the players, remembered as a well-intentioned woman who could be condescending, actively discouraging their seeking work in Hollywood. The Garners largely recruited the players from the nearby Claremont barrio. Although their most visible task was to provide entertainment, they were also responsible for cooking, maintaining the property, and waiting on tables.
But many of the players did move on. Within a few years, Paduanos were responsible for creating Las Posadas on Olvera Street in Downtown LA, now one of Los Angeles’ oldest Christmas events. Seasonal entertainment commences nightly at 5:30pm, played out for nine nights by the Olvera Street Merchants, from December 16 through Christmas Eve. The event features a candlelight procession starting at the historic Avila Adobe. The leaders of the march, usually children, dress as shepherds, angels, and Mary and Joseph. They are followed by dozens of other worshipers. The public is invited to join in or merely observe.
In the early 1970s, the final production came to a close and Padua Hills Theatre went dark. The Garner family eventually donated the theater to Pomona College which later sold it to the City of Claremont as a historic site. From 1978-85, the area surrounding the theater became home to The Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, nurturing talents of such notable scripters as Susan Champaign, Kathleen Cramer, Martin Epstein, Maria Irene Fornes, Bob Glaudini, Julie Hebert, O’Lan Jones, Susan La Tempa, Ed Machado, Leon Martell, Murray Mednick, Michael Monroe, John O’Keefe, Sam Shepard, John Steppling and Kelly Stuart. Las Posadas Theatre currently serves a facility for weddings and private parties.