Vischer Drawing of Mission of San Juan Bautista

How is it that a town of 1,800 people can represent the full story of the state of California?

South of San Francisco and north of Monterey, San Juan Bautista has evolved from a Native American (Mutsun) village to a Spanish colonial mission, to a Mexican military capitol, to an American frontier outpost, to an industrial age ghost town, and to a small, suburban tourist hamlet. Its story is marked by economic booms and declines, opportunities and dashed hopes, natural disasters and natural resources.

The town grew when there were plans to make it the state capitol, and, again, when there was talk of bringing the railroad through (neither happened). And it faced disasters—the 1906 earthquake, a smallpox epidemic, a monstrous fire, and a flood. Over time, it served as a center for agriculture and ranching, transportation, shipping, and quicksilver mining. Today, tourism is the primary business—a business that suffers in economic downturns.

No one can argue with the beauty of San Juan Bautista’s surroundings, but its vibrancy comes from the town’s community activities, honoring its cultural history—most of them artist-based.

This is where composer, playwright, performer, and media artist Daniel Valdez and acclaimed El Teatro Campesino are making an important contribution. El Teatro Campesino, founded 46 years ago to tell stories of California’s farmworker’s movement, settled in San Juan Bautista in 1971. It is collaborating with Valdez to create Cancion de San Juan: Oratorio of a Small Town, a multi-media performance featuring songs, monologues, and projections. The piece will premiere in 2012 and be presented annually during “El Día de San Juan,” the saint’s day festival celebrating the founding of the Old Mission in the heart of town.

Valdez is currently steeped in research. He strongly believes that San Juan Bautista’s special qualities have been shaped and protected by its people. His task at hand is to uncover and portray through his music these characters’ distinctive voices.

Who would best illustrate the phases of local history?  Perhaps Thomas Doak, who jumped ship in Monterey in the early 1800s and was hired by the Franciscans as a carpenter and painter—painting the altar wall inside the mission? Or the aristocratic bandit Tiburcio Vaszuez? Or Donner Party survivors, the Breen family, who established the still-standing Castro House? Or, perhaps Mutsun leader Ascencion Solorsano, who died in 1930, the last speaker of the Mutsun language. Valdez notes that the hardest part of his project will be limiting his choices.

Valdez has created two previous oratorios about communities in transition. His advice to other artists who are working to tell the stories of places is that what really matters are your contacts within the community. He emphasizes, “The community must be on your side.” Don’t overlook the official sites—the parks and museums and historical societies—but learn from the families: that’s where the real stories lie.

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