Moctezuma and the Elders, the Virgin and the Bull: the Matachines Dance of Greater Mexico

Enrique R. Lamadrid

The dynamics of devotion, remembrance, resistance, and accommodation are deeply embedded in the ritual of the Matachines dance. Its cast of characters recapitulates colonial histories as they dance across spiritual, ethnic, national, cultural, and even gender boundaries. No other tradition expresses the complexity and depth of cultural relations in Greater Mexico more eloquently than the Matachines. A sumptuous feast of signification is offered up through choreography, costume, gesture, and music which resonate between the sacred and the burlesque.

A text wrought of interacting symbols always suggests more than it can mean. Historical documentation is tantalizingly scant. Etymologies abound, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, even Nahuatl sources are cited by scholars. Origins are ultimately untraceable. Eurocentric explanations of the dance drama stress the apparently Moorish elements of fringed face masks and opulent costumes, and the theme of Christian conversion. Americanists assert that the Matachines is an Aztec dance that portrays the spiritual conquest of Mexico. No one has yet explained the presence and popularity of the dance in Colombia. Whether the bearers and teachers of this tradition in the far northern reaches of the upper Río Grande were Franciscan missionaries or Mexican Indians is only speculation. The legends are many. One of many Pueblo stories tells that long ago king Moctezuma himself flew north in the form of a bird with bad news and good advice. He warned that bearded foreigners were on their way north, but if the people mastered this dance, the strangers would learn to respect them, would join the dance and come to be just like them. One of many Hispano stories tells that an alliance based on the sharing of the Matachines dance with Pueblos in the Bernalillo area saved the Spanish Mexican settlers from destruction in 1680. On the eve of the great Pueblo Revolt, Tiwa and Queres people warned their neighbors of the dangers at hand. San Lorenzo is credited with this miracle and the collective vow to honor him is celebrated yearly with the dance.

What is clear is that for centuries, Native, Hispano, and Mestizo peoples have danced the Matachines. From Taos to Sonora, from Zacatecas to Laredo and San Antonio, they step in unison to the insistent, bittersweet music of drums and rattles, guitars, and violins. The fluttering ribbons that hang from their crowns and shoulders are the colors of the rainbow. In proud formation they do battle against chaos and reenact the terms of their own capitulation. Christian souls or Aztec spirits?—they dance in graceful reconciliation, now in lines, now in crosses. In their midst a great king receives the counsel of a little girl. She is Malinche. In the south her name is synonymous with betrayal, but she is no traitor here. Her purity and ceremonial conversion of Monarca, the King, to Christianity identify her with the Virgin herself. She takes up his rattle and animates the rest of the dancers. When they kneel with bowed heads, seemingly dead or in another dimension, she brings them back to life. At the edges of this fray, a grotesque band of mostly masked Elders guards the dancers, pop their whips, make fun of the people, and ridicule the New World Order.

There are two regional styles of Matachines, both of which come together in only one community—Tortugas, a village near Las Cruces, New Mexico. In the southern style, also called Chichimeca or Apache, dancers are dressed in bright red and yellow aprons thickly hung with horizontal reeds. In many communities they wear plains style war bonnets and the dance captains are called Comanches. With stylized bow and arrow clackers in hand these Matachines corner and shoot the Viejos, the old men of the dance, and sometimes pretend to drink their blood when they die. In the northern style, analogous to the Danza de la Pluma or Dance of the Feather in northern Mexico, dancers wear cupiles or Aztec crowns, thought by some to resemble the bishop's miter. With palmas or three-pronged lightning swords, they invoke the Trinity and carve the wind in symmetrical arabesques. In New Mexico, a new character appears, el Toro, the totem bull of imperial Spain. With horns and canes for front legs, he runs wild, taunting the Malinche and weaving through the lines of dancers, as though lost in a labyrinth. The Malinche flees, then confronts the Toro and engages him in a miniature bull fight with the Virgin's paño or scarf. The Abuelos or grandfathers of the dance taunt and overpower the Toro, killing and castrating him, and casting his seed to the joyful crowd. Have they vanquished evil, as the people say, or has the savage bull of European empire met its consummation? Gracias a Dios, it is still a mystery.

The key elements of the Matachines dance drama are performed across cultures on key winter and summer feast days such as Christmas, New Year's Day, San Antonio, San Lorenzo, San José, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Its allegorical characters reenact the spiritual drama of the conquest in a complex blend of Indigenous and European traditions. Some features are related to the reconquest themes of Moros y Cristianos. Other elements derive from combat dances of the Aztecs, which were Christianized and used for evangelization during colonial times. The significance and details of los Matachines can vary widely between regions and cultures. In Hispano communities, it has a strong sacred character and is performed in devotion to Guadalupe and the saints. In Native communities it is often a more secular celebration. Strong burlesque components can appear in both, with the Elders engaging in hilarious fights and sometimes even romance and mock marriage. As a multiplicity of localized sub-themes play out, it becomes clear that besides the basic plot, innovation and change are the only constants of the Matachines tradition. The most compelling symbol of this protean versatility is the mirror itself, which in tiny pieces is incorporated into costumes, crowns, and objects like the palma held in the hands of dancers. Ultimately, communities perceive themselves in the dance.

Every year the dance evolves and speaks to the people of changing times. Unsatisfied with the single female role of the Malinche, women everywhere are participating as never before. In northern New Mexico and the Mexican state of Durango, all-female groups have emerged. Near Alburquerque, one fiesta recently featured a little blond Malinche, the daughter of Anglo-American mayordomos or fiesta sponsors, whose role bespeaks the respect they earned in a multi-cultural community. Those who criticized her ethnicity were ridiculed the next year by the Perejundia, the female Abuela clown in a long blond wig. In a central New Mexico community, openly gay dancers have "come out" on the plaza with the precise rainbow sequence of ribbon colors, even as they maintain their anonymous devotion in the dance. Although the Matachines belongs to the larger category of folk Catholic celebrations, communities divided along religious lines have realized that the dance transcends sectarianism as it reaffirms their culture. In one recent village revival in northern New Mexico, Protestants and Catholics have reorganized the dance. Catholic dancers have saints images on their scarves, while Protestants dress in their imageless iconoclast style, with patterns and solid colors! True to its mission, the Matachines continues crossing boundaries in its conversation with cultural otherness.

A multitude of questions remain. Is the Matachines more truly the "beautiful dance of subjugation" or the "beautiful dance of persistence and survival?" What is the symbolic post-colonial significance of castrating the Toro after its death? Why does the presumably Trinitarian Palma sword of the Monarca have four instead of three points in some communities? And most importantly, what are the "hidden transcripts" for the many Indigenous communities who have encountered and appropriated the dance? With such a multiplicity of significance, if there is a unifying theme in the dance, it is reconciliation and transcendence. The truest consensus of the Matachines is that of eyes and hearts following the Malinche skipping between the lines of dancers on the plaza. She is hope. She is adoration. She is the future.