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Matachines: Soldiers of the Virgin
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Marlene and Tomasita T. Reyes
In a church yard, mysterious Indian-like dancers move to the beat of a tom-tom and a fiddle. A "tick, tack, tick, tack" sound adds to the rhythm of the music. Drawn to the beat, people huddle around the group of dancers.
These performers are matachines, but recent research suggests a possible ancient tradition modified over the centuries by several different cultures.
The word matachin, according to Douglas Kent Hall, comes "from 16th century French and Spanish, and Italian mattacino is thought to have come from the Arabic word muttawajjihin … which means to assume a mask…from wajh, face." (In fact, matachines from northern New Mexico Indian Pueblos still wear steel masks, unlike most groups in this area.)
Researchers believe Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought matachin dances to Central and South America and enriched already existing Indian dances when the natives were Christianized. Matachin dances disappeared from Europe after the 17th century but still occur throughout Hispanic America, especially among Indian tribes who embraced Catholicism. Matachines often dance on special days of the church calendar such as saints' days and Christmas.
The dansantes, or dancers, keep rhythm to a drum, rattles and two violins which appear to talk to each other. The 1-2, 1-2-3 beat of the music is hypnotic. Following a long dance, the music will abruptly stop and begin a new as the dancers begin a new dance.
The costumes of the matachines vary from group to group, but there are similarities. On the border, dances wear bandannas decorated with animal ornaments, mirrors and feathers. Further north, matachines wear elaborate head pieces called coronas. Costume jewelry, religious medals and beads adorn their costumes. Their split skirts and vests are covered with hollow wooden reeds that make a "tick, tack' sound as they dance. They wear long sleeved, white shirts decorated with ribbons or red shirts and carry bows and arrows or gourd rattles. One of two dancers may carry a wooden trident called a palma.
Within a group, certain differences in costume distinguish the main characters of the dance from the regular 10 or 12 dancers that a represent the Spanish conquistadors. Four of the matachines are captains. One captain stands in each of the four corners where the dancers perform, assisting the matachines in the intricate dances.
The chief dancer is El Monarca, represents Montezuma, the last Aztec king, a character who converts to Christianity during the dance. Another distinguished character is the Abuelo, or grandfather, also known as El Viejo. He usually wears a horrifying mask, a ludicrous costume of old clothes and carries a whip to threaten youngsters into behaving. Overtly a clown figure, he eventually takes on and defeats the forces of evil, usually portrayed by El Toro or the bull. This character may wear a mask with horns or paint his face to play the part.
The fourth major dancer is La Malinche, Cortez's interpreter and mistress. One of the first persons in Mexico to convert to Christianity, she represents purity and goodness in the dances. This character is usually portrayed by a young girl dressed all in white, complete with veil. El Viejo guides Malinche in the various dances as she seeks protection from the bull.
Though more commonly seen in Mexico and northern New Mexico, matachines are visible in other parts of the Southwest, such as Tortugas, New Mexico, and here in El Paso. They participate in church organizations and perform the many dances that represent different stories, celebrating the victory of Christianity over paganism and of good over evil.
"I was taught the dance of the matachines when I was three years old, and I'm still dancing after 40 years," says Maria Chacon, a matachin dancer from El Paso.
"The reason we dance is to scare away the evil spirits and in honor of the Virgen of Guadalupe," Chacon adds. Matachines are often called "Soldiers of the Virgin," and one of their most important performances in the year is on December 12 to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico.
"My father brought the tradition from Chihuahua to El Paso," says Chacon. "He started off by teaching my brothers the dance of the matachines and from then on, his group just expanded ." The size of his group varied throughout time. "The smallest group that my dad had was probably about seven people, and the largest was about 82 people," Chacon explains.
Folklorist Frances Toor writes that matachines also dance at funerals of their members and their relatives. When asked whether this is the case in El Paso as well, Chacon said, "Yes, the matachines do dance at funerals here in El Paso. As a matter of fact, we danced at my father's funeral as a despedida (a farewell).
Often times bystanders can be seen joining in the dance with the matachines. Growing up in San Lorenzo, Mexico the first five years of her life , Ana Maria Torres, now of El Paso, remembers witnessing people repaying their mandas by joining in the matachin dances.
Border residents can look for local performances of matachines on August 10, feast day of San Lorenzo, during the Christmas season at various Catholic churches, and on other special occasions. This form of morality play is alive and well and worth searching out.