The Matachines Dance

A short excerpt from the Introduction of Sylvia Rodriguez book The Matachines Dance.

From the Introduction of The Matachines Dance by Sylvia Rodriguez

The Matachines dance is a ritual drama performed on certain saint’s days in Pueblo Indian and Mexicano/Hispano communities along the upper Rio Grande valley and elsewhere in the greater Southwest.  The dance is characterized by two rows of masked male dancers wearing mitrelike hats with long, multicolored ribbons down the back.  In the upper Rio Grande valley of New Mexico, these ten or twelve masked figures are accompanied by a young girl in white, who is paired with an adult male dancer wearing a floral corona.  They are joined by another man or boy dressed as a bull and by two clowns.  The crowned man dressed like the other dancers is known as Montezuma, or El Monarca, while his female child partner is called La Malinche.  The dance is made up of several sets of movements accompanied by different tunes, usually played on a violin and guitar.  The procession and recession that typically bracket it, takes roughly forty-five minutes.

   Most scholars agree that the Matachines dance derives from a genre of medieval European folk dramas symbolizing conflict between Christians and Moors, brought to the New World by the Spaniards as a vehicle for Christianizing the Indians.  Iberian elements merged with aboriginal forms in central Mexico, and the syncretic complex was transmitted to Indians farther north, including the Rio Grande Pueblos, probably via Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish colonizers.  As performed today in the greater Southwest, the Matachines dance symbolically telescopes centuries of Iberian-American ethnic relations and provides a shared framework upon which individual Indian and Hispanic communities have embroidered their own particular thematic variations.

The Matachines dance exhibits a distinctive choreographic and dramatic pattern in the upper Rio Grande valley and is generally considered to be identical among Indians and Mexicanos or Hispanos.  Nevertheless, the ways in which these two major ethnic grouping perform and regard the dance differ significantly.

Both agree it is Christian rather than pagan or aboriginal, but most Pueblos claim the dance was brought to them from Mexico by Montezuma, who is portrayed in the dance by the figure of el Monarca.  Hispanic villagers, on the other hand, attribute its introduction to colonizer don Juan de Onate, reconquest leader don Diego de  Vargas, or Cortes himself, because the drama portrays the advent of Christianity among the Indians by referring to the expulsion or conversion of the Moors, a paradigm the Spanish colonizers instantly projected onto the conquest of the New World.  The dance thus has historical but differential meaning for Indian and Hispano groups because the advent of Christianity in the region does not have the same meaning for those who brought it as for those it subjugated.  The differences between Pueblo and Mexicano perspectives may be mapped through close comparative examination of local Matachines performances within and across traditions.  The dance both joins and divides the ethnic groups.


The upper Rio Grande valley as referred to here consists of the length of  the river that bisects the state of New Mexico from north to south, distinguishable from the lower Rio Grande valley, which runs along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to Brownsville. New Mexico became New Spain's far northern frontier during the sixteenth century, when con-quistadors and colonists followed the river to Taos, northernmost of the eastern pueblos, and began to establish missions and settlements along this corridor. The frontier colonial society that developed during the next three hundred years involved miscegenation as well as segregation of His-panic and Indian populations andpersistence of the social and territorial boundaries between them. Despite massive demographic reductions and shifts, nineteen of the more than one hundred pueblos existing at the time of contact survived into the late twentieth century. Most of the Rio Grande pueblos are surrounded by clusters of colonial and subsequent Mexicano settlements that coalesced upon the New Mexican landscape during four centuries of mutual opposition, growing interdependence, and, finally, separate enclavement within the U. S. nation-state.

Although the New Mexico Matachines dance shares a number of choreographic, dramatic, and symbolic elements with the dance elsewhere in the greater Southwest and Mexico, it nevertheless exhibits its own characteristic configuration. Thus it is possible and appropriate to speak of a distinctive upper Rio Grande Matachines dance complex. The most basic or universal dramatic elements of the Rio Grande Matachines performance involve several dance sets by the characters El Monarca and La Malinche, an exchange of trident (palma) and rattle (guaje) between them, a variable combination of choreographic interweavings, crossovers, and reversals between the two columns of dancers, a movement involving El Toro-the bull-and his ultimate demise, and processional and recessional marchas at the beginning and end. The clowns, known as Los Abuelos (the grand-fathers), function as conductors and provide comic relief throughout the proceedings.

The Matachines dancers, also referred to as matachines or danzantes, are distinctively costumed. Their mitrelike headdresses, or cupiles, with ribbons streaming down the back and fringe in the front, are their signature symbol. The mask consists of the band of fringe (fleco) over the eyes and a folded kerchief over the lower face. Each danzante carries the palma in his left hand and the guaje in his right.  Large colorful scarves hang like capes from the backs of their shoulders.  They move in two parallel rows of five or six dancers each.

El Monarca dresses like the danzantes but wears a floral corona instead of a cupil, and often white lace leggings (fundas) over his pants from the knees down. He is paired with La Malinche, a preadolescent girl in a First Holy Communion dress. El Toro is a male animal-dancer with horns and forestick(s), played in some villages by a grown man, in others by a young boy. These three characters and the danzantes are accompanied by the Abuelos, usually two masked figures who move about freely, joke or clown, interact with and keep back the audience, and generally direct the proceedings. The number and personality of the Abuelos varies from village to village, as does the prominence of the bull.

The dance sets may occur in different orders and combinations in different villages. Despite this diversity, the performance tradition within each community is said to remain fairly stable, although a careful observer will see situational variation and improvisation from year to year. Any given version contains usually from seven to nine sets. Their choreographic pat-terns and motifs correspond very broadly to the formats diagrammed by Gertrude Kurath on the basis of a sample of twelve Old and New World societies; these nine patterns are reproduced in figure 1.

The music for the Matachines dance is typically performed by a fiddler and a guitarist. Several melodies and approximately nine dances have been identified for the Rio Grande Matachines .  The tunes tend to be short, varying from four to twenty measures in length, and subject to multiple repetitions. Most are done in duple or triple count and feature conventional harmonies in dominant and tonic chords on the guitar, while the fiddle carries the melodic line in A or D. Percussive effects are added by the dancers' rattles and foot stamping and in some cases by a drum.

Many communities hold the Matachines dance at Christmas, although some do it in the summer, and at least three villages-Arroyo Seco, Alcalde, and El Rancho-have danced it in both seasons. As shall be seen, Jemez Pueblo does the dance on December 12, el dia de Guadalupe, and again on New Year's Day, and Hispanic Bernalillo performs the dance on its feast day of San Lorenzo, August 10. As a rule, Pueblo Matachines dances occur in the winter, whereas Hispanic Matachines may take place during either winter or summer. Some Hispanic villages, such as Alcalde and El Rancho, have dance troupes that perform at home on an annual cycle as well as in other places for special occasions. Pueblo Matachines somewhat resemble the Pueblo social dances, also usually performed in winter, when outside groups are parodied.

Among the Pueblo Indians, such as those of Taos, the dance enjoys reli-gious designation while not being considered fully sacred in the "aboriginal" sense. One indication of this is that some Pueblos will allow the Matachines dance to be photographed, whereas their indigenous sacred dances cannot be. Pueblo Matachines performances tend to be organized by tribal officers or kiva groups, while in Hispanic villages it is Catholic mayordomos and certain families who carry the burden. In most pueblos the dance involves the recruitment of Mexicano musicians, dancers, and/or Penitente rezadores, or prayer sayers, whereas Mexicano performances do not as a rule involve Indians. Santa Clara and Jemez pueblos perform "Indian" versions of the dance, featuring Indian costumes with moccasins, along with chanting and drumming. The degree to which costumes are embellished with elements that denote specific ethnic and religious meanings varies widely from village to village.

Along the upper Rio Grande valley, the Matachines dance has been incorporated into the annual ritual calendars of San Ildefonso, Tortugas, Santa Clara, Jemez, Cochin, Santo Domingo, San Juan, Picuris, and Taos pueblos and is performed in the Mexicano villages of Alcalde, Bernalillo, San Antonio, San Antonito, Escobosa, Sedillo, Canocito, Chilili, Carnuel, El Rancho, and Arroyo Seco (the list is not exhaustive). In all these pueblos and villages the sequence of acts, the tunes, the personalities, the dramatic embellishments, the overall style, and the precise manner in which the performers and festive occasions are organized vary markedly from one community to another.

Matachines; Folk Ways of New Mexico; Folk Plays; Pueblo Plays; Hispanic Plays; Masked Dancers