Jerome Shea       November 2, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I wonder how many of my readers outside the American Southwest have any idea what “los Matachines” (ma-ta-CHEE-nez) refers to. It’s a strange name for a strange dance drama or religious ritual or mummery or costume play or…something. No one really knows where or when the matachines tradition started, no one knows for certain what the actors represent or what the narrative is. No one can even say with complete authority where the word itself comes from. I was introduced to the matachines about twenty years ago at the Feast of San Lorenzo in Bernalillo, a town just north of Albuquerque. The Bernalillo matachines have been performing the dance since 1692 (no, that’s not a typo). This past May I witnessed a gathering of matachines ranging from northern New Mexico and to as far south as Copper Canyon in old Mexico. For two days the National Hispanic Cultural Center played host to these mysterious and mesmerizing dances.

The more complicated matachines dances are clearly stories acted out, although the stories vary and are at best ambiguous. Each town or pueblo has its own tradition, its own telling. Music for the dance is usually played on fiddles and guitars, though sometimes it’s drums and gourd-rattles instead. The costumes are very elaborate. The dancers who form the background or square, sometimes thought of as soldiers, are swathed in colorful leggings and flowing, highly decorated shawls. Often the shawl is covered with mirror shards. Ribbons of many colors hang down their backs. Their faces are covered with scarves and fringe and they wear miter-like headdresses. With only their eyes showing, they are intimidating, almost sinister. These dancers usually form two parallel lines and dance in place, a kind of clogging line dance, while the drama weaves throughout them. For this we usually need an abuelo or grandfather figure to keep order and to, in effect, stage-manage things. He may be joined by an abuela figure to help out and often to provide comic relief. She is sometimes not so much abuela as la perejundia, an ogrelike tranvestite mischief maker (traditionally, all of the dancers except Malinche are male). She sometimes wears a mask like a Halloween witch. In most cases the cast is rounded out by el Toro, the bull figure; Monarco (the King), who usually represents Montezuma, the Aztec emperor; and Malinche, who—but we’ll get back to Malinche.

But what happens and what does it mean? What seems most consistent is that the bull, represented by a man with horns on his head and two canes for front legs, is bad news. He runs around and through the dancers, almost as in a labyrinth (shades of the minotaur!). He taunts and threatens Monarco and Malinche and anyone else in his way. He taunts the audience. Finally he is overpowered, killed, and castrated. The bull, representing abstract evil or perhaps something more specific (the power of old Spain?) has been vanquished and his seed tossed in pantomime to the crowd. Sometimes, from el Toro comes el Torito, a young boy playing the part, as if the bull has been reborn. (Yes, the dance has been seen as a fertility rite.)

Those who trace the matachines to Spain see it as a Moorish-Christian struggle (with the Christians of course winning). Perhaps it came to the New World as a template of triumphant Christianity put into service to convert the Indians. In fact, some think that the pueblos adopted the dance to signal their acceptance of the new religion. In other traditions, the dance has not Spanish but Aztec roots, or it is at the least a New World retelling of the symbolic battle between Cristianos y Moros. In this version, Montezuma became a bird and flew to northern Mexico (now New Mexico) to warn the people that bearded foreigners were coming. He taught them the dance and said that it would win over the foreigners. In this light, it is perhaps significant that the dance is enacted by both cultures, the pueblo Indians and the descendents of those foreign settlers. It belongs to all and is constantly changing (“Innovation and change,” says one scholar, “are the only constants”).

Probably the strangest character is Malinche, in most dances Monarco’s protector and the bull’s nemesis. But this piles riddle upon enigma: you may remember that Malinche was in fact Cortez’s mistress and Montezuma’s betrayer! But here is she is nothing of the kind. Malinche is almost always played by a prepubescent girl, and almost always dressed in white (as in a First Communion dress). She represents purity and a kind of strenuous innocence. She is powerful enough to confront el Toro. Is she the Virgin, leading Montezuma to Christianity and salvation? Has Monarco (also dressed in white) been “betrayed” into the new Faith? Or do the matachines represent a primal battle between good (Malinche) and evil (el Toro) which crosses and obliterates culture lines?

We will never know.

Postscript. If the word “matachine” seems vaguely familiar to you, you are probably thinking of the Mattachine Society (double “t” is the preferred spelling), It was founded in 1950 in San Francisco to protect and foster the rights of homosexuals and was finally disbanded in 1987. The connection is only etymological, but telling nonetheless. The founder, Harry Hay, had read up on a French medieval group of the same name. Always masked, they often went to the streets to protest repression. The most likely origin of “matachine” and its many variants is the Arabic mutawajjihin, a mask-wearer. And there, too, is the Moorish connection.

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