I have been working with my Pascua Yaqui neighbors and friends for many years; but I owe much of what I know about their matachinis tradition to anthropologist Muriel Thayer Painter who studied the Yaqui for over thirty years. I consider her book, With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs and Ceremonies in Pascua Village, to be one of the best sources on Yaqui belief and ceremonialism in Arizona and it is the source for most of the information in this essay.
While Yaqui matachinis have much in common with dances of the same name in other cultures, there are certain ways in which they stand out. In the first place, there are no masked clowns such as the viejos or awelos of other traditions. The dances appear to have no dramatic or narrative content. While the middle line of dancers consists of young boys dressed in skirts and called malinches, Yaquis make no connections between these and Doña Marina, Cortés’ interpreter. And for Yaquis, matachinis and their musicians are very sacred ritual performers. The matachinis seldom, if ever, dance at purely secular occasions, and ground over which matachinis have danced is blessed for the rest of time.
For Yaquis, matachinis are soldiers owing allegiance to the Virgin Mary. According to some legends, it was she who personally recruited them and had them dressed in accordance with her taste. When they dance, they do so before images of her and of San José, her husband. All parts of the matachini insinio (regalia) relate to her in some way. The red gourd rattles, the trident dance wand or palma with its tufts of colored feathers, and the crown with its multicolored paper streamers are all considered to be “flowers” in Yaqui thought. Flowers—and roses in particular—have long been associated with the Virgin, of course, but for many Yaquis their meaning goes even deeper. A Yaqui belief relates that, when Christ suffered on the cross, His blood fell to the ground and became flowers. “Flower,” then, is a kind of conceptual shorthand for the sacred, for blessings, for the grace of God.
The ceremonial labor of the matachinis is also called “flower.” Some Yaquis have said that at dawn, when the matachinis have fulfilled their allnight obligation to dance at a fiesta, the “flower” of their sacrifice is picked up by angels or by the Virgin, and stored in heaven as testimony on behalf of each participant. Having been notified by their kobanao or manager (usually an older man whose badge of office is a cane staff adorned with ribbons) that they are requested to dance at a fiesta, a wake, or some such sacred occasion, the matachinis arrive, dressed in their “good” shirts, trousers, and shoes. At the fiesta site, be it a community church or a private home, there will be a ramada sheltering an altar, and a wooden cross stuck in the ground some ways in front of it. The matachin regalia is left by this cross until it is time to put it on. The crown especially is considered sacred, and a dancer always puts a folded silk scarf on his head before putting on his crown, so that it doesn’t actually touch his head.
The men and boys dance in three files, with the head dance leader at the front of the middle file, and secondary leaders at the side files. Behind the leader in the middle file are the malinches— young boys who wear white skirts and embroidered blouses. They are future leaders in training.
The music for the matachinis is provided by violins and guitars. The musicians usually wear dark trousers and “good” shirts. Unlike the dancers, the musicians do not necessarily take vows. Due to the number of school mariachi programs in Tucson, many Yaqui youths are adept at both guitars and violins, and it appears that the music will continue indefinitely into the future. The music until recently has been passed on aurally. Different villages in the United States and in Sonora, Mexico, will have their own tunes or versions of tunes. The violins are often retuned in special ways at different times in the all-night ceremony, especially at midnight.
At the beginning of the fiesta, the musicians start playing, the dancers line up, and after giving his rattle a long shake to alert the other dancers, the dance leader starts to mark the time. He will then move into the first dance. There are over twenty different dances, each with its own music. As the all night fiesta progresses, the matachinis dance, often for an hour at a stretch, resting between dances. At some big fiestas such as Palm Sunday or Holy Saturday or the patronal village fiestas, the Maypole is wound and then unwound. The winding takes place at sundown or early in the evening, to a series of special tunes (sonim). The wrapped pole is allowed to stand all night, and then unwound next morning at dawn. This series of dances is very popular among Yaquis and other spectators. The fiesta ends by a sermon given by the head dance leader or by a maehto (lay prayer leader).
Matachinis dance at village and house fiestas, and at wakes—in fact whenever they are requested to dance, with one major exception: they do not dance during the forty days of Lent, except on the eve of Palm Sunday, and on Holy Saturday, when they also assist the church groups in their combat against evil. (Yaqui fiestas are celebrated on the vespers of the day in question, and typically last all night.) Once one has taken one’s vows and joined the matachinis, one is expected to serve by dancing when asked, often at short notice. Ideally, the vows are for life.