Historically, the danzas de los matachines were not one, but many. The matachines that I saw in Bernalillo, New Mexico, in August 1993 were different from, but visibly related to, those I saw in Picuris, San Juan, and Santa Clara pueblos in December 1994. The length of performance, the details of the dress, the style of the music, and the antics of the abuelos and the toro varied from one community to another. Most notably, the Santa Clara matachines danced to native drums, rather than to guitar and fiddle, and their malinche wore native dress rather than a European first communion dress. Nevertheless, the matachines of northern New Mexico all belong to a single dance tradition. If I am not mistaken, the Rar´muri matachines of Chihuahua, Mexico, belong to the same tradition.
The danzas de los matachines that I saw in Zacatecas, Mexico, in August 1996, belonged to a different dance tradition altogether. There was no monarca, no malinche, no story line. The choreography was simpler, the footwork more intricate. The music of the dance was entirely rhythmic, marked by a drummer, by each dancer's gourd rattle and percussive bow and arrow, and by the stamping of the dancers' feet. The viejos who kept the dancers in order were sometimes skilled comics; but, unlike the abuelos of northern New Mexico, they had no narrative role. The matachines from Aguascalientes that I saw dance outside the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City, in December 1998, also belonged to this tradition. So do most Texan matachines. Patterns of migration have taken this dance at least as far north as Kansas and as far south as Tlaxcala.
Where the two traditions meet, hybrid forms are developing. The matachines of Mesquite, a suburb of Dallas, dance as if they were in Zacatecas but dress as if they were in northern New Mexico. So do the matachines from Santa Clara and Durango, who combine the single drummer of one tradition with the fiddle of the other. Another form of hybridization in the border regions is the application of the name matachines to the increasingly popular, but unrelated, danzas aztecas.
The danza de los matachines of Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, bears no resemblance to any of these traditions. The Huajuapan matachines are lightweight, less dignified versions of Catalan gegants (giants). Their costumed wooden frames, topped with papier-mâché heads, double the height of the dancer, who peers out through a grille in the giant’s chest. The dancers individually cavort, whirl, and bow to the lively music of a large wind ensemble. Other communities in Oaxaca perform the same dance, but Huajuapan claims—in this context at least—to be the “cuna [cradle] de los matachines.”
Why do such different dances share a single name? The answer lies in the history of the name itself. From the moment that it first appeared in the written record, in sixteenth-century Italy, mattaccini was used as a generic European term for a wide variety of foreign, acrobatic, or otherwise strange dances.
The word’s first verifiable use is in Piero da Volterra’s Canzona de’ Mattaccini, an Italian carnival song written between 1530 and 1550, which portrays the mattaccini as lively fools, whose dance involves exaggerated (and sometimes obscene) postures, pratfalls, body blows, and dubious claims of agility and sexual prowess. A decade or so later, a late Italian saint’s play, the Rappresentazione di Santa Uliva, included an interlude of “four men dressed as mattaccini, with bells on their feet and drawn swords in their hands.” The word passed from Italian into French. In 1549, François Rabelais used the word matachins twice in an account of mock battles staged in Rome the previous year. First, he described “some matachins unfamiliar with the sea, who thought they could show off and fool around on water just as they do very well on land.” Later, he mentioned “a company of new matachins,” who, “to the sound of cornets, oboes, [and] sackbuts,” “greatly delighted the entire audience” with their comic antics. But the most complete sixteenth- century description of matachins, complete with music, dance steps, and gestures, is given in Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesography (1589). Arbeau’s matachins are not fools, but elegant sword dancers, “dressed in small corslets, with fringe epaulets and fringe hanging from beneath their belts over a silken ground. Their helmets are made of gilded cardboard, their arms are bare, and they wear bells upon their legs and carry a sword in the right hand and a shield in the left.”
A similar range of performers is designated by the Spanish word matachines. In 1559, Francisco de Alcocer called on all “good judges and governors” to “banish” the “matachines,” along with “similar inventions, childish dances, and comediettas that foreigners bring with them to make money off the common people.” At the other end of the social scale, a triumphal float that greeted the new queen, Anna of Austria, as she entered Burgos in October 1570, carried twelve matachines who performed “acrobatic feats of strength.” Subsequent Spanish descriptions of matachines include dances with wooden swords, equestrian ballet, tricks with fireworks, tightrope walkers, and dancers dressed as devils, wearing half-masks with long papiermâché noses or waving inflated animal bladders on sticks.
The fact that there is no record of the word mattaccin or any of its cognates in Europe before at least 1530 raises the possibility that it may have originated in an Italian mispronunciation of a Nahuatl word. Over the previous four decades, several groups of Native Americans had traveled to Europe. In Sevilla, in 1522, two Mexica danced for an audience that included several Italian dignitaries. One of the Italian visitors left a detailed account of the dances, which were evidently small-scale versions of the kind of Mexica dances that Bernardino de Sahagún and Francisco López de Gómara were soon to document in Mexico itself. We know of one Mexica dance called matlatzincayotl. Could this have been one of the dances performed in Sevilla and, if so, could one of the Italians have mispronounced the name when he took it back to Italy? In 1528, a group of about seventy native Mexicans, of whom nearly thirty were entertainers, arrived in Spain with Cortés. Two of the many dancers performed on their backs, tossing and catching a log with their feet (a dance that is still performed, I am told, near Chilapa, Guerrero). The two log dancers performed before the pope in Rome in April 1529. One of them was almost certainly called Benito Matatlaqueny. Could his name be the source of the mangled Italian mattacini, which so soon afterward was used to describe foreign dances and acrobatic tricks? Both derivations are speculative, of course, but they are no more so than many of the proposed European derivations of the name.
Of course, the word matachines may yet be shown to have European semantic roots. But even if that were the case, its use in the Americas to identify particular local dances would not mean that the dances themselves have European roots. The cultural identity of the various American danzas de los matachines must be determined on a case-by-case basis, not by their shared generic name. The Huajuapan matachines seem to me almost certainly European in origin. The Zacatecas matachines seem equally as certain to be native in origin. The origin of the matachines of northern New Mexico is more difficult to determine, given the frequent overlay of European dress, music, and narrative. But, if I were to guess, I would say that these, too, are of native American rather than imported European origin.