The Matachines is the only ritual drama that both Pueblo Indian and Hispano communities perform in the Upper Río Grande Valley. Some perform the dance in midwinter, others in summer. Style and detail vary widely from place to place, but common elements define a distinctive regional complex that stretches between Taos in the north and Tortugas in the south. There, a symbolic battle of transformation is enacted in several musical and choreographic sets by a king and a young girl, a bull or toro, usually two clowns or abuelos (lit. “grandfathers”), and two lines of eight or ten danzantes, thought by some to represent soldiers. The festive air of the dance carries a subtle undertone of violence that culminates in the death and/or castration of the bull. Many locals will tell you the dance portrays the triumph of good over evil, the holy virgin’s conversion of the pagan king. Others allude to a spiritual marriage. Another reading finds a hidden transcript of native regeneration and resistance against foreign invaders. The complex intricacy of every dance set and ritual gesture suggests a clear message that nonetheless remains elusive. The power of the dance lies in how its basic plot gets played out with such astonishing variation, each locality imparting its own distinctive stamp.
Some scholars trace the Matachines to the morisca, a dance said to have originated in Medieval Spain in the twelfth century or earlier as a pantomime of Moorish-Christian combat. Catholic missionaries to the New World saw their encounter with Indians through the eight-hundred-year-old glass of Moro-Cristiano conflict. Fresh from Spain’s Reconquista and fortified with the power of Inquisition, they deployed the dance and similar forms as a vehicle for Christianizing Indian converts. No one knows precisely when or how the Río Grande Pueblos incorporated the dance into their ritual calendar, but we assume this signaled their conversion to Christianity. The Matachines dance commemorates this bittersweet change in all its ambivalent, poignant beauty.
Some Pueblos attribute the dance not to church fathers like their Hispano neighbors, but to a Mexican-Indian king, identified in the dance as the figure of Monarca or Montezuma. He is dressed and masked like the danzantes, with a palma or trident in his left hand and a guaje or rattle in the right, but he wears a crown instead of a cupil or miter. Monarca is paired with the little girl, known as Malinche, who wears a first Holy Communion dress. She is the only female character and the only dancer with no mask, an embodiment of purity and innocence who stands in puzzling contrast with the historic personage (Hernán Cortés’ translator and mistress) known in Mexico by the same name. The Abuelos escort her in her meanderings between the two lines of danzantes and oversee her intricate exchange with Monarca of his palma and guaje. One clown carries a whip or chicote and sometimes the other is an edgy transvestite called la Perejundia. They call out the dance steps and wrestle the bull to the ground to castrate him, and then offer up his mock testicles to the audience. The musicians, usually a guitarist and violinist, play the tunes for each set as well as for the procession that opens and closes every hour-long performance.
Encounter, struggle, and transformation between light and dark forces is a story for all times and places, whether Medieval Spain, sixteenth century Mexico, or New Mexico today. In 2008, one wonders if the old theme of Christian-Moorish struggle will resonate anew in the aftermath of 9/11. The Matachines remains a vibrant tradition in New Mexico because it resonates on so many levels at once: personal, somatic, spiritual, aesthetic, interethnic, communal, historic, geopolitical. One can watch or dance it five hundred times and never arrive at a fixed, authoritative account of what it means. Familiar though it is, something new happens every time people dance the Matachines.