Understanding Los Matachines

Larry Torres

The dance-drama of los Matachines is an ancient tradition in the Hispanic Southwest. It is one of the very few dances shared by both Hispanic and Native peoples. Its roots can trace their influences back to the Middle Ages in Europe and at the same time, find New World influences included within their scope. Just as the sites where the dance-drama is produced are different, the 44 catalogued versions in the Americas also span places as far-flung as Pueblo in the State of Colorado and the deep rainforests of Belize. Taking a look at the Old World influences, many have remarked that the costumes worn by the dance participants are tremendously influenced by the Moorish culture. It must be remembered that the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula between the years 711-1492 A.D. Each dancer is appropriately masked with scarves hiding the lower part of their faces with fringe, called fleco, masking their foreheads and eyes.

The heads of the Matachines are surmounted by tall headdresses made of costly fabrics such as velvet and silk. These cupiles are decorated with silk ruffle borders and jeweled trinkets and symbols. From the back of the headdresses hang long silk ribbons arranged in patterns pleasing to the eye.

The masking of the hand is continued with many scarves that bedeck the dancers. Held within the right hand is a three-pronged wand called a palma. It represents the Trinitarian belief that God is one and three at the same time. In the Old World, St. Patrick explained it by holding the triple-leafed shamrock out to the Druids. In the New World it is reflected as the triune god Quetzalcoatl of Mexico who is lord of the air, lord of the land, and lord of the water at the same time.

In the Old World los Matachines found themselves reflected in the Italian commedia dell’arte as mattachinos. The people of England would certainly recognize their own beribboned "Morris Dancers" as "Moorish Dancers."

As los Matachines became an increasingly popular dance, much symbolism was attributed to them. They were made figures to be seen only during feast days or during mid-winter mumming rituals. New Mexico scholars such as the late Fray Angélico Chávez however, ask us to consider the possibility that los Matachines was originally merely a form of social dance.

Be the case as it may, it is known that the oldest unbroken tradition of dancing los Matachines can be traced to the town of Bernalillo, New Mexico, where they have been performed for 315 years straight. According to many references, the citizens of Bernalillo made a promise when they returned to their homes after The Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, that if their patron saint San Lorenzo were to keep them safe, they would dance in his honor every year. Other scholars who have studied the dance have suggested that los Matachines is a homoerotic dance, that is, a dance done by men, for men, since female figures were not originally part of the dance. Just as female societies guarded their secrets, even so did men’s secret societies guard their own. The only female figure in the dance, an ogress called la Perejundia, was always played by a man dressed as a woman. In this way the figure was assured of having both the strength of the man and the power of the woman.

As the history of the dance unfolded among the indigenous tribes of the New World, more symbolism was added to it. The ancient ogres called Abuelos, were brought in to keep order in the dance as well as to call out the movements to the dancers. They played the role of dance monitors called bastoneros. Part of their duties also included keeping the dancers' ribbons nicely arranged and keeping the spectators out of the arena. As the Abuelos took on the traits of trickster figures, they also teased the sacrificial bull of the dance.

The bull is called el Toro while he is dancing and el Capeo whenever he is ritually castrated. He must bow low before the chief dancer called “Monarca” among the Spanish and “Monanca” among the Tiwa Natives. Monarca is easily recognized as he is the only dancer who wears solid white. It is only after the bull is felled that the ogress Perejundia will fall on the floor at his side and give birth to a newborn abuelito who will then become the spirit of the dance the following year. Whenever this happens, los Matachines can be interpreted as a fertility rite.

In looking at Native influences on the Dance of los Matachines, it must first be noted that the participants, whose numbers vary according to their interpretations, carry masked rattles in their left hands. The rattles are highly decorated gourds. To this may be added the notion that they also gird their waists with loincloths called tapa-rabos. The loincloths are decorated with ritual symbols known only to the dancers. About their lower shins, they wear fancy leggings.

The newest addition to the dance-drama is the little girl figure called la Malinche. Her name stems from the ancient records that say that she was the paramour of the conquistador Hernán Cortés. In fact, in Belize los Matachines is known as “The Dance of Cortés” according to full-blooded Maya Native, Victor Choc. Again, the symbolism attached to la Malinche depends on her interpretation. In Belize there are four Malinches who dance. In Bernalillo there are three. In Jemez there are two. In Arroyo Seco, there is only one. Depending on how she is seen, she can represent the waxing, full, and waning moon or the dawn, full day, and the dusk. In the village of Tortugas she is the spirit of purity and she often wears attributes belonging to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The music of los Matachines may vary in tenor and speed. It is usually done with guitar and violin among the Spanish villages and with ritual drum and rattle in Native villages. But what people watching the dance will remark upon the most is that it is a fine example of how the differences among people can serve more as a means of unifying everyone than of dividing us.