First a home to Indigenous peoples for more than 8,000 years, then a Spanish territory, then a Mexican territory, then a part of the United States, New Mexico is an entangled web of culture. The town of Bernalillo is a perfect example, wedged between Sandia and Santa Ana Pueblo, bisected by the Rio Grande, and a stone’s throw from the ever-expanding Albuquerque. And yet, Bernalillo has maintained its own identity and community—a cornerstone of which is the Matachines dance.
Matachín dancing was brought over the Atlantic by the Spanish to convert Native Americans to Christianity, but it is believed to have ties to the Spanish’s clash with the Moors. The dance not only tells stories and histories but also brings them to life. In the Southwest and Mexico, it tells the story of the first Christian conversions among the Aztec. It intertwines past, present, and the physical body in an act that transcends dance as many think of it. As a form of religious observance, it is also an incredibly personal experience.
For some people—like Joseph Moreno, a Bernalillo Matachines historian and performer of the last eighteen years—the dance is really everything.
“It’s not something that we just participate in, in the summer months,” he said during a phone interview. “It’s much bigger than just me or my family. It’s our community and a tradition that, after a while, it just becomes who you are. History, religion, culture wraps up into our identity.”
An Introduction to the Bernalillo Matachines
The Bernalillo Matachines have two dance groups, each with five key roles played within:
- The Monarca, or the leader, is believed to resemble Moctezuma.
- The Malinche, sometimes referred to as the virgin, represents purity and helps guide the Monarca to Christianity. In Bernalillo, the Malinche is portrayed by a young girl.
- The Toro, or bull, is a representation of evil or sin.
- The Abuelo, or elder, is usually a comical character and sometimes referred to as “the clown.” However, in Bernalillo, this character is more serious to reflect the solemn religious nature of the dance.
- Matachines refer to the twelve dancers who typically dance in two lines of six. These lines are called the fila (line or queue) which the other characters join, abandon, or lead throughout the dance.
See a video about the Matachines produced by the Smithsonian in 2007.
The dance, or la danza, is comprised of nine individual dances broken into two acts. It varies from up-tempo music with characters constantly weaving in and out of the fila and arches to slower moments like the “Cuadrilla de la Malinche” (Malinche group dance) in which the music slows as the Malinche is converted to Christianity and eventually helps convert the Monarca as well. The two are at risk of the Toro who chases them, portraying the battle between Christianity and Paganism. But Christianity prevails, and the rest of the fila converts in the seventh and eighth dances with upbeat music and joyous dancing. Finally, everyone is invited to dance in the ninth and final set: “La Patadita” or “Bailada de las Promesas” (Promise Dance).
While the dance doesn’t change much from year to year, Moreno said that the performers review video footage of the dance from the 1970s to “capture part of the old or ‘original’ way we would dance” and resurrect it.
The Matachines dance was originally brought to Bernalillo following a period of exile. In 1680, neighboring Sandia Pueblo warned the town that they, and other Pueblo people, were planning a revolt against the Spanish but wanted to spare Bernalillo, with whom they had good relations. The townspeople fled 240 miles south to El Realito de San Lorenzo, a town now absorbed into present-day El Paso. While in exile, they adapted San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) as their own patron saint and learned the local Matachines dance. In 1693, they brought both back to Bernalillo. Residents made a promesa, or promise, to hold the San Lorenzo Fiesta every August 10, marking San Lorenzo’s feast day and the anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt as thanks for their safekeeping during their exile and as a hope for future safety.
On top of this promise, each individual dancer makes their own personal promesa to God, asking San Lorenzo to intercede for them while they dance in his honor. They make promesas for a range of other reasons, like keeping loved ones safe or honoring their ancestors. Often, they promise to dance for many years. Moreno originally promised ten years.
“You can see, I’ve gone beyond that,” he said. “The reason I continue to dance is to make sure that the next generation that takes it and makes it their own continues to do it the way we did, so that there is continuity.”
Bernalillo’s Matachines have made a point of continuously engaging young folks in the practice. People can become a danzante, or dancer, as young as fourteen since roles like the Malinche and tambores (drums) are reserved for young people.
“Every year we get a handful of new people, youngsters who want to participate. Part of that is because of the importance that Matachín dancing holds to the Bernalillo community but also within individual families,” Moreno said. “There are many, many families in Bernalillo who have generations who have participated. So your great-grandfather danced, then your grandfather danced, your father danced, and now it is your turn to continue on that tradition.”
From Bernalillo to Washington, D.C.
So far, the Bernalillo community has ensured the survival of this dance at the San Lorenzo Fiesta, now going on its 326th consecutive year. In that time, the tradition struggled and succeeded, undergoing major changes along the way. During wartime, they struggled to rally enough men to participate. According to oral tradition, Moreno reported that the people from Sandia Pueblo were asked to fill empty spots in the fila, opening the dance to non-Hispanics. By 1977, the first women were allowed to dance in the fila.
“Today about half of the dance group are women. They are crucial to the continuance of our dance.”
In the 1970s, the dance group was undergoing a larger change, becoming more serious as a wave of nuevo mexicano pride took over Bernalillo—“where we were reverting to our past and recreating our present based on that past,” Moreno described. “You see the doubling of that group. You also see some positions becoming more dignified. There are instances of clowning in Matachines, and you see that disappear in Bernalillo. You also see us change our attire… to make it look uniform.”
Click on the photo above to view full slideshow
In 1992 and 2000, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage invited the Bernalillo Matachines to dance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for programs on New Mexico and El Río, respectively. While Moreno was not involved, he has heard stories from those who were.
“From what I hear, it was an honor to be recognized as the community that has such an awesome tradition. It was just a great experience for those participants. Some of them had never been outside of Bernalillo, but they went for this.”
In 2003, the Center built on the relationships in Bernalillo to create the El Río traveling exhibit, reflecting the important interplay between traditional knowledge, sustainable environment, and cultural identity of the people in the Southwest and Mexico. The Bernalillo community made a Matachines dance costume for the exhibit, which is now a part of the Center’s Material Culture Collection.
The Matachín Costume
Uniformity is part of what makes Bernalillo’s Matachines visually distinctive from other groups. Each dancer wears a costume consisting of black pants and a white top, two handkerchiefs (one covering the face and one tied to the elbow), a shawl pinned and draped over the back, a cupil (headdress), a rattle held in the right hand, and a palma (“palm,” also referred to as a trident) in the left, a symbol of the Holy Trinity often associated with San Lorenzo.
The cupil conceals the individual identity of the dancer, with the exception of a prominently displayed religious icon upon the front, with whom the dancer shares a personal and oftentimes profound relationship. In this way, the cupil is highly personal. The costume donated to the Center includes a cupil depicting San Lorenzo.
“We try to take care of them as much as we can because they’re sacred to us,” Moreno said, reflecting on his own cupil, the second he has had made for himself in his eighteen years of dancing.
It takes roughly two weeks for an experienced maker to create one cupil. To keep everyone looking identical, there are no “family secrets” and the designs are shared among makers, the assembly learned through observation. Although once made from cardboard—which is susceptible to sweat, rain, and movement—people now cut up plastic trash cans to use as a base. Dancers select a colorful array of ribbons that flow from the back of the headdress to their legs.
The Bernalillo Matachines are more than happy to share this tradition.
“It’s a devotion to our patron saint, and we have no problems showcasing this to people because it is such a beautiful tradition that we want to share,” Moreno said. “When people start asking questions, that’s a good thing, because we are promoting one of the oldest Hispanic traditions in America.”
The 2019 Fiesta and Beyond
The Bernalillo Matachines are currently in the thick of preparing for the San Lorenzo Fiesta, which begins on August 9. Practices begin in June, working with the young Malinches on the dance routine. Weekly Sunday rehearsals for the whole ensemble start in July. On that first Sunday, they also participate in an important tradition of joining the San Lorenzo icons from three of the oldest Bernalillo neighborhoods. By August they meet daily, and it’s an important time for Moreno and the Matachines.
“The night before the Fiesta happens, we get all the dancers and their families and go to our Santuario de San Lorenzo. It’s this old church that was built in the 1800s dedicated to San Lorenzo. We have a PowerPoint presentation and guest speakers that I bring in, just to say, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s why we do certain things, here’s why we don’t do things.’ It’s also a way for us to bring in people who have since retired and have a unique experience they can talk about. It’s really an internal thing, but it’s really beautiful.”
Moreno is once again dancing and giving a presentation on the Matachines for the town and tourists. However, this year, Moreno’s relatives also have the privilege of hosting a santo, or saint, in their home. While hosting the santo, the family has to make the icon accessible to anyone who would like to pay their respects at all hours of the day. This year, they expect the home to be quite busy as the fiesta falls on a weekend. Current residents of Bernalillo and tourists will be attending, but many people will also be coming home.
“Every year people go off and have jobs all over the world,” Moreno said. “But on August 9, 10, 11, there are so many family reunions that happen because people feel this is important enough.”
Moreno is optimistic that this tradition will continue. And he knows that he will help facilitate that continuity.
“It’s important to honor our ancestors who have gone before us, and my eighteen years are small compared to the amount of years that we have performed this dance. A lot of our traditions, we’ve lost. The language, we have almost lost it. But this, we haven’t. So I think it just shows the importance of it in the community to ensure its survival.”
Emily Lew is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage focusing on the Material Culture Collection. She is currently pursuing her MA in anthropology at George Washington University. She previously lived in Albuquerque while working for the National Park Service and fell in love with New Mexico’s many foods, cultures, and dances.