Sunday, May 1, 2011


For the second time in three years we visited San Miguel de Allende for the dance of the conquest (el dia de conquista) which features about 200 hundred Aztec dancers and a few Matlachines. This is the only Aztec dance that I have actually seen (although a small group dances annually in Patzcuaro and I have seen 3-4 dancers in Cucucho. Historically earlier, and of more interest, are those dances depicting the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez and the Spanish as well as a similar dances referred to as the Malinches or Matlachines performed as often in southwest USA as in Mexico, la danza de los Moros and Cristianos and la danza de la pluma. This group of dances depict combat and conquest and with role playing there is a great deal of room for symbolism and hidden messages. Max Harris provides some exceptional examples of acts of resistance in these dances and I will return to this in a subsequent post. However, more often the Aztecs, Matachines and Moros have been lifted from these combat dances and perform on their own at events honouring a patron saint or celebrations of conquest. These dances with only one side participating so to speak are referred to as “media conquista” (half conquest). One wonders how these groups became isolated from the larger dance and I at least speculate that the church had some influence on this as the full dances often carried an undertone of resistance to the conquest, even after 500 years. What has puzzled me in watching the “media conquista” dances is the celebration of Christian conquest of Mexico. But, if one sees this against the full dance, although seldom performed in most parts of the nation, there is the possibility that in the minds of the dancers they are presenting a tribal view of the world as well as the “hidden transcripts” which are implied by the full dance. The past rector of the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City was born in Quiroga, Michoacan and for at least 5 years returned to participate in the dance of the Moors (the half dance) on the day of the town’s patron Saint. His account is of interest: he returned each year because he saw the dance as a way to bridge the conflict between the Indian part of the community and the mestizo part. This would seem to be an excellent occasion for the Indian community to show resistance but if there is any it is not apparent, perhaps drowned out by the shear number of participants or by respect for the rector. Also, one can imagine that it is the mestizo community that organizes events and occupies important positions.

Now, however, let’s turn briefly to the Aztecas. Harris distinguishes between Los Aztecas and Los Concheros along class lines - the Concheros typically being dancers of a lower class and putting the concha shell (actually in the form of a guitar made from the shell of an armadillo) more at the centre of the dance. Los Aztecs by contrast are more middle class and give no significance to the concha and place the drum at the centre of the dance. Los Aztecas can be found on almost any day in the Zocalo of Mexico City where drumming goes on for hours and people dance with or without costume. The costumes consist of men in loin cloths and vests and with enough feathers in their head gear to frighten birds for miles. All fabrics are embroidered with what one immediately imagines as Aztec designs. They wear small bells on their feet and to the deafening rhythm of the drums dance for hours at a time. Although billed as el dia de conquista, what is really going on here?

Max Harris provides some useful insights based on his observations of the dance in Mexico City.
“The danzas aztecas are self-conscious attempts, as many participants told me, to revive ‘the dances of our [Aztec] ancestors’. They are far from authentic. .. The urban mestizo’s ideas abut his Aztec ancestors are culled as much from popular films, posters, newspapers, and magazines - and from Hollywood representations of Native Americans - as they are from the ancient codices and subsequent scholarship. To put it unkindly, the danzas aztecas resemble a cross between a Plains Indians powwow and the gaudy fantasies of a Las Vegas costume designer. The performers are not living tradition bearers but escapees from the alienation of daily routine to a world of ‘invented ethnicity’”. (Carnival and other Christian Festivals. 2003: 54-55)

Unkind indeed, but Harris goes further. Commenting on the fact that the danzas aztecas take up much performance space and make a great deal of noise, they attract large audiences and drown out the indigenous dancers often present at public events. He says the following:
Urban Mexican contempt for the cultural products of unsophisticated rural Indians marginalized real Indians in the name of a romantic, middle-class vision of Mexico’s indigenous past. ... In the danzas aztecas, urban mestizos defiantly assert the value of a native heritage they despise in the flesh of their Indian neighbors. (2003:55)

This is rather blunt but after being a witness to a large scale dance, I believe there are elements of truth in his claims. Many of the dancers carry a very obvious urban “paunch” and one worries about their health during the vigorous dancing. Further, the smaller groups of dancers who look more “indian” are relegated to small corners of the pubic plaza.

Please see my post for February 2012 in which I re-describe the Aztec dance for an improved interpretation.  Click here for my most recent words on this.

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