Tuesday, May 31, 2011


This post began while watching the festivities surrounding “el dia de conquista” in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The Aztec dancers were the centre of attraction as noted in a previous post , but there were two groups of dancers who seemed to be attached to churches outside the city of San Miguel and their banners declared them as dancers celebrating the conquest. Later in the day I happened to see one of these groups getting on their bus and noted the sign on the back of the bus stating that they were “Matlachines”. So who are the Matlachines?

To complicate matters dance groups referred to as Matlachines are called Matachines in nothern Mexico and the southern USA where they have been heavily studied. According to Max Harris the term matachines appeared in Italy prior to the conquest of New Spain were it referred to groups of entertainers performing acrobatic acts and dance. If this is so, the term may have been brought to Mexico by the Spanish but the dance the term refers to was originally a form of the dance of the Moors and Christians, a dance of conquest and conversion. However, shortly after the Spanish conquest they took Aztec dancers to Spain and perhaps it was there that they took on the name of Matachines. The sequence of events and the naming are difficult to understand clearly. The Moors are apparent in current dances in New Mexico among pueblo Indians but the primary roles are a young girl playing Malinche and a man playing Motecuzoma, the Aztec emperor (there are also two men dressed as women referred to as “abuelas” (grandmothers) but playing a role similar to that of clowns). Malinche is commonly known as the mistress of Cortes who played a role in the Spanish conquest through her work as interpreter. But in this dance Malinche is the wife or daughter of Motecuzoma. According to Harris the term Malinche may well be a version of Maria (Mary, mother of Jesus) in the native language and her role is to encourage Motecuzoma to convert to Christianity and to return from the dead to reconquer the country. In this reading the dance is one of subversion and driving out the foreigners who are represented by a toro who in the end is castrated. In all of the dances I believe the majority of the dancers represent soldiers, but not Spanish soldiers. They represent Aztec soldiers or native soldiers and they represent the possibility of reconquest.
In the Pueblo Indian communities that dance makes no reference to Christianity or to conversion but it entirely focused on resistance against the foreigner, in this case the Mexicans who now share their land. Although the same dance is performed in Mexican communities the focus is much more on Christianity and conversion with little or no elements of subversion. While this may be true I am unclear as to why the Mexican communities would not be more like the Pueblo Indian communities - they have both suffered conquest, intrusion and dominance and the loss of an earlier heritage. Why would the Mexicans so innocently accept their conversion? Harris himself shows that in other dances the Mexican communities do show subversion and resistance.

In Central Mexico the dance is referred to as “Matlachines” and again according to Harris this name appears in a pre-conquest Aztec combat dance celebrating their victory over a group called Matlatzinca. One can image that it was easy for the Spanish to attach their dances of defeat of the Moors on to a dance like this and for some people to retain the original name.
Now back to what I did see. In San Miguel both groups of Matlachines wore feathered headresses which looked like they were using feather dusters as the materials. Their faces were uncovered and they wore beaded clothing, making them look quite “Indian”. The dance was clearly a half conquest dance although there were elements of combat. The 12-15 dancers arranged themselves in two lines and did some weaving in and out and moving in two elipses with each line returning to its original position. They each carried machetes in one dance and performed a mock battle at times. I saw no evidence of other role players however. The second group did not use machetes but carried a small bow and arrow in one hand and a rattle in the other. Their banners identified their home church, an image of Guadalupe as well as a statement about the day of conquest.

I have seen other dances which reveal some similar elements. In Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan, on the return of the black Jesus images from a long pilgrimage the “Arqueros” perform for the fiesta. These dances have large Indian headresses sewn onto their capes, carry small bows and arrows, small crowns with coloured feathers and dance in a very rapid and highly choreographed fashion. While there are leaders for each line of dancers there do not seem to be other roles, except perhaps for young boys dressed as skeletons or devils playing the role of entertainer or crowd control. A friend also showed videos taken in La Penita on the west coast at a festival for St. Patrick in which there were lines of dancers dressed like Indians, with a different group coming from surrounding communities each day. I have also seen a group of performers engaged as entertainers in brightly coloured costumes including bright feathered headress and matching tunics and skirt with long pieces of plastic bead hanging from the edges of clothing.
Unfortunately the Matachines dances of New Mexico have more thoroughly studied that those in central Mexico where, according to Harris, the dance began before traveling north.

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