This post is a third or fourth attempt to describe the Conchero (or Aztec) dancers of Mexico. (To see my earlier post go to Aztec Dance.) I have just read Susanna Rostas’s book on the Conchero dancers -Carrying the Word- and looked particularly at the historical section where she attempts to give an idea of where these dancers came from. The book itself is a marvel in that it gives the reader a very good sense of the difficulty of understanding any dance in Mexico. They all must have a long and complicated history and as the dancers themselves were preliterate (her term) it is difficult to get to the bottom of anything. I have also been reading Ruth Hellier-Tinoco’s book on the viejito dancers of Michoacán which focuses on the way this dance was appropriated by the state for nation building purposes during the 1920s. It leaves the reader with a profound sense of the complexity of understanding. The centuries of preliteracy with a few written words by Spanish priests of Rostas’ book turns to a detailed examination of documents and interviews in Hellier-Tinoco’s book and you come away thinking: “how can we understand anything”.
Having said that, this post is an attempt to review the section of Rostas’s book which focuses on the history of Conchero dancers, primarily chapter 9 titled “Oral tradition, Myth and History”. This is a difficult chapter to read so here I pull out what I believe to be the essence of the chapter.
The concheros themselves have a founding myth which places their beginnings in the Bajio region of Mexico: a region to the North West of Mexico City best known today by the cities of San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and as far south as northern Michoacán. The myth describes a battle between the Spanish and the Chichemaca Indians in which Santa Cruz (essentially the Holy Cross of Christendom) and Santiago (the patron saint of Spain and Mexico) appeared during the heat of battle; the Chichimecas put down their arms and converted to Christianity. They demanded that a cross be raised and they danced around it for days. One of the songs of the Concheros continues to make reference to this newly erected cross and the battle. There is also a document prepared by a Spanish priest (probably in 1744) which recounts a version of this story. What is significant about the story is that it gives the dance of the Concheros a Catholic origin, making the dance Christian rather than indigenous. It also locates the dance outside of the domain of the Aztecs. Having said that, it is not at all clear exactly what the dance was.
If the above story has any truth it might suggest that the dance itself is a version of the dance of the Christians and Moors, a dance introduced by the Spanish as a tool in their conversion of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. There is a 1643 document which described a version of the dance of the Moors (performed for the celebration of Santa Cruz) in the state of Michoacán which describes the various roles of the dancers. These roles were probably standard roles of the confraternities established by the Spanish as a way to ensure the continuity of dances. It is significant that these roles (and terms) are still used by the Concheros today. Over time confraternities gradually diminished in Mexico and became more like secret societies. Until quite recently the Concheros themselves were family based organizations which one had to be born into. More recently one could be invited but a large number of the groups are still primarily family based.
In the 18th century the state attempted to block the publication of documents which might praise the Aztec past. After the revolution of 1810 Catholicism became the legal religion of Mexico but by the mid-eighteenth century attempts were made to prohibit public celebrations around carnival for fear of riots. In 1828 a law was passed making clandestine meetings punishable. In 1857 Benito Juarez led an attack on the church by removing property and limitings is powers. All of this eliminated confraternities or drove them underground until the end of the century when an attempt was made to heal the rift between church and state and once again pilgrimages were allowed to the sacred site of Guadalupe. What is important about this 100 year period were three things: the attempt to diminish public dances (although probably mostly in large urban areas), the weakening of the church and the virtual disappearance of confraternities. Although there were exceptions, the Conchero dancers went underground or disappeared but the confraternity aspect of the dancer groups remained (things such as looking out for the needs of its members).
The turn of the century (1900) brought with it rapid urbanization as many from the countryside migrated to Mexico City; among those migrants were Conchero dancers and their confraternities which had survived. But another revolution led to laws making public dances illegal and all of this led to the period of the Cristeros (those attempting to re-establish the church). President Camacho (1940 to 1945) was to declare himself a Catholic and the image of Guadalupe was brought out of hiding and placed in a refurbished Basilica. Slowly, public dances gained importance and the umbrella of religious organization prevailed. Two others things were going on at this time which impacted the indigenous population and the Concheros.
The first was the attempt to create a national identity. After 1910 it became important to establish a national identity for Mexicans and the Indians were to play a part in this. Although it is too simple to claim that prior to this the society had been racist, a new interest was shown in the Indians with an effort to document their history and cultures. Although there was still an interest in the assimilation of the indigenous peoples, for their own good of course, it was believed that the past could establish a sense of what it meant to be Mexican. (For a marvelous account of this period in Michoacán see the 2011 book by Ruth Hellier-Tonico, Embodying Mexico: Tourism, Nationalism and Politics.) There was ambivalence in this of course as it was difficult to study and identify with the past and not see the numerous examples of living cultures.
The second was the reorganization of the Concheros. Starting in the late 19th century a standard was raised in Mexico City (a standard is the banner the group carries and states their founding date among other things). Then in 1920 an attempt was made to develop an organization of Conchero dancers - in fact two such organizations appeared - and for the next 40 years these brought the past forward and provided the vehicle for the stability and spread of the dance in Mexico. However, by 1960 the family or confraternity basis of these organizations began to give way and new members were invited in. It was at this time that a renewed interest in the Aztec past appeared and this climaxed in the 1992 celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of North America. At this time it became increasingly clear that the Conchero dancers were no longer primarily a Catholic and spiritual organization and the Aztec style was fully entrenched. In short, the Mexica dancers became fully established and the Conchero dancers, while still spiritual, took on Aztec dress styles.
My apologies to professor Rostas for any errors made in this attempt to make a (somewhat) coherent story of a vast array of events.
Readers may also want to check out the article by Arnoldo Carols Vento - Aztec Conchero Dance Tradition: Historic, Religious and Cultural Significance. Wicazo Sa Review
Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 59-64
And, Martha Stone's 1975 book At the Sign of Midnight: The Conchero Dance Cult of Mexico.
Photo Number 2958
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