A Ritual Dance of the Indian Pueblos and Mexicano/Hispano Communities

            When I first saw the Matachines dance in the early 1980s after a long lapse since childhood, its poignant, enigmatic beauty compelled me to try to understand its history and meaning. My inquiry started at Taos Pueblo and worked its way slowly down the river to Las Cruces. For over a dozen years I watched and puzzled over performances at the Indian Pueblos of Taos, Picurís, San Juan, and Jemez, and the Hispano-Mexicano communities of Arroyo Seco, Alcalde, El Rancho, San Antonio, San Antonito, Bernalillo, and Tortugas. My effort resulted in the original publication of this book in 1996. The book won the 1997 Chicago Folklore Prize and the 1997 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. Gradually the edition sold out and the book went into university press limbo until happily, Sunstone Press decided to publish a new edition.
            Now, more than ten years later, the Matachines tradition in the Upper Rio Grande Valley appears as vital—and unfathomable—as ever. Returning to venues once scrutinized, I see subtle changes in surface details while the basic format remains the same. The power and fascination of the dance lies in how its basic plot gets played out with astonishing local and situational variation.
            The Matachines is the one ritual drama both Pueblo Indian and Hispano communities perform in the Upper Rio Grande Valley. Some dance it in midwinter, others in summer. Style and detail vary widely from place to place, but common elements define a distinctive regional complex that stretches between Taos in the north and Tortugas in the south. There, a symbolic battle of transformation is enacted in several musical and choreographic sets by a king and a young girl, a bull, usually two clowns, and two lines of eight or ten danzantes or soldiers. Many will tell you the dance portrays the triumph of good over evil, the holy virgin’s conversion of the pagan king. Others allude to a spiritual marriage. Another reading finds a hidden transcript of reconquest and resistance against foreign invaders. The intricacy of each movement, the ritual precision of every gesture, paradoxically engender the dance’s ambiguous, elusive message.
            Encounter, struggle, and transformation between light and dark forces is a story for all times and places, whether medieval Spain, sixteenth century Mexico, or New Mexico today. I wonder if the old theme of Christian-Moorish struggle will assume fresh significance in the military aftermath of 9/11 and the many changes in the American political climate. The Matachines remains a vibrant and cherished tradition in New Mexico because it resonates on so many levels at once: personal, spiritual, aesthetic, interethnic, collective, historic, geopolitical. One can watch or dance it five hundred times and never arrive at a fixed, authoritative account of what it means. Familiar though it be, every time people perform the dance something new happens.
      —Sylvia Rodríguez
      January 2009