Los Matachines is one of the more colorful ethnic dances of Northern New Mexico, and it is one of the least understood.
Often it is performed around Christmastime at Indian Pueblos, but its origin is quite old and comes to the region via Spain.
Here at Taos Pueblo it will be performed on Christmas Day (Dec. 25), starting around mid-day. It is not often done here, appearing every few years or so in place of the tribe's traditional Deer Dance.
Matachines will also be performed at Picuris Pueblo in southern Taos County at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve and at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Christmas Day.
Visitors to Taos Pueblo for the annual bonfires and Procession of the Virgin on Christmas Eve will likely get their first glimpse of the dancers, adorned in tall mitre-like beribboned headdresses, vests, cowboy boots and holding palmas and rattles.
They will follow the canopied statue in procession through the village plaza shortly after dusk, accompanied by loud rifle shots and the singing of hymns and prayers. In among them will be a little girl dressed in white. She is known as La Malinche.
Former Taos Pueblo Gov. Ruben Romero is in charge of organizing this year's performance. He will be conducting practice starting early this week and making sure each participant knows their part.
The last time Matachines was performed in Taos was about five years ago; Picuris does it just about every year.
The Matachines, just as it does for the Deer Dance, is chosen by the tribal council, which decided it a recent meeting after recognizing that it hadn't been done in quite a while, Romero said. "The elders took part in it and really enjoyed doing it," he said of past performances.
One of the more curious aspects of this dance to the uninformed observer is the fact that although this dance is Hispanic in origin, it is performed by Native people, along with a few Hispanic participants. The distinctive fiddle and guitar music is obviously non-Native and the regalia is certainly not that of ancient Pueblo Indian tradition.
According to historians, the dance evolved over hundreds of years, starting with the Moors and borrowed by Spanish colonists who brought it with them to the New World. By the time the dance made its way into New Mexico, it is thought that Spanish priests used it to help convert Native people to Christianity by illustrating spiritual ideals through its essential morality play.
Over time, like many things here, an assimilation took place, blending elements from both cultures that resulted in the performance taking on a life of its own.
While many Pueblo Indians here follow the Catholic religion, they also maintain extreme loyalty to their ancient Native religion, evidence that the initial motive behind the dance was not entirely successful.
However, because this dance comes to us now as a blend of two seemingly opposing traditions, it remains one of those Southwestern anomalies that scholars continue to puzzle over.
Romero said when he was very young he remembers how men from the Pueblo would sometimes borrow vests and other non-Indian accoutrement from Hispanic friends in town.
"Now, of course, they purchase their own," he said, which can be rather expensive, especially now when the economy is so bad. "It's pretty hard on some of the people," he acknowledged, "even for the tribe. But, every year, they put money aside. They made a budget to cover some of the expense just in case this kind of dance does come up during Christmas."
In the version of the dance he teaches, Romero said there are 12 main dancers, one of each of the apostles, six chosen from the north side of the village and six from the south.
Also, there is the "Malonca (Monarca), which represents Joseph and the little girl (Malinche) represents Saint Mary."
According to a description at www.newmexico.org, the main characters are "El Monarca, the monarch (representative of Montezuma); the captains (Montezuma's main generals); La Malinche, or Malintzin, the Indian mistress of Hernán Cortés; El Toro, the bull, the malevolent comic man of the play is dressed in buffalo skins with buffalo horns on his head."
"Characters also include Abuelo, the grandfather, and Abuela, the grandmother. The Matachines dance portrays the desertion of his people by Montezuma, Malinche luring him back with her wiles and smiles, the final reunion of king and people and the killing of El Toro, who is supposed to have made all the mischief. The most basic symbol of the dance is good versus evil, with good prevailing. Montezuma and la Malinche represent good, and the bull represents mischief. Hernán Cortés, represents Satan or evil."
Before him, Pueblo elder Bobby Lujan was in charge of training each new group of dancers, Romero said. "From him I learned the sequences and patterns for how the dance is done. That's what i still carry on."
The musicians typically are Hispanic men hired from town. Two of the most memorable for older Pueblo residents were Adolfo Frésquez and Tranquilino Lucero, who at one time even recorded their Matachines songs during the 1950s or '60s in association with music archivist Jenny Vincent.
Indian House Records of Arroyo Seco is preparing to release a CD of the album, which before was only available in a rarely found audio cassette, according to Tony Isaacs of Indian House. Watch for it soon in area stores.
This year's fiddle and guitar will be played by Fred Cárdenas and Sam Lucero, whose father also used to play it.
So, dress warm and prepare yourself to see something uniquely Southwestern.
Photo and recording restrictions
While Matachines is not considered part of the Taos and Picuris Native religion, both communities consider it important to tribal culture and should be afforded equal respect.
At Taos Pueblo, all photography and recording of any kind will not be allowed at the Christmas Eve Procession and during the dances on Christmas Day, according to the tribal tourism office.
Although the photographs accompanying this story were taken at Taos during a time when restrictions were not in place, they are this year and will be strictly enforced, so, please leave your camera, cell phone and any other recording devices at home.
Taos tribal officials also want visitors to know they will be opening a third parking area to accommodate vehicles in order to discourage them from parking along the highway. There is no charge for parking.
At Picuris, tribal officials say there will be no photo restrictions and that visitors are welcome.
Admission is free for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day ceremonies at both Pueblos.
For more information, call the Taos Pueblo Tourism Office at (575) 758-1028 or visit www.taospueblo.com.
For Picuris Pueblo, call (575) 587-2519.