People who live in areas with large Mexican populations can see an unusual and colorful festival this week. Los Matachines dance in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico beginning December 8 -12 and later in December as part of Christmas celebrations. They perform at churches, outdoor festivals, and at shrines to the Virgin, often found in Mexican-American neighborhoods.
The Virgin, also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, is reputed to have appeared to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531 near Mexico City during those dates. She sent him to the local Catholic bishop and asked that a church be built for her in the valley near her apparition. When the bishop asked for proof, the virgin had Juan Diego gather roses from the frost-covered hill. When he opened his cloak to give the bishop this proof, the roses spilled out, and an image of the Virgin was visible on the inside of his cloak. This cloak is kept at the church honoring the Virgin north of Mexico City, and copies of the image are ubiquitous in Mexican and Mexican-American communities. It has been said that “…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” (Wikipedia).
The Matachines, also called the soldiers of the Virgin, dress in elaborate Aztec-inspired costumes and dance in her honor. Dancers range in age from toddlers to very elderly, and many have danced as long as they can remember. Often bystanders will join the dancers in thanksgiving for special favors they have been granted, called mandas (EPCC).
The costumes typically consist of a brilliantly colored split skirt adorned with Christian images, bells and noise-making beads worn over white clothing, sometimes with the image of the Virgin; a mask or bandana, that may be worn over the face; and a resplendent feathered headdress. Dancers carry gourd rattles and ceremonial bows and arrows. They dance to traditional tunes played on a drum with a pair of violins, or a drum alone, which combines with the rattles to beat a hypnotic rhythm accompanying the dance.
The dance is a lengthy version of a morality play depicting the triumph of good over evil and of Christianity over pagan beliefs. Some historians believe that the Virgin herself is a borrowing of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin designed to ease the conversion of the native population into the Catholic church. (Wikipedia)
The dance is colorful and intricate, with four main characters: El Monarca, or Moctezuma, the last Aztec king directs the dance. La Malinche, known variously as Moctezuma’s bride or the mistress of Cortez, represents purity and innocence. El Toro, the Bull, represents evil, mischief and the devil. El Abuelo, or Grandfather, also called El Viejo, guides Malinche through many trials and troubles created by El Toro, as she seeks someone to slay him. He may carry a whip, wear a grotesque mask, and provides comic relief. Eventually the Bull is slain, either by the Grandfather or by Moctezuma, which signifies the conversion of Moctezuma to Christianity and the triumph of good over evil. (Handbook of Texas Online)
These fascinating rituals are taking place all over Mexico and in the United States where there are large numbers of Mexican or Mexican-American Catholics, this week. They are generally associated with a Catholic church, but may also perform their rituals at other places, such as shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe or at community Christmas celebrations. They are well worth seeking out.