The gathering is one of several dances of the Matachines, a ritual drama as old as colonial time, birthed from the traditions and peoples of the old and new worlds. According to Sylvia Rodríguez, professor emerita of anthropology and former director of the Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of New Mexico, the dance initially dramatized Spain’s attempted conversion of the Moors who once occupied the Iberian peninsula. After Columbus stumbled onto the Americas, and Spain realized there was a whole new population worth proselytizing and using for labor, the ritual drama followed suit, functioning as a means of converting Indigenous peoples to Christianity. But when the dance arrived on this side of the Atlantic, it absorbed Indigenous elements, too, in a process called syncretism, the combination of religious and cultural beliefs into hybrid phenomena. The dances thus spread throughout the New World and can now be found in certain areas of Texas and southern Arizona, as well parts of Central and South America. In our corner of the Americas, both Hispano and Pueblo people have taken up the ritual drama, with specific communities molding a shared blueprint to meet their individual and communal needs.
Despite this shared blueprint, the origin stories for each group differ along the lines of colonization itself. As Rodríguez outlines in her 2009 book, The Matachines Dance: A Ritual Dance of the Indian Pueblos and Mexicano/Hispano Communities, for Indigenous people residing along the upper Rio Grande, the dance was a gift from Montezuma, the leader of the Mexica (Aztec) people who was slain during the conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century. For Hispanos, the dance came directly from Don Juan de Oñate, the reviled and celebrated Spanish colonizer of the Northern frontier who was eventually banished for crimes against the Keres people of Acoma Pueblo. The dance bares forth all the contradictions and complexities of identity that have become essential to Northern New Mexico. It is an embodiment of mestizaje, a racial and cultural mixing of Europeans and Natives.
In Alcalde, the Matachines perform in the days following Christmas, with 11 male dancers in total: five Matachines in two lines with the figure of El Monarca, the one who holds the greatest symbolic power, in the middle. Anthony Valdez, who is the mayordomo of the Alcalde troupe, plays this role, dancing the most while also leading the choreography of the rest of the dancers or danzantes. With three parts, each consisting of different configurations including a cross formation, the dance introduces other characters, including El Torito, a troublemaker in the figure of a bull, El Abuelo, the masked authoritarian who is meant to keep the others in line with the crack of a whip, and La Malinche, a young girl who wears all white. She is virgin-like, but also a reference to Cortez's first Indigenous guide and concubine, La Malinche, or Malinztin. Indeed, in Mexico it is widely known that with Cortez, La Malinche bore the first mixed-race children of the Americas. It is through her that the dance telescopes from the continental to the local and back again.
On the local level, to dance with the Matachines, is, in Valdez's words, about "keeping a tradition alive"—whether that's in helping to make the costumes, a task that the women complete, or in carving the palmas (the tridents that the dancers hold), which many of the dancers' uncles make. It's a devotional and religious practice that unites the whole community.
For instance, in Alcalde, penitentes from either the Los Pachecos or the San Antonio chapter will lead a rosary and procession that coincides with some of the performances. Elsewhere in New Mexico, the Matachines is performed throughout the year. El Santuario de Chimayó features dancers at its Santo Niño Fiesta each July. For Valdez, it's also important to keep dancing because it is a generational tradition; his grandfather, who was also in the audience, once performed, too. As a member of a younger generation of dancers, a 10-year veteran at age 28, Valdez leads the choreography and keeps a steady practice schedule, while also motivating new dancers to join the ranks.