New Mexico dancers keep conquistador’s 323-year promise to St. Lawrence

by Zita Fletcher

BERNALILLO, N.M. (CNS) — For the people of Bernalillo, the feast of St. Lawrence is always more than just a fiesta. It has profound historical, religious and personal meaning to all who celebrate it.

This year was no different. As they have done annually since 1693, a group of dancers gathered in the streets of Bernalillo to honor the town’s patron saint on his Aug. 10 feast with La Danza de los Matachines, a complex series of religious dances from colonial Spain.

The town of Bernalillo, next to the Rio Grande, is among the earliest Spanish settlements in the New World. Famed explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado established a large camp near there during the winter of 1540-41 in his search for the Seven Cities of Gold, or “Cibola.”

Gilbert Sanchez vividly remembers the first time as a child he witnessed the Matachines procession with St. Lawrence, or San Lorenzo. “Throughout the entire procession, I kept seeing the light glinting off the glass around the saint,” he recalled. “Every year after that, I always followed San Lorenzo.”

Sanchez has danced for San Lorenzo ever since. A group member for over 30 years, he now holds the title of “monarca,” or monarch, within the Matachines, which is hierarchically structured based on experience. The monarca holds the highest rank and controls the structure of the entire dance.

The Matachines perform a series of nine intricate dances to the sound of unwritten guitar and violin music passed down for over three centuries.

The tradition of the Matachines dance began after Don Diego de Vargas re-established Nuevo Mexicano communities in modern-day New Mexico in 1693 following a period of exile after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, an uprising of the most of the indigenous people of the Pueblos against the Spanish colonizers.

The people of Bernalillo narrowly escaped the bloodshed of the revolt, which took place on St. Lawrence’s feast day. They believed the saint protected them during this time.

Led by de Vargas, the Spanish resettled New Mexico after a brief exile. According to oral tradition, de Vargas promised God that he and his fellow settlers would honor St. Lawrence after their successful return.

Over 300 years later, the descendants of those settlers keep their ancestors’ promise through the Matachines dance — although it has evolved into a devotional practice rather than a historical one.

“It’s a personal promise that we make to God, through the intercession of our saint, for something that we ask for or something that we’ve already received,” said Joe Moreno, a Bernalillo native, who has danced with the Matachines for over 10 years.

Practices are held for weeks leading up to St. Lawrence’s feast day. Outside under the intense desert sun where temperatures can soar to 100 degrees, dozens of Matachines dancers and musicians gather in a neighborhood to practice for several hours. Traditions memorized by each generation are passed down from the old to the young.

Dancers cover their heads with headdresses called “cupiles” and wear black veils called “mascadas,” concealing their faces and eyes. Dancers select the image of a patron saint to display on their clothing. The veiling custom was introduced to Spain by Arabs during the Moorish occupation.

“We maintain anonymity. . . . When we put it on, we become a highly spiritual being that is communing with the higher powers through the intercession of San Lorenzo,” said Moreno, about the concealment. “So we become holy, in other words. We are sacrificing ourselves for graces asked or graces received.”

One of the most important dances is called “La Promesa” — a promise dance to offer prayers of faith, petition and thanksgiving. The dance is usually offered on behalf of a relative or friend, or regarding a personal petition.

“Anybody can make a ‘promesa,’ or a promise to God, through the intercession of San Lorenzo,” said Moreno. “Anybody can do it — you don’t have to be a dancer.”

Regular group members, called “danzantes,” dance in a file structure controlled by “capitanes,” or captains. Important figures in the dance include the monarca, the leader adorned with a crown of colorful flowers, and the “malinche,” a young girl clad in white who represents Christian purity and virtue. Other characters are the horned “toro,” or bull, representing paganism and temptation, and the whip-wielding “abuelo,” the grandfather who safeguards dancers from the toro.

Devotional practices, such as novenas, rosaries and all-night vigils, as well as a series of dances take place over the course of three days.

Afterward, the Matachines are formally “released” to their families when their promise to God that year is fulfilled.

“It’s actually really, really awesome once you’re given back to your family,” said Sanchez. “Once you’re given back to your family, your promesa for that year is completed.”

The Matachines dance is preserved in New Mexico in the same form it was practiced centuries ago — because of the area’s isolation, even the local Spanish language spoken in New Mexico today is an archaic colonial dialect with words dating from the 1600s. Variations of the Matachines dance are performed in different locations across the state.

The Matachines group in Bernalillo, which is in the Las Cruces Diocese, is the oldest and most well-known group in the region and the United States. It was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington in the 12-year “American Encounters Exhibit” from 1992 to 2004, and at the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in 1992. In 1997, the group was installed in the New Mexico Hispanic Traditional Folk Musicians Hall of Fame.

Sanchez said today’s Matachines group is not racially exclusive; women, youth and members of all communities can participate. The tradition continues to be passed on to future generations.

“I think that it’s important that our children stay close to God and learn,” said Sanchez. “People who pray together stay together.”

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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