Northern New Mexico Virtual Archive
Activities in Northern New Mexico

Los Matachines
from Sylvia Rodriguez, The Matachines Dance,
Ritual Symbolism and Interethnic Relations in the Upper Río Grande Valley, Chapter 4.
Published by The Univerity of New Mexico Press, 1996.


Persistence and Permeability

Picurís Pueblo, much smaller and more isolated than Taos Pueblo, lies about twenty-five miles south of Taos in the remote, mountainous, southeastern corner of Taos County, along the Dixon artery to the scenic "high road" between Española and the town of Taos. Its population of approximately 147 is the smallest among the living pueblos. Yet at the time of Spanish contact, Picurís is said to have been the largest and perhaps the most resistant of the Rio Grande pueblos. The earliest Spanish accounts describe multistoried buildings with upper levels made of wood. Little trace of this structure has survived. Picurís history under three successive rules is one of decimation, flight and return, and three centuries of bare survival (Brown 1979). In the late 1980s this pueblo showed an intensified effort to regenerate itself.

Picurís is embedded in a community of roughly a dozen Mexicano villages, or aldeas, the largest and most commercially central of which is Peñasco, about two miles to the southeast. Several of these neighboring settlements, including Rio Lucio, Vadito, Chamisal, and Peñasco, encroach on the pueblo's league (map 3). The history and character of their complex interrelationships have accordingly been shaped, like those in the Taos basin, by similar factors of topography, hydrology, and demography.

One apparent if paradoxical feature of modern Picurís is the high degree to which it seems both to merge with and yet remain separate from its immediate demographic surroundings. Like its neighbors, Picurís is defined by a clustering of houses around a church, placita, and cemetery. But unlike them, it lacks a morada and instead contains active and defunct kivas, ancient trash heaps, and other remains. Picurís is bounded by a reservation fence. One can still find traces of the old wooden crosses that marked passage into Indian territory along the old back road from Peñasco.

Unlike Taos Pueblo, Picurís is architecturally unimposing and, as Siegel noted (1959), appears little different from the surrounding communities in terms of a generalized rural poverty. But although it seems culturally less bounded than Taos Pueblo, Picurís remains spatially separated from all the neighboring historic encroachments by Mexicanos. To the unaccustomed eye at least, Picurís Indians seem less distinguishable from neighboring Mexicanos, in terms of cultural behavior and physical appearance, than do Taos Indians.

A major factor in shaping Picurís strategies of ethnic boundary maintenance is its minuscule size, a long-standing condition perpetually offset only by the tribe's stubborn struggle to persist as a distinct demographic and cultural entity. The major problem facing the Picurís people today is sheer survival, in terms of population as well as a viable economic base. Their decimated condition and impoverishment are reflected, along with their will to persevere, in the way they organize and perform the Matachines dance. Perhaps because there are so few Picurís Indians, lines of social cleavage seem symbolically more submerged in their version of the dance than in either the Taos Pueblo or Arroyo Seco cases. In short, the dance constituency comes down to a matter of a few individuals, most of whom are relatively young.


The San Lorenzo mission church sits in the modern lower plaza at Picurís, just a few hundred yards from the new tribal office and community center building complex. The recent predecessor to the 1992 structure was begun in 1769 and was still under construction when Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, an official canonical representative, visited in 1776, having been preceded by three earlier churches that sat away from the present plaza, the last of which had been renovated in 1746-47 (Kessell 1980:97-99). Like many other adobe missions, the structure was stuccoed, or "hard plastered," in the late 1950S or 1960s, eventually resulting in the kind of internal deterioration such walls are prone to. At first the parishioners thought a new roof and extensive repairs would be adequate, but large cracks appeared in the west wall, which then collapsed. The church needed to be rebuilt entirely from a new foundation.

At the outset the tribe had neither the manpower, the architectural expertise, nor the money to undertake this task. But loyal parishioners were already committed to the project before they realized its full extent. Reticence and noninvolvement by some tribal members notwithstanding, restoration of the church became a major community project and campaign to the outside world. Tribal officers and others recruited voluntary outside expertise, labor, and financial support. They tapped into the network of individuals, organizations, and institutions (including the Catholic church) that work to preserve and restore New Mexico's aging adobe missions. Ultimately Picurís founded its own Church Restoration League.During the entire restoration period it would have been impossible for anyone to visit Picurís and not be aware of this central, massive, visually dominant project of adobe church construction, which was finally completed in 1992. 1

The reconstruction of the San Lorenzo church between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s had practical effects on the Picurís Matachines dance. Once the project began, all regular Catholic activities, including masses, were transferred to the community center. This created a temporary "detour" in the normal performance routine. Dancing customarily done inside the church was done instead in the community center or, alternatively, in the new museum and restaurant building known as the "Enterprise."

Customary practice is to dance briefly inside the church after mass at the start of the procession and again at the end, much as at Taos Pueblo and elsewhere, and also to dance inside during very bad weather. Locals refer to the powerful acoustical and visual effects produced by dancing inside the narrow, high-ceilinged church. Elderly Picurís remember when there were no benches and the floor was of hard mud, while those born later recall the resounding echo of the dancers' shoes on the wood floor. The reverberations, they say, could be heard throughout the village.

The collective effort to reconstruct the San Lorenzo church constituted the immediate social and historical context within which the dance was performed during the later 198Os and early 1990s. It was thus part of the context within which some Picurís themselves conceptualized the dance, as well as the frame within which I encountered it. Even if the basic integrity and execution of the Matachines remained untouched by its temporary relocation, during this interim the dance seemed to become almost emblematic of the absent church, a group embodiment of the desire once again to perform within its walls.

This relationship between the dance and the church - after all, its virtual point of origination - is captured in a painting by a prominent Picurís artist. In his late forties, this man has danced all the male roles in the Matachines performance over the years, served several times as tribal governor, and been one of the major organizers of the church restoration as well as other community projects. His affinity for the dance is well known. His painting depicts a night dance scene in front of the old churchyard gateway and facade, illuminated by firelight (see title picture). A similar image was reproduced for posters sold to raise money for the restoration and then was raffled off and won by a man from Louisiana during Christmas of 1985.


The following account of the Picurís Marachines dance is based upon my observation of the dance in 1985, 1987, and 1988, supplemented by interviews conducted in the Pefiasco-Picurfs area between 1985 and 1991. Despite minor year-to-year variations and the temporal specificity of my fieldwork, my description is rendered in the ethnographic present.

The Picurís Matachines is performed every year at Christmas, beginning on Christmas Eve afternoon. Then there is an evening vespers mass, followed by a night procession with saints around a plaza circuit marked by luminarias. Afterward they dance again. Another luminaria procession takes place at dawn, followed by morning mass and dancing in the plaza throughout the rest of Christmas Day. Practice sessions begin on December 12, or "Little Christmas," and are held for several hours each night.

Performance and maintenance of the Matachines dance comes down to the governor and a handful of people who organize, participate in, and recruit for the annual Christmas event. Although organization resides in the hands of these few individuals, it does not appear that the dance exists as a describable choreographic entity in the mind of any single person, even among those who know it best. It is therefore difficult to elicit a precise enumeration or summary rendition of the different dance sets, which at Picurís no longer all seem to have specific names attached to them. The overall sequence nevertheless seems familiar or recognizable to the participants.

One peculiarity of the Picurís dance is that even though it is difficult to elicit a neat emic description of the choreography, the actual physical patterns seem extraordinarily easy to observe. Some names may be missing, but the dance itself seems clearer than it sometimes does elsewhere. So while seemingly less opulent, polished, or elaborately cognized than at least some other versions, the Picurís Matachines exhibits a striking clarity of structure. It is as if the Picurís dancers space themselves farther apart and thereby render the choreographic patterns more discernible than in cases such as Taos, Arroyo Seco, San Juan, and others, where the dance formation is denser. This visual effect seems enhanced by the comparative youth and physical smallness of the dancers.

Five movements are usually counted and named: Malinche, Monarca, Toro, the Cross, and the Maypole. Additional formations at the beginning and end can also be discerned, done to one and sometimes another of the tunes, but they do not appear to have regular names. There are up to six tunes, in addition to the Maypole, which is performed as the grand finale. Numerous tune changes occur throughout the dance, even within a single set or movement.

Although the general sequence of choreographic units seems fairly stable, there is nevertheless marked variation in some aspects of the musical sequence. For example, I observed and recorded three distinct end patterns during three different performances on Christmas Day in 1987. In one performance there were fourteen tune changes in the sequence ABACACACABDCEF. In another, the sequence ended with CBF, and tune E, similar but not identical to B, was not used. Yet despite this musical variation the choreography was the same in both cases. In the final dance, culminating with the Maypole, the sequence was ABACACACACAG.2 The fourteen tune changes in the first performance were tape-recorded as follows.

I. Tune A (slow). The dancers face forward (toward the musicians) and perform alternating kick steps while Monarca, Malinche, and the Abuela move abreast, up and down between the two lines.

2. Tune B (fast). The dancers stamp up and down, twirling and whirling around in place, facing forward and then to the right and left, swinging their palmas and rattles in front. The Abuela accompanies Malinche, who is led by Monarca up and down between the rows. As they retreat, each set (or cross-pair) of dancers kneels (genuflect position).

3. Tune A. All dancers kneel while Malinche, led by the Abuela, moves between the rows with her right arm extended toward Monarca, who sits at the far end, extending his palma in his right hand. The Abuela, on the Malinche's left, mimics this motion with her chicote (whip).

4. Tune C.(fast) Malinche and Abuela rotate in one direction and then the other and curtsy after Malinche takes Monarca's rattle in her right hand. The two then weave along one side (his right) of the dancers, toward the musicians. They face the musicians, rotate, and curtsy.

5. Tune A. Accompanied by the Abuela, the Malinche again proceeds toward Monarca, this time with her left hand extended while she holds the rattle close to her waist. Monarca extends his palma with his left hand, by an outer prong, handle toward Malinche. Their left arms rotate around each other, twice clockwise and twice counterclockwise. She takes the palma and then curtsies, with the Abuela, who is now on her right.

6. Tune C. Malinche, between the Abuelos and holding the palma by the handle, weaves along Monarca's lefthand side of the genuflecting dancers, advancing toward the musicians' end, where she stops and again spins and curtsies.

7. Tune A. Malinche and the Abuelos then move back toward Monarca, she extending the rattle with her right hand, he taking it in his right hand.

8. Tune C. Malinche and Abuelos spin around, curtsy, and then proceed to weave around each dancer, this time between the two rows.

9. Tune A. At the end of the dance area where the musicians sit, the Abuelos and Malinche spin around, curtsy, and then return toward Monarca, Malinche extending the palma in her left hand, by a prong. Their arms again rotate around each other. (One bar of tune C: Monarca takes the palma, Malinche spins and curtsies, and Monarca stands.)

10. Tune B. The two rows of kneeling dancers face inward, their palmas extended downward, touching the ground. Monarca dances between the rows, pirouetting over the palmas. As he passes each pair, the dancers move away from the center and face toward the front. On his return, as he passes each pair of dancers and spins, they rise, spin, and exchange positions across the lines, going from kneeling to standing position. They then take three steps in place and stop. Malinche follows behind Monarca, with the Abuelos.

I1. Tune D (fast). Monarca is seated; Malinche takes the rattle and palma. The two columns of dancers spin around in place. Then, as Malinche and the Abuelos move between the rows toward the far end, the dancers cross back to their original places, one in front of the trio, the other behind. The party of three then proceeds back toward Monarca, palma and rattle extended. Malinche hands them back and he stands and moves to dance between the rows while she retreats to the sidelines. Looping around each dancer, Monarca then initiates diagonal crossovers between the two columns, leading the front left dancer to the right rear position and vice versa, down the line.

12. Tune C. Malinche and the Toro face each other from opposite ends of the dance lines and then move toward each other. The Abuela trails Malinche, and the Abuelo follows the Toro. Malinche dances a semi-circle around the Toro and waves her paflo at him as they pass. She goes to the sidelines. Next the Monarca dances around the Toro in similar fashion, touching his left hand with palma to the Toro's left shoulder as they pass. He is followed in turn by the dancers, who in meeting the bull all cross over, diagonally from front to back, reversing the crossovers made in the last movement, each returning to his original place. The Abuelos then dance the Toro to the sidelines.

13. Tune F fast). The dancers, joined by Monarca, Malinche, and Abuelos, form moving perpendicular columns which go from an L shape to the shape of a cross.

14. Tune F fast). Monarca, Malinche, and the Abuela dance abreast between the two rows, advancing and then retreating, much as in the first dance. The dancers stamp lightly and do a kick step.3

Each tune change is signaled by the Abuelos' falsetto "hoohoo," and each set change with a "hoohoo" and a crack of the whip.

For more information on the Picurís Matachinas dance see:

Sylvia Rodriguez, The Matachines Dance,
Ritual Symbolism and Interethnic Relations in the Upper Río Grande Valley, Chapter 4.
Published by The Univerity of New Mexico Press, 1996.


1.Picuris actively and successfully sought outside help with its church restoration project and attracted a dedicated and diverse group of supporters from both within and outside New Mexico. Such people contributed money and other goods and services for fundraising, donated expertise of various kinds, and labored physically on adobe making and construction tasks. Out-of-state groups from college students to motorcycle clubs helped make adobes for the church. The roof was completed and the Matachines dance held inside the new church for the first time in 1992.


2. This kind of ethnographically disconcerting irregularity is corroborated in Champe's close, longitudinal study of the San Ildefonso version. There, over a period of twenty-four years, she identified and recorded a total of thirteen tunes but noted that in some years one or two of them were not played (Champe 1983:19-20).


3. These sequences seem groupable into roughly eight segments: (1) the open- mg sequence with all characters abreast, done to tune A; (2) a stamping dance to B; (3) Malinche's dance, with the alternating slow and fast sequence of ACACACA; (4) Monarca's dance over the palmas to tune B; (5) diagonal crossovers between lines to tune D; (6) the Toro, tune C; (7) the Cross, tune E; and (8) either a slightly different repetition of the first one (tune F), or else the Maypole (tune C, slow). In the second performance example mentioned earlier, the Cross was done to tune B. When the Maypole was performed, the preceding sequences seemed somehow compressed into fewer tune changes, although I am not certain exactly how this was done.


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