Los Matachines at Yule

Taken several years ago with tribal permission, this Taos News photo shows the dancers led by former pueblo governor Ruben Romero.

You hear different languages. There are French tourists, German tourists, and some guy in a Rasta tam. Another man looks like he came straight from the nearby Overland Sheepskin Co. store, pausing only to snip the tags off his coat.

I am not the only one in the artsy Anglo uniform of broad-brimmed hat, colorful muffler or scarf, and sunglasses. M. wears her leather jacket and dangling Hopi earrings—another Southwestern look.  Scattered piles of ash from the bonfires of Christmas Eve, when they process the Virgin with fireworks and rifle shots.

The air smells of piñon pine smoke mixed with coal smoke. The Indian crafts shops on the ground floor of the old Taos Pueblo are doing a modest business. (Tribal members are required to spend part of each year in the old 13th-century buildings, sans indoor plumbing.)

Old Tony Reyna, a former Taos Pueblo governor, crosses the open ground, a red blanket around his shoulders, leaning on an ornate staff, and his elbow held by a younger man. He is a Bataan Death March survivor—so many of them were New Mexicans. (Jeez, he survived that.) But his appearance is not the signal.

Eventually, you see the phalanx of dancers pass by way up at the east end of the plaza. They pass behind the North House and . . . nothing happens.

Half an hour or so goes by. Then they appear between some houses and the church, and somehow people know to follow them to a little side area. There is a string band, El Abuelo and La Abuela, the little girl (La Malinche in some versions),  El Monarca (the king, sometimes Moctezuma.)

No Cortés. El Toro (the bull) is a bison. This is Taos, after all.

The masked dancers wear veils—a curtain of black cords—and thin scarves wrapped to hide their lower faces, tied behind their heads. They carry small canister rattles wrapped in flowing scarves in one hand and a sort of small, decorated wooden trident in the other. Multicolor shawls cover their shoulders and streamers flow down their backs.

The dancers take direction from El Abuelo, the Grandfather. He wears an old man’s mask with a long beard and is dressed like an old-fashioned Hispano rancher: blue jeans, shirt and leather vest, straw hat, and bullwhip, which he snaps for punctuation. He shouts in Spanish  His partner is La Abuela, Grandmother, definitely a man, in a head scarf and  long skirt, carrying a capacious handbag, who takes special care of the little girl in the princess costume who might be La Malinche. Or maybe not.

El Toro and La Abuela bring out a pole, like a Maypole but with woven sashes tied end to end descending instead of ribbons. The musicians play, the Bull and and the Grandfather hold up the pole—I  could go all structuralist here: Bull, Axis Mundi.

Everything means many things, I am sure, and the important thing is just to be there in your body, not to worry about “what it means.”

At the end, El Abuelo shouts, “Le gustan?”  (“You like it?”).  Everyone applauds, and the dancers go into a house. The crowd disperses, but some people in the know are walking towards the adobe church of San Geronimo.

Half a dozen old ladies, some in blankets, are lined up on the postage-stamp size stone-paved courtyard, surrounded by a low adobe wall. It is a good principle that where the old ladies are is where something will happen—and it will happen when they all get there.

Gradually people assemble around the outside of the wall. Half a dozen straight-backed chairs are brought out of the adobe church. Two at the church end of the court yard, two opposite, just inside the gate. A couple off to one side.

Waiting. My feet hurt. What about the feet of the old women standing on sandstone slabs?  Our Taos friends leave to go tend to their dogs. We will see them later.

And then the dancers arrive again, processing through the courtyard gate. The fiddler and guitarist sit in the two chairs at the church end and resume their tune, while the dancers form two files and dance various twirling figures, cowboy boots clomping on the slabs, while El Abuelo snaps his bullwhip and shouts, “Vámanos” (“Let’s go!”), etc.

La Abuela guides the little girl, and at one point the she and the king sit in chairs at the gateway end. A middle aged blanket-wrapped Indian man occasionally calls instructions in a loud whisper: “She’s got to be behind him!”  and so on. He must be the real master of ceremonies.

Low, weak sun. It is chilly in the shade. Lucky people with pueblo connections stand on flat roofs looking down into the courtyard.  Occasionally a woman will step up to the line of dancers to straighten the streams on (her son’s?) headdress.

We are spiraling past the solstice, and the dancers keep turning and turning. Most headdresses are decorated with squash blossom necklaces and other  tribal jewelry, but one displays two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, and when he turns I see that the ribbons down his back are green-gold-red like the Vietnam War service ribbon. Since the dancers appear to be young men, they must have been earned by his relatives?

The sun has well-passed its low zenith, and the dancers keep flowing as in a Virginia reel. At one point El Toro dances down between the two lines and makes a “pass” with each dancer individually. Then Abuelo and Abuela wrestle him comically to the ground and wave his (detachable) balls, which are offered to a woman standing in the church doorway, who smiles and hands them back. La Abuela puts them in her handbag.

Suddenly it’s over with a final series of weaving movements. M. has grown chilly standing in the shade of the church. We will drive back to our rented lodgings in town, pick up food and gifts, and drive a short way north of El Prado to our friends’ house for Christmas dinner. All is right.

One Comment

  1. Hecate says:

    Thank you for posting. How wonderful!