Friday, August 30, 2013

Bernalillo, New Mexico: The 300-Year-Old Promise

Matchines, San Lorenzo Fiesta, Bernalillo, New Mexico


I was taken by the matachines and their history as soon as I saw them in Tortugas at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta in December 2012.

Matachines are religious dancers. ... I hesitate to call them sacred dancers, as I don't know if their regalia is designed to transform the dancers into spiritual representatives, as is the regalia of, say, Apache crown dancers.

The matachine dances, with regional and ethnic variations, are an admixture of Moorish, Spanish, Mexican/Aztec, Pueblo, American, political, historical, social, and natural elements. The dance is a story of victory and loss, blood, divine intervention, respect for the dead, devotion, and promises to be kept.

Matchine headdresses, San Lorenzo Fiesta, Bernalillo, New Mexico

San Lorenzo Fiesta

When I read that Bernalillo is the home of a commemoration of a community's promise made to God after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (go here** for another perspective on the revolt), I knew I had to be there. 

Matchines shotguns, San Lorenzo Fiesta, Bernalillo, New Mexico

The commemoration occurs on San Lorenzo's feast day, and it is called the San Lorenzo Fiesta. A history
Los Matachines de Bernalillo is an integral part of Bernalillo's identity. Our story begins with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Because of intermarriage and strong ties between the Hispanos of Bernalillo and the Native Americans from Sandia, it is believed that Bernalillo residents were told of the impending revolt. Bernalillo residents were able to flee to "El Realito de San Lorenzo" (present-day El Paso). The Pueblo Revolt occurred on August 10, 1680. As a result of being spared and allowed to flee the area, Bernalillo residents thanked San Lorenzo. By learning the Matachines dance in El Realito, they brought the dance back with them in 1693, they expressed thanks to God and to San Lorenzo.

Diego de Vargas re-settled New Mexico in 1693. He vowed that anyone returning to New Mexico was to commemorate August 10 annually through celebration. The Matachines dance was now one of the central celebrations in Bernalillo and local residents take great pride in the dance being performed continuously since 1693.

Although the dance has changed throughout time, the Bernalillo mindset of the promesa remains true to the very first celebration in 1693. The promesa connects Bernalillo residents and danzantes to their past by worshiping God and honoring San Lorenzo for his intercession by performing the Matachines Dance.

Traditionally only men (as far as I know) danced as matachines. The Bernalillo matachines include men, women, boys, and girls. Where the matachines in Tortugas wore conservative sports coats and long-sleeved shirts, the Bernalillo matachines wear a white polo shirt and black trousers as the base of their regalia.

One long-time Bernalillo resident told me that he thinks some of the traditional gravitas of the matachine tradition has been lost in recent years, and that kids too young are now involved, mostly for their parents' bragging rights.

I can tell you the whip-carrying matachine members still pack a lot of gravitas, serving as walking sergeants-at-arms to keep tourists from getting out of line. On Saturday, I became a part of the fiesta when I walked with community members behind the saints and the matachines. Tourists with cameras who walked ahead of the saints, especially with their cameras out, were told firmly to stay behind the saints. One whip-carrying sergeant-at-arms threatened to take away one man's camera if he didn't get back behind the saints. (He was from New York. You know how they are.)

There're also the two men in red shirts, red flowery hat, bull horns, and two decorated canes. I think they, too, serve to intimidate wayward photographers a bit.

Note: There are explanations about the men with whips and the bulls in the essays here.

Matchines, San Lorenzo Fiesta, Bernalillo, New Mexico

The matachines walk before the saints, but regularly turn and bow to the saints, as they progress up or down the street to or from the church or the mayordomos' house. (The mayordomos are usually a husband and wife team.) In Bernalillo, there are two matachine groups that take turns turning and bowing to the saints.

Once upon a time, I read an article by a man who liked to travel to places where history was occurring in the moment. For example, when people started tearing down the Berlin Wall, he and his kids jumped on a plane and went to Berlin to be an eyewitness. (This idea has been taken to extremes in sci-fi literature, by Douglas Adams and Robert Heinlein, where time travelers book tours to see the end of a world. Quite a lucrative business.)

During one of the processions of the San Lorenzo Fiesta, I walked with community members behind the saints. It felt like walking in history, like being part of the history.

A slide show of photos from Bernalillo on this commemorative weekend, which included music, food booths, and a classic auto (and low-rider bicycle) show:

Bernalillo, NM

** The current link for the alternative historic view is via the Wayback Machine, as the original site domain is now for sale, as of July 2023.

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