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A new tradition at an old mission—matachines and Mission Concepción

January 06, 2015 | posted by Carol Baass Sowa


A new tradition at an old mission -- matachines and Mission Concepción

In a traditional dance dating back to Spanish colonial times, approximately 600 colorfully costumed matachines dancers paid honor to the Virgin Mary on the afternoon of Dec. 7, the vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Concepcion, in a way which promises to become a new tradition at Mission Concepción.

Wearing the distinctive beaded, embroidered, feathered and embellished costumes and headdresses of their individual troupes, 16 matachines groups, joined by at least 100 other participants (including infants pushed in strollers and a woman in a wheel chair) marched in procession from the mission grounds to nearby Concepción Park on the San Antonio River.

The beat of drums, along with prayers and hymns led by Father David Garcia, administrator of Mission Concepción, accompanied them as they wound their way back to the mission. Here, each group performed a ritual dance in front of the mission doors and then inside the sanctuary, placing flowers on the side altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The matachines dance is rooted in a medieval dance re-enacting the battle between the Spaniards and the Moors and was adapted during the Spanish conquest of the Americas to represent the battle of Christianity against the indigenous religious practices, incorporating the music and dances of the native people. Several different characters are part of the original Danza de Matachines and a number of the local dance troupes were accompanied by versions of El Viejo, a devil figure with whip who tries to lead people astray.

Tony Aguilar, organizer of the Mission Concepción event with wife Molly, explained that this role represents the “old values” and can also be portrayed as an old woman or a young boy who rebels and makes trouble. Both were also present in the local event. “The indigenous dancers used to dance to their gods and to pray to them,” he related, “and what the old man is trying to tell them is: ‘Hey, why follow this one God? You need to follow all these gods which took care of us all these years.’”

El Viejo’s clown-like costume is covered with ribbons or strips of cloth representing sins and he wears a fearsome mask and brandishes a whip. On the mission grounds, an El Viejo obligingly snarled and threatened to give chase to youngsters who enjoyed seeing how close they could get without being caught. Bow and arrows and rattles carried by dancers symbolize being on guard against evil and scaring it away with noise.

This year’s event marked the second matachines celebration at Mission Concepción, drawing an even larger crowd and more dancers than before. Its local origins, however, extend back nine years, and Aguilar related that the idea originally came from his wife’s uncle, Pablo Olivares, Sr., who taught them the matachines dances. Olivares longed to see the dances performed with a procession going from church to church, as they did in Mexico.

The idea was discussed with other matachines groups and the first such procession traveled from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on El Paso Street. After several years, the route was changed to one going between the churches of St. Lawrence and St. Leonard, where it continued for three years, until a key railroad crossing was closed a couple of years ago. They then approached Father Garcia about possibly staging the procession between Mission San José and Mission Concepción. Safety and the logistics factors involved with using a major city thoroughfare was a concern though and processing through the nearby scenic parkway seemed the ideal solution.

Participating matachines groups this year included: The Native Americans, Lady of Angels Matachines; Sacred Heart Matachines (adults); Sacred Heart Matachines (children); Teokali; La Danza de Pablo Olivares, Sr.; Holy Family Matachines; St. Mary Magdalen Matachines; St. Michael Matachines; La Danza de Guadalupe Matachines from St. Henry Parish; Virgen de Guadalupe Aztecas of Helotes; St. Margaret Mary Danzantes; St. Mary Magdalen Matachines’ second group; Immaculate Heart of Mary of San Antonio (children); Immaculate Heart of Mary of Pearsall; and Los Soldados de la Virgen Guadalupe, the Aguilar family matachines. The latter was last to perform, with Aguilar inviting members of the audience to follow them in dancing to the side altar to pay respects to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“This is a blending of their culture and their faith,” said Father Garcia of the dancers. “They have a lot of little children learning how to do it and that is beautiful because the children then see these are traditions of their faith.”

Aguilar is confident the number of groups will increase to 20 next year. “Save the date for Dec. 6, 2 p.m.” he said emphatically. “I’m excited about it,” Said Father Garcia. “I think we have a good tradition going here now!”