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How can we know the dancer from the dance?

13 December 2015



With the Conquest, the mass conversions of the natives to Christianity was made much easier by those clerics who were willing to accept native practices when given a  “Christian” meaning.  Sacred dance, having always been part of indigenous worship, was tolerated.  However, under the supervision of Franciscan friars  such practices were reduced to lessons, perhaps suitable to children, or to the “childish” natives.  From the Spanish word “matachin”, meaning antics performed in silly costumes, the Mattachines were meant as stylized tales of the reconquista… the centuries of warfare on the Iberian peninsula between the Islamic south of the Moors, and the Christian north of the Goths.  More meaningful to the conquerors than to the conquered, however, the “childish antics” took on a deeper meaning, less so for the observer than for the participant.

While, as Father Robert Coogan, of the Diocese of Saltillo, wrote me, “”In Western culture there are very few forms of prayer that do not involve words, and the sacred dance is one of them,” uniting the physical and the spiritual does have a tradition within western culture, although one largely forgotten or only embarrassingly admitted.  It is largely preserved in words, but there is the erotic tradition of the Baroque poets and the sexual metaphors used to describe union with God by mystics like St. Theresa of Avila.  Or Bernini’s famous attempt to convey that mystic experience, although in stone, and not in actual flesh.

Although northern Europeans were less than comfortable with the idea, and the offshoots of north European Christianity has been less receptive to physical manifestations of the sacred, the African-American churches (adopting African styles to western culture) and some Pentecostals and Evangelicals have been more receptive.  Those manifestations, however, are seen as “outsider” practices, with their participants called “holy rollers”, or treated with  humor, as in The Blues Brothers:


The native people were the ultimate outsiders of western Christianity, so perhaps analogies to the African-American religious tradition, presented through a parody (but an affectionate one) of that tradition  are not amiss here.  Jake and Elwood’s  “mission from God” may have been delivered by a Roman Catholic nun, but it is though James Brown’s service — and the physical ecstasy of the dance — that they obtain their spiritual awakening.   Within the Catholic tradition, outside of the outsiders, that tradition, and the fusing of the physical and spiritual, has been largely lost outside the native community.

Although, as Fr. Coogan notes, with a defeated and degraded people, there are some deformities of the original custom, beyond it’s change in focus toward the Christian faith:

It is a male tradition, except where it is no longer understood, and seen as folklore, where it is frequently carried on by mixed groups and women because the ancient male heritage has died out.

Different from the African-American tradition, where new musical styles and instruments are easily incorporated into the worship, the Mattachines seek to preserve their own culture:

The dance is done to a drum beat, which is understood to be the voice of God. A drum beat has no beginning and no end. the drummer enters into something that is always there waiting to be channeled, and it is there even when the drummer stops. The dance is hours long, and the contact through the body transforms the dancer. A “runner’s high” is a way of understanding what happens, but that is only part, because the runner is not pushing through that to a communion with God. The drum, the rhythm, the body, the pattern of the dance, the body of dancers, all merge into a transcendent unity of a high mystical order…

Despite the folkloric aspects of this mattichine group , this clip (from the 2013 Pilgrimage to Guadalupe) shows how that mystical experience is created. The mattachines are still several kilometers from the Basilica, and are already near the point of physical exhaustion. By the time they arrive, what remains is not the dancer, but the dance … a mystic communion, in common union with the others.

If the authorities really knew what the dance is, instead of thinking of it as a quaint folk custom, they would probably prohibit it.

Especially in Father Coogan’s “parish”.  Coogan, like many modern Mexican priests, is quite open to accepting that the style of worship of his congregants is to be honored and accepted: but the “authorities” to which his congregants answer have near complete control over not just their lives, but every expression of their thoughts. Coogan is the chaplain at the Federal Maximum Security Prison in Saltillo (among too many other duties), the matachines in his community, not only the sons of the outcast native peoples, but outcasts of the outcasts:

Some of the guys are from Saltillo, some are from Torreon, and the gang rivalry between the two cities is violent and bloody. The prison has had to create separate areas for the Torreon guys, but the Dance is greater than any other loyalty.  The Saltillo dancers made me get a special permission so that the Torreon dancers could practice with them. If you played high school sports, you know how a former high school football player, for example, feels an instant link to someone they meet who also played high school football.

When I first corresponded with Father Coogan, the mattachines had just had their kits for an important festival taken away by prison authorities. The particular religious feast was that of San Judas Tadeo, patron of hopeless causes, but the mattchines made the best of what they had:


For the then upcoming Feast of la Virgen, Coogan and the men both were on a mission:

Some of the guys have worked in the auto industry making car seats, and as good upholsterers, are good tailors and will be making their new blouses. The headdresses are very complicated affairs, but they also will miraculously have them ready in time. I will be running here and there gathering feathers, jingle bells, carrizo and other stuff they need.

Because English is his first language, Coogan is one of the better known working priests here in Mexico, often quoted by foreign media. Like many other foreigners planning only a temporary stint in-country, the sense of community so often missing in our own individualist culture kept him here:

Coogan did not come to Mexico to save anyone. He first arrived in Coahuila in 1988 through a job with the campus ministry of his alma mater, Fordham University. The second oldest of 14 children born to a corporate lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School, Coogan spoke no Spanish and had never traveled outside the United States. But he appreciated the sense of community he found in Mexico and the effort to survive collectively. “It was like the Brooklyn I grew up in, with people out in the street,” he said. “You go for a walk and you see your neighbors. You talk. I found that incredibly appealing.”

Even Violent Drug Cartels Fear God

It may have been the sense of community, but Coogan’s Bishop, Raul Vera, has been assigning him to work with the outsiders within our larger Mexican community… gays and lesbians (which made him and his bishop targets of the reactionary Catholic publication, Lifesite News); drug addicts; migrants; and prisoners. Not an easy job, and between having to occasionally pay bribes to the Zetas to protect his incarcerated parishioners, there are those beads, feathers, and jingle bells to consider. I had originally planned to beg for a few bucks to cover those beads and feathers, which had to come out of the small salary Mexican priests receive. He ” really haven’t done much about fundraising except accept what falls from heaven.”

What doesn’t fall from Heaven will have to come through paypal. Donations sent to (use the “donate” button below) marked “Coogan” or “prisoners” will be forwarded to Father Coogan, if not for beads and feathers and jingle bells, then for soap and toothpaste and candy bars and whatever else the migrants and prisoners might need. I wouldn’t expect donations of more than five or ten dollars from anyone, but for $50 or more, I’ll send a (not entirely inappropriate) copy of either the advance copies of Mezcalero or Comandate Ibarra, Montezuma Books first two releases, both novels dealing with “outcasts” among the Mexican community.

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Photos: Robert Coogan

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