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Matachines: body and soul

9 July 2020

Dax D. Thomas (Blacktop Photo Collective) published this photo at a protest demanding police reforms in El Paso, Texas. There is much more here to unpack than simply noting, as some have, that even in “costume”, the protesters are wearing the face masks we’ve all been expected to wear during the pandemic.

The protesters are “matachines“.  Rather than wearing a costume … suggesting a disguise… perhaps we should say they are in their vestments, religious regalia.  In a sense, this is no different than a priest in his or her ritual garb wearing a face mask when conducting a service, although… a religious service in the middle of a protest is something that tends to catch a photographer’s attention.

It’s not all that surprising that various cultural practices and beliefs were incorporated into Catholicism (beginning with the Romans, making it hard sometimes to say where the Roman ends and the Catholic begins… the priest’s vestments being echos of the Roman toga for a start) only surprising us when we witness non-European practices …  adapted into what most of assume is the “mainstream”.  But, with the matachines, we have not just an indigenous American custom (most indigenous American cultures included dance in religious rituals or the dance WAS the ritual) incorporated into a European religion, but an indigenous American ritual practice taking over a European arguably non-religious practice, and remaking it as a purely American and religious one.

The matachines grew out of a Spanish Carnival traditions .. the “blow out” held just before Ash Wednesday, when European Christians would parade in their finery and, yes… wear costumes or disguises… to celebrate the ways of all flesh before turning their thoughts to the things of the spirit and the more gloomy mysteries of the Lenten season.  In other words, the Spanish matachines were out to party.  Whatever misgivings various churchmen might have had about Carnival, it was always tolerated.

In New Spain, among several indigenous communities, dancing was never about just blowing off steam, but had ritual meaning.   To the Spanish, if “los indios” danced in front of the former temples rebuilt as churches, and at  “rebaptized” sacred sites (like Tepayac, former home of Tonantzin, mother of the gods, reborn as the Mother of God), it may have seen as simply a version of their own (Spanish) traditions… something tolerated, but not integral to the religion itself.

In Spain, a mattachine was just a complicated dance routine, a work-out, but something done for fun.  In Mexico, and other places in Spanish America, it was a worship service,  a spiritual as well as physical exercise.  While up into the 1960s the Catholic Church has always tried to stamp a pan-European style on their worship services, the indigenous Americans have resisted being absorbed completely, or have slyly subverted European customs to their own ends.  Combined with the emigration of Latin Americans into Ango-dominated regions, matachines, or their equivalent, have found acceptance in other North American indigenous congregations.

Not just a pretty picture, not just a colorful scene.   Dax Thomas isn’t showing us  some fancy dress dance troupe joining a protest…  rather, it is “real Americans”. in solidarity with other Black Lives Matter protesters calling on protectors much more powerful and much more benign than the cops, together in a time of social isolation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. pablothemexican permalink
    9 July 2020 10:03 am

    Very gnostic article; pagans mimicking Good and Holy.


  2. norm permalink
    11 July 2020 5:18 am

    The red sash signifies a leader or healer in the Maya gatherings I’ve been to in Guatemala.

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