The sound of rhythmic drumbeats and the snakelike hiss of rattles carried through the neighborhood and down to the San Antonio River as generations of San Antonians performed La Danza de Matachines Sunday morning at Mission Concepción.
Attendance was down this year, but the convergence of three feast days on the Catholic calendar proved stronger than freezing temperatures for those who assembled for the 7 a.m. march and 8 a.m. dances outside the mission and inside the church. Grandfathers danced alongside adolescent granddaughters, each keeping the same beat, dancing the same steps, sharing the same costumes adorned with beads, feathers and religious symbols.
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day in the Catholic Church that falls between the Feast Days of Juan Diego (Dec. 5) and the Virgin of Guadalupe (Dec. 12)
Each parish group or family performed its own interpretive dance, their colorful costumes and individual percussion beats and steps connecting them back to indigenous traditions from different Mexican villages and states that past generations brought north across the border.
“We learned the traditions from past generations that came up from
Mexico,” said Tony Aguilar, whose family performed Sunday. The Aguilars actively perpetuate the tradition by helping different San Antonio parishes form their own troupes and learn the dances.
A status of St. Juan Diego, wearing the mantle bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, rode in a red wagon that trailed behind the Aguilars on the long march around Concepción Park. It’s that kind of touching mix of faith, tradition, and the artifacts of modern life that adds a unique local flavor to San Antonio’s celebration. You can learn more about the tradition by reading, “600 Matachines to Dance Sunday Morning at Mission Concepción.”
While attendance fell far short of the anticipated 600 dancers, there was no shortage of spectacle for onlookers who bundled up for the wintry procession and dance sequences. One by one, the dance troupes made their way into the mission church, and the outdoor audience quickly followed. The small, wonderfully restored mission church was filled with strollers, parents holding blanketed babies, and curious onlookers pointing smart phone sin every direction, many saying they were previously unaware of the local tradition.
I was a young reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller fortunate to have been at the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City in January 1978 when Pope John Paul II made his inaugural visit to Mexico. The plaza outside the basilica was filled with more than one million people and thousands of matachines dancing in honor of the pope. The same scene is replayed in countless cities and plazas throughout the Americas.
Isn’t it time to bring the celebration to San Antonio’s Main Plaza? It seems only fitting that the city and archdiocese organize an annual Dec. 12 Danza de Matachines in the shadow of San Fernando Cathedral and invite parishes throughout South Texas and Northern Mexico to participate. The event likely would hundreds or more dancers and enough locals and visitors to close the city streets surrounding the plaza (temporarily, of course).
“It would be wonderful to share the matachines tradition with the whole city and with everyone who travels here to experience San Antonio and what makes us so unique,” Father David Garcia said Sunday at Mission Concepción. “It could be something amazing.”
A city wanting to showcase authenticity would be hard pressed to find a cultural activity that predates the dance tradition born out of the Spanish conquest and the arrival of Catholic missionaries to the new world. Local observance of La Danza de las Matachines is, presumably, as old as San Antonio’s Spanish missions. It’s a subtle reminder that the majority of San Antonians descend from both Spanish and indigenous lineages. Adding the tradition to the official calendar and bringing the event to the city’s original gathering place would be one more way for San Antonio to tell its story.