Models of reconciliation in our midst

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By Steve Fox

The year and decade ended for me in an awesome experience of reconciliation in two outdoor ritual folk plays in Alcalde, just north of San Juan Pueblo, on Dec. 27.

The Matachines dance and “Los Comanches” play were performed back- to-back in the brilliant winter sunshine on the icy ground of the Camino Real, below the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristos.  

The folk plays reminded us how badly our new decade needs respectful truces. Democrats and Republicans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, modernists and traditionalists, badly need to reconcile.

The beautiful, enigmatic dance of the Matachines portrays the clash of Christianity and Native religion. It’s based on the narrative folk drama “Moros y Cristianos,” brought here by the Spanish in the 1500s to show the native people how the New World Order would be laid out.

The dance as we know it today, however, is the only one performed in both Indian and Spanish villages, seeming to celebrate a cultural partnership as well as conflict.

In Spanish villages the Matachines demonstrate that Christianity triumphs over Native religion. At Pueblos, although formally similar to the Spanish version, the dance shows that Native religion did not die but survived and accommodated.

“Los Matachines” is unforgettable.  I first saw the Alcalde troupe begin the dance 11 years ago in front of the Palace of the Governors portal in late summer.  They couldn’t finish the drama because a hailstorm blowing down from the mountains forced us all to seek shelter under the portal, shoulder to shoulder.

One of the taller Matachines wound up directly behind me, his eyes covered in long fringe hanging from his miter-like hat and the rest of his face covered with a scarf that also anchored the four-foot-long cascade of ribbons falling down his back.

In Alcalde, to the tune of two violins and a guitar, the two lines of men, dressed in dark suits and ties and the baroque headdresses, moved rhythmically forward, lifting one foot as high as the other knee, managing to convey solemnity, mystery and the love of glittering color that Catholicism and Indian religions share.

Immediately after the mesmerizing hour of  “Los Matachines,” the horseback pageant of “Los Comanches” began about a hundred yards to the west.

Six Spanish/Chicano/Hispano/Mexicano men dressed as Comanches faced off with four dressed as colonial-era Spanish soldiers. All the participants spoke Spanish as they delivered set speeches from hundred-year-old scripts, describing in poetic terms their goals, courage and invincibility.

The play commemorates the killing of the Comanche chief Cuerno Verde (Green Horn) and the peace treaty the combatants agreed on, turning generations of raiding into generations of trading.

The 10 Alcalde men were all expert horsemen. They milled closely together doing ritual battle with fake weapons, but looking awesome, especially the Comanches.

At one point, the brawny guy playing Cuerno Verde wheeled his horse and went to circle around for another harangue, when his horse’s hooves shot out from under him on a slight icy grade. They both crashed to the ground. Cuerno avoided getting his leg crushed and both scrambled to their feet and continued the drama.

We had no idea what the 2000s were going to bring us, so there’s no reason we can’t look forward in the 2010s to working on solutions to the current poisonous atmosphere of vilification and combat, from our neighborhoods to Congress to the Middle East.

It will take a long time. Few are honored for name-calling and division, but many are remembered for building bridges toward mutual coexistence.


© 2010 New Mexico News Services