Mexican dance troupe resounding at St. Joseph

Dwain Hebda
At St. Joseph Catholic Church in Conway, a parish dance group called Matachines celebrates its spiritual and ethnic heritage as part of a Mass twice each year.

The first thing you hear, the thing that really grabs you and won’t let go, are the drums. Hammering, thundering, pulsing drumbeats announce the entrance of the dancers and demand the attention of the audience. It is a summoning of God’s children, a war cry against the Evil One. 

Compelled by the driving drumbeats, come the dancers, feet in constant motion, brilliant costumes swirling in space. Some carry rattles that lend their scratchy throat in harmony; others are trimmed in bells that announce each step and twirl in time. It’s not hard to imagine this spectacle playing out hundreds of years ago just as it does today. 

Welcome to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Conway, where twice a year a parish dance group called Matachines celebrates their spiritual and ethnic heritage as part of the Mass. In Conway, the Matachines perform on the parish patron St. Joseph’s feast day in March and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December. 

“It gives me the goosebumps every year, and I get emotional when this time comes around. It is a feeling that I cannot explain,” said Claudia Brito, founding member of the St. Joseph Matachines. “We are all sinners, and I’m not an exception, and I think to myself that I am not worthy of so much love from Mary and Jesus.

“But just like Mary said during the Annunciation to the Archangel Gabriel, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,’ and so I ask God to keep on giving me strength to dance until I cannot anymore.”

The history of the Matachines dates back to the early 17th century in Spain. As explorers traveled to North and South America, the dance rituals took root among native people, roughly aligning with the introduction of Christianity in these regions of the world. Today, dancers like Brito view the Matachines as inextricably intertwined with her family and faith.

“I learned the steps 18 years ago in Mexico. A lot of my family are involved in the Matachines here and in Mexico,” she said. “The Matachines, like the natives in Mexico back in the day, offer their garments, their steps and especially their physical effort to the only true God that the Virgin Mary came to reveal to us.”

Brito has an even more personal connection to the local group, which numbers about 25 dancers and musicians across a range of ages. 

“It is also a promise that I made out of faith,” she said. “I have two children, and before giving birth to my youngest son, I had a miscarriage. When I found out I was pregnant again, I asked Our Lady of Guadalupe to intercede for my pregnancy. I promised to her that if my baby was born, then I would keep dancing in the Matachines for as long as my body would let me.

“When we came to Conway, there was no dance group of Matachines here, and I asked if we could start one. Our priest agreed, and here we are today.”

The dance group practices for months to prepare for their performances with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe being particularly meaningful, as steeped as it is in Mexican spiritual history

“This celebration started when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico City in 1931,” said Sister Brigidia Riveros, CMST. “Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego, and she asked him to go and visit the bishop to ask him to construct a church for her. Juan Diego went, but the bishop didn’t listen to him because he didn’t believe it.

“Our Lady appeared to him again, so he told what happened and the following day he went to the bishop again, and the bishop then believed and asked Juan Diego to bring him a sign. So Juan Diego went and Our Lady appeared and told him to go to the hill and he will find some roses to pick and bring to her.

“He went to the hill, picked the roses, brought to Our Lady and she sent him to the bishop. He showed the sign to the bishop, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his tilma (cloak). The bishop believed, and the temple was constructed and since then we celebrate every year.”

Sr. Brigidia said that while the appeal of the Virgin Mary is universal among Catholics, she is particularly comforting to her, inspiring her to give her life to the Church.

“‘Do not be afraid, do not worry. I am taking you in my arms.’ Those words, to me, are the words that give me the meaning of my faith and my dedication to her,” she said. “I know that she is always with me and with all of us as a community.”

Brito agreed, saying she not only enjoys dancing for the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration as an expression of her culture, but also for the connection Our Lady of Guadalupe offers all people, no matter what their background.

“It is important to me during this (feast day) because Mary is like a bridge of unity for all Catholics,” she said. “No matter what race or color we are or where we come from, she is our mother, therefore we are all brothers and sisters. I admire her for her bravery to say, ‘Yes,’ to life, that she gave birth to Jesus. She is always interceding for us.”

Today, the child Brito prayed for is one of the drummers in the St. Joseph Matachines, and every time she practices or performs, she is reminded that God is at work in her life.

“I’m grateful that God heard my prayer. There is no one more important in my life than God and my family,” she said. “He’s been so good to us.”