There is time a during every fiesta when the sun grows larger in the sky, stomachs grumble, and everyone takes a break. No feast day would be complete without a bowl of green chile stew and a tortilla to chew on when the heat becomes too much. As the afternoon drones on, the community settles into their lawn chairs and lethargically squints out at the play that has resumed on the plaza.
Kicking up dust in the center of the courtyard a cowboy lassos a guy in a bull costume and then frolics with a cross-dresser. The crowd cheers and chuckles. It’s fun to watch the same neighbors that you run into at the grocery store clown around, but what does it all mean? Everything is open to interpretation.
According to the church bulletin, the Ensaye is a play that comes from the village of Santa Fe, near Granada, Spain and was written in 1503. It tells the story of how the Spanish converted the Muslims to Christianity after they tried to steal the Holy Cross. The conquistadors performed the dance in an effort to evangelize New Mexico’s Native Americans, but instead, the Pueblos infused the spectacle with their own culture and beliefs. Throughout the years the role of each character has flip-flopped between good and evil to reflect the preferences of the performers.
Domination and submission becomes interchangeable from village to village and dance to dance. The girl in the white dress, or La Malinche, represents purity and goodness in the San Antonio version, but has been depicted as an ogre in Native American renditions.
Her dancing partner, the lead Matachine, is called El Monarca, after Montezuma, king of the Aztecs. The cowboy character is the Abuelo, a Hispanic ancestrial guardian, who wrestles with the temptation of his wife, represented by the drag queen, and evil personified by El Toro, a bull with the horns and temper of the devil. This morality play has served as an ethical compass for the East Mountains for the last hundred years.
Recently, new interpretations have come from people like me, ethnographers, who arrive in San Antonio as participant-observers. We take part in the procession while analyzing the dances from an anthropological perspective.
“Keep your distance when you are filming us,” the Abuelo Andy Gonzales warned me when I asked for permission to videotape the event for the local historical society. “There was a guy here last year who got so close that we couldn’t perform our dance without tripping on him. He was always in the way.”
I tried to respect Andy’s wishes, but I knew it was too late. Me and every other cultural critic with a camera have focused our lenses on the Ensaya Real. Images of San Antonio’s Matachines can be seen in museums, on television programs, and now the Internet. While academics, journalists, and artists seek to preserve the ancient Hispanic traditions of the village they end up appropriating it for a global audience. In doing so they join the dance and continue to mold its meaning.