Adorned in boldly colored, feathered headgear symbolizing the crown of the Virgin Mary, and wielding a rattle and a wooden arch bow meant to keep the devil away, the matachines dancers stepped in syncopation to the relentless beat of a drum.
This was the scene Wednesday morning at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan, where the matachines performed as part of the feast and celebration of the Virgin Mary, drawing thousands of parishioners to 12 days worth of festivities that ended in Brownsville.
The matachines is a ritual folk dance portraying goodness prevailing over evil and is an integral part of the Feast Day celebration, a Catholic mass that honors the Lady of Guadalupe.
Miranda Guajardo, a matachines dancer of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in McAllen, says it’s important to pray on Feast Day, which commemorates the last day the Virgin Mary, affectionately referred to as the Lady of Guadalupe in this account, appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 12, 1531.
The heart of the celebration honors when Diego presented flowers that the Virgin promised him atop Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City, in order to convince his bishop to build her a temple there. After laying out the roses, the cloak he used to carry them revealed her image.
A midnight mass at the Basilica was held Tuesday evening, which began the celebration of Feast Day and included Mass at 6:30 and 11:30 a.m., and 5:30 and 7 p.m. Services included the reciting of the rosary, lasmananitas, which serenades the Virgin, and mariachi and matachines performances.
“We come together and pray to her together here to honor the blessings she has given everyone,” said Guajardo, 17. “Different groups pray in different ways; folklorico, mariachi, choir, matachines. Dancing is our way of praying to Virgin Mary because back then, they did not know how to pray to her. So they danced.”
Guajardo has danced for her church for five years, and their performance started at the same time the Danza Autóctonas, another matachines group from Weslaco, began.
The two dances commenced outside the cathedral and met at the entrance of the sanctuary. They took turns performing inside of the hall, where hundreds of people followed and recorded the ritual on their phones.
Guajardo says that she will continue to honor the Lady of Guadalupe through dance because she is thankful for her protection and favor.
“I have gotten a lot of blessings from being a matachin,” said Guajardo, who attends McAllen High School. “I pray to her and leave it out there through my dance. She knows what I am asking for even without me having to verbally express it. Every year she blesses me in new ways and I am grateful for all of it.”
Zoraida Sepulveda has been attending the Basilica since she was 9-years-old. She says her faith was tested when she was forced to deliver her daughter 27 weeks into her pregnancy, 13 weeks earlier than expected.
“The doctor said it was either me or her, so I prayed so much,” said Sepulveda, 29. “I promised her that if she kept her alive and me, I would name my daughter after her.”
Sepulveda is now the mother of 11-year-old Jasmine Guadalupe Sepulveda and two other girls.
“I do not get tired of praying; of saying I am thankful for their lives,” Sepulveda said. “She kept them alive, and this day keeps me graceful, thankful and faithful. Everything is so beautiful, and people with all stories come to celebrate the same thing.”
At the end of the day, parishioners of Catholic churches from across the region made their way to the Lady of Guadalupe Church at Brownsville on foot, where a final mass was held and a festival including music and food awaited.