There’s good reason to rise early Sunday morning, dress warmly to brave the cold, and make your way to Mission Concepción for an outdoor dance of 600 matachines, a spectacle unlike any other you’ve seen in San Antonio.

Be there at 7 a.m. to see the arrival and blessing of the dancers, who hail from many San Antonio parishes, by Fr. David Garcia. A planned march from Mission San Jose was canceled due to a lack of a permit.

The matachines will march instead from Mission Concepción to the nearby Concepción Park, through the park and over to the San Antonio River and then return to dance in front of the mission from 8-9 a.m. Stick around for the bilingual mass celebrated by Fr. Garcia at 10 a.m. The music is inspirational inside the wonderfully restored chapel, and outside, parishioners offer delicious breakfast tacos in return for donations to support the parish.

David Garcia Missions interior
Fr. David Garcia at Mission Concepción.

“La Danza de Matachines,” or “The Dance of the Moors and Christians,” represents one of the earliest cultural expressions of conquering Spaniards dominating indigenous people in the New World.

For those who love masked celebrations, this dance is where the conquistadores introduced native people in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas to the history of Moors being driven from Spain. Some call such masked dances “conquest dances.” The dance also signifies the conversion to Christianity of indigenous groups, whether by proselytization and persuasion, threat of force, or miracle event.

“These cultural events celebrate who we are as a people and who we are as a city, and over the 39 years I have been a priest I have always supported and encouraged the preservation of these traditions,” Fr. Garcia said. He recalled his years as rector of San Fernando Cathedral, when dancers would often show up on the night of Dec. 11 to dance outside the cathedral in advance of the Dec. 12 feast day.

It’s an odd thing to think of art as an instrument of domination, but it once was in this case. Now the marching and dancing of matachines is more a celebration of history, heritage and religious feast days.

The matachines now dance to commemorate the Feast Day of San Juan Diego on Dec. 5 and the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, which is Thursday, Dec. 12.

Both feast days are especially significant to San Antonians of Mexican descent. Many Mexican Catholics fervently believe in the miraculous appearance on Dec. 9, 1531 of the Virgin Mary to Aztec Indian Juan Diego in what is now present-day Mexico City. Mary was said to have appeared not as a white European, but as an Aztec princess speaking the Aztec language, and in a second appearance, she was said to have left an impression of her likeness on Juan Diego’s mantle as proof to the doubting local Catholic bishop that Juan Diego was truthfully recounting his experiences.

The miracle event sparked the massive conversion of indigenous groups to Catholicism at the hands of the Spaniards, who until then had enjoyed little success in converting indigenous people in Mexico to Christianity.

Virgen de Guadalupe. Courtesy image.
Virgen de Guadalupe. Courtesy image. Credit: Courtesy

That miracle gave us one of the most recognizable images in religious art in the New World, that of our Lady of Guadalupe. Her image can be found in countless San Antonio churches and has been replicated or interpreted by many local artists in many forms.

Believers and non-believers can appreciate the annual ritual march and dance. One can imagine in future years the possibility of the matachines departing the city’s streets and arriving from one Spanish mission to next via the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach. Surely any procession of dancers in this city during its founding years would have followed the life-giving waters.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.