Published in the Vail Daily 3/15/09
The Dancers of the Lord of the Conquest
The drumming resounds throughout the Jardin, reverberating along the narrow cobblestone streets of the historic center of San Miguel de Allende. As Yolanda and I approach, it becomes an elemental force, primordial in it’s insistence, a deafening, all encompassing thunder.
Scores of elaborately costumed dancers, brilliantly resplendent in huge, feathered headdresses, are being driven by this force, a chaotic symphony of color. I count nine different groups, each with their own drummers, each in more extravagant regalia than the last.
Most groups of danzantes move through a choreography of well practiced steps, gyrating, twisting and pivoting in unison with every change in cadence. Other groups are more free form, the persistent pounding driving them into a sweating frenzy of self-expression.
This is the Festival of The Lord of the Conquest. Loud explosions rocked the town at 6:30 am, jolting us and everyone else out of a sound sleep. Fusillades continued until 7 am mass.
The dancers gather to celebrate the anniversary of the Chichimecan’s conversion to Christianity almost 500 years ago. The indigenous peoples of the region held agricultural rites at this time. After conversion, the priests likely adopted this festival. Today, it honors San Miguel’s most venerated figure, Our Lord of the Conquest, a life-size crucifix, placed on the Parroquia’s central altar for this occasion. Group after group enter the church in full regalia to pray and recite the Apostle’s Creed before the figure.
Outside, the cacophony goes on unabated into the evening as fireworks explode overhead. Though loosely based on depictions of Aztec dress, the dancer’s costumes and makeup have evolved into the elaborate and fantastic works of art we see today. Skulls, horns, shark’s jaws, bird and alligator heads creatively adorn the brilliant plumage of the headdresses.
Rattles, conch shell trumpets, walnut shell and seed pod ankle bracelets, as well as small drums, add to the dissonance. Concheros, playing armadillo shell guitars, lead the procession. These local families guard ancient relics and maintain traditions of their Chichimecan ancestors. The fervor, spirit and creativity of the participants is unlike anything we’ve seen.
We leave after the fireworks, our ears and bodies reverberating with rhythm. Climbing into bed, we still hear the drumming in the distance as the dancing goes on into the night.