If my grandparents were alive today, they would be proud of their family.
At this year’s Christmas parade in downtown Fresno, a group of us — three generations of cousins ranging in age from 7 to 62 — danced los Matachines, the traditional Aztec Indian dances that my grandfather brought with him to the U.S. when he migrated from Mexico in the 1920s.
So goes the story that, as a young man in Mexico, my dad’s dad, Nazario Luna Diaz, didn’t have money to donate to the church, but he wanted to express his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints. To do so, he formed a group of danzantes, or dancers, that would perform at religious observances as a way of paying tribute. After migrating to the U.S. with my grandmother, Patrocinio, he kept the dance tradition alive, including his own children in the dance groups as they got older.
Los Matachines (pronounced mah-tah-chee-nes) is still a religious tribute. But for a new generation of dancers, myself included, the dances go beyond paying homage to the saints. The dances have become a tribute to my family’s heritage, to the efforts that my grandfather made to ensure that, as a new American family, we didn’t lose the culture that originated in Mexico.
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By the time my grandfather died in 1968, just days after I was born, the pride of los Matachines was instilled deeply in my family. His efforts had been successful. When The Fresno Bee first told the story of my family in 1971, Nazario’s 10 children had given him nearly three dozen grandkids — and counting — and many of them, already teenagers, were still actively dancing.
Even the strongest family tree can splinter into a forest of distant relatives, one where old traditions — such as pounding the pavement to the beat of a drum while dressed in traditional native costumes — can easily fade into history. My family was no exception. As the years went on, the tradition of los Matachines, which had been alive on and off for about 50 years, began to fade.
For nearly 30 years, there had been no performances. The costumes were packed away in garages and attics. The teenagers in the photographs that accompanied that 1971 newspaper article eventually became parents, grandparents and, in a few instances, great-grandparents.
With each new generation, los Matachines became more of a distant memory, a story about a tradition from years past — until one of the cousins got married in 2012. No one knows exactly what sparked the impromptu performance at that wedding reception, with our Tio Angel, then 77, leading some of those same teenagers-turned-grandparents in the steps. But in that moment, the tradition came back to life.
The first target was a family reunion performance in September, with the Christmas parade to follow. Over the summer, under Fresno’s blistering sun, we met whenever and wherever we could to practice — on a concrete slab at Roeding Park, on the tennis courts at Quigley Playground, on the driveway of a cousin’s house. At the same time, the sewing machines and glue guns came out so that costumes could be restored.
Sure, it was a lot of work — but we did it together. The older cousins had plenty of laughs as they went down memory lane, sharing their stories about the summer practices they endured as kids and recalling the performances in parades and festivals throughout the Valley. Meanwhile, younger cousins — kids who normally might not see each other often or spend much time together — were getting to know each other and becoming friends.
The roar of laughter among those sprucing up the costumes drowned out the noise of the sewing machines on more than one occasion, and some might argue that these practices and sewing sessions were more about restoring the roots of the family tree than they were about reviving the dances. Even cousins who weren’t part of the dance group that performed in the parade did their part, helping the younger kids with the steps, working on costumes and lining up along the mall on the morning of the parade to snap pictures and cheer us on.
And that’s when it hit me. Dancing los Matachines has been an experience I’ll never forget — not because my legs were sore the next day or because I found myself out of step on more occasions than I care to count. It was because the build-up to the experience brought us back together. Restoring those costumes restored our sense of family. We had proven to ourselves that family trees don’t have to splinter and distant relatives don’t have to become total strangers.
Nearly 100 years later, the family traditions that had been born in Mexico were still alive in a well-established, deeply-rooted, close-knit, multi-generational American family.
My grandparents would be proud.