HOUSTON, TX -- While other families may be spending their Friday evenings recuperating from work or school, Houston resident Vanessa Ramirez, her mother Dalila and several friends sit at the dining room table and work on costumes that are part of a centuries-old tradition honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Virgen de la Guadalupe is also known as the Patroness of the Americas, though she holds a special place in Mexicans' hearts.
With needle in hand and numerous containers in front of them filled with colorful glass beads, sequins, pieces of fabric and thread, each one of them is focused on their task. The sounds of the electric sewing machine and laughter fill the house. It is only 7 p.m. but they know they will be there past midnight. They are adorning their "nagüillas" - the clothes that, as matachines, they will wear in several performances in the days to come.
"I get excited every year, but I think my excitement has to do more with the new dancers that want to join."
Vanessa refers to the new dancers who will perform for the first time with the Holy Ghost Matachines, a dance troupe named after the parish they belong to in southwest Houston. For the last four years, the young woman has been one of the group's captains.
"We are in the front or in the back, marking the steps of the other dancers. We have to keep in mind that they are following us."
The tradition of the matachines goes back many centuries. It is believed that the Spaniards brought the dance to the New World during colonial times as part of their worship. In 1531, according to Catholic teachings, the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico to a poor Aztec Indian named Juan Diego in Mexico, and she told him to call her Our Lady of Guadalupe. After that, the matachines became an integral part of this celebration.
"It is indescribable," Vanessa says, "As soon as you get in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whether is a big image or a small one at church, you feel very warm inside." Sewing with Vanessa is Gerardo Perez. Even though he is only 16 years old, he is also a captain.
"Basically, I am the one that is in charge of telling the people to start dancing," says Gerardo, who started dancing five years ago as part of a promise that his mother Juana made to the Virgin of Guadalupe when Gerardo had kidney problems. His health has improved along with his skill in establishing the choreographies of the matachines
"What motivates me is the way we put faith in it and how it feels when we are performing."
For Vanessa and Gerardo, there was no school or academy where they could learn how to be a captain. Like a legacy, the steps were passed from the captains who served before them, the captains who started more than 20 years ago when the Holy Ghost matachines were founded.
"We learn by watching the other captains, so basically it is just a cycle. The captains teach the other dancers and so on," says Vanessa
The last part of the year is busy.
"We start dancing in October and we dance every weekend until December"
Many of the performances take place at the homes of parishioners who as early as August request for the matachines to join them in praying the rosary. After the prayer ends, the atmosphere explodes with the sounds of drums, sleigh bells and an occasional cheer in honor of "La Guadalupana." Each event culminates with a meal offered by the hosts to the matachines.
The festivities culminate on December 12, when countless Catholics around the United States, predominantly in large Mexican-American populations, unite to worship La Guadalupana, La Morenita, the Patroness of Mexico and the Americas.
Much like the matachines who came before them, the Holy Ghost Matachines will perform the elaborate dance in her honor on her feast day. And captains like Vanessa and Gerardo will not only continue to pass along the tradition through the elaborate dance steps, but also their devotion in Our Lady of Guadalupe through their strong faith.