In 1598, Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate and 200 men followed the Rio Grande from south of present-day Ciudad Juárez into the canyonlands and mountainous terrain of what is now New Mexico. The settlers brought with them a tradition known as Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), a pageant with roots in Spanish tradition.
“It was the first play performed on American soil, done entirely in Spanish and entirely on horseback,” says Nicolasa Chavez, curator of Latino, Hispano, and Spanish Colonial collections at the Museum of International Folk Art.
Still performed in Spain to this day, the pageant commemorates the final battle between the Spanish Moors and Christians at the end of Spain’s 800 years of Moorish rule. In the Northern New Mexico village of Chimayó, it was regularly performed until about the beginning of the 21st century, she says.
Moros y Cristianos is one of many folk traditions of New Mexico included in Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico, which opens at the museum on Sunday, Oct. 6, and remains on view through March 7, 2021. The opening reception is an afternoon of family-friendly activities that includes musical performances and corn-husk doll making. Big Jim Farms from Corrales will be roasting and selling green chile in front of the museum, and herbalist and ethnobotanist Tomás Enos of Milagro Herbs in Santa Fe will demonstrate the use of local medicinal plants, which will be available for sale.
The exhibition explores secular reenactments as well as religious dramas, seasonal music, and entriegas, songs that honor and commemorate events at different life stages. “These entriega traditions are largely dying out. There’s a few people who still do them,” says Chavez, who co-curated the exhibition with musician and ethnomusicologist Cipriano Vigil. Entriegas recognize milestones in life, including weddings, baptisms, and the mourning of the deceased. “They’re religious ceremonies, but they’re done by the community, outside of the church. So you’ll have your official wedding in the church but then the singer and musician, who’s called the entriegador, comes and sings verses, blessing the couple and asking the community to bless the couple and support them.”
Música Buena includes more than 75 objects from the museum’s permanent collection of more than 130,000 artifacts, as well as objects from private collections. They include the costumes and ceremonial wands of the Danza de los Matachines, the regalia used for Moros y Cristianos, photo and video documentation, recorded songs, and a variety of musical instruments used in New Mexico folk music, such as rustic handmade violins and cigar-box guitars, wooden matracas (noisemakers), and accordions. The oldest piece, a guitar made of wood and rawhide, is from Tierra Amarilla, and dates to 1868. It’s on loan from the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. The most recent instrument, from 2018, is a hand-carved and painted electric guitar by artist Eugene Santillanes. The scene painted on its waist depicts a winged soul taking flight to escape the grasp of Satan.
Many pieces come from Vigil’s own collection of more than 300 musical instruments. But Vigil, who’s in his 70s, collected more than just instruments. Since the 1960s, he’s been collecting traditional folk songs of New Mexico and recording the musicians who perform them. “Everything I collected, I finally turned into a book so people can save it for posterity and we won’t lose our culture,” he says. “Since this culture is considered unique throughout the world, it’s time that people knew a little bit more about it.”
Vigil was born and raised in the small Northern New Mexico village of Chamisal. It was a custom in his village for musicians to gather on the sunny side of a house, or the resolana, and share their music. Music captivated Vigil from the time he was a young boy, and he learned from the resolaneros, as the musicians were known, and snuck out at night to go to the local dancehall. It was only the beginning of a lifelong love of music. “I immersed myself in it,” he says. “I was mesmerized by all this music and made a point to learn it, and now to disseminate it, to share it with people.”
Vigil was a professor of music at Northern New Mexico College from 1980 until his retirement in 2004. He earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology in 1988 and received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for his contributions to music preservation in 1994. His book, New Mexican Folk Music/Cancionero del Folklor Nuevomexicano, was published by University of New Mexico Press in 2014.
Advised by Vigil, Chavez designed the entrance of Música Buena to look like a typical New Mexican dancehall, replete with hanging tin chandeliers and a curved wall surrounding a floor for dancing. Inside, there’s a small, open alcove where scheduled musicians play. Vigil plays a variety of instruments but is particularly known for his homemade cigar-box guitars. At 1 p.m., during the opening reception, he will be performing a mix of traditional songs and original compositions. He’ll be joined by his son, Cipriano Pablo Vigil, and his daughter, Felicita Vigil Piñón, who’ve both been performing with him for more than 25 years. He’ll also be joined by three of his grandchildren.
“The youngest one in my group is 9 years old,” he says.
The exhibition includes digitized sound footage from the museum’s archives and video footage of traditional pageants still performed today, such as El Baile de Los Matachines (The Dance of the Matachines), which has its roots in Spain and evolved out of the Moros y Cristianos tradition. With performers in tall headdresses made of colorful fabrics like velvet and silk, and long silk ribbons decorated with elaborate patterns, the dance suggests both religious overtones and elements of carnivale. Examples of the costumes of the matachines are included in the show. El Baile de Los Matachines is one of few dances shared by Hispanic and Native American peoples. The dancers often perform on Pueblo feast days.
“It’s also done in Mexico,” Chavez says. “There are matachines in Guatemala. As these traditions come over to the Americas, they develop in their own unique ways, depending on where in the Americas they are. A lot of what we have in New Mexico, while it’s unique in the U.S. and not really done anywhere else, does have a relation to other forms that are done in other parts of the Americas.”
Música Buena also documents the popular folk play Los Comanches, a reenactment of historical events that occurred in the Southwestern United States in the late 18th century. It’s still performed at Ranchos de Taos and in other parts of the state. “Los Comanches depicts events that occurred between 1774 and 1779,” says Chavez. “The dramatic version is done entirely on horseback. It depicts the battles when the Spanish, Pueblo, and Ute came together to defeat [Comanche leader] Cuerno Verde, to keep the Comanches out of New Mexico and keep them from raiding.”
Throughout New Mexico, Los Comanches takes on different forms. Some are purely dramatic reenactments and some, like the version performed at Ranchos de Taos, include music and songs. “It’s related to another tradition called Dar los Días [Giving the Days],” says Chavez. “In Dar los Días, they play guitar and sing. The songs are in Spanish. It’s very much like the old Mummer tradition of Europe.” In Ranchos de Taos, Dar los Días and Los Comanches are performed on New Year’s Day. The performers go house to house and sing as a way of blessing the homeowners and welcoming in the new year. “You dance in front of the home, and then you’re invited in for food and drink,” Chavez says. “This goes on solely up in Northern New Mexico.”
Other events involving folk music include liturgical processions like Las Posadas (which can be translated as “The Inns,” although only the Spanish is used). Las Posadas takes place in the holiday season before Christmas and commemorates the days leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. It recounts the travails of Mary and Joseph as they seek shelter for the birth of their holy child. It’s an annual tradition in Santa Fe as well as throughout the Americas. It takes place locally at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 15, on the Santa Fe Plaza. Las Posadas has been a holiday tradition since the arrival of the Spanish, says Chavez.
Música Buena wouldn’t be complete without live music. In addition to Vigil and his family, the opening includes a 2:30 p.m. performance by the acoustic band Lone Piñon, which plays traditional New Mexican folk songs on a variety of instruments, including the fiddle, accordion, mandolin, and guitar. This is one exhibit that’s to be heard as much as it is to be seen. ◀
▼ Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico
▼ Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo
▼ Reception 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6; exhibit through Mar. 7, 2021
▼ By admission ($12 with discounts available); 505-476-1200, internationalfolkart.org