Dance and Devotion
Chinelos, Procesión de la Virgen de Guadalupe, 2013. Photo: Doris Ting
CONTRIBUTOR: Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife + Civic Engagement
In 2009, I began commuting from Austin to work on the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project. Every day, I would run into something amazing about this city’s different and diverse communities that would thrill me as a public folklorist. My hometown, at the time, really began to pale in comparison to the cultural vibrancy of Houston — from its stunning major cultural institutions to its grassroots cultural communities. I was hooked!
One Sunday, before I joined Houston Arts Alliance as the director of Folklife + Traditional Arts, I was driving through downtown Houston on a cold December morning. My car was stopped for what I thought was a parade, but I soon realized that this was something quite different. I knew, from my previous work in Laredo with a group there, that what I was seeing was a procession of matachines (a religious tradition practiced by Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics in which a group of dancers clad in outfits that reflect Native American ceremonial garb dance their devotion to a particular holy personage or symbol). This wasn’t one group; it was scores of them, and they were moving through downtown Houston! I pulled up a mental calendar and realized that these ensembles were celebrating the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Now, more than five years later, the Folklife program has started documenting this tradition. One of the groups that participates each year is the Danza Chinelos del Estado de Morelos. Their dance, their apparel and their music differ from anything I have ever seen in Texas.
In a Spanish-language interview with Folklife Program Manager Angel Quesada, Yazmit Lopez explained her attachment to the tradition: “When I started, I was blind to what this dance was about. One of the most educational experiences for me occurred when I was younger, during La Semana Santa (Holy Week). During Semana Santa, I discovered a group of Chinelos dancing for the Virgin of Guadalupe. I asked one of the dancers, ‘Why do you come here to dance for the Virgin?’ He replied, ‘Without any money, we bring our dance and our humble (Chinelo) outfits. We offer to dance for her. It’s our gift. It gives us a special connection to the Virgin.’” Yazmit said, “It’s this story that inspires me each time I dance Chinelos.”
In 2015, for Voices of the Spirit V, Danza Chinelos del Estado de Morelos appeared with Banda Viento Morelense de los Hermanos Campos to share this tradition with their fellow Houstonians. The concert also featured on the dame bill The Cortez Family, Cantor Daniel Mutlu, and Chandrakantha and David Courtney. Voices of the Spirit is always a free concert and an annual celebration of devotional music from the city’s diverse faith communities.