Los matachines denotes a traditional religious dance and the dancers, musicians, and elders who participate in it. Its roots go back to a type of widespread medieval sword dance called a morisca. Originally, the dances acted out the battle between Christianity and paganism. The Spanish brought the ritual with them to the New World, where over time it incorporated Mexican, Indian, and American religious and social symbols. Most modern versions rely heavily on representations of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Cross. The dance is usually performed in connection with major liturgical feast days such as Christmas. It is often performed by twelve to eighteen dancers who represent such characters as El Monarca (Montezuma), his bride (Malinche), El Abuelo (the Grandfather), and El Toro. The principal dancers are supported by Los Capitanes and Los Matachines, groups of male dancers. Versions and meanings of the dance vary depending on the identity and traditions of the performers. Typically, the story revolves around a young virgin, Malinche, who tries in vain to get someone to slay the bull (El Toro). El Toro, representing paganism, is eventually slain by El Monarca, who symbolizes the acceptance of Christianity. Supporting characters such as El Abuelo and La Vieja (the Old Woman) provide comic relief. The dance is done in a series of scenes and can take an entire day to complete. The costumes vary from group to group but usually represent a mixture of Spanish, Mexican, and Indian dress. Brilliant colors and elaborate masks are common to most performances.
In Texas, Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz de la Ladrillera performs a variation of the traditional matachín. The group moved to Laredo from the coal-mining towns of Mexico by the 1940s and settled in the barrios that became known as La Ladrillera and Cantarranas. Upon their arrival they built a chapel to house their Holy Cross in its own terreno, its own place or land. The matachín performed by this group honors the Holy Cross as a symbol of communal unity and commitment. On the twelfth of December in honor of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and on May 3 in honor of the Holy Cross, the fifty or so members of the dance group in Laredo follow the image of the Virgin and an eight-foot wooden cross adorned with colorful flowers on a religious procession to Holy Redeemer Church, dancing at particular stops along the way. The syncretism of pre-Columbian and Christian symbols found on the matachín costumes crops up in various other elements of the celebration, which typically lasts from three to five days. Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz de la Ladrillera is the oldest of the groups that still do matachín dances in Laredo. In 1987 the group was invited to the American Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It has also received a Texas Folklife Resources apprenticeship grant. The troupe performed at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio in 1988 as well as the Dance Performance program in Houston. Matachines are also performed in other Texas towns and as far west as California, as well as in northern Mexico; some performances occur in Yaqui, Mayo, and Opata pueblos, but others, as in Laredo and El Paso, in Mexican-American communities. Some groups such as the Yaquis prohibit women from participating, but for the most part the dance is performed by both men and women. In the 2000s different matachines groups were active in Laredo.