by Carmella Padilla

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"Yee-Hah!" The cry rips through the crowd like a firecracker on the loose as the funny-looking figure who exclaims it skips madly between two rows of masked dancers. Their faces veiled in brilliant strands of jewels, beads, ribbon and fringe, the dancers move together in perfect rhythm, perfect step. Strains of fiddle and guitar mesmerize the audience until, in some outrageous act of silliness, the whip-wielding wild man inserts himself into the scene.

Meet Rudy Herrera, the affably annoying abuelo (grandfather) of Los Matachines de El Rancho. Since 1975, the dance troupe has entertained countless northern New Mexicans with its homespun rendition of the ancient Matachines dance. The elaborate pageant symbolizes the Spanish conquest over the indigenous peoples of the New World and their conversion to Christianity and is danced both by Hispanics and Native Americans in New Mexico. In every performance of the El Rancho group, however, Herrera is the hilarious leading man. "From the time I was a kid, my dream was to be a Matachines dancer," Herrera recalls. "It has to do with the dance, the energy from the group, the sense of belonging, the thing about being Hispanic and from the Rio Grande Valley."

Herrera was born in El Rancho across from the village's San Antonio de Padua Church on the feast day of San Antonio. Though he grew up in Nambe, he often returned to El Rancho for his birthday to watch villagers don elaborate masks and shawls in honor of their patron saint. There in the shadow of the white, mission-style church, Herrera's mind kept time to the rhythms of the mysterious Matachines dance.

Twenty-five years later, concerned that the Matachines tradition had been lost in the valley, Herrera and some friends decided to revive it. They contacted former dancers, who gave them old recordings of Matachines music and taught them the dance steps. Costumes were resurrected from local closets and new ones were made based on traditional designs. The group debuted with a cast of 20, including Herrera in the role o the abuelo, the wise and witty elder who disciplines the young.

"He's a trickster, an outrageous character, a clown," Herrera says. "But he's also a disciplinarian, which is why he carries the whip. In terms of the dance itself, he's like a director. He sets the pace and keeps the audience involved."

It didn't take much for Herrera to figure out how to get people's attention. He tapped the riches of his imagination to create a unique abuelo character of his own. "The abuelo is full of contradictions," he says. "He's a grandfather dressed in his Sunday best, but his clothes haven't been cleaned in a year. He's dignified enough to own a three-piece suit, but he can't find the whole suit, so nothing matches. He's from a thrift store in Santa Fe."

A local artist put the final touch on Herrera's costume with a handmade mask that is at once humorous and horrifying. Another friend gave him a whip to keep unruly audiences in line. But only Herrera himself could pull off such a preposterous personality.

Pulling the pieces of his costume from a duffle bag, Herrera transforms himself in the reflection of a small hand mirror. He tightens his red necktie, and brushes his gray hair into a wavy frame around his face. Patterns and colors collide as he combines a checked shirt, plaid pants and pinstriped vest. Slipping a dark jacket over his shoulders, Herrera cracks the whip and lets loose a raucous roll of laughter. The only sign left of Herrera is the bushy beard beneath his mask.

"When I put that mask on and the music hits, it's easy for me to assume all those different abuelo characters," he says. "Don't even talk to me about this reality because Rudy is long gone."

Through each hour-long performance, Herrera masterfully manipulates the dancers and the crowd. Like a court jester, he teases the audience in a series of spontaneous spoofs. He keeps the dancers in line and their costumes on straight. All without missing a single beat. "The first thing I do is feel the crowd out, and right away, I know whether I'm going to have a hostile crowd or one that wants to have some fun," he says. "My job is to create interest in the dance, and if it takes being really outrageous to do that, I will."

But more than fun, Herrera says it's the sense of community that keeps him dancing throughout northern New Mexico. For it was here that the Matachines tradition took root generations ago. And it is here, he says, that the dreams of abuelos are born. "I'm going to continue until I can't anymore," he says. "Then, hopefully, some little kid who's watching out there will step in and crack the whip."


Santa Fe writer Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published in 1998 by the University of New Mexico Press.

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