How the Conchero Dancers—or Aztec Dancers—of San Miguel de Allende, and all the joyous sounds they bring with them, rekindled remembered joy in a depressed heart.
When you live where every day is a holiday of some kind—an excuse for a fiesta always at hand—it’s easy to forget one. That day I had forgotten. But Mexico has a way of reminding us.
I’d had a bad night, full of dark images and lonely threats and deceptive might-have-beens. Still living the aftershocks of a destroyed 25-year marriage, financial worries, aging, and the accumulated weight of depression, I had no smiles left.
Walking blindly across the cobblestones, I trudged up one of the many hills that make up San Miguel de Allende, moving toward the Jardín, that central plaza that is the very heart of the town and functions as everyone’s public living room. My mind wandered too, dreading some errand to be run, some friend to be called, some smiles to be summoned up on demand from a well that seemed drained dry. Sore of feet and blue of spirits, all I really wanted to do was go back home and crawl into bed. But there was little food in the house, the library book was overdue, and finances urgently required a stop at the bank.
Lost in my thoughts, I saw but did not register the young woman dressed in the standard conchero costume of neon lamé and huge red and green feathers on her head as she passed me going down the hill in the sun.
The first thing to get past my funk was the vibrations. The thrumming rhythm of drums had penetrated the paving stones, crept down the hill and wriggled straight up through the soles of my sandals. Had I been paying more attention, I would have heard them before I felt them; their pounding was strong, deep, relentless. A reminder.
After years of living in San Miguel de Allende, I’d forgotten to check the calendar. It was the first Friday in March, one of my favorite feast days in a city that has more than its share and one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende. The day honors Our Lord of the Conquest and celebrates the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico. It is a day when many Mexicans honor the twin traditions of their indigenous roots and their deeply held faith in their Christ and their God.
Here in San Miguel, a magical colonial pueblo perched on the high plain of central Mexico, it is also called the day of the Concheros, dancers named for the “conchas”—shell-like seed pods—wrapped around their ankles to rattle as they dance, spin and stomp, jump and leap, mimicking the Aztec dancers of Mexico’s glorious past. A robust mix of pagan and Catholic, this show of their devotion is a highlight of the year. Every year on this day, they fill the Jardín with their fervor, color, movement. And sound. Lots of sound.
I emerged from the narrow street into the wide space in front of La Parroquia church. Its pink cantera stone spires glowed and shimmered in the spring sunshine, that elusive light that draws so many artists to San Miguel. A wave of sound—no, make that noise—almost knocked me over as the pounding of the concheros’ drums rolled over me. I felt assaulted by sound, color, movement. Settling onto a wrought-iron bench beneath the trimmed laurel trees, I let the exuberance take me.
The Concheros Engulf My Senses
The concheros’ flashy pseudo-Aztec costumes, heavy with Pre-Hispanic symbols, neon-colored lamé and fringe, and their two-meter long pheasant plume headdresses, undulated across the plaza, riding the wave of the drumming beat.
From the center of their circle, the pungent bite of copal incense pricked my nose, wafting up from a pottery burner set beside a mandolin made from an armadillo shell, a conch shell, fragrant herbs and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A low mournful note sounded as a senior conchero lifted the giant conch shell to his lips.
All around the Jardín, the celebration pulsed. Three separate groups of concheros twirled, jumped and lunged on the three sides of the square. No group danced or drummed in time with the others. The un-synched roar attacked from all sides.
The dancers and drummers were not alone in their push to summon the gods of music and joy. In the pretty kiosk centering the square, the town band played. A brassy Souza march rolled across the cobblestones, the notes slightly off-key but the oompah strong and enthusiastic. The tuba player looked to be at least 70 years old. The young drummer might have been his great-grandson.
In Mexico, no reason for a fiesta goes to waste, so preparations were being made to continue the concheros’ party well into the night, but to a different beat. In front of the church, a wooden stage waited for more festivities. A rock band sound-checked equipment to make sure it was sufficiently deafening. Then a guitarist launched into a ragged rehearsal, a weird counterpoint to the traditionally beloved oompah blaring a few meters away in the kiosk.
From the southwest, clouds of black, boat-tailed grackles rolled into the square to settle into the branches of the laurel trees where they roosted for the night. It always took them a while to settle in as they discussed their day, squabbling over favorite perches perhaps or crowing over fattest-worm bragging rights. Their raucous cawing rained down like sharp pebbles onto the paving stones.
I closed my eyes, feeling pleasantly assaulted by the noise surrounding me. It rolled up from all sides, like a big cushion determined to block out all thought, all pain, all sensation of anything but itself.
And then the bells began. The huge bronze bells of La Parroquia poured down their peals like waves from the high faux-Gothic spires. They were almost—but not quite—in sync with the throbbing drums, the concheros’ rattling seedpod anklets, the conch shell’s moan, the off-key Souza march, the wailing rock guitar and the grackles’ cackles.
The black mood that had engulfed me an hour earlier was fighting for dominance. And losing. The feeling of that heavy cloud of despair lifting from my shoulders was almost palpable, carried off on the enormous wave of sound and dissipated into the brilliant San Miguel light.
An image sprang to my mind, myself as a young girl with long red braids and freckles sitting in a Sunday School class, reciting and memorizing Bible verses. We were learning the opening of the 100th Psalm:
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
My eyes, my ears, my whole being swept around the square and took in the scene—the color, the movement, the vibrations… the SOUND.
And with a smile of pure joy, a heart light and clear, I thought… finally, I know what a joyful noise really sounds like.
It sounds like San Miguel de Allende on the first Friday in March.
If you go:
In San Miguel de Allende, the Conchero Dancers perform for Dia de La Conquista every year on the first Friday in March in the plaza in front of La Parroquia church. The dancing begins around mid-morning and continues throughout the day and often into the evening. Photographing the dancers is allowed.
San Miguel de Allende lies in the central highlands of Mexico. By car, it is nine hours south of Laredo, Texas, on highway 57. The nearest airport is Bajio International Airport (BJX) located in Silao, about an hour from San Miguel. International flights also fly into Mexico City, about 4 hours from San Miguel by bus or private shuttle. For more information about visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit Experience San Miguel de Allende.
The Conchero Dancers