Released from Immigration Jail, a Mother Dances to Fulfill her Promise to the Virgin of Guadalupe

Matachines dance in Phoenix - Photos: Valeria Fernández

Matachines dance in Phoenix. (Photos: Valeria Fernández)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Sandra Figueroa, an undocumented immigrant, first heard about the dance of the Matachines while she was in jail. She promised that she would learn it to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe and thank her for helping her to be free and to reunite with her family.

“I made my promise and I’m very excited to fulfill it,” said Sandra, 36, who was detained with her husband Carlos last June during a work-site raid by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office at the car wash where they both used to work.

For Catholics who worship the Virgin of Guadalupe, the saint patron of Mexico, December is a month to rejoice and be grateful.

Rosaries start at the beginning of the month and the figure of the Virgin visits every home. It’s a communal activity in which neighbors share their faith. They also share pozole, a stew made with hominy which is considered to contain the Virgin’s blessing.

Everything leads to Dec. 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This is the date in which the Virgin appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in Mexico over 400 years ago, according to Catholic tradition.

Sandra Figueroa takes part in the celebration.

Sandra Figueroa takes part in the celebration. (Click for more)

An important part of the celebration is the tradition of the dance of the Matachines. Researchers believe it started in Europe and that it was later adopted in Mexico as part of the devotion to the Virgin.

On a recent evening, the Matachines visited Sandra’s neighborhood at her family’s request. The group set up on the streets in front of an altar to the Virgin. Performers shaking gourds danced to the beat of three drums following elaborate footsteps.

Listen to the Matachines’ music:


The dancers wore bandannas on their hair and split red skirts with bells and the image of the virgin.

Kathy Figueroa learnt the dances with her mother.

Kathy Figueroa learnt the dances with her mother. (Click for more)

“We’re dressed with humble clothes, like the indigenous people in our country, because we want to teach our children humility,” Sandra said.

Sandra rehearsed for two months with her daughter Kathy, 10, her stepsister Marina and two nieces.

Kathy, a U.S. citizen, was too afraid to let her mother go to rehearsals by herself every night so she decided to learn the dance too. She still fears a sheriff ‘s deputy could stop her mother on the street and deport her.

The future of Sandra and Carlos in the U.S. still depends on a decision by an immigration judge. But Sandra remains hopeful the Virgin will continue to bless her.

On Dec. 6, her dance group participated in a large event in downtown Phoenix with 70 other groups of Matachines.

“It feels good to be walking free on the streets of Phoenix again,” she said.

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AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.