Guardians of Norteño culture

Sociedad Protección Mútua de Trabajadores Unidos preserves folkloric dance, music and more

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Preservation of folkloric music and dance of the Southwest, particularly that of Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, is one of the key cultural missions of Sociedad Protección Mútua de Trabajadores Unidos (Mutual Protection Society of United Workers), primarily known by its acronym, SPMDTU.

“SPMDTU is said to be the oldest Hispano organization in the nation,” said SPMDTU Vice President Stephen Trujillo of Taos, who says folkloric music and dance go hand-in-hand with one’s language and cultural values. Trujillo is a former Peoples Bank officer and member of the Ranchos de Taos chapter of SPMDTU, Concilio #18.

The organization was originally formed in November 1900 to protect land grant holders from U.S. land swindlers, who by the 1890s were committed to taking every acre of land (and life and limb if necessary) that was protected by the U.S. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for landholders born and raised in what nowadays includes Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Those Southwestern citizens alive in 1810 to the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 lived under three different flags in their lifetime alone — first under the Spanish flag until 1821, when Spain finally recognized Mexican Independence; then under the Mexican flag until 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when they came under the rule of the Stars & Stripes.

The cultural mix of 500 years of Spanish and Mexican culture, plus many thousands of years of American Indian culture, are all nuanced in the music and dance of the Southwest, captured like cellular memory that comes rushing back with the opening refrains and dance steps of los viejitos — the old-timers in music such as la Varsoviana, el valse de los Paños, una polka, un chotis, el vaquero, la cuna, and el valse de Don Gorgonio. El valse de los Paños is performed with bright handkerchiefs, ranging from bright pink to turquoise to purple.

Some of the dance songs have migrated from the salons of Paris to Mexico City, then up El Camino Real in the mid-18th and 19th centuries, to find a home in Nuevo Espagne and Nuevo Mejico, before the territory finally became New Mexico.

There is also the musical form known as la entriega, a sort of rite-of-passage song that is sung for special occasions. Depending on the occasion it, too, takes different forms — la entriega del bautismo/baptism, la entriega de los difuntos/the deceased, la entriega de los matachines/the bullies, and perhaps the best known, la entriega de los novios, the rite of passage into marriage.

One of the ways the Sociedad promotes this traditional dance and music of the Southwest is through grants and fundraising for Mariachi Espectacular, the now famous brainchild of Nick Branchal with the able assistance of his wife and educator Bonnie Branchal. The Branchals were honored as the Unsung Heroes of 2003 for The Taos News special section, Tradiciones.

Branchal said the music is mostly instrumental and synchronized with the dancing, like country line dances, with everybody doing the same step —; that was the tradition back in the late 1800s to 1900s — preserving the colonial folkloric music of New Mexico.

In 1981, then-Taos High School band teacher Branchal, told The Taos News he was desperate to pierce the indifference most students showed for their Hispanic culture — they didn’t want to listen to Spanish music or sing Spanish songs, much less even speak the Spanish language.

By 1988, the Branchals and their student group were finally named Mariachi El Tigre and in 1991, mariachi became an official course offering at Taos High School, and the first in the state. With mariachi, of course, came its colonial dance correspondence.

Branchal also created the program with the intent of sharing the language and music with people of different cultures. His students have studied with or performed on the same stage with professional mariachi groups such as Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Cobre, Los Camperos, Mariachi Tenampa and Mariachi Sol de Mejico, to name just a few.

Currently run by Noberto Martínez, an original mariachi student of Branchal, the annual Mariachi Espectacular music and dance event incorporates the music students of violin teacher Audrey Davis, guitar teacher/advisor Nick Branchal and the dance students of instructor Dorothy Gusdorf.

Davis used to play music with Jenny Vincent, the Taoseña who wrote down the music that historically was transmitted orally, originally memorized note-by-note throughout the decades. Vincent passed last year, at age 103. Davis, who started teaching violin in Taos High School’s mariachi program in 1993, plays other music related to Hispanic cultures.

Gusdorf used to teach Spanish colonial dances. She had a dance group called Fandango de Taos, showcasing the colonial dances in New Mexico and Colorado.

On a CD recording made of the 2016-17 Mariachi Espectacular, Gusdorf shared some of the history behind the dances. The dances are simple, she said, they “came via Mexico to New Mexico.” They have European influences from places like Germany and France. Regarding Valse de los Paños, the dance done with handkerchiefs, she explains that with so many men gone off to fight in the wars, there weren’t enough men to dance, so they developed the dance called ‘Paños,’ where there’s one male and two females, and they direct the dance with the handkerchiefs, so everybody gets a turn to dance.

The underlying purpose of mariachi is fostering greater understanding of Hispanic culture and the origin and impact of this engaging music — exactly one of SPMDTU’s missions. Trujillo said SPMDTU is working to keep this alive so the performances somehow become self-sustaining.

Trujillo said a lot of credit goes to The Healy Foundation, who gave two years of grants, 2015-2017. Peoples Bank is to be recognized, Trujillo said, for a lot of effort in obtaining grants for restoration of the original building of SPMDTU in the town of San Luis, Colorado.

But with various cutbacks, Trujillo said the very survival of mariachi at Taos High School hangs in the balance.

You don’t have to ban music and dance to destroy a culture, just get people to stop doing them — to broadly paraphrase author Ray Bradbury’s famous quote saying, "Don’t burn books, just get people to stop reading." And SPMDTU is working hard to keep people, especially young people, engaged.

“People are very happy we’re doing this for the sake of not losing what we have as far as traditions,” Trujillo said.

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