La Historia Del Rio Abajo

Submitted photo

Shelly Lynn Shetter and Fernando Batres at their wedding in 2015.

Last month’s edition of La Historia del Rio Abajo described the all-but-lost Hispanic tradition of men and their families proposing marriage by sending formal written requests to prospective brides and their families.

A suiter was invited to dinner where his proposal was either accepted or rejected, based on whether he was served calabazas (squash). His proposal was accepted if he was not served calabazas, but his proposal was rejected if he found calabazas at his place at the table.

For better or worse, this tradition of proposing marriage is now largely forgotten. But other beautiful wedding traditions have survived and have, in fact, evolved over time.

The best example of such a custom is a dance performed by nearly every guest at nearly every Hispanic wedding: La Marcha de los Novios (The March of the Newlyweds).

What is La Marcha? When did it begin? How is it danced? What is its meaning? And why has it had such a lasting impact on New Mexico culture?


What is La Marcha?

La Marcha is a traditional dance performed at most Hispanic weddings in New Mexico. It’s so famous and popular that in 2019 a state legislator in Santa Fe suggested that it become New Mexico’s official state dance.

La Marcha has become a tradition, with great variations not only in New Mexico, but also in Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, including California, Arizona, Southern Colorado and Texas.

In some places, only the novios (newlyweds) and their immediate wedding party participate in La Marcha. Unfortunately, one version includes a drinking component. These and other variations can be seen on YouTube.

Despite its fame, no one is quite sure when or where the tradition began. Some speculate that, as with so much of our musical culture, it originated in Mexico in the 19th century.


Planning La Marcha

Plans for La Marcha begin long before the wedding and wedding reception take place. Someone in the wedding party, most often the padrinos (maid of honor and best man), recruit a couple who is recognized as accomplished leaders of previous Marchas.

The list of these respected dance leaders could fill several pages, but would most likely include couples like Carlos and Felicitas Baca, Matt and Theresa Baca, Rupert and Filomena Baca, Gilbert and Rosie Chavez, Joe and Corrine Duran, Agapito and Natividad Garcia, Patrick and Bernadette Montaño, Mike and Rosemary Padilla, Ernest and Libby Sanchez, Juan and Daisy Sanchez, Leroy and Cecilia Sanchez and Eduardo (Lalo) and Rafaelita Silva, to name a few.

If selected to lead La Marcha, many couples agree to do so without charge, happy to assist and honored to be chosen. Other couples charge fees for their expert services, just as some clergy and most caterers charge for their time and participation.

Matt Baca, one of the authors of this column, remembers his mother and father, Carlos and Felicitas Baca, proudly playing this role at many weddings at the old gym behind the school house in Adelino or at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Belen. Reflecting the seriousness in which they played their roles, Carlos always wore his best dark suit, while Felicitas wore her finest attire when they led La Marcha.


Submitted photo

Thomas Gonzales and Ruth Ann Huning-Gonzales with the leaders of their La Marcha, Mike and Rosemary Padilla, in 2013.

Submitted photo

Clara and Matthew Garcia with the leaders of their La Marcha, Joe and Corrine Duran, 2000.

Submitted photo

Ricky and Sabrina Sweeney with the leaders of their La Marcha, Patrick and Bernadette Montano, in 2007.

Dancing La Marcha

La Marcha begins soon after a wedding reception begins at a well-decorated dance hall. The selected leaders circulate through the crowd, encouraging everyone to join the dance. Even the most faint-hearted gladly accept, knowing that they will have great fun. Couples, from children to senior citizens, join in.

La Marcha proceeds with couples following the leaders and newlyweds around the dance hall in a large circle, signifying life. The couples soon split, with the groom and all of the men forming a line going in one direction and the bride and all of the women forming a line going in the other direction, symbolizing that the newlyweds have come from different families and backgrounds.

Clapping in time to the music, those in line next snake around the room, suggesting the anticipated twists and turns in the newlyweds’ lives ahead.

The dancers eventually form a bridge with joined hands. Each guest goes under the bridge, followed by the newlyweds themselves. The bridge represents the many bridges that the couple must build if they are to enjoy marital bliss.

Finally, a circle is formed around the bride and groom, denoting that there is no beginning or end to their love for each other — and the support their guests give them on that day and always. Encircled by those they love, the novios then dance their first dance as a married couple.

Other dances follow, notably the dollar dance in which guests pay dollars to dance with either the bride or the groom. Dollar bills are often pinned to the newlyweds’ clothing or collected by their padrinos. The money is usually used to help cover the expense of the couple’s honeymoon.


Matt and Theresa Baca’s experience

Matt Baca long admired his parents’ skill in leading La Marcha at weddings in Valencia County. Matt and his wife, Theresa, had participated in many such dances, but were taken by surprise when Matt’s father, Carlos, turned to him at a wedding reception and insisted that he and Theresa assume the leaders’ role.

Growing older, Carlos and Felicitas knew it was time to pass their responsibility on to the next generation, perhaps in fear that it would be neglected and soon forgotten.

With no previous training in their important new roles, Matt and Theresa were initially unsure of themselves. But, with time, they grew accustomed to the role and truly enjoyed the responsibility. They never asked for a penny for what they considered to be less of a job and more of a privilege or gift to the novios.

All usually went well, but Matt and Theresa encountered some problems over the years. Although La Marcha is very simple (simply follow the movements of the person ahead of you), some people could not follow directions well.

The inexperienced and the inebriated were the most likely to cause disruptions; it is best to do La Marcha near the beginning of the reception rather than towards the end when revelers have had more to drink. Chaos could ensue with lines moving in all different directions — until the lead couple manages to restore order so the dance can resume.

Other problems can arise. Tall people and ladies in high heels have trouble fitting under hand bridges formed by shorter dancers. Older dancers sometimes need to rest if the music goes on for too long. But disruptions are rare, and even unruly participants usually manage to restrain themselves for the duration of the dance.

All know the significance of La Marcha, first as a joyful part of each wedding reception. The dance is filled with meaning to help the newlyweds begin their married lives with wisdom and community support.

Most importantly, La Marcha is respected as a great tradition that should be sustained as a vibrant, vital part of our rich Hispanic culture.

La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998. The authors wish to thank all those who kindly shared their memories and photos of their Marchas. Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the authors’ alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.

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Richard Melzer, guest columnist

Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.

He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.

Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].

Matt Baca, guest columnist