- Historic Sites
The Brotherhood Of The Mountains
Maligned and misunderstood throughout much of their history, the Penitentes of the American Southwest have nevertheless given their people a sense of community and spiritual security. But for how much longer?
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
Holy Thursday, 1978. The mountains are not old, as the ages of mountains are measured. Seventy million years ago—give or take a few million years—they were no more than rounded hills rising above the sediment-laden sea of the later Cretaceous Age. Then came the great uplift of the Laramide “revolution,” when most of western North America slowly emerged, with much cracking and faulting and spewing of volcanic fires, from the primordial waters. The soft hills rose to become the southern tongue of the American Rockies, curving down from Colorado into the north-central portion of New Mexico, their highest peaks topping out at more than thirteen thousand feet, carved and riven by wind, rain, and ice. In the long trough between them and the San Juan and Jemez mountains to the west, a trickle of water began cutting its way south to the Gulf of Mexico; it would become a river, and would be called the Rio Grande.
Those are the geologic and geographic facts, not enough to prepare you for the sight of the mountains. For me, that came as I bounced north from Albuquerque in a little twin-engined, six-passenger plane. I was suitably impressed. Sweeping up from the high desert floor, they hung darkly over the civilized clutch of Santa Fe, clouds It, trembling just above them like foam at the crest. of a breaking wave. And, like a wave, the mountains were a deep gray-green, then: later, from the ground, I watched the bending rays of the setting sun color them in shifting tones of red. It was the evening of Holy Thursday, the day, so tradition says, that the crowd in Jerusalem cried, “Give us Barabbas!” and so condemned Christ to travel the Via Dolorosa to his death at Calvary. The range that I watched at the end of this day was called Sangre de Cristo. Blood of Christ. The Spanish put their names on the land with precision.
Today both the name and very sight of the Sangre de Cristo range … stir up lyrical emotions within me,” Fray Angelico Chavez once wrote. “But at the same time they recall the more realistic grim processions of a flagellant brethren who first appeared on its foothills; around the time the name itself was being applied to our beautiful mother range. Furthermore, they bring up visions of a Lebanon overlooking a much older landscape! of ancient ritual sacrifices, Nazarites, and a Nazarene bearing his cross.…”
The flagellants of whom he wrote were members of La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno , the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus Nazarene—more simply known as Los Hermanos Penitentes , the Penitent ! Brothers, as thoroughly maligned and misunderstood areligious sect as any in the long annals of Christian deviation. I Misconceptions, however, are probably inevitable, for the? Brotherhood, by necessity, became a profoundly secret organization, one whose status in the official Catholic Church was I shaky until very recent times. Like the mountains in which it functions, the Brotherhood became invested with mystery— I mystery, and the paranoia that can come to a people who find themselves caught at the edge of time, struggling to retain cultural values threatened by all the roiling pressures of this! end of the twentieth century.
Struggle, of one kind or another, has a long tradition! in this land. Certainly it was so for its first people, the Pueblo Indians, who built their cities of earth along the valley of the Rio Grande—at Tesuque, San Ildefonso, Abiquiu, Santo Domingo, and Taos, among other places. Two centuries of a hard life became even harder in 1540, when a Spanish treasure-seeking probe entered the valley, conquistadors with horses and armor and black-robed missionaries. The priests had come to harvest souls, butl the expedition’s leader, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, was there in search of the seven golden cities of Cibola, or anything else that would enable him to march back to| the Valley of Mexico crowned with glory. But there were no golden cities in the Rio Grande valley, and after wintering there—and laying waste to two Indian villages that refused the Spaniards’ demands for food and blankets—Coronado moved on to Kansas.
A succession of Spanish expeditions followed in the next fifty years; none of them stayed for long. Then in 1598 there came Don Juan de Oñate with a colonizing expedition that stretched three miles. On the west bank of the Rio Grande, just across from the junction between it and the Chama River, he founded the village of San Gabriel. Oñate became the territory’s first governor, and quickly established friendly relations with the local Pueblos. But it was gold and silver he and most of his colonists had been seeking, and after ten years of fruitless exploration Onate resigned his governorship and, with many of the original settlers, returned to Mexico. A handful stayed behind in San Gabriel, the northernmost pinprick of Spanish empire in the New World. In 1619, the colony was moved some forty miles south, reestablished, and renamed Santa Fe.