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
Good Friday, 1978. The stocky, dark young man seemed to me to display a strange combination of curiosity and belligerence when he presented himself to us that night, but perhaps I was merely tired and on edge. The photographer and I had been at it since early morning. Leaving Santa Fe, we had driven the twenty-seven miles to Chimayo. There had been other travelers on that road, but they were walking, not driving—old men and women shuffling along the shoulder as if walking were more memory than act, young children, teen-agers, parents with infants, some at the breast, some in rattling baby carriages. Like us, they were on their way to Chimayo, ten thousand of them determined to complete a pilgrimage to the little church they call the Santuario , built in 1816 over a small plot of exposed clay that is said to hold miraculous curing powers, the same plot of ground once worshiped in other ways, but for much the same reason, by a tribe of Pueblo Indians centuries ago. By the time we arrived, hundreds of pilgrims were huddled under huge cottonwood trees, each waiting his turn to enter the little twin-spired adobe church. The sky had lowered, the wind had risen, and the air smelled of snow. A young woman from an Albuquerque television station nattered into a microphone while her cameraman swept the scene. There was an air of spectacle here that seemed out of place in these mountains, and we drove on, through villages that seemed depopulated, somber as the day. Only twice in all the hours had we encountered anything reminiscent of the Brotherhood. On a narrow, dirt street in Cordova, our progress was halted by a procession of ten young men, moving swiftly, heads down, their leader chanting a quiet prayer. When they saw us, they swerved into an alleyway, too fast for the photographer to use his camera, and by the time we moved up they had vanished into the village. Later, in the hamlet of Trampas farther up the road, we had stopped the car across the street from the church. In a small parking lot filled with pickup trucks and aging sedans, a line of women and children, led by a priest, met with a line of men; on a cross-beamed pole at the head of each line was carried a banner, one depicting Christ and one his mother, Mary. It was not difficult to see that this ritual symbolized the meeting between the two on the way to Calvary, but we could learn no more; a handful of sturdy young men detached themselves and stood across the street from us, their attention divided between our car and the ceremony. In the wintry air, we could hear only the muffled litany of prayer. After perhaps an hour, the lines broke, the priest, women, and children filing into the church, the men into a long, low-roofed building nearby. We had waited, then, certain that something else would sooner or later have to happen, while the mountains treated us with a stunning variety of weather—porridgelike snow followed by hail, followed by sunshine, followed by rain, followed by snow. … Darkness closed over the mountains like a fist, and no one had emerged from either the church or the other building.
Those two incidents were as close as we got to the mystery of the Brotherhood. And now we were in Truchas, at the side of a road high on a ridge. There was a ten-foot cross planted here, and behind it a crumbling old barn—a scene photographed by Ansel Adams more than forty years before. We were waiting for the moon to rise from a bank of clouds above the mountains, so that the photographer could catch the cross in silhouette. While the photographer fiddled with his camera and tripod, a car pulled up next to us, long, low, and dark, its unmuffled exhaust grumbling flatulence, its interior crowded with young men drinking beer. I reflected on what I had heard: that even the county sheriff and his deputies avoided Truchas as a dark and dangerous place.
“Hey, man,” the driver called. “You like my barn?”
“Yeah. My uncle, he gave it to me when he died. What are you doin’ here?”
I explained about the photography. He grunted and took another swig of beer, then got out of the car, the motor still running, and came up to us. He was very bulky, and very healthy, and very much younger than I am. “You from the newspapers or somethin’?”
“No,” I said. “From a magazine.”
He drank again, and spat. “Magazines. We get you people up here all the time. Nobody tells the truth. They treat us like a bunch of freaks.”
I tried to tell him that I knew something of the history here, some of the pain that had gone into the making of places like Truchas, some of the sorrow that remained.
“Listen, man,” he said. “You be good and you tell the truth. My people“—he waved an arm at the shadowed buildings of the little town —”they ain’t stupid. Me, I been to college. Two years. I come back because my uncle died and his land is my land now.” He turned to the photographer. “You go ahead, you take your pictures.” Then back to me. “You tell the truth, man, okay?” He got back into his car, gunned it once, and left three feet of rubber behind him on the road.