- 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
When the last prayers of Tinieblas had been chanted, everyone moved out of the church for the principal eventthe re-enactment of Christ’s walk to Calvary. At the head of the procession strode the Hermano Mayor , the chief Brother of the village, carrying a crucifix; behind him was the Rezador to recite from a prayer book, and behind him, the man to pull the carreta del muerto , a heavy wooden cart in which sat a carved skeleton, the figure of death, holding a strung bow with an arrow symbolically ready to be loosed at any sinner. Near the rear of the procession men carried on their shoulders maderos , large wooden crosses, in an imitation of Christ. Finally, there were the flagellants wearing masks of cloth —not for purposes of secrecy, but so that no one could accuse them of seeking vainglory in their agony. Sometimes there were ingenious variations on the theme of pain. Alice Corbin Henderson described one in a procession she viewed in 1937: “The rhythmic stroke of the yucca lash came down … on dripping backs, the heavy lash lifted with both hands and swung first over one shoulder and then the other; then a few steps taken, and another stroke of the lash. Not—in spite of the spectacular sight of blood—so severe a penance as some others. The next single penitent was a man of extraordinarily powerful build, his entire torso tightly bound with branching cactus…and his ankles shackled with heavy, dragging iron chains.”
Slowly, to the piping of a pitero , or flute, the recitation of prayers, and the chanting of hymns, such processions would drag themselves from the church hundreds of yards to a Calvario , usually located on a rise near the village cemetery. Their way was illuminated by torches in the hands of the Brothers of Light (each chapter of the Brotherhood was divided between the Brothers of Light and the Brothers of Blood—those who chose to whip themselves or otherwise perform public penance). At the Calvario the final act would be carried out. The Brother chosen for the great honor of being this year’s Cristo was lashed by the hands, waist, and feet to one of the large maderos , and then, while the torches flickered and the people chanted, the madero was raised and its base set in a hole. When strangled circulation finally caused the Cristo to faint, he was cut down from the cross and taken away to be cared for by the Brothers.
Holy Saturday, 1978. Taos. The name still rang with a splendid romance. It conjured up rich images of mountain men smelling of buckskin and bear grease, helling it up in the 1830's with the raw aguardiente they called “Taos Lightning,” leaving their names to history—Kit Carson, Jim Beckworth, Jim Bridger, the rest. Or of great caravans of groaning wagons come down from the Missouri River on the Santa Fe Trail. Or of an even older history, when the town was just one more of the mountain villages that dotted the land north of Santa Fe.
We had spent the morning at a museum outside Taos, viewing a fine collection of Pénitente artifacts, then stopped in town on the way to my flight out of Albuquerque. There is little history to be found here now. Gas stations crowd in on this tiny town; banks, restaurants, and motels hedge it in. Traffic strangles in the narrow streets. Daytime neon glitters, and out of bars jukebox disco shatters the air.
Three miles out of town, we came to the village of Ranchos de Taos and turned off the main road to a gray, one-storied adobe structure sitting in the middle of a large pasture. A small graveyard dotted with little tombstones and punctuated with flowers lay behind the structure, and as I gingerly followed the photographer through the barbed-wire fence, I felt like a desecrater. After the clatter of Taos, the quiet here was almost unnerving, broken only by the sound of an occasional meadowlark singing across the fields.
The building was a Penitente morada , the meetinghouse for the local Brotherhood. It was empty, the large wooden door and the wooden shutters of its two tiny windows locked. It would remain empty and unused tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I knew, for the Brotherhood finds the touchstone of its faith not in the resurrection of Christ, but in the passion of His death. I leaned against the building, the adobe warm in the early afternoon sun, and watched the photographer work. Behind us, perhaps one hundred yards away, stood a large school made of pink cinder blocks, with aluminum windows and several asphalt basketball courts.
It was to the moradas the Brotherhood had moved when it was banned from the churches in the nineteenth century. Where would it go now?