April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
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?
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.
The next seven decades were a period of extraordinary squabbling among a succession of Spanish governors and Franciscan friars, each of whom fought to exercise control over the hapless Pueblo Indians. In this contest the Indians themselves grew increasingly uncertain and, in the end, surly. In 1680, after five years of drought and many more years of debilitating European diseases and oppression, the Indians of the various pueblos formed a confederation, rose up, and started killing Spaniards. “Streaming from pueblos and cornfields in every part of the province,” Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., wrote in The Patriot Chiefs , “they slew 400 Spaniards, drove 2,500 others in shock and terror back to Mexico, and in a few weeks swept their country clean of the white man’s rule.”
But the Spanish needed their northern outpost as a buffer between Mexico and expanding French and British interests in North America. In 1692, by which time the Pueblo confederation had dissipated, they sent north a new governor, Don Diego de Vargas, with two hundred soldiers. With the cross of conciliation and, by New World standards, a minimum of bloodshed, Vargas set about restoring the regency of Spain.
New settlers moved into the province, many filtering out from Santa Fe into the little river and creek valleys that pocketed the ragged foothills of the Sangre de Cristo, pasturing their herds of sheep and cattle, scratching out minuscule farms, slowly coalescing into tiny communities—Nambé, Cundiyo, Chimayo, Espanola, Santa Cruz, Cordova, Truchas, Penasco, Trampas, Talpa, Ranchos de Taos, and Taos. With the Pueblos and, after a military alliance formed in 1797, the Comanches of the north, they fought off Navaho and Apache raids. And under the shadow of the biblical mountains, they built a life that survived with astonishingly few changes through the remaining years of Spanish rule, as well as the Mexican revolution of 1821, the two decades of American traders and trappers that followed, the American occupation of 1846, the Mexican War, and more than a century under the governance of the United States.
It was a profoundly simple life, and an even more profoundly isolated one, largely cut off even from the religion that lay at the heart of its culture. This land was, as a priest described it in 1851, “a country of ancient Catholicity,” and the people stubbornly built their tiny churches and chapels; but Catholic officialdom, with its headquarters for the province tucked fifteen hundred miles away in Durango, Mexico, sent them few priests. “Spiritual administration in New Mexico is in a truly doleful condition,” Antonio Barreiro, a church emissary from Durango, complained in 1832. “Nothing is more common than to see an infinite number of the sick die without confession or extreme unction. … Corpses remain unburied for many days, and children are baptized at the cost of a thousand hardships. A great many unfortunate people spend most of the Sundays of the year without hearing mass. Churches are in a state of near ruin, and most of them are unworthy of being called the temple of God.” When people are denied the rituals that give form and meaning to their lives, they will contrive or adapt their own. And so it was that out of a great well of loneliness Los Hermanos Penitentes , the Brotherhood, came to be.
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.
No one knows precisely when the Brotherhood got its start, or with any certainty how it developed its rituals. What is known is that it was in apparently nourishing existence in the mountains by the 1830's, and that whatever form the Brotherhood gave them, the rituals were an expression of a tradition that was an important part of the cultural baggage of those who had crossed the sea to establish New Spain in the sixteenth century. To suffer pain, that tradition held, was to share, however briefly and imperfectly, in the glory that was God’s when His Son was scourged and crucified —as well as to express penance for all the sins men are heir to. Francis of Assisi summed up the idea neatly in the thirteenth century when he answered a friend’s question as to what was “the perfect joy“:”When we arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, drenched with rain, congealed with cold, smeared with mud and faint with hunger, and knock at the door and the porter comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ and we say, ‘We are two of your friars,’ and he says, ‘You are nothing of the sort. You are two rogues who go about deceiving the world and robbing the poor of their alms. Get out of here,’ and he makes us stand outside famished in the snow until night … and if then, constrained by hunger and cold and the night, we plead with him, for the love of God, to let us in, but instead he comes with a cudgel, grabs us by the cowls, knocks us down in the snow, beats every bone and we endure with patience and joy, thinking of the pangs of the Christ, which we also should bear for love of him … here and in this is the perfect joy.”
To achieve that “perfect joy” through self-flagellation, to whip one’s own back until bloody, was a common part of Spanish religious life by the sixteenth century, accepted by the Church, provided that it be done in private, under the guidance of a priest, and, as the Church put it, “in moderation.” Cortes is said to have practiced self-flagellation; certainly, Don Juan de Oñate did on his way to colonize New Mexico. On March 20,1598, Holy Thursday, he camped on a small stream, and, according to the chronicler of the expedition, “went to a secluded spot where he cruelly scourged himself, mingling bitter tears with the blood which flowed from his many wounds.” So did many others of the expedition, the chronicler says, including the Franciscan friars who thus emulated the joy of their founder, Francis.
The people of the mountains, left almost completely to themselves in both secular and religious matters, borrowed from this tradition, refined it, and, carried it to sometimes remarkable extremes—to the level, in fact, of a grim folk art. Flagellant processions and ceremonies might take place on any given feast day—always on the Feast of Saint Francisbut it was during Easter week that the rituals reached their climax in dramas played out in most of the villages of the mountains. Each village tended to create its own variationsit was folk art, after all—but the scenario that follows can be taken as fairly typical.
All week, the men of the Brotherhood would lock themselves in the church to fast and pray and beat themselves, coming out only for minor processions—rehearsals, as it were. Then late on Good Friday, long after the traditional afternoon service to mark the death of Christ, as darkness grew close, all the people of the village gathered in the church for Tinieblas , another traditional ceremony commemorating the earthquake that was said to have torn the earth when Christ died. Doors and windows were closed and locked, the church interior lit by candles. Then, one by one, the candles were put out, and when the last was snuffed, signaling the moment of His death, the congregation would burst out in a chorus of screams and sobs, symbolizing souls in torment, and metracas (rattles) would stutter and chains would clank to symbolize the earthquake; and in the darkness would be heard the hiss and slap of yucca whips wet with the blood of the flagellants.
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?
What any recitation of the bloody and painful rites of the Brotherhood tends to obscure is the fact that it provided the people of the mountains a sense of community and cohesion, without which no society, however large or small, can survive. In the absence of the clergy, it kept faith alive, took care of the sick, collected money and food for the destitute, and buried the dead with rituals that may have lacked the high sanctity of a Requiem Mass but at least comforted the mourners with spiritual form. As Marta Weigle notes in her authoritative study Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood , “The Brotherhood took root because it fulfilled vital needs for social integration and individual spiritual security.”
But it was neither the nobility nor the necessity of the Brotherhood that captured the attention of outsiders—it was the blood. The sight filled that good Protestant, Josiah Gregg, with revulsion and drove him to a distortion in Commerce of the Prairies (1844): “The person who brought up the rear [of a procession he witnessed] presented a still more disgusting aspect. He walked along with a patient and composed step, while another followed close behind belaboring him lustily with a whip. … The blood was kept in perpetual flow by the stimulating juice of certain herbs, carried by a third person, into which the scourger frequently dipped his lash. Although the actors in this tragical farce were completely muffled, yet they were well known to many of the by-standers, one of whom assured me that they were three of the most notorious rascals in the country. By submitting to this species of penance, they annually received complete absolution of their past year’s sins, and, thus ‘purified,’ entered afresh on the old career of wickedness and crime.” (It should be noted that cases of one Brother having been whipped by another are very rare, and that absolution from sin could come only from a priest; the Brotherhood never claimed otherwise.)
If Gregg and other Americans reacted with disgust, the Catholic Church responded with outrage and edict. In 1833 Don Antonio de Zubiria, Bishop of Durango, visited Santa Fe, and when he heard about an order of Pénitentes in the village of Santa Cruz, took to the pulpit and forbade “for all time to come those brotherhoods of penitence—or, better still, of Butchery—which have been growing under the shelter of inexcusable toleration. Each parish-priest, or friar-minister, in all the territory of this administration, will see to it that not a single one of those brotherhoods remains in existence.…Moderate penance is not forbidden…but let it be performed without assemblages wrongly called brotherhoods which have no legal authorization whatsoever.”
Staunch words, but in New Mexico, the territory of Zubiria’s adminstration took in more than 120,000 square miles with fewer than ten priests among them, and when Jean Baptist Lamy became bishop of Santa Fe in 1851, he still found it necessary to issue warnings against the Brotherhood. Lamy’s successor, Juan B. Salpointe, went a step further—he banned all Brotherhood ceremonies from the churches.
Church edicts had approximately the same effect on the growth of the Brotherhood as Roman laws had on the spread of Christianity. Over the next forty years, the movement blossomed, undeterred by either clerical hostility or intrusion by outsiders. “The Penitentes will hold their orgies at Los Griegos, a village three miles north of Albuquerque, to-day,” announced the Albuquerque Morning Journal in 1886. “Their rites consist of flagellations, carrying crosses, and other horrid rites which should be suppressed. W. L. Trimble & Co. will run hacks to Los Griegos this afternoon, leaving the San Felipe Hotel at noon. Those who have not seen the Pénitentes ought to go.”
Driven from the churches, the Brothers built their moradas in the hills. By the end of the century, these meetinghouses could be found scattered as far south as the Mexican border and as far north as southern Colorado. The Brotherhood formed individual moradas into regional councils, and the movement became something of a political force, albeit a minor one in a territory thoroughly dominated by Anglo politicians, and certainly not important enough to deserve the abuse heaped upon it by the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1892: “It is well known that the practices of the Pénitentes are cruel in the extreme; they are criminal, often ending in self-destruction and murder. They are subversive of all good government as the Pénitentes usually stand together, regardless of all else, when one of their members runs for public office or is upon trial for violations of the law of the land.” Since membership remained secret, it is impossible to determine the actual number of Penitentes in this period, but it is safe to say that the Brotherhood oversaw much of the spiritual and temporal needs of its communities.
This power did not long survive World War I and its aftermath. Many young men who had learned something of the larger world as soldiers did not return to their mountain villages. Paved roads that allowed people to come into the mountain valleys more easily also made it easier to get out, and during the boom years of the 1920’s, village population declined. There were more priests, now, and a more active church life. During the Depression, the federal government began offering aid programs, schooling, and WPA projects, all of which undermined the Brotherhood’s influence. The Pénitente rituals declined in intensity; public self-flagellations became rare, and by the end of the 1930’s re-enacted crucifixions were even rarer.
As the power of the Brotherhood waned, so too did the antagonism of the Church. In 1947, after it agreed to conditions set forth by Catholic officials, the Brotherhood was declared by Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne to be “a pious association of men joined in charity to commemorate the passion and death of the Redeemer,” and was welcomed back into the fold. There was a certain poignance in the gesture; by 1960, membership was estimated to have dwindled to only twenty-five hundred, and today is thought to be no more than seventeen hundred in fewer than two hundred moradas .
Easter Sunday, 1978. The Easter Sunday service of Riverside Church in New York city is justifiably famous. This was my first, and like the rest of the two thousand people who had congregated there, I was entranced by the pageantry. It was a celebration of joy, of resurrection and redemption. There was joy in the music, joy in the service, joy in the sermon, joy in all the pomp and circumstance of it. When the minister led us all in the last Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah , I joined with everyone else in trying to negotiate that difficult song, and did it with pleasure.
But in the shadows of my mind, I could not quite forget the small procession I had seen two days earlier in New Mexico, or the ritualized meeting between Christ and His mother, or even the young man who had challenged us before moonrise in Truchas. Here, we were rejoicing as if pain and death were just transient whispers in the life of men; back there, both were everything in a dark world where true joy reigned only in heaven. I wondered then, as I wonder now, which of us was closer to the truth that both peoples believe must lie somewhere beyond us, out where the universe bends.