MY PENITENTE LAND
Reflections of Spanish New Mexico
A boy’s will is the wind’s will, said a popular poet of yesteryear, and it was just such a gust of boyish impulse that made me do something rash and thoughtless long ago, with consequences I never forgot. Indeed, it all turned out to be the seed from which this book grew, slowly and imperceptibly through a lifetime, as trees do, depending for shape and size on circumstances of nourishment and weather.
I must have been some ten years old at the time, that spring day when a playmate and I found ourselves peering into the open rear window of the village cobbler’s, who also doubled as the town barber. He was our friend, letting us play in his cozy shop during those long and bitter winters for which our high New Mexico mountain valley was noted. He and my father had a mutual respect for each other; and my mother, as parish organist, valued his faithful and creditable bass in those operatic Latin masses still being butchered in the years following the First World War.
But he also belonged to that brotherhood which performed bloody flagellations during Holy Week at a stark and windowless morada, or adobe lodge, on a mountain flank well away from the village. It was not long since he had returned to resume his rumbling kyrie eleisons jn the church’s choir loft at Eastertide.
This man was working intently at his low shoemaker’s bench, in a far corner beyond the empty barber’s chair, when my mate and I stuck our heads through the open window and burst out singing an insulting parody we had learned from the older youths in town. Even the melody mocked the “flamenco” nasal wail of the brotherhood’s own alabados:
porqué te-éndas azotando?
Me comi-úna vaca gorda
y-óra l-ándo desquitando!
O Penitente sinner,
why go flogging yourself?
I ate a fat (stolen) cow
and I’m paying for her now!
Only because the surprised and angered man had to round the strung-out adobe structure (of shop and contiguous dwellings) in order to get at us, and for what we immediately realized was a well-deserved trouncing, did we have time to scurry to our respective homes. I sped past my mother in the kitchen into a bedroom and was not surprised to hear soon afterward a hard steady pounding at the kitchen door. Then I overheard the cobbler’s low rumble relating my crime, as well as my mother’s loud and clear apology, which carried a promise of prompt retribution. The man went away and she came straight to me, unable to move as I was, and cuffed my skull; then she led me by the ear to where my father’s razor-strap hung from a nail.
But her emotion had weakened her also, fortunately, and I was spared a bit of flagellation which in this case would have been poetic justice to the full. Instead, she sat me on a bed beside her, and gravely she began explaining to me the mean thing I had done.
The Penitentes, she said, were not to be made fun of. They were sincere Christian men, most of them poor and unlettered, who loved the Suffering Christ so much that they felt themselves compelled to flog their backs and carry heavy crosses during Holy Week. They were also imitating many of the saints who had scourged themselves for the sins of mankind. In doing so the brothers bothered no one else, she went on; only mean and uncouth people tried to spy on their penitential processions, or mocked them as I had just done.
She was careful to point out that one or the other of the hermanos (brethren) might not be such a good fellow outside of Lent-I thought of the verse about a stolen cow-but most of them were like the cobbler, good and honest folk. Besides, she added with something like a tone of relief, only a very small portion of the men of New Mexico had ever been Penitentes.
Later on, I asked her when and how the Penitentes had come to be, but she said she did not know for sure. Nobody seemed to know. People took it for granted that the flagellant society was something very, very old, like Lent and Holy Week.
This matter of antiquity, the very vagueness of it, played havoc with my young mind. I also remember asking my mother more than once why we were not exactly the same in speech and demeanor as the priest from Spain who was our assistant pastor at the time, and why we differed in the same way from a family from Mexico living up the street from us. She would flush with impatience—at her own inability to explain, I am sure-merely saying that our forebears had come from Spain a very long time ago. But she didn’t know when or how. All this made the double puzzle of Penitentes and ancestral origins merge most confusedly inside my inquisitive young head.
It was in this same boyhood period that I asked my mother if any of the menfolk of her own immediate family had ever been Penitentes. She bridled visibly, declaring proudly that her side of the family had always been such good Catholics that they had no cause for joining the Penitentes. Secretly amused by her answer, I asked about my father’s side. She replied curtly: “Your father’s people were not even good enough Christians to be Penitentes.” My father grinned in good humor when I mentioned this to him afterward.
Decades later, during my many years of documentary research on the Spanish colonial history of New Mexico, I had the rare good fortune of being able to trace both my parents’ branching-out families back to the sixteenth century—well over two hundred pairs of grandparents in all. Imagine my amused surprise upon discovering that my mother had been instinctively right: While her own direct ancestors were for the most part ardently devoted to affairs of the Church, a goodly portion of the twelve generations on my father’s side had not been quite so devout.
For in their detailed meaty information, the documents were teaching me more about my people than mere chains or lines of descent. Although we were truly Hispanic in blood, language, religion, and customs, we were no longer Spaniards like the clergyman from Spain just mentioned. Nor were we really Mexicans, as our North European-derived neighbors chose to call us. The differences, I was beginning to suspect, were all a matter of cultural and linguistic development from a parting of the ways with both Hispanic Europe and Hispanic Middle America down three centuries and a half.
As to the origin of the local Penitentes, I had kept on wondering about it ever since that early day when I barely escaped a whipping on their account. The question kept coming up during my youthful years away from home, while studying for the priesthood in the Franciscan Order. Perhaps it was a buried feeling of guilt, deeply impressed upon my soul as well as on my skull by that timely maternal cuff and admonition, which stirred in my subconscious whenever I came upon corporal penance in Scripture and church history, along with the general religious story of mankind down the ages. But even in subsequent adult years, after I had plowed through about every known document of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial period, nothing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came up to satisfy my curiosity.
What had been written so far was in the past century, and in English, by American newcomers who knew little of local Spanish history, and nothing of ancient Spanish religious belief and custom. Ever since the United States had annexed New Mexico in 1846, some persons with a bent for writing journals had begun publishing the most unflattering reports about our people from their distinctively different point of view. Shocked by what they considered our benighted religious customs, they focused upon a strange society of flagellants which they had discovered in certain mountain villages.
What was commonplace in this regard to the local folk seemed most bizarre to these newcomers, to say the least. Their accounts, understandably sensational, did not differ much from what I had known since childhood. These were Lenten and other processions in which some of the penitential brethren scourged their naked backs to blood, while others carried heavy timber crosses upon their bruised shoulders; and on rare occasions, it was told, one of them had himself tied to a cross, as if crucified, until he fainted away.
But then these writers went on to connect this society and its practices with scattered odd references to certain Spanish religious customs among the early colonists of New Mexico. A pioneer in this regard was Charles Fletcher Lummis, a well-meaning but impetuous author of his day, who resolved that the Penitentes had come with the very first Spanish settlers and through the agency of the Franciscan missionaries who accompanied them. Subsequent writers kept on parroting his mistaken assumptions.
That there was something wrong at bottom with all these theories came to me gradually as I began reliving the experiences of my people in the past through an ever-growing intimacy with the primary documentation of my homeland’s history, and against the background I had already acquired of my remote Hispanic and Christian heritage. Meanwhile, I was also beginning to perceive how memories of race and the mood of landscape can lend shape and direction to certain impulses within the human heart. This intuition waxed stronger after the intimate story of my homeland and my people became second nature to me.
As it finally turned out, New Mexico’s particular society of flagellants had not come with the original colonists more than three centuries and a half ago, but only at the beginning of the past century. While its basic ideas were very ancient, the organization as such was a new arrival. Nor was it directly Franciscan in origin; it most certainly was not a development from the lay Third Order of St. Francis, nor a degeneration of it, as will be seen.
And yet, it was not an altogether alien thing. As a relatively recent phenomenon, it simply had brought together and to the surface certain elements long festering in the otherwise healthy mystique of a people. Several years ago I published the gist of these findings in approved scholarly fashion. Since then all kinds of books and articles about my people and the Penitentes have kept tumbling out of the card files of researchers in sociology. They all bristle with rare data and photographs but miss the very essence of their subject.
All this made me more and more convinced that mere arrays of facts and dates, by their very nature, leave the inner core of human things unsaid. The intimate story of internal beliefs and yearnings, which are grooved into human beings by age-long racial development and no less colored by the seeming accidents of topography and climate, can only be told in other ways than by stringing out facts and dates. Even that Book which so many believe to be a record of God’s own dealings with mankind is neither pedantic history nor spelled-out theology in its telling, but a great poem made up of many poems and poetic narratives. And the Bible’s earliest protagonists are upland shepherd people on a particular landscape very much like Spain’s and ours here in New Mexico.
This last observation is what opened rich endless vistas for me in laying out the plan of this book along with its pastoral and spiritual themes. For Palestine, Castile, and Hispanic New Mexico—grazing lands all and most alike in their physical aspects—likewise share a distinctive underlying human mystique born of that very type of arid landscape. They all differ basically from the largely agrarian and industrial Western world that we know, in both their economic and their religious outlook. Consequently, the prior Palestinian and Castilian “semitic” backgrounds of life and worship have to be outlined at some length, and in some depth, if we are to understand the intimate story of my people of New Mexico upon their very own landscape—while also keeping in mind a now-dying penitential brotherhood which continues to be a source of wonderment to many. For the latter’s story cannot be adequately told without the other.
After all, we Hispanic New Mexicans are all Penitentes in some way, through blood origins and landscape and a long history of suffering. Hence this is far less a treatise on the Penitentes, who are a late feature in New Mexico’s long story, than a sort of “scripture” about a penitential New Mexico wrestling with her God upon a Bethel landscape made to order.
To return to my original metaphor, the hidden mustard seed of long ago developed into a full-grown tree at last, ready for me to paint in broad strokes as best I can. Let it also be a much-belated apology to a long-dead cobbler. For, while a boy’s will is the wind’s will, the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts, as the same poet went on to say.