MY PENITENTE LAND
Reflections of Spanish New Mexico
By Fray Angélico Chávez
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This unusual book, Fray Angélico Chávez’s personal meditation on his cultural heritage, is also a kind of spiritual autobiography of the Hispano people of New Mexico. The spirit of New Mexico, he feels, grows out of its dry mountain terrain whose hills and valleys resemble those of Spain and of ancient Palestine. Just as this kind of landscape helped the Hebrew shepherd Abraham to find his God, so in Fray Angélico’s view, have New Mexico’s mountains kept her people close to their God. In evoking this special closeness between the divine and the human, the author returns repeatedly to the Penitentes of New Mexico—the societies of men who scourge themselves and replay the Crucifixion each Holy Week to share the sufferings of their Savior.
Some of his ideas will spark controversy over the meaning of New Mexico’s past, but Fray Angélico Chávez’s viewpoint, representing that of many native Spanish Americans, deserves the attention of every reader with an interest in the state’s Hispanic heritage. No one can read this book without gaining a new understanding of the world of the New Mexican Hispano imbedded in the dry, hilly landscape of the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Fray Angélico Chávez has been called a renaissance man and New Mexico's foremost twentieth-century humanist by biographer Ellen McCracken. Any way you measure his career, Fray Angélico Chávez was an unexpected phenomenon in the wide and sunlit land of the American Southwest. In the decades following his ordination as a Franciscan priest in 1937, Chávez performed the difficult duties of an isolated backcountry pastor. His assignments included Hispanic villages and Indian pueblos. As an army chaplain in World War II, he accompanied troops in bloody landings on Pacific islands, claiming afterwards that because of his small stature, Japanese bullets always missed him.
In time, despite heavy clerical duties, Fray Angélico managed to become an author of note as well as something of an artist and muralist. Upon all of his endeavors one finds, understandably, the imprint of his religious perspective. During nearly seventy years of writing, he published almost two dozen books. Among them were novels, essays, poetry, biographies, and histories.
All true aficionados of the American Southwest's history and culture will profit by collecting and reading the significant body of work left to us by the remarkable Fray Angé1ico Chávez. Sunstone Press has now brought back into print some of these rare titles.
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