Among the Penitentes 

Remembering an ancient Holy Week tradition in southern Colorado

We know the popular version, the one that's been stereotyped for hundreds of years.

A line of somberly dressed men emerges from a windowless, one-story, adobe structure and marches up a muddy lane splotched with patches of melted snow. In the lead plods a rezador, who intones the words of a soulful prayer recounting Christ's suffering that terrible last day of His mortal life. A stooped figure playing a pito, or homemade reed flute, follows the rezador, piping a melancholy trill that fills the April air with a mournful lament.

Behind the pitero come the flagellants, stripped to the waist, their faces twisted with pain, who scourge themselves with the sinewy tentacles of a multi-tipped whip, expressly to experience a measure of the grief Christ endured as He hung from the cross.

At the end of the line a man drags a wooden cross, heavy and cumbersome, which will be propped upright in the ground at a secret calvario. Perhaps the man will be lashed to it, in emulation of the manner in which Jesus Christ was affixed to the post which for two millennia has come to represent His agony and His redemption.

"The idea of the whip as a means of grace is one of the oldest in the history of nations," writes Charles Lummis, an early Anglo observer of native customs in the Southwest.

"Herodotus tells us that the ancient Egyptians flogged themselves in honor of Isis. The boys of Sparta were whipped before the altar of Artemis Orthia. In the Roman Lupercalia devout citizens esteemed it a felicity to be struck by the leathern thongs of the Luperci. And by the beginning of the fifth century the Christian church came to recognize the virtues of the lash for offending monks ..." (The Land of Poco Tiempo).

Blood runs crimson

No sect or organization in the Southwest has stirred as much controversy as the order of Los Hermanos Penitentes.

Its origin is obscure. The order was founded in Spain some 400 years ago. Initially it had nothing of the lash about it.

The members -- "men of good morals and good sense" (Lummis) -- met for religious study and discussion. The prototype of the order was brought to Mexico, and later to what is now New Mexico and southern Colorado, by Franciscan friars in the company of Spanish conquistadors.

The first recorded bout of public self-flagellation occurred in 1598, when Don Juan de Onate, leading a party northward to colonize New Mexico, scourged himself in a private act of contrition on Good Friday. He stood amidst the dreary sound of doleful chanting by Franciscan friars, clothed in girdles fashioned from cactus thorns.

One historical account fairly revels in the deed: "The night was one of prayer and penance for all. The soldiers with cruel scourges beat their backs unmercifully until the camp ran crimson with their blood."

The brotherhood expanded over the next three centuries as the influence of the Franciscans declined. First under Spanish rule, then under Mexico -- for complicated political reasons -- Franciscan friars were forced to leave the country.

With the American acquisition of Spanish lands north of the Rio Grande in 1848, penitentes in some communities stepped in to fill the void left by the absence of a viable clergy.

Rise of the order

Historians trace the rise of the order in the 15th century to several possible antecedents. When Spanish conquistadors first entered New Mexico, they found evidence of blood sacrifice among the Indians whose pueblos they subjugated along the Rio Grande Valley.

Additionally, members of the order may have been influenced by a sect of medieval flagellanti, initiated in the 13th century by St. Anthony of Padua. Condemned by the church as heretical, the sect disappeared for awhile, only to resurface during the plague years of the Black Death (1348-1350).

A third possible source were religious plays put on by traveling companies, who enacted Christ's suffering on the Cross, first in Spain and later in the New World, for the purpose of bringing the message of His life to people in isolated areas.

Another influence was the Rule of the Third Order that St. Francis of Assisi established in the 13th century. The rule, which touted a life of simplicity, humility and piety, was approved by Pope Nicholas IV in l289.

Accompanying this stricture was the concept of penance; and while the penitentes may have taken it a step beyond, devotion and self-abnegation are among the foundation stones of both the modern and medieval churches.

The exact origin of Los Hermanos Penitentes will probably never be sufficiently explained.

But, as scholar Marta Weigle says, "Whatever their beginnings, the Penitente Brotherhoods are clearly not aberrant. They exist well within the history of Spanish Catholicism and its mystical penitential and Franciscan traditions.

"Maintained by colonists in a hostile frontier with a climate similar to their Spanish homeland, it is not at all surprising that this is so."

One of three left

William Roybal is an elderly man, well into his 70s, with a charming smile and gentle manner.

I met him and his wife, Trinidad, one afternoon in late September in a convenience store in the little town of Avondale, on the Arkansas River 20 miles east of Pueblo.

Through a miscommunication, we had trouble making connection, and as he shook my hand in a shy, tentative fashion, he apologized for the delay. He was a short man, compact, rather dapper in a striped button-down shirt and khaki jacket. His teeth glowed like polished bone. He laughed easily, and the corners of his eyes were splashed with myriad crinkles.

Roybal is a penitente, one of only three remaining, by his estimate, in the Spanish Peaks region. He had agreed, along with his wife Trinidad, to meet with photographer Barbara Sparks and myself and show us the church and other facilities where the brotherhood conducts services during the Lenten season.

We followed them in our car along a dirt road that led out of Avondale, south along the steep cutbanks of the lower Huerfano River. The road soon lost its rural width and became little more than a dirt track snaking south-southwest across open grassland, with the Spanish Peaks clearly in view 60 miles away.

The land had obviously been overgrazed in the past; arroyos cut deep furrows across the flat surface, and the dry grass was spiked with prickly cholla. The time was late September; tufts of chamiso (a type of sage), tinged a mournful yellow, flashed along both sides of the dirt track.

In the distance we discerned a compound of three buildings rising out of the unruly grass, backlit by the afternoon sun, which threw their outlines into shadowy relief. Bill got out of his car and opened a gate. A moment later we bumped inside, pulling up near the entrance to a long, rectangular, west-facing church.

It was cool inside the church, soothing and quiet. The ceiling was painted blue, the altar bare and unadorned.

"We used to keep our santos here," Bill said, "but no more. Vandals have trashed us too many times. One time they threw the pews through the windows, and we found them piled up outside in a mess of broken glass. But we put it back together, and we'll keep putting it back together no matter how many times they return."

Both Bill and Trinidad radiate an aura of unflappable civility and strength. Trinidad told us how she came from a penitente family in the region, and what the Easter season was like when she was a little girl.

"My grandfather helped build this church in the 1890s. He was a member of the order, and remained so until he died. We used to come and spend all of Holy Week here, my entire family -- cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews -- as well as friends.

"Oh, there were many in the brotherhood back then, and we took over the deposito and the women cooked meals on a wood stove, and I helped in any way a small girl could help. For that week, we lived humbly and well. Neither my grandfather or father would allow the place to be wired for electricity, and so we made do with kerosene lamps and by cooling our perishables in the cistern.

"Those were wonderful times, so peaceful and holy. For a week at least of every year we lived in genuine harmony with God and each other."

Height of power

Bill Roybal looked fondly at his wife. "We observed a round-the-clock vigil for the entire week," he added. "We're too old to do that now, and there just aren't that many of us left anymore. Back then, we had a mayordomo, not a brother, who orchestrated everything and made sure we did what we had to do on time.

"At the height of our power, there were as many as 30 or 40 penitentes on the premises. Day and night, we had at least 12 singing and 12 praying and 12 eating over in the deposito so they could continue with the singing and praying when the others got tired or hungry."

We stepped outside the church into the windless air. I tried to imagine what the place must have looked like with all those people generating worshipful thoughts, how it must have felt, the ambiance it must have given off.

Bill then escorted us to the morada and opened the door. The morada was low and squat, consisting of three rooms; one, a storage room, he didn't open. The walls were painted a pale green. The middle room was bare and sparsely furnished.

The chapel where the brothers prayed and made their devotions was similarly bare; a couple of retablos hung on the walls. I flashed back to the morada that Floyd Chavez had showed us the previous Easter, tucked away at the edge of a private road, outside the town of Weston, on the south slope of the Spanish Peaks.

The morada had been abandoned for many years, and the owner of the property on which it sat had used it to shelter his cattle. In one room there was a stone fireplace where the penitentes did their cooking.

The floor of the windowless room where the brothers did their scourging was littered with generations of cow piles. The adobe walls were splotched with unsavory marks. Blood, I thought, and asked Floyd, who shrugged.

"We were kids," he said. "We used to hide in the woods across the road and watch them when they came out carrying the big cross. We'd follow them a little ways up the road, but never to where it was they put the cross in the ground. It was too scary. My father would have smacked me good if he knew I was spying on them."

Fitting and proper

Another flashback filled my thoughts as we stood outside the morada with Bill and Trinidad.

Good Friday, 1971 or 1972. I had driven with a friend from Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, to Truchas, a mountain town on the road between Espanola and Taos. We were in a store on the main drag watching a rug maker work her loom when suddenly we heard something in the street.

I stepped to the door in time to watch a line of somberly dressed men climb out of a gulley in back of the stores on our side of the street. Unhurried, in single file, led by two men, one holding a small cross, the other a fluttering banner, they crossed the street at a solemn, ceremonial pace.

Traffic ground to a halt; pedestrians on the sidewalk, Anglo and Hispanic, paused to watch. I think I remember hearing the reedy quaver of a wooden flute. The men in the procession could have been marching on the face of the moon for all the awareness they had of the people watching them. Their gloomy faces looked inexpressibly sad.

Their feet touched the same ground as ours, but they clearly belonged to another realm. There may have been 15 or 20 of them. They filed across the street and proceeded down an alley between two buildings and disappeared through a gate into somebody's backyard.

Following our tour of the morada, Bill and Trinidad took us through the deposito, a roomy, one-story building located at the west edge of the compound.

In back was a kitchen with cupboards and a wood stove; in front, a spacious parlor with couches, tables and chairs. The walls were painted the same soft green as the walls of the interior of the morada. This is where the women prepared food, where it was served, where people sang hymns and held prayer services. The prohibition on electric appliances is still enforced by Bill and Trinidad.

"We keep it that way so people can go into the past whenever they want to," Trinidad said. "It just seems fitting and proper."

"We used to do the Stations of the Cross outside in the yard," said Bill. "But we've gotten so old and so many of us use walkers and crutches, we hold it inside the big room here."

All the trouble in the world

Outside the east door, between the deposito and the church, stood an old china elm, forlorn and solitary, its gnarled limbs creaking in the light, dry wind. The tree was tall and messy with splintered branches, shorn of all leaves but a transparent, papery few.

"It's always been hard to be a penitente," Bill confessed. A sad expression stole over his face. "We've endured a lot of persecution, not just from Anglos, but from Hispanics who think we're different and strange.

"It began when we left the safety of the family home and went off to school. We got teased on the playground. During Easter, kids threw rocks at us. And all because we choose to experience Christ's suffering in a more intimate and personal way."

He sighed. "I think all the trouble in the world stems from people having no respect for other people's beliefs."

"Some kids once asked our children if it was true that we sacrificed a baby at Easter time," Trinidad said. "Can you imagine that? Penitentes only wish to go through Holy Week undisturbed. Holy Week for them is a constant exercise of prayer."

A generous smile rumpled her smooth face. She clutched a batch of manzanilla and explained to Barbara and me how to brew it into a refreshing tea. Trinidad's grandmother was a curandera, and she herself was well-versed in local remedios.

"People came for miles to talk to my grandmother. She would rub an egg across the belly of a colicky child, and where the egg broke was the spot where the child hurt the most. All the time she prayed. That's what made her so good. The remedios won't work without prayer. Everything she did she did with prayer."

Laid to rest

Back in the car, bumping over lumpy, dry ground. The Spanish Peaks appear in the distance, shapely forms of alluring beauty, floating on a cushion of blurry, late afternoon air. We follow Bill and Trinidad on a side track a short ways to a wild, tangled patch of sage, wheat grass and yucca.

Inside another wire gate we see a few headstones scattered about. Tall, crinkly sunflowers bob in the soft breeze. I read the headstones on a few random graves, which turn out to be Trinidad's parents. Fidel Gornez 1893-1975. Andrea Gomez 1910-1984.

Side by side, Bill and Trinidad crunch across the dry, starchy grass to an empty plot next to Trinidad's parents. The wind flutters teasingly past my shoulder. To the east, the flatlands unfurl like a wide, nappy carpet. The tough, springy forbs and grasses appear on the verge of concealing all traces of the people who've been laid to rest here.

Trinidad looks down at the stony plot at her feet. "This is where we'll lie when our time comes," she says.

"It's comforting to know this is where you'll be for eternity," Bill echoes. "It's part of our Easter service to offer sudarios to the souls of the departed. That way we keep them fresh in our hearts and minds. That way it all stays connected."

-- Conger Beasley has just completed a book on the Spanish Peaks which will be published by University Press of Colorado in 2001.

Glossary of terms

Rezador -- a chanter or a singer

Pitero -- a flute player

Calvario -- Calvary, the rise or the hill where the cross is placed

Los Hermanos Penitentes -- literally, "the brotherhood of the penitentes"

Flagellanti -- those who scourge themselves

Deposito -- the building where food is prepared during Holy Week and where people who are not penitentes can eat or seek shelter

Mayordomo -- a loose Spanish term referring to a leader, someone in charge; in this case, he oversees the activities of Holy Week

Morada -- the room or building where the penitentes conduct their rituals, out of sight of everyone else

Retablos -- paintings, carvings or painted carvings of religious figures that decorate the walls of the church

Curandera -- a woman who is an herbalist, who cures people of ailments through the use of herbs

Remedios -- the prayers that a curandera will say when she's trying to heal someone; also, the prayers that are prayed by the

penitentes in Spanish


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