A couple years after the UFO convention, I returned to the San Luis Valley to do research on the Penitentes, Catholic groups scattered across the various villages and towns. These groups are fully Roman Catholic but also hold their own separate meetings in buildings called moradas.
I pulled into one town late in the afternoon, just ahead of a thunderstorm. The town was tucked away at the end of a dirt road, and was mostly abandoned. The town was only a few stucco buildings with tin roofs, surrounded on all sides by alfalfa fields and dust. I quickly spotted a beautiful Penitente morada, and asked the adjacent property owner if it would be alright if I took some pictures, as I tried to have photos of the moradas in each town I visited. He didn’t say anything but made a gesture indicating yes.
As I crawled under the barbed wire to take a pictures, a couple more people came out and stood at the edge of their properties and stared at me. Then a couple more. There were never more than a handful, and nobody said anything, but the whole thing got disconcerting real fast. Between the impending thunderstorm and the discomfort between me and the neighbors, the air was getting tense. I left.
It’s not like the people in the town were being creepy — I was. It takes a bit of impropriety just to show up in a town not used to visitors and ask to take pictures of a religious dwelling there. I noticed this vague tension in other towns in the Valley, so I set out to the New Mexico state archives in Santa Fe to get a handle on why these situations were so uncomfortable. It all starts on the East Coast.
Let’s pretend you’re an aristocratic man living on the East Coast around 1835. You’re doing various aristocratic things and generally yukking it up when you come down with a frightful case of the pleurisy. You go to the doctor for the treatment du jour for your lungs, which are beginning to worry you.
Unfortunately, contemporary wisdom is that the cure for a devastating lung infection and its attendant physical weakness is to plop you into a covered wagon and send you at a brisk pace of ten miles per day across one of the vastest, emptiest, harshest expanses of land in the world, through several nations and the shattered remains of the Spanish Empire. The dry air is good for your lungs.
You’re pretty tense going through the Indian nations, given that your mere presence is an affront to their sovereignty. So it comes as a relief when the leader of your phalanx tells you that you’ll shortly be passing into Christian territory (that is, the newly formed state of Mexico, soon to be the even newer-formed state of New Mexico). You pull into the next town but are a bit alarmed at the noise level.
There’s a procession happening. It features people with large wooden carvings of Catholic saints. They’re doing strange things, putting the carvings in fields and yelling at them for not bringing rain. Some people are flagellating themselves. Given that you’re a 19th century Protestant aristocrat, you’re generally of the opinion that Catholics are barely a step removed from dirt-worshippers to begin with. And seeing this seals the deal. All you wanted was some good God-fearing hospitality.
So what do you do? Write an exaggerated account of what you saw, pepper it with some jingoism and racism, and sell it to adventure-hungry people on the East Coast. And in the process, sow the seeds of years of tense discord between whites and Hispanics in an isolated valley in Colorado.
The name of this 19th century aristocrat is Josiah Gregg. He really did write an account of his pleurisy-induced travels through the Southwest, and it was a huge success. As one of the first Americans to write about the culture of the area, he set the tone for future writing on the topic.
To be fair, the procession he saw would have scared the pants off anyone who didn’t know what was going on. He had stumbled upon a group of lay Catholics known as Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (an unwieldy name that gets shortened to “The Penitentes” in regional parlance). The ceremony he witnessed was the pinnacle of the liturgical year, commemorating Good Friday.
In addition to the flagellants, one person has the great honor of portraying Christ in the procession, which involves dragging around a huge, heavy wooden cross. Others sing prayers and play flutes. The procession ends with Christ being bound to the cross by rope while those around him pray.
What Gregg didn’t mention is that rituals like these were just a small part of the activities of the Penitentes. Here’s some context: In 1821, Mexico won its war for independence against Spain. They promptly purged themselves of all things Spanish, which included many of their priests. This, in turn, led to a shortage of priests that was felt most acutely at the hinterlands of the empire, or in today’s geography, New Mexico and Colorado.
In the absence of reliable visits from priests, the devoutly Catholic people in the villages of this area organized themselves into groups like the Penitentes to address the holes in civic life. They cared for the poor and sick, provided loans (there were no banks in the area), held funerals and prayer services, and organized huge ornate public ceremonies with roles for many townspeople. Far from the sinister jamborees the media made them out to be, notes from Penitente meetings are disappointingly banal: lists of collections for a poor family, discussion of community topics, and so on.
The Penitentes are a bit of a legend in Colorado and New Mexico. They still exist today, though their numbers have dwindled. To this day, most discussion focuses primarily on their Good Friday rites. That’s what makes Gregg’s account of the Penitentes so unfortunate — it strips their rituals of context, which makes it pretty hard to see them as anything other than crazy. Even with context, it can be tough to empathize with flagellation as part of a healthy spiritual regimen these days, but it’s old news and the Penitentes didn’t invent it. Corporeal mortification has been a part of Christianity since the desert-dwelling monks of third-century Egypt (and compared to these monks’ asceticism, Penitente rituals look like a day at the beach), and roving bands of flagellants haunted the European countryside as early as the eleventh century.
By focusing on the flagellation, many writers gloss over what to me is a much more interesting part of the Penitente story: the ways in which community members came together in the absence of institutional authority to create an organization tailored to the many idiosyncrasies and anachronisms of living in a remote area — one that was quickly becoming a crossroads for very different cultures. As I looked at how the media covered the Penitentes in the past, I felt that I had found a big part of why people were so nonplussed when I would roll into town to try to take pictures.
Starting around 1870, a trickle of articles building on Josiah Gregg’s account of the Penitentes became a deluge. Eventually, magazines and newspapers all over the country began to carry more and more over-the-top stories about Penitentes. Harper’s, Time, and The New York Times all joined the zeitgeist.
“Penitente-hunting” became a buzzword. Hordes of white people would drive around the Valley during Holy Week, shining their headlights on Penitente moradas in hopes of getting prurient glimpses of a foreign faith. In the end, all the bigoted articles and Penitente-hunting shed more light on the culture that birthed them than on the Penitentes themselves. And even though this fad died out long ago, aspects of it were malicious enough that perhaps the scars that remain take the form of extreme suspicion of outsiders.
Dozens of articles about the Penitentes written between 1875 and 1925 are remarkably similar in structure and content. They often borrow facts from each other, but each article tries to be a bit more extravagant than the last. Examined chronologically, they read like a game of telephone: the accusation in 1875 that the Penitentes crucify a man each year becomes by 1884 the accusation that they crucify babies. These articles make cable news look like amateur hour in terms of fear-mongering and xenophobia.
I began to wonder what was behind this slew of widespread national coverage that appeared suddenly and disappeared just as suddenly. And I can only offer two hypotheses: The first is that this coverage started just as Colorado was becoming a state, reached its apex during the debate over New Mexico’s potential statehood, and petered out thereafter. Perhaps, then, the idea behind the coverage was to discredit the inhabitants of the area as potential American voters (more on that in just a bit). The only other guess I can hazard is simply that we have an abiding prurient interest in the grotesque and bizarre, and the Penitentes’ Good Friday rituals captivated the media for that reason alone.
Almost every piece starts with a description of the landscape itself as wholly other and even a bit sinister. Inter Ocean magazine in 1895 writes, “I am glad I have seen [this] country but don’t care to see it again. Such drought, desolation, and sandy barrenness I had never dreamed of before.” A reporter for Harper’s takes a more poetic spin on the land in 1876: “Rugged, weird, depressing… in [the Valley], Nature becomes a polyglot… a region of fantasies that set at naught the common laws of heaven and earth. I was a lost mortal in a goblin land where the grotesque and preternatural are blended.”
Imbuing the land with this much potency is important in these articles, because nearly all go on to describe the Penitentes as wrought from and possessed by this alien landscape. The authors imply that the land itself drives the people into religious frenzies by virtue of its sheer weirdness. “This is a land where distance is lost and the eye is a liar; a land of ineffable lights and sudden shadows,” writes Charles Lummis in 1923, connecting the strange land to its people, “of polytheism and superstition, where the rattlesnake is a demigod and the cigarette a means of grace, where Christians mangle and crucify themselves — the heart of Africa beating against the ribs of the Rockies.”
Less exaggerated articles portray the Penitentes as the result of a lack of civilizing influence. These pieces simply set up the old civilization/barbarism trope and let loose. The Penitentes are “simple, ignorant folk… shut off from the railroads by thirty-five miles of mesas and the awful canyon of the Rio Grande… [the area] is not of the 19th century,” says the Sunday Oregonian in 1893. A book called Land of Poco Tiempo uses technology as a point of comparison as the author stands with a camera taking pictures of a crucified Penitente: “The crucified and I… stood facing each other… one playing with the most wonderful toy of modern progress, the other racked by the most barbarous device of twenty centuries ago.”
The final and most telling aspect of this media coverage is the claim that the citizens of New Mexico and Southern Colorado (that is, the Penitentes) threaten long-fostered American democratic ideals. One piece published just before Colorado was admitted to the Union describes the Penitente rituals as “the most disgusting crimes the mind can conceive of,” adding “this in Colorado, that bright Centennial star that aspires to rank by the side of New York and Massachusetts.” One popular claim is that Penitentes exercised complete political control of New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Harper’s writes: “There are 20,000 Penitentes, mutually sworn to protect each other to the point of perjury… [Authorities] face a formidable hydra.” The Sunday Oregonian article asks, “How many people know that American voters, who help to choose the President of the United States, are crucified, bound by biting thongs, yes, nailed to crosses, and suffer to death?” Yet another Harper’s article declares “This society, until it is crushed, will remain a barrier to the progress of morality… in New Mexico.”
So that’s the gist of the Penitente media coverage of circa 1875-1925. I should note that almost nothing I quoted from these articles is factual with respect to the Penitentes. That’s what made the similarities in the articles jump out — it’s remarkable not so much that they’re full of bullshit but that they’re full of the same bullshit organized in the same way. It could just be lazy reporting in the interest of a juicy story, but it seems to me that these articles often have a distinct political purpose.
And yet a couple dozen articles written long ago by people far removed from life in the Valley contributed to a tension that lingers today. It wasn’t just the articles; more obnoxious still were probably the Penitente-hunters who clamored for a lurid glimpse of a kind of faith long unavailable to them. Add to that the large American interests who used their knowledge of property law to secure the best water rights in the Valley after annexation, and the various other little bureaucratic shifts that occur when a region passes from the hands of one nation to another.
The Penitentes still boast quite a few members in chapters scattered around the area, but their ranks aren’t exactly teeming with youngsters. As a former Penitente I talked to said, “Any young person with a head on their shoulders is going to want to get out of here fast, where there are jobs and schools.” And he’s probably right: several of the counties that comprise the San Luis Valley are among the poorest in the nation. I considered these two things as I thought again about that strange day when I tried to take the picture of the morada in that dusty town. The families that remain today have been there often for generations. They’re certainly aware of what a vital role in a lively community the Penitentes played and how nasty the period around the American annexation was. I have no doubt that showing up to take photos of these aging, self-made religious dwellings carried with it more than a tiny echo of the days of Penitente hunters and yellow journalism.