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Antonio Severo Borrajo, Spanish-Mexican Patriot Priest
By Rick Hendricks
In The El Paso Salt War of 1877, C.L. Sonnichsen, described what he called the Salt Ring as being made up of W.W. Mills, A.J. Fountain, Louis Cardis, and Father Antonio Borrajo, the parish priest of San Elizario, Texas. Sonnichsen went on to describe Father Borrajo in this way:
In person he was a tall, slender old man with bent shoulders, long gray hair, and black, blazing eyes set in a thin, white face. Temperamentally he resembled a volcano--was always sure he was right, and was always determined to have his own way....
In religious matters he was desperately in earnest. No couple need apply to him for wedding rites unless both of them could go through the catechism, the Hail Mary, and a good deal more; but if they knew all the answers, he might contribute a cow out of his own corral to start them off as householders.
Religion was behind his dislike of the American invaders of his stronghold. They set up secular schools under his nose; they even prevented him (for sanitary reasons, they said) from burying his dead in consecrated ground beside his church. He became a very bitter man over all this, and often shook his gray mane in exasperation as he uttered his favorite ejaculation: "Ba, ba, ba, que burrada!"--what asininity!
A similarly negative perception of Father Borrajo comes from Sonnichsen's description of the bitter dispute between the Bishop of Durango and the American Catholic Church, in the person of Jean Bapiste Salpointe.
When he least expected it, an order was issued from Rome removing the left bank of the river from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango and attaching it to the Diocese of Tucson. Borrajo was a secular priest under the supervision of the Bishop of Durango, and he should immediately have given up his charge and gone to Mexico. But he was loath to leave the game when he was ahead. The Americans appealed to Bishop Salpointe at Tucson when they saw that Borrajo was going to delay as long as he could. The old priest heard about it and said he was not leaving at all.
Finally the good and gentle Bishop Salpointe had to come over to see about it. He set out from El Paso one morning, but was stopped at Socorro by Borrajo and a band of his followers. There was a terrible scene. The Bishop heard himself called by hard names and threatened with dire consequences if he proceeded. The driver of the episcopal carriage raised an expressive shoulder and advised against going on.
Nevertheless the Bishop went ahead and succeeded in reaching San Elizario without loss of dignity. Nobody in town dared take him in, however, and he had to camp out for the night. In the morning he returned to El Paso.
Borrajo was triumphant again. He jibed at his enemies, it is said, even in the pulpit, calling them pelados, Protestants, and worse. Ultimately the case was acted on by the Bishop of Durango, and Borrajo moved to a smaller parish at Guadalupe on the Mexican side of the river, but he did not go in peace. The Reverend Pierre Bourgade, later Archbishop of Santa Fe, eventually took charge of the parish. He testified that Borrajo "used his influence to estrange the people of my parish from me," and even "tried to make the people believe that he would come back here again."
Sonnichsen notwithstanding, the historical Father Borrajo has remained somewhat a mystery. The work of Father Gerard Decorme, S.J, provides the basic facts. Antonio Severo Borrajo was born in the parish of San Miguel de Taboadela in the diocese of Orense in the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. He was ordained in 1849 for work in the American mission field. J.M. Odin, Vicar Apostolic of Texas traveled to Spain and France in search of priests. On this journey he met Father Borrajo, who by that time had earned a doctorate in religious sciences, and recruited him to serve Spanish-speaking Texans. Borrajo was given the parish of Nacogdoches in 1850, but when Jean Bapiste Lamy, Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico, passed through, Borrajo joined him on his trip west. On 24 June 1851, both were in El Paso. Father Ramón Ortiz met them but said he could not hand over the missions until he heard from his prelate, Bishop José Antonio Laureano López y Zubiría in Durango. Lamy and Borrajo then made the long trek to Durango and back. Curiously Borrajo merits not a single mention by Lamy's biographer, Paul Horgan.
Again in El Paso, Ortiz offered Borrajo a post as an assistant in Ysleta and Socorro. In Ysleta, Borrajo recorded his first baptism on 19 January 1852. He had a falling out with the Tiguas and in 1855 he went to Santa Fe. He apparently returned to Texas, serving in the diocese of Galveston. In early 1863, he returned to the El Paso area at Father Ortiz's invitation, serving as an assistant at San Elizario and Socorro.
In 1869 the immense bishopric of Santa Fe was divided, and Salpointe was named Vicar Apostolic, that is he was to oversee an area that would soon become a bishopric at which point he would become its bishop. The territory included southern New Mexico and the El Paso Lower Valley. This action gave notice of the new diocesan boundaries to Bishop José Vicente Salinas, but he, as had his predecessor, refused to deliver the local parishes without a direct order from Rome. As 1870 ended and the new year began, Salpointe visited his new territory, but no one greeted him. Father Borrajo tried to continue guiding the life of his parish, even as Anglo-Americans poured into southern New Mexico and the greater El Paso area.
Father Decorme ventured an evaluation of Father Borrajo as a priest, saying that there was no doubt that the administration of his parish was of the highest standard and according to canon law. Borrajo's sacramental record books were neat, punctual, and exacting as was his administration of the sacraments.
In the face of the challenge presented by the arrival of Protestants, Masons, French priests and other undesirable folk, Father Borrajo remained rigid in opposition. He was a demanding instructor of children but was capable of giving a cow to newlyweds or a goat to a child at first communion. Decorme judged him to be an unquestioned leader.
In December 1872, on orders of Bishop Salinas in Durango, Father Ortiz handed over the missions to Father Olivier Ruellan, acting for Bishop Salpointe of Tucson. Father Barrajo resisted until May 1873 when he had a delegation from the town of San Elizario hand over his church, being unwilling to do so personally. He was then named priest of the poor Mexican community of Guadalupe. From there he continued to be active in the politics of the Salt War. He survived until 22 December 1896, nine months after his friend Father Ramón Ortiz died. Both are buried in Juárez.
The microfilm collection of the Archivos Históricos del Arzobispado de Durango housed at the Rio Grande Collections at New Mexico State University's Branson Library contains a collection of documents written by or to Father Borrajo. In these documents his thoughts and actions unfold, telling the story in his own words. Here then are some of Father Borrajo's own words describing a tumultuous time of change for Hispanic Catholics in southern New Mexico and El Paso's lower valley community and his ideas on how to better an admittedly difficult situation.
On 29 September 1871, Father Borrajo wrote Bishop Salinas in Durango concerning the arrival of Father Jaillet, a French priest, in San Elizario, and offered his view of the question of jurisdiction over the area churches.
I had never seen or met Father Jaillet until the middle of August when he arrived here. I received him in my home as a Catholic priest. In the few dealings I had with him, he seemed to be a good priest. When he showed me the licenses he had from the most excellent Mr. Dubuis, bishop of Texas, I think I correctly understood the bishop by permitting Father Jaillet to say two masses in this parish, which is under my charge. If by chance this is incorrect, please let me know.
As far as I know, the bishop of Texas has never exercised jurisdiction as far as the presidio of El Norte, although before the war with the United States there were posts for the mail and military forts to protect the road from San Antonio to here. Presently, this community lies in the shadow of the forts and posts. Most of the people are Mexicans (almost the only Catholics) who came from the Mexican frontier. It was settled before the annexation of Texas to the United States. For this reason, I presume that in ecclesiastical matters it continues as before, a part of the diocese of Durango. This is because it appears to be a branch of the same tree that is growing and spreading wherever it finds space.
That same month of September 1871, José de Jesús Baca, priest of Mesilla; José Antonio Real y Vázquez, priest of Franklin, Concordia, and Ysleta; Antonio Severo Borrajo, priest of Socorro and San Elizario; and Juan de Jesús Trujillo, a priest with twenty-five years of service in New Mexico and recently arrived in the area gathered to draft a proposal for the erection of a bishopric of El Paso del Norte, Mexico. In his own hand, Father Borrajo set down the particulars of the proposal.
Some years ago, after the United States usurped from Mexico a great part of its territory, the bishops of the United States, perhaps poorly informed about the religious situation in the usurped territories and without consulting the Mexican bishops who had legitimate jurisdiction and administration over these exclusively Roman Catholic territories, proposed to and asked His Holiness for bishops or vicars apostolic for these territories... Perhaps these bishops believed in good faith that they were going as missionaries of the gospel to plant for the first time the tree of the cross or the Roman Catholic religion in this land where it was already producing fruit, and they began to work very actively, there can be no doubt. But they began with little knowledge and less prudence. Rather than cleaning and pruning the tree of suckers and withered limbs, keeping everything that was green so that it could continue to produce fruit while being renewed and flourishing with vigor, it seems that they have proposed to plant a new tree from which they promise abundant fruit. In this way they have set their hands to all the established discipline. They changed the Hispano-Mexican calendar and the Roman Toledan Ritual, substituting for all the religious practices and customs of the Spaniards, which had been fostered in these pueblos by Jesus Christ, their own Franco-American ones. This produced indignation among the people who are yet new to the faith, and first disgust and then sadness or indifference and doubt and finally apostasy in many of them.
In the shadow of the usurping government, they come as a devastating flood, erasing the footprints of the first apostles of this new world, substituting for Roman Catholic customs without a mixture of any others so that soon they appear as Catholic as Protestants. They are more in agreement with the new conquerors for whom Religion is nothing more than a word that means nothing in particular, neither positive nor negative.
Mexicans under the government of the United States are like the Jews in the Babylonian captivity, the Irish under the government of Great Britain, Poland under the government of Russia, and Italy under the government of Victor Manuel. The only difference in favor or against the Mexicans is that in those nations the people were oppressed more for religion than anything else, and the Mexicans are stripped of their property and civil and political rights without being bothered about their religion.
[Given this situation] it occurs to us that establishing a vicariate apostolic in El Paso del Norte that would form a part of the province of Durango.... would be the way of remedying the evils we have indicated. A vicariate apostolic or bishopric with its see in El Paso, Mexico, would consist of Dona Ana and El Paso Counties in the United States and the cantons of Bravos and Galiana in Mexico.
Borrajo continued with a characterization of the newcomers to San Elizario.
North Americans and people from other nations... only come to live among the Mexicans for the love of gold and riches. They only believe in the Almighty Dollar.
Finally, Borrajo expressed this thought.
Because the Mexicans are the ancient owners of this land and almost the only Catholics in it, it appears unjust and inappropriate for them to follow in religious matters the customs of their adversaries, even if they are good, especially when the fundamental laws of this country declare that there is no human power that can intervene in the rights of man to worship God according to his conscience.
On 10 January 1872, Father Borrajo wrote Bishop Salinas about education reform in Texas and the new school teacher in San Elizario.
Three months ago they organized in this parish the state schools, obligating everyone to send to them their sons and daughters. They hired the most corrupt males and females as teachers, the worst of which we have here. The first action was to prohibit young children of both sexes from taking religious books or tracts to school because these schools are atheist and propose to cultivate only knowledge, leaving the will to the mercy of the world, the devil, and the flesh. The teacher we got in San Elizario, who says she is a Catholic (in the style of Victor Manuel or we might say Enlightened Catholic Liberal), came to see me, it is my understanding, to reproach me for not having pews in the church for civilized people as is the style in the United States (where the churches give way to protestant customs and seem more like theaters than houses of prayer). I paid her little attention. Believing she could convince me, she said she had been in Paris. I answered that I had been there too. She left, according to what I am informed, very angry with me. They tell me she has written the bishop of Santa Fe, the governor, and I don't know who else.
On 11 April 1872, Father Borrajo wrote to Vicar Apostolic of Tucson Salpointe, who was then in Las Cruces. Defending his decision to delay handing over his parish to Salpointe's representative, Borrajo explained it this way.
Seeking only the glory of God and the good of the people's souls, there is no reason for us to rush. What His Holiness decrees definitively must be (if it be God's will) respected and faithfully fulfilled, as much by the illustrious bishop of Durango as by his clergy and the faithful of this vicariate without the need of the enemies of God, be they Masons, or Catholics like Napoleon or Victor Manuel, greatly rejoicing while the truly faithful and practicing are scandalized. Illustrious sir, it is in your interest not to come to exercise your jurisdiction with evil antecedents, trampling the common people, even though later you can rely on the substantiation of consummated facts.
The picture that emerges from Father Borrajo's own writings is different from that painted by his contemporaries, many of whom were his political enemies or cultural adversaries, and by historians, no matter outstanding, who have relied on them as sources. The Father Borrajo we see is an articulate, outspoken, radical, given to violent rhetorical expression. First and foremost he was a passionate defender of what he termed the "Hispano-Mexican" expression of Catholicism in the face of what he saw as the Franco-Anglo expression of Catholicism. Moreover, he was a patriot, a fighter dedicated to the preservation of Hispano-Mexican culture and way of life.
An exchange of letters between Bishop Salpointe and the defiant Hispanic priest, Fathers Baca, Corral, and Borrajo in November 1872 signaled that the end of the fight was near. They are reproduced here in their entirety in translation.
Mesilla, 24 November 1872
Most Reverend Bishop Salpointe, Bishop of Doryla and Apostolic Vicar of Arizona, Las Cruces, New Mexico
We, the undersigned, priests of the Bishopric of Durango, charged by the most reverend bishop of this diocese with the spiritual administration of the pueblos of said diocese of which your excellency has decided to take possession within a few days, wishing to maintain every consideration due your excellency in your character as bishop and vicar apostolic and wanting also to fulfill well the duty as shepherds of the flocks that are entrusted to us respectively with great sacrifice and some harm to our parishioners because of the absence that momentarily we consider necessary to make from our parishes, have gathered to consult and come to an agreement on the conduct we must observe in this case, which is so urgent and awkward, in which your excellency by your will puts us. We have decided to come into your presence and with the greatest respect and consideration that is possible for us show you the reasons we have to oppose your decision and the harm to the glory of God, good of the souls, and even for the honor of the episcopal dignity that will result from putting it into effect.
1. The reasons we have for this opposition are based our duties as subjects of our bishop and our duties of the shepherds of our sheep. Because of our duties as subjects of our bishop we are obliged not to recognize the authority of another foreign pastor, to obey and fulfill exactly the dispositions of our bishop. He stated to his vicar from El Paso on 6 December 1871 “I must communicate to you that regarding the Vicarate Apostolic of Arizona, I sent an explanation to the Holy See showing the inconveniences that would result from adding these parishes to the Church of North America, and I expect a response. Until it comes to me, and I communicate it to you, change nothing in these parishes.” Up to the present date, we have not received an order to the contrary.
2. Our duties to our parishes are, among others, to administer to them the Holy Sacraments and teach them that it is not permissible (and some times improper) to receive the Sacraments unless it is from the minister under whose charge they are.
3. The harm that will be done to the glory of God and good of the soul if this is carried out is first, among several others, that this causes a schism, because we are not free to cede. Indeed, if we were, we would renounce with pleasure all our rights and earthly goods, because one does not scratch at the soil of the Lord; second is that on the day after your excellency has taken possession, any Protestant minister or from any other sect, can present himself saying that he is a legitimate pastor. If it is now permissible for us to resist for lack of notice from our prelate, his priests and the persons who follow them would have no reason to oppose the ministry of the Devil, who against your excellency's will tries to be their true pastor.
4. The harm that can result to the dignity that your excellency has invested in this is that it is within your excellency's will to suspend the execution of the extreme decision you have made before our legitimate bishop orders us to deliver it. Having not done so, one could suspect that ambition and avarice are the motives that precipitate so strange an action. Even though your excellency has motives for taking possession, What difference can a few days, more or less, make that our parishes are administered by Apostolic Roman Catholic priests placed by the bishop of Durango or by those your excellency wishes to place?
By virtue of what has been expressed and for the good of the faithful, who with so much effort you excellency must administer, we beseech you in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord that you leave us in peace while our illustrious prelate does not order us to deliver possession to you. We promise that as soon as we receive the order we will satisfy your excellency, leaving our posts to you. In the meantime, it is not permissible for us to abandon them without sin, which we do not plan to commit.
Your excellency's sure servants, with the consideration you deserve, attentively kiss your hand.
José de J. Baca
and A.S. Borrajo
Las Cruces, New Mexico
November 24 1872
To the Reverend Fathers J. de Jesús Baca, Jesús Corral and A.S. Borrajo en Las Mesilla
My dear sirs:
In response to the presentation you personally delivered to me today in which you tried to justify an opposition to the exercise of my jurisdiction over the parishes or part of parishes that up to now you have administered, I shall tell you that your opinion is based on a false principle. Therefore the arguments you present are not germane to the question. Certainly, were it as you suppose, that by my will I wanted to extend my jurisdiction over that of another, I would take the observations you make to me into consideration. At the very least I would be frightened about the spiritual harm that could result because of your opposition, and I would cease to give you occasion. But it is not by my will that I go forward with this business. I am going to take new a jurisdiction because it is given to me by my superior and the superior of those who had it before, the Holy Father. It is out of obedience to his will that I shall take it.
Now, if some, against all justice, want to oppose the bull that places me in possession, more than incurring canonical punishment that will be meted out to them, they will have to respond before God for the scandals that this will cause among the faithful.
Your humble and obedient servant in Our Lord,
J.B. Salpointe, bishop of Doryla and vicar apostolic of Arizona.
This essay appeared as " Antonio Severo Borrajo: Hispano-Mexican Patriot Priest," in the Southern New Mexico Historical Review 10 (January 2002): 1-5. Reproduced with permission.
 C.L. Sonnichsen, The El Paso Salt War of 1877, The El Paso Salt War of 1877 (El Paso: Carl Hertzog and the Texas Western Press at the Pass of the North, 1961), 10
 Ibid., 23-24
 Gerarde de Corme, "Las misiones del Valle del Paso, 1559-1960" (Unpublished document).
 Antonio Severo Borrajo to Bishop José Vicente Salinas, San Elizario, 29 September 1871, File on El Paso del Norte and San Elizario, AHAD-493, frame 494-553.
 Fray Angelico Chavez, Archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, 1678-1900 (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1957), 258, 262.
 [José de Jesús Baca, José Antonio Real y Vázquez, Antonio Severo Borrajo, and Juan de Jesús Trujillo], Proposal for the creation of a bishopric of El Paso, September 1871, File on El Paso del Norte and San Elizario, AHAD-493, frame 494-553.
 Antonio Severo Borrajo to Bishop José Vicente Salinas, San Elizario, 10 January 1872, ibid.
 Antonio Severo Borrajo to Vicar Apostolic Jean Baptiste Salpointe, San Elizario, 11 April 1872, ibid.
 José de Jesús Baca, Jesús Corral, and Antonio Severo Borrajo to Vicar Apostolic J.B. Salpointe, La Mesilla, 24 November 1872, ibid.
 Vicar Apostolic Jean Baptiste Salpointe to José de Jesús Baca, Jesús Corral, and Antono Severo. Borrajo, Las Cruces, 24 November 1872, ibid.