Influence of Genizaros on Penitential Pracitices

In 1840, the American explorer and trader Josiah Gregg encountered a startling scene in Tomé, New Mexico.  In his journal, he related that:

“…my attention was arrested by a man almost naked, bearing, in imitation of Simon, a huge cross upon his shoulder which, though constructed of the lightest wood, must have weighed over a hundred pounds…and about the middle swung a stone of immense dimensions, appended there for the purpose of making the task more laborious.  Another equally destitute of clothing, with his whole body wrapped in chains and cords, which seemed buried in the muscles, and confined him that he was scarcely able to keep pace with the procession.  The person who brought up the rear…walked along with a patient and composed step while another close behind belabored him lustily with a whip.”[1]

This is one of the first written records of the existence of the penitential brotherhoods of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, collectively known as the Hermandades Penitentes (Brotherhoods of Penitents), which seemingly arose out of nowhere at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Even during the time of Gregg’s observation, an aura of mystery and sensationalism surrounded the activities of the Hermandades Penitentes, leading to a vast array of speculation regarding their origins and the reasons behind their practices of self-mortification.  The secretiveness and strictness of the brotherhoods´ practices caused wild rumors to circulate about their activities, such as accusations that the hermandades engaged in live crucifixions of their members.  For scholars, the brotherhoods proved to be fertile ground for analysis on the transmission and interplay of cultural values that occurred on the frontiers of New Mexico during the establishment of the missions and how the medieval idea of expiating one's sins through penitential activities in the present, rather than waiting to accomplish this in the afterlife, took root in the remote valleys of New Mexico and Colorado.

While brotherhoods with similar practices appear in the historical record in many other areas of New Spain, over time the majority of lay religious confraternities discontinued the use of self-mortification.  The penitential brotherhoods of New Mexico and southern Colorado, on the other hand, retained this feature as a strong part of their religious observances.  Many scholars of the hermandades concentrate on investigating the mystery surrounding the origins of the brotherhoods as an avenue to understanding why they developed in a different manner from similar organizations in other parts of New Spain.  Countless thick tomes and erudite articles seek unsuccessfully to pinpoint the origins of these groups as a way to construct a lineage and rational to explain how a movement that engages in medieval style self-mortification practices came to exist in the contemporary United States.  The chief factor impeding any investigator of the genesis of this phenomenon is that the groups always existed as initiatory societies which guarded certain parts of their beliefs and rituals from outsiders. As a result, primary sources of information relating to their beginnings and the rational for the continuation of their practices are nearly nonexistent. Much of the scant amount of information that does exist about their origins is material which comes from the reports of biased sources who viewed the activities of the brotherhoods in unfavorable terms.

While the investigation of the origins of the hermandades remains a fascinating but unresolved topic, another important approach to developing an understanding of the historical origins of the brotherhoods is the scrutiny of how the survival of a particular strain of religious mysticism, introduced into the Americas as a part of the deep penetration of fifteenth century Spanish Catholic culture, merged with indigenous practices of self -mortification to create and reinforce a strong ethic of penitential practice in the remote valleys of New Mexico and Colorado.  Rather than originating from a single source point, this examination contends that the transmission of the penitential practices was accomplished through a broad variety of avenues and that a key factor in interpreting the growth and continuance of penitential practice in this area of New Spain is understanding how the specific conditions in the Spanish mission system on the New Mexican frontier, combined with the influence of lay religious confraternities and the practices of indigenous peoples, contributed to the birth and growth of the hermandades.  

Among those strains of influence, the degree to which indigenous thought integrated with Spanish Catholic culture to influence the practices of the brotherhoods is an often overlooked but potentially crucial aspect of the growth of the brotherhoods.  While many observers discount the possibility of indigenous components informing the practices of the brotherhoods, the mission friars’ firsthand accounts of penitential processions in the region are rife with references to the presence of indigenous participants.  Indeed, it is an established fact the early New Mexican mission system ministered to many largely indigenous congregations, further pointing to the necessity of probing what influence indigenous culture may have exercised on the development of penitential practices in New Mexico.   In particular, an investigation of genízaros, as local acculturated people of indigenous descent were known, is needed in order understand what role they may have played in the development of the brotherhoods.    

 However, since the brotherhoods universally profess a sincere devotion to Catholicism, any study of them must begin with an examination of the roots and spiritual significance of penitential practices in the Christian faith.  While the act of purging sins through self-mortification is as old as humanity itself, the intentions behind these practices within historical Christianity are often poorly understood by many modern observers.  In our age, personal suffering is seen as a damaging experience leading to long term psychological consequences, rather than as a positive experience that brings one closer to God.[2]  Within their temporal context, however, penitential practices were not seen as being acts of masochism or cruelty, but more as the imitatio Christi, an imitation of and unification with Christ’s suffering which created a direct relationship between the believer and God.[3]  In addition, acts such as self-flagellation, fasting, or the bearing of large heavy wooden crosses in public processions functioned as a method to expiate sin in the here and now, rather than waiting till after death to cleanse sin in Purgatory.

Flagellation in particular has enjoyed a long history within Christian practice.  Beginning in 1260, processions of a group of sects calling themselves the Brotherhoods of the Cross Bearers, more commonly known as the Flagellants, swept across northern Italy.  Participatory public penance was relatively rare prior to the arrival of this movement and the somber processions of the Flagellants, along with their severe and bloody public scourging, caused a sensation across Europe.  Comprised largely of laypersons, these groups were widely admired for their piety and holiness.  But their growth was cut short when the Church declared the brotherhoods to be heretical due to their professed belief that the act of scourging made both baptism and confession useless.[4] Nevertheless, the public penitential practices of the Brotherhood continued to reappear, notably in 14th Century Germany, only to be suppressed again by the Church. 

However, an exception to the suppression of penitential movements existed in Spain and Portugal where these activities bloomed due to the charismatic teaching of Saint Vincent Ferrer, who traveled across the Iberian Peninsula advocating penitential practice.  The popularity of penitential scourging processions increased despite Church objections and, over the next century, grew into immense spectacles in Zamora, Seville, and Valencia.[5] The phenomena of public flagellant processions persisted far longer in these areas than anywhere else in Europe.  As late as 1847, observers noted that flagellants continued to hold scourging processions under the auspices of lay religious confraternities known in Spanish as cofradías.[6]  As we will see later, many observers noted the similarities of the New Mexican brotherhoods to the Spanish cofradías and speculated about what influence they exercised on the brotherhoods.      

However, the practice of scourging as a form of penance was not limited to the cofradías or lay movements.  The mendicant orders, members of whom made up the core of the clergy in New Spain’s mission system, also had a venerable tradition of these practices.  In the 13th Century, St. Anthony of Padua founded a religious fraternity that advocated public whipping as a religious ceremony.[7] Another example is that of St. Teresa of Avila, the Spanish saint and mystic who founded the Carmelite Order.  It was recorded that “Her chief delight was in flagellation.  She would have given her life to scourge the whole world, or that the whole world might scourge her, for she delighted in both the infliction and reception of the birch.”[8] The tradition of penitential practice was the spiritual inheritance of many of the friars who would direct the establishment of the New Mexican missions and, as a result, the religious theology of New Mexican frontier would become heir to these traditions as well.

Indeed, the historical record abounds with examples of severe penitential practice among the friars of the mendicant orders in New Spain.  In his book The Medieval Heritage of Mexico, Luis Weckmann documents no less than twenty-one accounts of friars in New Spain engaging in public penitential practices. One example is the tale of Friar Alonso de Escalona, who “in his sermon on Holy Thursday, had himself stripped in the pulpit and publicly whipped, though without interrupting his sermon.”[9]

Early New Mexicans friars were no exception to this tendency.  In his 1776 report from Abiquiu, New Mexico, Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez wrote that on “Fridays of Lent, [the Via Crucis] was performed with the Father [Fernandez] and later after dark discipline attended by those who came voluntarily because the Father merely proposes it to them, and following his good example. There is a crowd of Indians and citizens.”[10]

Accounts such as those of Fray Domínguez indicate a possible third avenue for the introduction and perpetuation of penitential practice originating in the indigenous communities of New Mexico and Colorado.  The practice of flagellation for religious purposes was not foreign to the indigenous inhabitants of this region.[11]   While many researchers reject the indigenous presence in the history and practice of the penitential brotherhoods of New Mexico and Colorado, the introduction of Native American practices into the brotherhoods may have occurred on very subtle levels.  Evidence that the indigenous community of this region historically participated in these practices is clearly documented in the writings of other observers, such as Fray Alonso de Benavides, who relates in his writings the details of a penitential procession that occurred south of Albuquerque in April of 1627.  In his report written for King Philip IV of Spain, Benavides first criticizes the practice of scourging in local native religions and then goes on to describe how the indigenous inhabitants of the missions “observe Our Holy Catholic Faith well: During Lent, they all come with much humility to the processions during Holy Week they flagellate themselves in most solemn processions.”[12]

A comparison with other areas of New Spain also shows that indigenous people in many regions not only embraced the extreme penitential practice espoused by some friars, but also incorporated indigenous tradition into their penitential observance.  For example, Holy Week flagellant processions among the indigenous Yaqui of northwestern Mexico are undertaken in order to fulfill a vow made during grave danger and illness in a manner which strongly resembles such vows undertaken in the practice of their native religion.  The Christian processions of the Yaqui include the presence of figures derived from their traditional culture, called Chapayekas, who dressed in painted masks and wore chains of deer hide rattles in order to represent evil spirits.[13]  Spanish clergymen recorded many examples of the existence of large scourging processions among indigenous groups in New Spain, such as among the Tepehuanes, about whom the Jesuit Diego Gonzalez Cueto wrote that “a thousand Indians go out at night in a blood procession, publicly whipping themselves by torchlight.”[14]   

On the other hand, the existence of indigenous influence among the hermandades of New Mexico is more difficult to confirm. Unlike the Yaqui processions, the overall model of the brotherhoods of New Mexico and Colorado remained rooted in the Iberian tradition of the shedding of blood for the redemption of sin, rather than as a fulfillment of a vow.  No overt figures from indigenous culture such as the Chapayekas exist in the brotherhoods.  On the surface, evidence for indigenous influence appears scant. However, close observation reveals that the native culture may have penetrated the brotherhoods through a more clandestine avenue. 

A likely source of this influence is through the presence of a large number of people of mixed indigenous and Spanish blood on the New Mexican frontier. 

Indeed, Fray Domingúez makes frequent references in his writing to people of mixed descent as a distinctive element in the population, often referring to them as genízaros.  The rise of this unique group came from the widespread Spanish practice of ransoming indigenous people captured by indigenous groups in war.  It was common for Spanish settlers in New Mexico to purchase these prisoners from their captors during trade exchanges in order to Christianize them.[15]  In reality, this exchange was also a way for Spanish settlers to provide free labor to their homesteads.

Interestingly, most of these captives were from the peoples of the indigenous cultures that bordered the Colorado/New Mexico region, including individuals from the western edge of the Great Plains cultures, such as the Kiowa and Comanche, as well as Apache and Ute from the regions west and north.  While the captives represented a range of individual cultures, the religious patterns of these regions shared an ascetic tradition of public self-mortification.  This is best exemplified by the practice of the Sun Dance by the Great Plains cultures, in which thongs are passed through participants’ flesh.  The thongs are then attached by cordage to a tall central pole and the participants dance around the axis until the thongs pull loose through their flesh.  This ceremony was not only thought to earn spiritual benefit for the participants, but also to bring benefits for the community as a whole as well[16], a similar concept reasons behind the suffering that members of the hermandades endure during their penitential practices.  The possibility exists that the religious thought of the Plains cultures may have exercised an influence upon the brotherhoods through the presence of genízaros.  Their presence in the area at the time of the brotherhoods formation is indisputable, as the practice of ransoming individuals was so prevalent in the region that one historian notes:

 “Records of various New Mexican parishes reveal that during a fifty year period –from 1700 to 1750- nearly 800 Apaches were anointed with oil and holy water, and baptized into the Catholic faith. These were not willing converts…They were women and children taken against their will by slave traders.”[17]

 However, these people were not regarded as slaves but rather as indentured servants and they often purchased or otherwise obtained release from service when they reached the age of marriage. By Fray Domingúez’ time, genízaros possibly made up as much as a one-third of the population of the communities of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.[18]  Even though on the surface they displayed the adoption of Spanish culture and Christianity, Fray Domingúez noted that genízaros were a “strangely rustic species of Spaniard” and that they spoke a particularly strange form of Spanish.[19]  He apparently did not realized that they had adopted the dialects of the Spanish regions of Extremadura and La Mancha, preserved in the isolation of New Mexico and Colorado by Spanish settlers from these regions of Spain.  The adoption and preservation of the regional dialects shows how deeply genízaros’ lives intertwined with the regional culture of the Spanish settlers of New Mexico.

While it is difficult to effectively quantitatively measure what influence the genízaro community played in the development of the brotherhoods, it is important to note that many of the areas of New Mexico that had predominately genízaro populations, such as Abiquiu, would later become strongholds of penitential activity.  In addition to this, further clues indicating a strong role for genízaros in the brotherhoods can be found among their modern day descendants who continue carry on the tradition of self-mortification.  Indeed, genízaro influence is openly recognized by some members of the surviving hermandades in modern New Mexico.  An example of this is Edwin Berry, the leader of a modern day penitential brotherhood in Tomé, New Mexico.  In the book Nuevomexicano Cultural Legacy, Berry states to author Miguel Gandert that the inclusion of a drum in the ceremonies of his morada, as the meeting house of the brotherhoods is known, is due to Native American influence.  Indeed, Berry identifies himself as the descendant of s and acknowledges the role of his mixed heritage plays in his beliefs and culture.

Berry is not alone among modern practitioners in his awareness of his genízaro ancestry.  Another pertinent example of the legacy of genízaros is Pedro Archuleta, a member of a New Mexican penitential brotherhood who came to national prominence during in a 1998 legal dispute over the validity of a land claim that he filed against the government based on the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo.  When questioned by news media as to whether he thought that the local Native Americans had a prior claim to the land he sought to acquire, Archuleta simply replied “Quién es mi mama?” (Who is my mother?), thereby acknowledging his link to the land through his Indo-Hispanic identity and establishing a link between the genízaros and the modern hermandades.[20]   

Berry and Archuleta’s acknowledgement of their ancestry is an illustration of how genízaros gradually intermarried into the lower economic classes of Spanish society until they eventually became indistinguishable from the mainstream Spanish population to outside observers.  The participation and influence of genízaros in the penitential brotherhoods as well as the indigenous elements that they brought into the groups, has been overlooked or misinterpreted due to the fact that genízaros were perceived to be largely acculturated to Spanish society and Christianity.  As a result, they likely participated in the shaping of the brotherhoods without being identified as people of indigenous descent.  However, the perception of genízaros as being completely Christian and Spanish in their culture is questionable and very likely does not represent a complete picture of the cultural interaction which occurred in the region. The possibility exists that many genízaros retained practices and elements from native cultures while integrating them into the dominant culture and, in the process, reinforced some of the practices of the penitential societies.

In fact, the incorporation of indigenous elements into the Catholic practices of the region is well documented.  Take the case of the famous Sanctuary of Chimayo in the Santa Clara valley of New Mexico.  Originally, this site was known to the people of the Tewa Pueblo as Tsimayo, a sacred pit containing mud and dust renowned for its curative abilities.  Sometime around 1813, a tiny Christian shrine was erected over the pit and, by 1816, the Sanctuary was formally dedicated.  Not surprisingly, a cofradía of pious men calling itself the Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazereno (Brothers of Our Father Jesus the Nazerene) was recorded as among the initial Christian pilgrims to the site.[21]

However, it should be noted that penitential practices do not constitute a uniform pattern across the broad range of brotherhoods.  Each brotherhood functions as an independent entity and the influence of native penitential practices on the brotherhoods may vary from morada to morada, or from region to region within the greater geographical area where the brotherhoods exist.  Nevertheless, many examples do show that the influence of indigenous culture had deeply penetrated into Spanish society and the previous supposition that there was no indigenous influence on the penitential brotherhoods may need to be reexamined in order to recognize aspects of the brotherhoods’ practices that are rooted in the worldview of native New Mexicans.

            While the role of indigenous influence remains open to further investigation, another important influence on the dissemination of the penitential practices on the New Mexican frontier was the Spanish tradition of the cofradía.  As previously mentioned, the lay religious cofradías played a crucial part in the persistence of extreme public penitential practices in Spain for centuries after these practices disappeared in other parts of Europe.  Originally, these societies started as mutual spiritual assistance groups that offered fellowship to the pious.  Set up under the auspices of individual saints, cofradías held public processions, prayer services, engaged in charitable service, and most importantly, established programs that made reparations for the sins of their members.  In her book Sacred Charity, Maureen Flynn shows how the idea of reciprocity was heavily emphasized within cofradías; not only could they intercede in the fate of the dead through their activities, but the welfare of each member of a cofradía was bound to that of his fellow members.  The breaking of the confraternal oath was believed to damage not only one’s own chances for salvation but that of the spiritual brotherhood as well.

 Flynn labels this as “the communal approach to salvation.” 

 Indeed, the brotherhoods of New Mexico share several common elements with the Spanish cofradías.  The first resemblance that can readily be seen is in the similarities between the leadership positions within the structures of the New Mexican brotherhoods and the Spanish cofradías.  For example, in both cases the society is led by an official who is charged with coordinating the group’s affairs.  Among the Spanish cofradías, this position was known as the mayordomo, who was charged with such duties as coordinating financial matters, presiding at meetings, and enforcing the performance of spiritual obligations.[22] In New Mexico, this figure is called the hermano mayor, or “older brother,” a position that performs services to the New Mexican brotherhoods that is similar to their Spanish counterparts.[23]  In Spanish cofradías, the cotanero is charged with calling the members to meeting, a function mirrored by the mandatorio of the New Mexican groups.  In each case, the members who are elected to these positions serve for one year. In addition, the New Mexican brotherhoods retained the Spanish practice of expelling members who violated the group’s oath of secrecy by revealing their secrets to the uninitiated.  Along with expulsion, the members were also subject to community ostracism.[24] In the small, intimate communities of New Mexico and Colorado, such ostracism would have been devastating.                                

Another parallel between the Spanish cofradías and the New Mexican brotherhoods is in their avowed purpose.  Both emphasize penitencia, oración, y caridad (penance, prayer, and charity) as the crux of their missions.  Additionally, the Spanish groups and their New Mexican counterparts were each deeply entrenched in their respective communities due to their dedication to reciprocity, which included the well-being of their home districts. In New Mexico in particular, the lack of available clergy or the charitable activities of the Catholic Church led the people of the region to turn to the brotherhoods for religious guidance.  To the brotherhoods of both New Mexico and Spain, the performance of penance, praying, and care for the community were understood to be synonymous acts.[25]  This view was especially emphasized among the New Mexican brotherhoods. Rather than viewing prayer as a textual act, the hermandades believed that the meaning of prayer “was not that I’m going to kneel and pray.”  Prayer can also mean that “I am going to see what it is that those people [aquella gente] needs are and then I am going to help them.”[26]  The importance of this mutual aid function within the remote communities of New Mexico should not be underestimated and it additionally represents a strong parallel with the idea of reciprocity among neighboring indigenous groups. Their function of public charity among the general community helped the brotherhoods to maintain a respected status among community members despite the unorthodox nature of their practices.

The existence of many cofradías in New Mexico has been well documented.  Bishop Tamarón recorded the existence of six cofradías on his journey.  In a 1794 letter, New Mexican Governor Fernando Chacón lists the names of several cofradías in existence around Santa Fe and Santa Cruz.[27]  It appears, however, that these cofradías were largely ephemeral and none have a conclusive link to any penitential brotherhood currently existing.  Nevertheless, it is likely that members of Spanish cofradías settled in the region and introduced the lay religious brotherhoods of Spain to New Mexico and Colorado.

While the religious inheritance of New Mexico and Colorado clearly received much input from the various societies that it is rooted in, it is undeniably the difficult and isolated conditions of the mission system in this region that allowed the practices of the penitential hermandades to flourish.  The neglect of the New Mexican parishes was legendary; many friars and priests resisted being assigned to the area because it was seen as a lonely, dangerous, and desolate outpost.[28]

The Franciscans held a position of dominance over the missions of New Mexico starting in 1598.  The missions at such places as Santa Fe were established and run by Franciscan friars who lived an existence far removed from the nearest ecclesiastical authority which, at the time, lay thousands of miles to the south in Guadalajara, Mexico.  The possibility exists that the Franciscans were another source stream of penitential practice flows into New Mexico because evidence suggests that the Franciscans who dominated the New Mexican mission system belonged to a branch of the Order known as “The Observants.”[29] This branch of the Order, also known as the Spiritual Franciscans, was famous for their strict adherence to penitential practices, a trait that they may have passed on to the various fleeting tertiary lay orders that they attempted to establish in New Mexico, as well as the community at large. Indeed, examples of the austerities of the early Franciscan friars of New Mexico fill the historical record.  For instance, an observer records how they “beat their backs unmercifully until the camp ran crimson with their blood.  The humble Franciscan friars, barefoot and in cruel thorny girdles, devoutly chanted their doleful hymns, praying for forgiveness.”[30]  Indeed, many scholars argue that the penitential brotherhoods represent a corrupted continuation of a Franciscan tertiary order.  While there is a lack of direct connection between the tertiary orders and the New Mexican brotherhoods, the Franciscan’s medieval spiritual inheritance of self-mortification likely had a strong impact on the region, indicated by their strong presence on the mission frontier.

 However, many historical observers also note that the Franciscans were spread painfully thin across the vast distances of New Mexico and it was difficult for them to perform their ministrations effectively.  While the Franciscans in New Mexico were notorious for their strict asceticism, they were equally famous for their laxity about enforcing Catholic practice, outside of baptism and marriage, on their flocks.[31] In fact, the secular priesthood routinely charged that the Franciscans were creating Christians who, at best, paid lip service to the Catholic faith.  Such accusations led to a power struggle that would have long term ramifications resulting in the formation and rise of the penitential brotherhoods of New Mexico.

Although the Bishop of Guadalajara claimed jurisdiction in New Mexico, the Franciscans in the New Mexican missions largely ignored his authority.  But in 1620 the establishment of a new diocese at Durango, Mexico threatened to change the situation.  At first, it appeared that the stalemate between Church authorities and the Franciscans would remain in place.  The territory encompassed in the diocese was still extremely extensive and the new seat at Durango was weeks of difficult travel from the New Mexican missions.  In addition, the Franciscan Order was unwilling to submit to the new Bishop of Durango’s authority any more than they had been willing to acknowledge the authority of the Bishop of Guadalajara.  Nevertheless, competition over control of the remote province continued to escalate and the Franciscans and the Bishop of Durango devoted as much time to bitter legalistic feuds as they did to meeting the religious needs of the population.[32] The various Bishops who occupied the seat at Durango continually raised the accusation of the Franciscans’ laxity in enforcement of orthodoxy in attempts to convince the Church to make the Franciscans submit to Durango. In his 1760 trip to visit the far flung missions of northern New Mexico, Bishop Pedro Tamarón charged that “the Christianity of the Indians was hardly more than a superficial conformity to few outward practices which they did not understand or have much interest in.”[33] Like many other critics of the Franciscans, Bishop Tamarón charged that this was largely due to their inability to communicate in indigenous tongues.[34]

Eventually, the Bishop won out in the struggle for control over the New Mexican missions and in 1798 the New Mexican missions were secularized and the first priests arrived.  However, the secular clergy in central New Spain was far more interested in subduing the insubordinate Franciscan Order than it was with serving the needs of the New Mexican congregations and, once the secular clergy emerged victorious in the clash with the Franciscan order, their interest in the state of affairs on the distant New Mexican frontier rapidly waned.  In fact, the first priests to arrive in New Mexico would remain for only about a year before returning to Durango.  The priests cited the difficulties of the environment, along with ill will of the remaining Franciscan friars and the general population, as the reasons for their brief tenures.[35]

This was the beginning of what would become a long term pattern in New Mexico in which isolation, in combination with Church politics, would create a vacuum of clerical leadership in the area.  Over time, the lack of leadership and a strong connection to an earlier orthodoxy of the Church doctrine caused the religious practices of New Mexico and Colorado to preserve unique facets, such as the continued existence of the penitential brotherhoods.   In fact, no bishop visited the region for over one hundred years after the 1760 visit of Bishop Tamaron.[36] When traveler Antonio Barriero arrived from Mexico City in 1831, 32 years after the secularization of New Mexico, he noted that:

Spiritual administration in New Mexico is in a doleful condition…It is unusual to see the Eucharist administered…A great many unfortunate people spend most of the Sundays of the year without hearing a Mass. Churches are in a state of near ruin, and of them are unworthy of being called temples of God.”[37]  

Indeed, the geographic isolation of this area is the chief factor that led to the persistence of the cultural context that supported the continuation of the penitential practices of the brotherhoods.  The lack of religious authority to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy also paved the way for the introduction of strands of indigenous ideas into the religious fabric of the hermandades.  

Most importantly, the lack of connection to outside religious authority and oversight not only allowed the penitential practices of the brotherhoods to continue, but also created a vacuum that was filled by the rise of the authority of the brotherhoods as ad hoc religious organizations that fulfilled the role of the absent clergy.  It was from this position of power, combined with the continued isolation of the New Mexican parishes that allowed the brotherhoods to continue to practice the medieval style of Catholicism that had been imported by their 16th Century ancestors.  Since there was a paucity of religious oversight during its settlement in combination with the self-sufficient nature of the far-flung rural population, this situation allowed the brotherhoods not only to form, but to eventually usurp some of the roles traditional filled by the clergy.  The autonomous nature of the brotherhoods lent itself easily to the local ethic of independence.  More importantly, the brotherhoods evolved in direct response to the needs of the community and, unlike either the Franciscans or the secular clergy, were rooted directly in the community.  The leaders and members of the groups often occupied prominent positions in local genealogies and politics, as well as in charitable activities.  

The possibility of a connection between the brotherhoods and the Franciscans via a forgotten tertiary order may also have fueled the brotherhoods’ autonomy.  As noted by the first secular priests to arrive from Durango, the Franciscan presence persisted into the secular era and it is possible that the friars encouraged the growth of the brotherhoods as a way to maintain a degree of power among the laity.  Ironically, this situation may have been encouraged by the friars as revenge for losing their preeminence in the region.  With the brotherhoods to acting as de facto religious clergy, the secular clergy from outside the area would have had difficulty gaining a foothold in the region. 

The unique nature of the New Mexican mission frontier, along with the influence of Native American penitential practices from the Great Plains and the introduction of the Spanish cofradias, set the stage for the rise of penitential practices in the region.  The influence of the Franciscan Order and the subsequent lack of secular clergy, combined with the severe isolation of the land, allowed the brotherhoods to preserve and develop their own unique brand of Catholic practice. Due to the long term isolation of the area, these values became deeply entrenched in the traditions of the region and today the people of the area regard themselves as “a voluntary cultural island, a unique mixture of present and past.”[38] Indeed, this is still evident today by the existence of active hermandades that still proudly guard their traditions today proudly and regard themselves as evidence of the singular and exceptional nature of their distinctive culture.


Works Cited

Eleanor B. Adams, ed., Bishop Tamaron´s Visitation of New Mexico, 1760 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1954)

George C. Barker, “Some Functions of Catholics Processions in Pueblo and Yaqui Cultural Change,” American Anthropologist  60:3 (1958): 449-455.

Fr. Angelico Chávez, My Penitente Land: Reflections on Spanish New Mexico. Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

William M. Cooper, Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod in All Countries. London: William Reeves, 1904)

Maureen Flynn, Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700. (Ithaca: New York, 1989)

Maureen Flynn, “The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism.” The Journal of the America Academy of Religion 64:2 (1996): 257-278

Juan Hernández, “Cactus Whips and Wooden Crosses.”  The Journal of American Folklore 76:301 (1963): 216-274

Lorayne Horka-Follick, Los Hermanos Penitentes: A Vestige of Medievalism in the Southwestern United States. Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1969

Alice B. Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account.  New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Francisco Lomelí and Victor A. Sorell and Genaro M. Padilla, eds., Nuevomexicano Cultural Legacy: Forms, Agencies and Discourse. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Alberto López-Púlido, The Sacred World of the Penitentes. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Luis Weckmann, The Medieval Heritage of Mexico. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

Marta Weigle, Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1976.


[1] Lorayne Horka-Follick, Los Hermanos Penitentes: A Vestige of Medievalism in the Southwestern United States.  (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1969), 16.

[2] Maureen Flynn, “The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism.” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:2 (1996): 257.

[3] Ibid., 269.

[4] William M. Cooper, Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod in All Countries (London: William Reeves, 1904), 111.

[5] Marta Weigle, Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood:  The Penitentes of the Southwest. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1976), 29.

[6] Cooper, Flagellants , 113.

[7] Juan Hernández, “Cactus Whips and Wooden Crosses.”  The Journal of American Folklore 76:301 (1963): 216.

[8] Cooper, Flagellants , 6.

[9] Luis Weckmann, The Medieval Heritage of Mexico.  (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), 222.

[10] Horca-Follick, Hermanos, 79.

[11] Alice B. Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account.  (New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1981), 129.

[12] Weigle, Brothers, 35.

[13] George C. Barker, “Some Functions of Catholics Processions in Pueblo and Yaqui Cultural Change,”  American Anthropologist   60:3 (1958): 449

[14] Weckman, Heritage, 251.

[15] Fr. Angelico Chávez, My Penitente Land: Reflections on Spanish New Mexico Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1974, 201.

[16] Kehoe, Indians, 298.

[17] Francisco Lomelí and Victor A. Sorell and Genaro M. Padilla, eds., Nuevomexicano Cultural Legacy: Forms, Agencies, and Discourse.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 130.

[18] Chávez, Land, 201.

[19] Ibid., 197.

[20] Lomeli, Legacy, 76.

[21] Chávez, Land, 217.

[22] Maureen Flynn, Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700. (Ithaca: New York, 1989), 33.

[23] Weigle, Brothers, 147.

[24] Horca-Follick, Hermanos, 128.

[25] Alberto López-Púlido, The Sacred World of the Penitentes.  (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 11.

[26] Ibid., 14.

[27] Weigle, Brothers, 35.

[28] López-Púlido, World, 10.

[29] Horca-Follick, Hermanos, 80.

[30] Ibid. 75.

[31] Eleanor B. Adams, ed., Bishop Tamaron´s Visitation of New Mexico, 1760 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), 3.

[32] Adams, Visitation, 3.

[33] Ibid., 31.

[34] Horca-Follick, Hermanos, 85.

[35] Chávez, Land, 209.

[36] Juan Hernández, “Cactus Whips and Wooden Crosses.”  The Journal of American Folklore 76:301 (1963): 218.

[37] Weigle, Brothers, 23.

[38] Hernández, Whips, 224.



Influence of Genizaros on Penitential Practices: Religious history and traditions in New Mexico; New Mexican Catholic History;

In the context of colonial New Mexico, Iberian Catholic and Indigenous Native American religious beliefs blended to form a unique hybrid; The Penitentes of New Mexico specifically received and blended these influences in their penitential practices.

Penitente Brotherhood in New Mexico