The Secret History of the Penitentes of the Southwest: Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood
Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest
The Penitentes are a religious brotherhood that has been practicing penance, charity, and devotion in the American Southwest for centuries. They are known for their distinctive rituals, such as self-flagellation, crucifixion, and processions with wooden crosses. They are also known for their secretive organization, their isolated moradas (meeting houses), and their resistance to ecclesiastical authority. But who are these mysterious brothers of light and blood? How did they originate and evolve in the Southwest? What are their main beliefs and practices? And what are the challenges and controversies they face?
Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest
In this article, we will explore these questions by drawing on historical sources, anthropological studies, and contemporary accounts. We will trace the origins and history of the Penitentes from their roots in Spain and Mexico to their formation in New Mexico. We will examine their organization and activities as a lay brotherhood that provides spiritual and social services to their communities. We will analyze their rituals and symbols as expressions of their penitential worldview. And we will discuss their challenges and controversies as they interact with the Catholic Church, outsiders, media, and themselves.
The Origins and History of the Penitentes
The Penitentes are part of a long tradition of penitential movements that emerged in Spain during the Middle Ages. These movements were inspired by biblical examples, such as John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, Paul the Apostle, as well as by saints, martyrs, hermits, monks, friars, crusaders, pilgrims, flagellants, etc. They sought to imitate their models by performing acts of penance for their sins or for others' salvation. They also formed associations or confraternities to support each other in their spiritual endeavors.
Some of these penitential confraternities were brought to Mexico by Spanish colonists in the 16th century. They adapted to the local conditions by incorporating indigenous elements, such as native languages, costumes, dances, music, etc. They also responded to the social challenges by providing mutual aid, education, health care, burial services, etc. They became popular among the lower classes who felt marginalized by the colonial system.
One of these confraternities was known as La Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, or The Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene. It was founded in Mexico City in 1593 by a Franciscan friar named Antonio de San Buenaventura. It was dedicated to the Passion of Christ and practiced penance, charity, and devotion. It also had a special devotion to the image of Jesus carrying the cross, known as El Señor de Esquipulas, or The Lord of Esquipulas.
This brotherhood was introduced to New Mexico by Franciscan missionaries and settlers who arrived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They established missions, towns, and farms in the remote and harsh frontier. They also converted many of the native Pueblo Indians to Christianity. The brotherhood served as a way of strengthening the faith and solidarity of the colonists and the converts. It also helped them cope with the hardships and dangers of their environment.
The brotherhood underwent several changes in the 19th and 20th centuries due to political and ecclesiastical developments. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and New Mexico became part of the Mexican Republic. In 1846, the United States invaded Mexico and New Mexico became part of the American territory. In 1850, New Mexico became an organized territory and in 1912, it became a state. These changes brought new settlers, laws, cultures, and religions to the region.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church also underwent several changes that affected the brotherhood. In 1850, New Mexico was established as a diocese under the jurisdiction of Santa Fe. In 1853, Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed as the first bishop of Santa Fe. He was a French cleric who belonged to a reformist movement known as Ultramontanism. He sought to modernize and centralize the church in New Mexico by imposing strict rules, building new churches, schools, and seminaries, and replacing local priests with foreign ones.
These changes created tensions and conflicts between the brotherhood and the church. The brotherhood felt that their traditions were being threatened and undermined by the newcomers. They resisted the changes by maintaining their autonomy and secrecy. They also adapted their practices by adopting new names, such as Los Hermanos de la Luz (The Brothers of Light), Los Hermanos Penitentes (The Penitent Brothers), or Los Penitentes (The Penitents). They also moved their moradas from towns to rural areas.
The Organization and Activities of the Penitentes
The Penitentes are organized into local chapters that are affiliated with regional councils. Each chapter has its own morada where they meet for prayers, meetings, rituals, etc. Each morada has a cross on its roof or near its entrance. Inside, there are altars, statues, images, candles, etc. There are also tools for penance, such as whips, chains, spikes, etc.
The membership of the Penitentes is open to adult males who are baptized Catholics and who live in good moral standing. The candidates have to undergo a process of initiation that involves instruction, examination, probation, oath, etc. The members have to follow a set of rules that regulate their conduct, duties, obligations, etc. They also have to pay dues and fees to support their chapter and council.
The officers of the Penitentes are elected by the members for a term of one year. They include: - El Hermano Mayor (The Elder Brother), who is the leader and representative of the chapter. - El Alcalde (The Mayor), who is the assistant leader and enforcer of the rules. - El Secretario (The Secretary), who is the recorder and keeper of the records. - El Tesorero (The Treasurer), who is the collector and manager of the funds. - El Abad (The Abbot), who is the chaplain and spiritual guide of the chapter. - El Cantor (The Singer), who is the leader of the chants and hymns. - El Maestro (The Master), who is the instructor and examiner of the candidates.
The activities of the Penitentes are divided into three categories: penance, charity, and devotion. Penance is the main focus of their spirituality. They believe that penance is a way of expressing sorrow for their sins, showing love for God and Christ, interceding for others' salvation, etc. They practice penance throughout the year, but especially during Lent and Holy Week.
Charity is another important aspect of their spirituality. They believe that charity is a way of demonstrating their faith in action, serving their neighbors in need, following Christ's example, etc. They practice charity by providing mutual aid, education, health care, burial services, etc. They also support various causes and organizations that promote 71b2f0854b