Penitente Renaissance

I recently reviewed a rather unusual picture text on the Penitente Brotherhoods of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, for a local interest newsletter. It occurred to me the book's subject may be of interest to a wider audience. While this is a work of an enthusiast and caretaker of a tradition, not a scholarly book per se, the subject may interest some readers of this blog, and some of you may want to get this for your school libraries. Hope this is of interest to some --

Ruben E. Archuleta, Manifesting Hope: Penitente Renaissance (Pueblo West, CO: El Jefe, 2007).

Such a labor of love as Ruben E. Archuleta's Manifesting Hope: Penitente Renaissance could only have been accomplished by an insider to a religious tradition famous, and sometimes infamous, for its secretiveness and insularity. Author Ruben Archuleta, formerly the Chief of Police in Pueblo and now an author and santero, writes that “the Hermanos of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico are as fine men as anywhere to be found. They are holy, endowed, by an age-old spirituality, especially the spirituality of the orders of begging friars. As Fray Angelico Chavez taught in My Penitente Land, the Brotherhoods live in the lands of sheep and shepherds, living in the rough, dry barren uplands similar to those of Palestine and Extremadura” (27). The abundant and extravagantly produced color photographs in this volume lie as testament both to the rugged and isolated rural conditions in the New Mexico/Colorado highlands that rural and largely Hispanic residents have faced, as well as the remarkable durability of religious practices in these depopulated counties that stand about as far (not geographically, but culturally) from megachurches and pop “praise music” as one could get.

Archuleta’s work on the Penitentes makes a nice accompaniment to scholarly works in this area, notably including Marta Weigle’s Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood, originally a University of Pennsylvania dissertation in 1971 which still stands as the most thorough and complete documentation of the history and cultures of the La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (The Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), popularly known as “The Penitentes.” Established, in all likelihood, sometime in the early nineteenth century, the Society is based in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado in Hispanic communities largely removed from the major arteries of American life. The Penitentes are known for organized yearly processions commemorating Christ’s suffering. In years past, sometimes those commemorations featured acts of penance such as self-flagellation, from which the Penitentes gained a bit of dark renown.

Historically, the Penitentes were hardly viewed so favorably as they appear in books such as this one specifically designed to honor them. From their earlier days in the nineteenth century, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy expressed his displeasure with Hispano practices, mostly by attempting to ban them. Of course, Lamy faced a formidable opponent in Fray Antonio Jose Martinez, who had been a defender of Hispano rights in Mexican territory prior to the North American conquest. Lamy attempted to institute a regime of European Tridentine Catholic practices, which forbade practices not specifically sanctioned by centralized church authorities. Much later, in the twentieth century, the Church finally recognized the Brothers as a legitimate part of church tradition. By that time, it appeared the Penitentes could die out entirely; that did not happen, as this book testifies, but the numerous photographs of older men, eroding walls and roofs on the moradas, and counties facing significant economic and social challenges suggest that the Penitente renaissance remains a work in progress, and the brotherhood a legacy of southwestern Hispano Catholicism whose future is both promising (due, in part, to outsider interest in the santos and other artistic monuments to southwestern Latino devotion) and imperiled (due to an aging population and struggling local branches of the brotherhood).

For years, I have assigned to American religious history students a classic of the field: Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th St., a work which studies the practice of penitential Catholicism among (mostly female) Italian Catholics in uptown New York, East Harlem, from the late nineteenth century and down through much of the twentieth century. In the case of the devotions paid to this apparition of the Madonna, women control virtually everything about the practice. Italian-American men, largely anticlerical in sentiment, serve at most as auxiliaries to a set of practices which enshrine female suffering and sacrifice. After discussing this book with students, I often ask them, why are Catholic devotional and penitential practices so largely contained with the worlds of women, while parallel practices in the Latino Catholic world are defined and regulated by men? In asking this question, I am thinking primarily of the Brothers of Light and the Brothers of Blood, the orders which have carried on the practices so colorfully documented in this book. Someday, maybe, a scholar in American religious studies will suggest why the Penitentes, so unusually for American Catholic devotional practice, remain a world of men, with women primarily serving as auxiliaries and helpmeets. In the meantime, this book will provide both information and visual pleasure to its readers.


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