The Penitentes: Quick Historiography

In describing the Penitentes of New Mexico and southern Colorado, the word “flagellant” is always present in the descriptions. The Pentitentes, or los hermanos penitentes, believe that by performing certain rituals to inflict pain on themselves and one another, they are made more holy and expiate their wrongdoings to society and each other. The population of the brotherhood of self-flagellants consists of Hispanic males of the Roman Catholic faith. Growing up Catholic, I am always curious about some of the offshoot groups never mentioned to me such as Opus Dei. The Pentitentes, another group of pious men, has been controversial from the beginning of their existence in the Southwest and continue to be so today.

I looked at several books about the Pentitentes and decided to write about what I found from my research. Mind you, I did not read each book in entirety. The edition reviewed of Brothers of Light: The Penitentes of the Southwest by Alice Corbin Henderson was printed in 1937 and is a first edition book. The hardcover of this book instantly catches the eye with a drawing of what seems to be a flower emanating some particular energy force as the rays of the sun, with the longest of the rays forming a cross. Immediately, this symbol evoked the thought of the Rosicrucian order, another fraternal society. On the title page, the illustrations are credited to William Penhallow Henderson, the author’s husband and the assumed companion of hers who also witnessed the Holy Week rites of the Penitentes of New Mexico. The book was written as a recounting of a visit a small town in northern New Mexico during the last week of Lent.

–cover for the 1st edition of the Henderson book
–a later cover for the Henderson book
The author begins her book with a history lesson explaining how the Penitentes derived from the Third Order of Saint Francis and how self-flagellation is customary dating from Spanish conquistadores to the beginnings of the Franciscan Order. Henderson does explain that the Catholic Church does not sanction the Penitente brotherhood. Until page 56, the book is a first person account of the author observing the services of the village and the rituals of the Penitentes. The next 30 pages delve into the history of the group and the history and purpose of the rites of the brotherhood. The “Notes” section of the book contains lyrics in Spanish and English (on facing pages) of hymns from the “copy-book” used by the brotherhood to recount the life of Christ. Another section of the text is more history of the society. A reference section comprises the last part of the book. Henderson’s book is important because she witnessed the Holy Week rituals and recounts the experience in the first person.

In the prologue to My Penitente Land, Angelico Chavez states two important ideas. One is that the Penitentes only began at the start of the 1800’s. The other is that he asserts that the Penitentes did not derive from the Third Order of the Franciscans but formed separately in New Mexico due to the land and culture. Finally in the introduction, Chavez claims that the land of New Mexico is like the land of Spain, which is like the land of Palestine. Therefore, he states that these lands “likewise share a distinctive underlying human mystique born of that very type of arid landscape.”
My Penitente Land (1974) reads like a story. It is the story of Fray Chavez as well as the story of his land of New Mexico. Chavez narrates how he grew up with the mysterious stories of the Penitentes and how his curiosity about them only grew as he got older. Chavez became a member of a religious order and got the opportunity to study abroad and visit Spain, the land of his ancestors. He ties his history and the history of his native land together beautifully.
The idea that the Penitentes did not derive from the Third Order of the Franciscans conflicts with the majority of the literature about the group. Chavez’s assertion that the land influenced the formation and practices of the Penitentes is an example of how a “plains” area can influence the lives of its inhabitants in many unique ways.
In Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest, Marta Weiglemakes the dedication at the beginning of the book to “brotherhood, community, and faith.” These three ideas are the foundation of the Penitente brothers’ organizations. They support each other, assist in their respective towns and villages however they can, and express their faith behind closed doors and openly throughout the year. Weigle’s book is the mother lode of information on los hermanos penitenets, or the penitent brothers.

Weigle divides her book into three sections. The first begins with a quote from Henderson’s book. This section is entitled “A Geographical Sketch,” and consists of a description of the land of New Mexico and a brief description of the settlements’ developments chronologically. Weigle then concentrates on the moradas of the brotherhood. Also in this section are a topographical map, location map of certain settlements, and two maps of morada locations in New Mexico and Colorado. The second section in Weigle’s book is a detailed, chronological history of the brotherhood. This section contains four chapters, ending with a chapter on the organization in the 20th century. The third section of the book relates how the brotherhood is organized and gives information on local moradas, rituals of the group, and lasting legends of the group.
Besides the 20 appendices at the end of the book, also included are notes, a bibliographical essay, and an index. The bibliographical essay explains where the source data was from, but not in a typical bibliographic format. Weigle produced another book with these annotated entries. Each chapter and essays on certain topics in the book are very relevant, even 35-plus years later. An example is a section of chapter entitled “The Relationship of Women to the Brotherhood.”
The Penitente brothers were the subjects of Weigle’s dissertation. As a result, she wrote the book discussed above. The same year (1976) she also published the annotated bibliography discussed previously. A Penitente Bibliography contains books published until 1976, but also contains entries such as loose documents (some dated as early as 1778), various news articles throughout the centuries, student papers, and yet to be published writings on the group at the time. The value of a bibliography of the magnitude of Weigle’s cannot be emphasized enough. A reading of the annotations alone provides a great amount of insight on the Penitentes. Some of the entries are travel books, plays, and even a novel set in New Mexico in the 1800’s. This compilation was such a huge undertaking and scholars will refer to this bibliography for many years into the future.
En Divina Luz by Michael Wallis is a beautiful book published in 1994 by the University of New Mexico Press. Imprinted in the hardcover of this book are three crosses that are commonly seen on the New Mexico landscape signifying the three crosses of Calvary. As one of the more recent books on the Penitentes, this book is split between essays, alabados (songs), and other writings about the brotherhood and wonderful black and white photographs of numerous moradas from different angles and different lighting. Moradas do not comprise all of the photographs, but they are the focus of Craig Varjabedian’s pictures. An hermano mayorwrote the introduction to this book and his writing makes the reader wish that his or her own faith were as deep, strong, and permanent as this particular gentleman. Quotes from anonymous Penitentes on various subjects about the group are scattered throughout the prose section of the book. An example of one of these is:
“Many people do not realize that there were females in the Hermandad. They were not just auxiliary members, but they were bona fide Penitentas. In one village, they even had their own morada and they carried out the same practices as the Hermanos. There were many Penitentas, and perhaps someday there will be again.”

From a look at Weigle’s A Penitente Bibliography, numerous books not examined by me exist about the group. However, the books I chose to review cover a wide span of the 20th century and are a fair representation of the literature of the brotherhood. With few exceptions, most of the literature reveals how the practice of self-flagellation is controversial, but most of the literature also emphasizes the profound faith and love the community has for each other and for their region of the United States.

Copyright 2013  M. Denise Costello