When I was pregnant with my son and taking refresher classes in Spanish in preparation for starting my graduate degree in translation from Spanish to English, I spent 4 weeks in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain (and another 2 weeks touring Spain and Portugal with my husband). We happened to be in Santiago on the Saint’s Day–July 25–when thousands of pilgrims arrived from all over the world. It was an amazing experience, culminating with fireworks set off from the top of the cathedral itself. Before this trip I’d had no idea that there were still Christian pilgrimages, and as someone who loves to hike I was fascinated (though, admittedly in an almost purely secular way).
So as I read So Far From God by Ana Castillo, I was only mildly surprised to see that there are several modern-day Catholic pilgrimage sites in New Mexico–including Chimayo, which appears in the book.
In the story, doña Felicia and Caridad travel with the pilgrims by foot to Chimayo, which comes as a bit of a surprise to Caridad, as she was expecting to just jump in the pickup.
There were a couple of quotes I loved about the pilgrimage.
It’s not every day that you see a crowd following a Christ-like figure carrying a cross along the highway (unless your people are from Chimayo or Tome or similar places throughout the territory controlled by the Spanish queen and friars for centuries with such ferocity that neither Mexican or U.S. appropriation diluted the religious practices of the descendants of the Spaniards who settled there, including this procession that has been performed annually for two hundred years and will probably go on for two hundred more, such is their fervent devotion).
She describes the origins of the sanctuary at Chimayo in a lovely blend of humor and fact, chuckling with us over the shared joke of the Catholic Church co-opting Native American beliefs and incorporating them into Christian rituals.
In that valley in the Sangre de Cristo foothills nearly two centuries before, a Penitente Brother performing his penances during Holy Week ran toward a bright light coming out of the ground not far from the river. He dug at the spot where the light emitted and found a statue of Our Lord of Esquipúlas. Now, of course there are a lot of amazing aspects to this legend because Nuestro Señor de Esquipúlas was the black Christ of the far off land of the converted Indians of Esquipúlas, Guatemala, and how He got to the land of the Tewa is anybody’s guess! But he most certainly had a mission, which was to let people know of the healing powers of the sacred earth of Tsimayo–just like he had done in Esquipúlas–so shortly after his appearance, the Catholic Church endorsed as sacred what the Native peoples had known all along since the beginning of time.
Chimayo does rank in the top eight Catholic pilgrimage sites in the United States, * with (according to Wikipedia) close to 300,000 visitors per year, approximately 30,000 of them during Holy Week. The church is strongly linked with the sanctuary in Esquipúlas, Guatemala, which, as indicated in the quote above, is generally considered to be the source of the Black Christs (Cristos Negros) popular in Central America and Mexico. The Tewa, by the way, are a sub-group of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. And the Penitente Brothers are a group that we learn a bit more about later in the book, through the character of Francisco, but it is a mostly secretive Catholic lay men’s group “whose beliefs and practices center around recreating the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.” (The link is to a New Mexico history site which has the most complete (and neutral) information I could find.)
In So Far From God, we see doña Felicia, with Caridad in tow, join the pilgrims on their way to Chimayo.
They lined up to go through the small rooms adjacent to the chapel where there is a pozito opened to the holy earth with which, since the early part of the nineteenth century, Catholics (really, it wasn’t their fault that they came so late to this knowledge, being such newcomers to these lands) have healed both their bodies and spirits. Both doña Felicia and Caridad bent down and rubbed some of the earth along their brows and temples and on their forearms and put a little on their tongues. Doña Felicia also scooped some up and put it in a small coffee can she brought for that purpose, and then they slowly made their way out.
Of course, the Wikipedia site also has a link to a refutation of the healing properties of the earth from the Chimayo sanctuary, and I have to say that I, myself, am not really a believer. However, I do believe in the power of the mystical, and, in particular, the power of belief–mind over matter, if you will. Chapter 3 of the book is titled (in part), “On the Subject of Doña Felicia’s Remedios, Which in an of Themselves Are Worthless without Unwavering Faith,” and Caridad notices that, “as long as the faith of the curandera was unwavering, successful results were almost certainly guaranteed–the only thing that could prevent them was the will of God.”
*There is one other site on the top 8 list that is in New Mexico–the St. Joseph Staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe (which was mentioned briefly in The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church). Incidentally, the Loretto Chapel is a prime example of the French influence in New Mexico, as it was built for Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy–the Bishop in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.