June 28 2002

El Penitente

EDITOR’S NOTE: Normally in presenting the news to you, the readers, we try to stay topical. But this week, in what was a coincidence, two stories were presented to us, from different perspectives dealing with the same issue, Holy Week. We are delighted to bring to you “El Penitente” and “The Deer Dancers of Mexico.” Stories about our Mexican heritage and culture. El Penitente was not written by a professional writer, but by a Mexican-American wishing to share his story. The Deer Dancers was written by David Bacon a regular contributor to La Prensa San Diego. We hope you enjoy them both.

by Johnny D. Marquez &
Christopher Maestas


Tucumcari, New Mexico -- The following is an excerpt from the book “El Algodonero” (The Cotton Picker) by Christopher Maestas. The following excerpt is a first hand account of the life of “Un Penitente” in Nuevo Mexico during the last century. Written by Marcos Maestas in the 1970’s, it was handed down to his son Christopher Maestas in hopes that it would one day be published.

The book “El Algodonero” is the story of a poor Chicano in Eastern Nuevo Mexico rising to become a teacher and influential City Commissioner in a small New Mexico town. From the cotton fields to surviving discrimination, “El Algodonero” shows that anyone can achieve their goals if they put their minds and soul on the line:

Chapter 9

(Keep Away Strangers)

This is a true story. I first thought about writing this story in 1940.

I went to a wake and talked to one of the hermanos or brothers about joining the fraternity of Nuestro Padre Jesus de Nazarrio. This is an organization that is called los Penitentes. He told me that first they would have to send a commission of four brothers to talk to my wife. If my wife was willing to let me join, they would accept me. If my wife was not willing to let me join, they would not accept me. They set up a date for my wife and I to wait for them. They came one Sunday morning after mass. I had already told my wife to say yes, so they told me to be at la morada” on the 3rd day of May. It was the obligation day or the day of the Holy Cross. I went to a remote place, one that I never dreamed of ever seeing.

When I walked up to la morada one brother told me that before I could go inside I had to take off my clothes and put on pants that were made of canvas. They then put a black vail on me. Every brother put their rosary on the table of the altar. The hermano mayor (the elder brother) asked me if I was ready to become a penitente and I said yes. I was scared, but I was already there and I couldn’t back away.

First they made me kneel and they all prayed and sang hymns. It was very sad and it gave me the chills. They told me to get up and pick two rosaries from the table at the altar. Then two of the hermanos (brothers) left to the dressing room. They came back dressed, as I was dressed.

They took the rosaries and kissed my hand and kissed the crucifix then returned it to the altar. They were the owners of the rosaries.

I bent forward and the Charity brother started hitting my back with the palm of his hand. The selador stood in front of me with a crucifix and a lit candle. The Charity brothers and the guarchutor were there also. He asked the guarchutor to bring the disciples forward.

He kissed the crucifix and handed me one. He was showing me what to do when all of a sudden the hermanos started to sing hymns. The Charity brother then made the sign of the cross on my back and said a prayer. He told me to hold my breath as he cut into my back.

There were three slashes on each side of my back, which he cut with a piece of thin glass. I felt the blood running down my back. It was very painful clear down to my legs. It is at this point when the exercise began. We would swing the disiplina towards our back, hitting ourselves right over the cuts. More blood would come out each time we hit ourselves. We would walk back and forth inside “la morada” hitting ourselves many times.

The Hermano Mayor would give the order to one of the brothers to bring a crucifix. It is made of wood. We would hold it in our hands and tear at it. It would make a lot of noise. He would go to the door and we would follow him. The rest of the brothers were singing so sad that it made us chill all over.

Just outside, about 30 feet, was the first cross, which we hit as hard as we could while praying. I asked, “God, what did I get myself into?”

I was thinking maybe they would let me go inside, but it was just the beginning. We would have to go about one mile and back without shoes. There were rocks and stickers where we stepped and it was very painful. When we got back they locked the doors and they made us prostrate face down.

It is during this time that the prayer begins. We are now offering the sacrifice for the remission of our sins. After the hermano mayor was through he said “ave maria.” I got up on my knees with my hands stretched. I asked everyone to forgive me if I had ever offended them. They all said at the same time that they forgave me. They said “it is up to God now to forgive you.”

The door brother took me to each one of the hermanos, starting with the hermano mayor (elder brother). I kissed his hand and embrace him. They then took me to another room. I sat down on a board over a tub with cold water and they washed my back.

I ask the Hermano Mayor for el egersisio de sangre (exercise of blood). He says that it is ok and we do this all night. We have to go singing with the other brothers until midnight. The Hermano Mayor then says the exercise is closed.

We all get together in front of the altar and pray and say goodbye to one another. Then the Hermano Mayor gives the order that everyone has got to meet at la morada no later than the Holy Wednesday of the Holy Week. We all go home feeling back pains until the Holy Week. On Wednesday of the Holy Week we are all back and very happy to see each other.

I was a Penitente at the age of 22 in 1938. I was a Cofrado then. I was very bright and 3 years later I was the Segundo Hermano Mayor (vice-president). If for any reason the Hermano Mayor could not do his duties, and it had to be a good reason, I would take over as the Hermano Mayor. So now I was giving orders instead of taking them. It came to pass that the Hermano Mayor was very old and passed away. I was then the Hermano Mayor. For 15 years I was the Hermano Mayor.

Let me tell you about the Holy Week.

The Wednesday of the Holy week is the day we have to work all night in the procession de maderos. Everyone has got to carry a cross that weighs at least 300 to 400 pounds on ones back sometime before midnight.

Thursday is the procession of blood. Everyone would have to be cut in the back and walk about one mile and back. We did that all day until midnight. Then I, the Hermano Mayor, would give the order to stop on Thursday night and we would get some rest. We would get all the rest we could. Some would sleep on the floor and some on the manmade benches. At 3 am I would get up and sound the matraca. Everybody would get up and we would sing and pray until 8 am. During this day we would fast and eat once. At 8 am. we would go to the church and receive Holy Communion.

The people of the Pueblos would start coming in for the vesitas. The Hermano Mayor would be at the altar receiving what donations were given, writing down the names of those who did. A lot of people would come and go. The towns’ people and the people from distant places would come to the Stations of the Cross.

At 3 pm the Stations of the Cross would begin. The men would be on the right side and the women would be on the left side, kneeling at each Cross. There were 15 or 16 crosses made of wood.

We would walk about a mile, praying at each cross and then start back to the morada. One hermano would sing hymns during this trip. When we got back everyone would kneel and we would do the Stations of the Cross. Then a brother would make a speech to the gente and he would say goodbye and everyone would go home. The brothers would be left alone and the exercise would begin again.

During the exercise of liga they would tie us one at a time with a crown made of rope. It is tied very tight and again we go to the cervaria and back.

During the exercise de aros (rice exercise) we would put tiny rocks on the floor close together. We would kneel on them and start moving our knees back and forth. The blood would start coming from our knees until the rosary had ended.

After about 30 years as a penitente my health started to fail me. I stopped going to the morada but I knew all the rules in every wake. I knew how to pray every prayer.

The laws of New Mexico protect the society. To write the true story you’ve got to join, and don’t let them know you are writing the story, if they find out they might take you and punish you as it operates very secret. I don’t know why they are not against the law, but those are the rules since the first Spaniard came.

It was Don Juan De Onate who brought this society from Spain. The Catholic Church protects it. There is a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico and every brother has got to be there or he will pay the consequences when he goes to his morada. You’d better be prepared to receive about 50 latches.

This is the story about something in New Mexico that most people don’t know about. It is something that will give you the chills. So keep your distance strangers.

To find our more about “El Algodonero” visit the website at: http://www.geocities.com/elalgodonero/story.html

Return to the Frontpage