Friday, April 22, 2011

The Journal of a Mud House, a continuation --4

[Illustration from "The Journal of A Mud House" by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Harper's Magazine, April 1922]

Like many other areas where the Spaniards went a-conquering, New Mexico is blessed with an abundance of penitentes who go about on pilgrimage, flagellating themselves, praying, and at one time nailing one another to crucifixes in imitation of the Passion of Christ. (Rumor has it, they still do that in their secret rites, but I wouldn't know.)

In fact, I'm not much into the Passion. It's a frankly ugly story that relies on credulity and faith to be transformed into... "beauty." Yes, yes, I understand about suffering and redemption and all that. Taking on the sins of the world, forgiveness, resurrection, choirs of angels at the right hand of the Father. Yes, yes, yes.

But what has happened with this story is that the Suffering of Christ to Redeem Mankind has been used as a sort of global justification for Believers (not just Catholics by any means) to impose such suffering as they wilt on Believers and Non-Believers alike if not in Imitation of Christ, then certainly in His Sacred Honor.

And that's disgusting. Immoral. Wrong.

It was this Imposition of Suffering -- by Men of God as well as civil authorities -- that in due time led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 here in New Mexico, the only time Indians successfully rebelled against the Conquest. Not only did they successfully rebel, they expelled the Spanish colonists and their hypocritical, devilish priests.

Of course, there was a Reconquista, there always is, isn't there? But in returning, the Spanish, wonder of wonders, were chastened and chastised and they promised to reform. Strangely enough, they weren't lying. They wanted to make peace with the Indians, promised to respect them and their culture, promised further that the Church would be restrained, the burdens of conversion lightened, encomienda ended, and cooperation between the peoples ensured. And so, more or less, it was.

Because of this rebellion and change of heart, both the Spanish and the Indians were surprisingly successful in maintaining their cultures here, while intermingling all the time, right up to the American Conquest.

And when the Americans came, they didn't know what to make of what they found here.

Americans had been coming down the Santa Fe Trail for a generation before the conquest, and most of those who made the trek were inclined to tolerate if not exactly favor the ways of the strange peoples who lived along the Rio Grande Valley, if only for the money they could make from them. Well, money such as it was.

These were poor people. Even the Grandest of Grandees in New Mexico was a poor man by American standards; even by Mexican standards. This was a backwater where people had to do for themselves or do without. They lived as simply as possible, sufficient unto their needs first and foremost, but within that stricture, they were surprisingly creative, artistic, and -- at least from time to time -- happy.

The story of the Spanish Conquest of these parts is complicated. Coronado came through in 1540 or so, and he made an unholy mess on his travels in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. Murder, rape, pillage, plunder, disease and destruction were all integral to his exploratory technique. The Coronado Monument up by Bernalillo is a pretty good representation of what his expedition left in its wake. It's a ruined pueblo on the banks of the Rio Grande, obviously a very fine place at one time. There is little left of it but some tumbled walls and a mural-painted kiva that astonished archeologists who excavated the ruin in the 1930's.

The theory is that Coronado stopped here in 1540, demanding supplies, killing and plundering at will, taking hostages and women, and otherwise behaving like a rampaging beast. The Indians were not amused.

Soon after Coronado moved on, perhaps as soon as the next spring, so the theory goes the pueblo was abandoned and fell to ruin. Where the people went is hard to say, but there were many other pueblos along the Rio Grande and elsewhere, so there was no lack of potential destinations. Eventually, the ruin was "discovered" and became what it is today.

In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate went on an expedition of Conquest, during which (as was the style of the Spaniards of the day) he committed numerous atrocities, perhaps the most egregious of which was the amputation of one foot from each of the adult male survivors of his reduction and conquest of the Pueblo of Acoma.

This was but one of his atrocities, but it came to symbolize just who these Spaniards were, and what they would do if they didn't get what they wanted.

It took some time to get over the shock, but more to the point, it took time to adapt the Spanish new arrivals to the rhythms and patterns of living in this harsh but beguiling land. As they adapted they imposed their own spiritual rhythms -- a very harsh form of Catholicism built from the practices of the Church Militant during the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors -- on the local Native Peoples. Up to a point, the Native Peoples were willing enough. But when the Church Militant commenced to destroy all the Native spiritual elements, as was their common practice throughout the conquered realms, the Indians resisted and eventually rebelled. Successfully.

Coronado was bad, Oñate was bad, the Padres could be horrible.

And at least in my view, much of their badness was a result of their peculiar understanding of religious faith and what it justified them to do.

It took centuries and centuries to correct.

In the meantime, plenty of peculiar practices became inculcated into the Ways of the People in these parts, one of them being the Penitente Pilgrimages at Easter time.

Here we are.

And you know, as long as they don't try to impose their beliefs and practices on others, there is no problem and their should be none. But it took so many centuries for the notion of Live and Let Live to penetrate the minds of many Euro-Americans.

I was clearing brush this morning, specifically a frost bitten thorny pyracantha, and I thought for a time over saving some of it to make a Crown of Thorns in remembrance of Good Friday.

But what would I do with it?

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