Los Hermanos Penitentes: History of The Penitent Brothers

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The Los Hermanos Penitentes of the American Southwest began as religious charitable organizations that believed in self inflected pain for God’s forgivness and mercy.

Los Hermanos Penitentes were a very secret society that had extreme faith and different ideas on their structure of religion. They established themselves as a charitable order, and they set themselves up as a vital series of networks in villages within northern New Mexico, northern Arizona and southern Colorado, thus creating a regional culture and identity. They wove the traditions of Catholicism along with flagellation, cross bearing, crucifixion of sorts, as well as brotherhood and communal unity to insure a culture that was hard to change and harder still to completely throw away. These believers came late into the fold of Christianity with the idea that to absolve from sin was to inflict pain upon them, and through this pain true forgiveness could be found. A short historical basis is the focus, and through this focus the connections to folklore are made.

History in the Making

The Penitentes were a religious organization that allied itself within the Catholic faith. They were known as Los Hermanos Penitentes- the Penitent Brothers or as Los Hermanos- the Brothers. Their ranks were mostly filled with men of Hispanic decent and of the Catholic faith, thus a gendered grouping of a secret society. There are stories that women were involved in Los Hermanos, but they tend to take care of the men who are injured as well as keep them clothed and fed during the most demanding holidays. The order was thought to have reached its pinnacle of power and influence in the Southwest during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The establishment of the society is thought to have occurred at an earlier undocumented time in Southwestern history. The hierarchy of Los Hermanos was organized according to a patriarchal council, with the head of the order known as ‘the chief officer’, or elder brother who had the absolute authority of the society during his life. The other officers are like ones found in other societies, sergeant-at-arms, colonel, secretary, etc.. By shrouding their practices in secrecy, the only way that most non-members got information was from members who felt free enough to open up and talk about a few key traditions, through assumption, through the celebrations that were open to the general public of the different villages, or through the communities themselves due to the help received by the Hermanos. The last known full detailed report of Los Hermanos was made by Marta Weigle in 1978 in reference to their strong connection to rural areas. This has just recently been updated with a short account of the organization in 2000, by Conger Beasley.

To Build a Brotherhood

The brotherhood was first sanctioned as a non-profit organization to help the budding Hispanic populations within the new world, by setting up chapter houses that would aid the sick, help with work, feed the indigent or stricken. And so, initiation to the brotherhood was a long ordeal that lasted a year, with the final selection taking place during Holy Week, where they would show their dedication through flagellation, and cross bearing. The newly chosen members began their service with the ceremonial washing of feet, religious hymns sung, prayers in connection to asking for forgiveness, and the final test of the mutilation of the candidate’s back with several cuttings of cross shapes with flint. This was to show their desire to redeem themselves through sacrifice and pain. Therefore, Holy Week is the most important event in the Hermanos’ calendar. Due to misunderstood reaction within the Catholic Church, and the overly curious non-practicing Penitentes, the society was forced to go underground. This lead to be more remote in their locations of their moradas, they also had to start holding all of their rituals during the night-time hours. In today’s world, processions during Holy Week are still done, and the Day of the Dead is still celebrated with ceremonies that are only too familiar to some Penitentes ceremonies only less dangerous to the participants. Penitentes are still practicing in New Mexico and Colorado, but their numbers have diminished greatly.

The Penitentes were devout in their faith and felt that the only way their prayers would be answered was through self mutilation and elaborate ceremonies, thus retaining their identity as an old religion. The history of the religion is hundreds of years old, but because the religion was forced underground, that history is almost forgotten or taken and changed into other forms of ceremonies that is more readily accepted by society and the Catholic Church. Because the Penitenties are considered a secret society, it is not known for sure if they are still highly active in the United States, thus becoming an urban legend.

Sources:

  1. Beasley, Conger. Among the Penitentes. 2000
  2. Esponosa, Aurelio M. “Los Hermanos Penitentes”. Donald J. Boon. 2003. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. November 3, 2004.
  3. Stark, Richard B.. “Dark and Light in Spanish New Mexico.” New World Records. 1995. Recorded Anthology of American Music Inc. & Liner Notes. 1995.
  4. Weigle, Marta. The Penitentes of the Southwest. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ancient City Press, 1970.