La Procesión de Sangre de Cristo
With a review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
The next morning, Good Friday, found me in bed with a high fever. The chill that permeated my body had increased during the night, but anxious to join the Hermanos at the morada, I struggled to rise, only to fall back weakly against my pillow. My grandmother, who was drinking coffee with my mother in the kitchen, came to the doorway. Silhouetted in the rays of the sun in the window behind her, she seemed enveloped in a cloak of white. My fears of the night were dispelled, there was no bandage, no limp to her walk; and in the light of day I chided myself for my foolishness, convinced that my fever had caused such disturbing thoughts.
That my abuela was here was no accident, no inexplicable coincidence to agitate my imaginings. For she knew that I had become a novicio the night before, and as médica, she had come to see how I fared. She moved to my side with a jar of her remedio, turned me to my side to rub the romerillo, or silver sage, on my back, and then tucked the quilts around me once again without a word.
My mother placed a mug of warm broth in my hands, brushing a gentle hand over my cheek and pulling a chair by my bed for my gramma before she left for the church with my aunt. A few of the women would give the capilla a light cleaning before covering the saints with cloaks of black this morning to symbolize the dark day of Christ’s death. They would remain concealed until Easter morning, the day of His resurrection.
Settling herself comfortably, gramma took from her apron pocket a small kerchief with a trailing thread and proceeded to continue her embroidery on its edge, the needle whipping in and out of the intricate design with a delicate, almost birdlike fluttering of her hands. I sipped the warm soup watching her, waiting for her to speak. I knew I had inherited my physical appearance from her, the small, thin stature, the nose, and her humor. Had I also inherited a mental power I didn’t understand, or want, from my beloved grandmother?
Before I could ponder the question further, before I could think of a way to phrase my question without hurting the feelings of the tiny woman seated beside me, she spoke.
“You have a gift.”
Her words revived my concerns that the warm broth had begun to dispel.
She looked up from her embroidery. Although this was one time I wished I could turn away, I forced myself to look into her eyes. Bright with tears, hers held a mixture of sadness and regret. When she blinked the drops away and smiled softly at me, there was also pleasure and expectation in their depths.
“The gift of sight,” she began, “is strong in our family though inherited by some, not all, through the generations. And,” she added, “while some seemed only to possess a strong sense of intuition, there were others who had the power to know other’s thoughts, especially of people with whom they were close.
“I will tell you a story, hijo, a cuento of a young girl you know well.” Putting her embroidery aside, she settled back into the pillow at her back and continued.
“When this girl was very young, she began to have disturbing dreams, dreams which frightened her because in the days that followed, they would almost always come true. More and more often as she grew, the dreams plagued her. And her abuelito, the only one who believed her, died before he could explain the gift she had inherited from him. She learned to keep the dreams secret because whenever she told anyone, they looked at her as if she were loca. And people, ignorant and afraid, had started to think she was either crazy or a witch.
Years passed, until one night she saw her father in her dream and knew what real fear was. In her vision her father was being dragged by horses in the field he was plowing, his leg entangled in the reins behind the arado.”
She paused, taking her sack of punche from her pocket to roll a cigarette.
I squirmed restlessly on the bed. From past experience, I knew that it was an effort in futility to urge her on, for if prodded to finish a cuento before she decided she wanted to, she was known to teach me a longer lesson in patience, sometimes making me wait for days, or until I had even forgotten the beginnings of a story and her teasing reminder would set me off, begging for the end.
I had to hand it to my abuelita; she knew how to build up the suspense in her stories like no one else. I was forced to wait as she took a laboriously long time rolling her smoke, her eyes twinkling with mirth at my discomfort.
“Where was I?” she asked, striking a wooden match on the sole of her shoe.
“Oh, yes, the dream.” Puffing a small stream of smoke, she continued, “The next morning, much to her dismay, the girl’s father had already begun to plow the fields when she awoke. Without breakfast, the girl ran out of the house, straight to the field.”
When she paused to puff her cigarette again, I could have screamed from the suspense; it was killing me. “Now, the neighbors had honey bees,” she reminisced, “and the hives were just across the river. For some reason, I never knew why, they swarmed—and the girl’s father with his horses were right in their path. It was a good thing the girl got there when she did, for her father, strong though he was, was already struggling to keep the horses from running away with the plow. When she looked down, the girl saw that the end of one of the reins had tangled around her father’s leg, just like in her dream. And just as the panicked horses took off, shaking the bees from their heads, she jumped forward, unwrapping the rein just in the nick of time to save her father from a very bad injury—perhaps even death.”
Gramma puffed at her cigarette a moment before she added, “That was the day the girl finally realized that her dreams were not the curse she had thought they were all along, for years having been afraid that perhaps she was a witch and that she had dark powers from the devil. They were forewarnings, a gift from God, and she had learned to read their meaning to help others.”
Putting her cigarette out, she looked at me closely, searching my eyes for understanding. “Sí,” she said quietly, “I have been called bruja many times, hijo, but only by the ignorant or the envious, God help them. They do not know that what I have is a gift from God and that I have learned to use my gift to avisar or to give consejo to those I see in my dreams.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that no matter what happened in the future, I would never suspect my abuelita of being a witch again. And I understood that my father possessed a different gift, a power to read my thoughts and to respond in the voice of my conscience to guide me in the journey of life. But at the same time, I was troubled. Hadn’t I also inherited such a gift, a power to see or hear things others didn’t?
I knew she picked up the apprehension in my eyes, for my gramma said softly, “No te preocupes. Do not be worried, hijo mío. Instead, thank the Lord that you have something not many people do and learn to use your gift to help yourself and to help others if you’re able. And if your friends question your intuition, you do what your conciencia tells you. If they are real amigos, they will look to you for consejo. Advise them well. If they are not, then you will have to live with their suspicions and their accusations just as I have. And though it will be hard, you will have to learn to leave them to their own consciences.”
I nodded, and we sat in companionable silence for a while. My gramma took up her embroidery again as my mind digested the importance of her story, her counsel. I knew that I would have to find within myself the strength to overcome my disquiet, to listen and watch for any avisos in the future, to use my gift of intuition wisely.
Suddenly remembering what I had seen the night before, I asked, “Do you believe there really are witches?”
“¿Por qué?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.
I described our encounter with the ball of fire and what Berto had done as it had fled.
She nodded, “There are many, including myself, who have seen them. And since there is no explanation for the balls of fire, there are many who believe that they are witches. No one knows for sure. But it has been a long time that any have been seen around here.”
“What do you believe?” I asked, a little uneasy about her answer.
“I believe that there is a power of good, which is God. But the Bible tells us that there is also a power of evil. Just as Dios gives His children gifts which help them to live as good Cristianos, then so could el Diablo guide those he chooses with the powers of darkness.”
She crossed herself before she looked at me for a moment. “That you saw one during la Cuaresma disturbs me. This is one of the most sacred seasons of the year. If it was a bruja or some other work of el Diablo, then they seem to have no fear that this is Lent, and today is Viernes Santo, the day our Savior died.”
“What could it mean?” I whispered.
The heavy silence of our thoughts spoke volumes, for we both knew that this afternoon La Procesión de Sangre de Cristo, the procession of the Blood of Christ, in which a chosen Hermano would carry the crucifix from the morada on his back, would be enacted. And even though the Penitente would not be crucified, the re-enactment of the most sorrowful day in the life of our Savior would take its toll on the Brother who played the crucial role. I wondered if it would be the Hermano who had portrayed Christ the night before in la Procesión de la Santa Cruz.
Procesión de la Semana Santa. José on the left, carrying
la bandera; Miguel's house in the background.
Before either of us could speak, my mother rushed into the house, bringing with her a bit of news that brought an unwelcome confirmation and a bit of relief to our uneasy thoughts. A neighbor found the Lunática sprawled unconscious and bleeding from her head outside her house. He had summoned her hired hand to transport her to the doctor in Las Vegas.
“What do you think happened to her?” my mother asked, looking from my grandmother to me and back at her again.
My abuela’s face mirrored my thoughts: a bruja! Could the one who had protested the most loudly that she was surrounded by witches and lunatics in fact be a witch herself? Could Berto’s rock have met its mark on the floating ball of fire, leaving in its stead a wound in a witch that would cause her death?
I knew that neither my abuela nor I wished the woman harm, yet I saw in her eyes the question I felt in my heart. If the woman died, then would the significance of the ball of fire we suspected be dispelled by her own death?
Unable to rest and unable to sleep, I rose when Berto appeared at my door about noon, sent to see if I was well enough to go to the morada before the procession began. At first my mother protested, having heard of my induction from my father earlier that morning. But rising unsteadily, I assured her that I felt better and that if los Hermanos had sent for me, surely I was needed at the morada. Physically, it was the truth, for my chills had subsided and I was no longer dizzy, but my mind whirled with questions and an impending sense of doom.
Concerned about how Berto would react if he heard of what had happened to the Lunática from someone else, I broke the news to him gently. Though I tried to convince him that we didn’t know whether the woman was only an innocent recluse who had fallen, perhaps even attacked by a thief (which was unheard of in our community), I heard the doubt in my own voice and saw the disbelief in his eyes. Berto remained convinced that the woman was a witch and that she had been injured by his hand, the hand which had cast the stone.
He ran his fingers through his shock of hair again and again, upset about her probable revenge. I, too, worried for Filiberto, remembering my grandmother’s words.
When we arrived at the morada, the Hermanos were resting beneath the shady cottonwoods outside. I went from one to the other exchanging greetings, touched by their concern. My father beckoned to me, moving a little away from the others so we could speak in private. He asked if I was up to the long hours ahead.
After I assured him I felt fine, he told me what had been decided during the morning in my absence.
When he told me who would be the Cristo in the procession of the afternoon, I frowned. My Tío Daniel who had been chosen for the honored role the night before had asked for and received permission to again portray Christ in the reenactment of His walk to Monte Calvario. I needed to tell my father about the premonition of impending death I sensed, but there was no way to explain without beginning with the ball of fire the boys and I had encountered the night before. So I took a deep breath, plunged in, watching his eyes widen when I told him what Abuela and I had discussed, and finished with the account of the neighbor woman’s mysterious injury. I breathlessly waited for his reaction.
He took it all in, quiet with thought before he spoke. “I am glad that your abuela explained about what it is to be a gifted member of this familia,” he said, “for from now on you will listen more closely to your intuition to guide you on the right path in life.”
“But that’s just it,” I blurted, “I have a queer feeling about what gramma said about someone dying. As much as I don’t like that lady for how she treated gramma, I don’t wish her dead, but if she does die, at least that might mean Tío Daniel won’t.”
“Perhaps Mamá is right,” he said. “I trust her judgment,” he added, laying a hand on my shoulder, “as I also trust yours.”
He stood, and I felt a surge of pride that he spoke to me as one man to another.
I waited for him to say that the procession to follow would be canceled or that he would put it to a vote of all the Hermanos, but when he spoke I knew that it wasn’t something he had the power to do. The rites and rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood were clear, and the reenactment I dreaded would proceed as usual.
“We will do what we must,” he said with determination, “and we will pray that Daniel will not be the one who has to die with Cristo tonight.”
We walked together back into the morada where the rest of los Hermanos were in prayer. The window, covered with a dark cloth, let no welcome warmth or light into the room. In the chill of the thick adobe walls there were only the flickering flames of candles to shed a wavering glow on the altar and the men kneeling before it. As we joined them, I took the crucifix I had finished carving, painted black the day before, and placed it among those of my Brothers and the small covered santo Pedro had carved.
Kneeling, I waited for the peace I always felt when I prayed there. I longed for the solace I would have received if I were able to look into the face of the Savior. But every retablo, every santo, was covered in shrouds of black. I felt a sense of loss, of foreboding—until I closed my eyes. From the dark recesses of my mind the face of Christ emerged, filling me with strength to face whatever might occur.
It was a little before two o’clock when we emerged from the morada, blinking our eyes in the welcome light of the sun, warming our stiff bodies in its rays as we were surrounded by the friends and relatives who had come to join our procession. Women bustled into the cocina with pots of food while others entered the prayer room for a moment of contemplation before we began.
I greeted my mother and grandmother with a hug, reluctant to let either of them go, for in their arms I felt the comforting reassurance of my youth. I found myself close to tears, realizing that the innocence of my childhood was lost to me, only to be remembered in their embrace with the bittersweet knowledge that I had willingly forsaken the child within me and let the man in me emerge when I took the vows of a novicio.
Collecting myself as best I could with the tumultuous emotions and frightening premonition looming over my thoughts, I made my way over to the boys who were resting beneath the trees, knowing if anyone could take my mind off my worries, it would be the gang. Horacio was speaking as I joined them.
“My gramma told me a cuento once,” he said quietly. “She thinks it’s only a legend though, ’cause she never really heard of it happening in her lifetime.
Her own abuela told it to her when she was a girl. Do you wanna hear?”
Berto nodded. “Anything, if it’ll stop me from thinking about the bruja.”
We all looked at Berto sympathetically, wishing we could relieve him of the burden of his fears and knowing there was nothing we could do except keep his mind off them.
Horacio began, “Well, you know how Tío Daniel is going to play the Cristo and carry the cross on his shoulders in a while?”
“Don’t remind me,” I waved a hand at Horacio to continue when the boys’ confused looks turned on me. I was thinking of my uncle’s nightmares about the war and wondering if this was his penance for some unimaginable act.
“Anyway,” Horacio continued after looking at me askance, “my gramma told me that one of the descansos up there,” he pointed his chin to the mountains beyond the church, “is supposed to be a real grave, the grave of an Hermano who died while he was acting the part of Christ.”
We gasped. Pedro added, much to my discomfort, “It could be true, you know. I heard my papá and my grampo talking once, and they said that in the old days the one who played Cristo was really crucified on Viernes Santo, only instead of nails, they used ropes to tie him to the cross.”
I was unable to shake off the chills that rose up my spine. Though I noticed the others squirming as well, I knew my distress for my uncle was greater than theirs because they had no knowledge of my conversation with my grandmother.
“All I know is what gramma told me,” Horacio finished, leaning toward us. “She said that if it was true, then the Hermano who died would go straight to heaven. In those days, no one was allowed to witness the procession, but what was stranger was that the dead man’s shoes were left on his doorstep so that the family would know how he had died, and for a whole year no one but the Penitentes knew where they had buried him.”
We all took this bit of news in silence. I pictured the scene Horacio described and thanked the Lord silently that we didn’t do things the old way anymore, and then Pedro spoke up as if reading my mind.
“I’m glad we don’t do it that way anymore.”
We all agreed. However, as we rose to join the men already getting into formation, I saw the black crucifix carried on the shoulders of two Hermanos who emerged from the morada. The moment for which I had longed for so many years—and only today had come to dread—arrived. For the first time, I would take part in the procession of Penitentes, but the pride I felt was overshadowed by the knowledge that my uncle, whom I loved like an older brother, would be in the lead carrying the heavy cross. I knew my eyes would be upon him all the way. Coupled with my foreboding that someone would be dead before morning, my first procession became a penitence indeed.
I sighed heavily, lining up with Pedro at the rear of the group. As everyone who gathered to join the procesión took their places behind us, I was surprised to see Primo Victoriano, leaning heavily on his bordón, directly behind me with his wife, Prima Juanita. I noticed Berto and the others positioned behind him, ready in case he needed assistance.
I turned and offered the elderly man my hand. “If you get tired, everyone will understand if you have to stop,” I told him in a whisper.
“I will,” he promised. “I just had to come one last time, you understand?”
The longing in his withered face was enough to tell me that this might be the last Lent he would see in his lifetime, that this might be the last chance he had to join his Brothers before age or ill health took its toll.
I nodded in understanding, but I saw the weariness of his eyes, in the way he leaned on his cane, in the way his breath emerged from his mouth in short, tired gasps. “Don’t overtire yourself, primo,” I warned, but he only waved my concern away with a hand.
The procession began when my father’s voice rose to announce that this was the reenactment of the Passion of Christ. My Tío Daniel, the massive black cross on his shoulders, moved forward, setting the pace for us to follow.
“Oh—ohhh, imagen de Jesús doloroso para ejercitarse en el santo sacrificio de la misa como memoria que es de tan sacrosanta pasión,” my father intoned, telling us to imagine our dolorous Savior fulfilling His destiny in such a sacred sacrifice in our reenactment of the memory of such a sacrosanct passion.
I read along as the rest of the Hermanos joined in, my voice blending with the varied pitches of the men, rising and falling with each line. The music emerged as if from our very souls to waver and float around us as we spoke to our Savior in a somber hymn rather than with mere words. The very tone of our combined voices and the reverence with which we sang spoke volumes as our words conveyed how much we believed in the passion of our Savior.
My father’s words conveyed that Jesus had revealed many times to his faithful servants what was to follow. And though no one actually did the things to my uncle that my father told us, he paused with each recitation, and the weight of the words he spoke with such tremulous emotion made us feel that just by describing the terrible things done to Christ he felt them in his heart as he carried the symbolic cross.
Then the first time he stopped, Tío Daniel spoke loud enough for all to hear the words that indeed seemed to be the words of our Savior: “Primeramente me levantaron del suelo por la cuerda y por los cabellos viente y tres veses.” My uncle revealed, “First they lifted me from the floor by rope and from my hair twentythree times.”
As he resumed the pace for the procession to follow, my uncle paused twenty-one more times. His pace slowing with each pause, Daniel fought the trembling of his legs. I saw his shoulders bend under the cumbersome cross, symbolically weighing heavily in our hearts each time he staggered under its massive bulk. Even from where I stood, with twelve men before me, I heard his breath come more heavily, his voice emerged more tremulously, the words quaver as he described the countless terrors suffered by Christ in His passion.
“They gave me six thousand, six hundred, sixty-six lashings of the whip when they tied me to the column …. I fell on the earth seven times … before I fell five times on the road to Mount Calvary …. I lost one thousand twentyfive drops of blood.”
By the time we were halfway to the church, many of the women were sniffling, wiping their eyes with their kerchiefs. But the worst was yet to come as my uncle continued, weakened but undeterred in fulfilling his role.
“They gave me twenty punches to my face …. I had nineteen mortal injuries … they hit me in the chest and the head twenty-eight times …. I had seventy-two major wounds over the rest.”
By this time some of the women were weeping openly, and the smaller children, frightened beyond belief—I knew because I was at their age—began to sob quietly at their mothers’ distress. Primo Victoriano stumbled behind me, and I stepped back to grasp one elbow as Berto took the other. The determination in his face to reach the capilla, to finish the procesión as an Hermano one last time, was heart-wrenching. And as I took some of the weight off his feet with my support, I felt tears gather in my eyes.
“I had a thousand pricks from the crown of thorns on my head because I fell, and they replaced the crown many times,” my uncle’s weakened voice continued.
“I sighed one hundred nine times … they spat on me seventy-three times.”
The tears flowed down my face. I heard Primo Victoriano’s labored breaths at my side. I thanked God the procession had come to an end, for the words were too painful to bear, humbling our Christian souls to the core of our being.
“Those who followed me from the pueblo were two hundred thirty,” my uncle finished, “only three helped me …. I was thrown and dragged through barbs seventy-eight times.”
As we reached the capilla, my uncle was barely moving, his feet shuffling wearily in the dirt, his breathing labored. When he leaned precariously forward, the cross threatening to smash him into the earth, several women cried out in alarm. Leaping quickly to his aid, my father and Primo Esteban each grabbed an end of the beam lying on his shoulders, relieving him of his burden just as his knees buckled beneath him and my uncle fell to the ground on hands and knees.
When I saw him fall, his face grimaced in pain, my heart throbbed in fear that he could be gravely hurt, that my premonition of an impending death would come true. I would have rushed to his side but for Primo Victoriano, whose arm clutched mine tightly, his shoulder leaning heavily against me. If I left him, he too would fall.
All the women were now sobbing as they looked at my uncle, trying in vain to stifle their uncontrollable cries because of the children, who, too young to understand what we did, cried with distress and sympathy for their mothers’ tears. A few of los Hermanos rushed to help my uncle to his feet, supporting him as they took him into the church. Though he was exhausted, my tío appeared to be unhurt, and a collective sigh of relief shivered over us. The women calmed themselves and mothers or older sisters hushed children’s cries into soft whimpers.
Primo Victoriano continued to shake against me, his legs quaking with his effort to remain standing, his breathing heavy. Beginning to falter under his weight, Berto motioned for Pedro to help us, knowing that my scrawny frame wouldn’t be enough help to get the elderly man into the church. Relieving me quickly, they placed our primo’s arms over their shoulders, supporting his weight between them as they moved slowly into the capilla with his wife at their side. Following with Horacio and Tino, I heard Primo Victoriano mumble disappointedly at himself that he had no strength left to light the fire or the candles inside. Exchanging glances and nods, we hurried inside, so that when our Primo reached the door, I was busily feeding the flames of the kindling I had lit in the stove and
Horacio and Tino were moving from candle to candle quickly. Turning as he entered, I smiled, glad that we were able to relieve him in his duty now that he needed us. Primo Victoriano only nodded, but the gratitude in his eyes said it all before he allowed the boys to settle him comfortably in the pew nearest the stove.
When the Estaciones ended that evening, there was a silence unsurpassed by any service we had yet attended. I knew that for those who prayed with los Hermanos it was in part because of the anguish of witnessing la Procesión de Sangre de Cristo and the terrible sorrow of las Tinieblas that was to come back at the morada afterward. For Pedro and me, it was something more. We knelt with los Hermanos as novicios in the center aisle of the capilla as we made our slow and somber revolution of prayers and alabados around the retablos of the Stations of the Cross. I found my place in my faith, and it affected me as nothing before had done. It was awesome to contemplate.
When my father signaled that it was time for our return to the morada, I retrieved my black crucifix from the altar. I blew out a candle with a fervent prayer for my uncle’s health and took another taper with me to the door of the now darkened church. Spotting Primo Victoriano, supported between his wife and Berto’s mother, I went to say good night. Someone had gone for a wagon to take the elderly man home, Prima Cleofes explained, for he felt tired.
Prima Juanita clucked her tongue at her stubborn husband, but he didn’t need to say a word. The soft smile that lit his face told me that he had done what he had set out to do. He was content that he had accompanied his Brothers one last time, and he would toll the bell also for the last time that night before he would allow himself to be taken home.
When I saw los Hermanos taking their places in the center of the road, I bade him good night, telling him to rest and not to worry, I would be there to help him on Easter Sunday as well. In the soft glow of the lanterns and candles, his eyes grew moist.
Blinking back his tears, Primo Victoriano looked at me gravely. He said, “I will be here on Sunday, hermanito, and you will light the candles for me, but I will not see their light. I will not feel the warmth of the fire you will make.”
Confused by his cryptic message, I searched his eyes. From the quiet contentment and resoluteness of his gaze, a silent tear that rolled down his withered cheek and touched my heart. My respect and admiration for the elderly Hermano who had fulfilled his desire engulfed me. On impulse, I hugged him close for the first, and for what would also be the last, time in my life.
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on her father’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
Capilla de Santa Rita, Penitente chapel
near Chimayo, New Mexico
Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)
Negative number: HP.2007.20.562