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Catholic Hermanos Bridge Frontier Mysticism, Modern Life

Southwestern religious order attracts young members. But with growth come problems.


TAOS, N.M. — Kneeling on thorns in the darkness of an old adobe chapel, 9-year-old Larry Torres gazed at an altar lined with brooding religious images and vowed a lifelong commitment to Los Hermanos Penitentes.

The boy was taking his deceased grandfather's place in the secretive 400-year-old Catholic brotherhood rooted in charity and religious observances, including self-flagellation.

"I wish I could say exactly what happened that day, but I cannot," said Torres, now 43, an award-winning teacher and head of Taos High School's language department. "I can say that I was really scared--and too young to understand what was going on."

That Torres, a 20th-generation member of the brotherhood, talks about it at all is remarkable. Historically, any hermano, or brother, who revealed the group's rituals risked banishment.

His openness reflects the extent to which change has come to the brotherhood, which has always struggled at the edges of Southwest society to preserve its unique form of rugged frontier mysticism. Only a decade ago, there were but a few thousand elderly faithful left.

Now, a younger generation of middle-class Latinos seeking a more individual and traditional spirituality is reclaiming what remains one of the least understood lay Catholic orders in the nation.

Since the brotherhood is a private order scattered across the mountainous terrain of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, no one is certain how many active members exist. But its leaders estimate a total of at least several thousand men, and growing.

"They say we are part of the past; we are not. We are part of the present and we are increasingly youthful," proclaimed hermano Ernest Ortega, 53, a cultural resources manager for the U.S. Park Service.

They also are diverse. The brotherhood claims farmers, lawyers, anthropologists, artists, priests, scientists, even a few Anglos.

"The resurgence is exciting," said Jacobo de la Serna, 33, a leader of the group and its youngest spokesman ever. "But with growth have come problems. I've lost a lot of sleep and tears over it."

The group, originally forged by unschooled men, now is wrestling with questions about its purpose and how it will meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Some members want to be more open about their faith--there is even talk of a Web site and a "penitentas" group for women. Others wish to remain hidden. Many worry about abuse by commercialism as art markets sell their figurine sculptures of saints called "santos" for thousands of dollars each, and historians charge fees for lectures, books and magazine articles about their role in shaping Southwestern culture.

Some applicants don't speak Spanish well enough to repeat, let alone understand, the sorrowful prayers and hymns handed down orally and in handwritten manuscripts for hundreds of years.

Then there is the problem of mixing blood in an age of AIDS. Hermanos are warned to guard their own "disciplinas," or whips, wash buckets and wash cloths.

Still, Torres is especially blunt about what he calls "compromised penitentismo," a watered-down organization abridged for "our fast-food, consumer-oriented society."

Walking through a statuary depicting the passion of Christ beside an adobe "morada," or chapel, Torres said: "We are an ancient form of worship not to be confused with New Age fads. We are not an art form or a political form. This morada, for example, is life to us. It is what we do and who we are.

"The big argument is this: How much should we reveal to accommodate a rapidly changing world and curious media?"

Sociologist Tomas Atencio argues that certain core elements of the faith should never be unmasked for the masses.

"I'm not a penitente, but I believe that the trend back to penance is a good thing because it is taking spirituality to its root and commitment to its very foundation," Atencio said. "But if the old faith is allowed to become a commodity--to go from ritual to retail--it will destroy itself. It has to remain secret to survive."

The hermanos arose out of the Southwest's arid vastness in the late 1700s, as the Spanish Empire and the Roman Catholic Church abandoned colonists who had followed expeditionary forces of conquistadors searching in vain for cities of gold.

Religious practices in the hardscrabble colonies evolved into reenactments of the suffering of Christ, accompanied by sad hymns called "alabados" and flute music meant to represent the wailing of Mary at the foot of the cross.

Back then, the hermanos acted as lay ministers and lawmen, supervising wakes and funerals, organizing fiestas and performing community work in distant outposts surrounded by an unforgiving wilderness of juniper and pinon-clad canyons and mesas.

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