Penitentes (Hermanos Penitentes, Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno) are a brotherhood of laymen that appeared in New Mexico during the late colonial period (c. 1790s), dedicated to community service and spiritual devotion to Jesus Christ through acts of penance. Penitente rites include corporal mortification and the reenactment of the passion of Christ during Holy Week. During the late nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries launched an exposé of the New Mexican Penitentes because of their self-flagellation with yucca whips (disciplinas) during the Procession of the Cross and their enactment of the Crucifixion by tying a volunteer brother to the cross in emulation of Christ.
The origins of the Penitente brotherhood are a source of continued discussion among scholars. The first historical reference to the brotherhood was made in 1833 by a visiting bishop, who condemned their rites of penance as a distortion of Catholic norms. By this time the Penitente brotherhood was well established and therefore most scholars place their emergence between 1790 and 1820. After three decades of constant warfare with Comanche and Apache raiders and near-isolation from the rest of New Spain, in the 1790s there was a renewal of long-distance trade with the south, the building and refurbishment of churches and chapels, and the geographic expansion of vecino (Spanish citizen) communities into areas that had recently been too dangerous to occupy. However, such expansion was not met by an equal expansion of Catholic priests. It is likely that the Penitente brotherhood arose in order to fill this void in clergy representation, and the penitential nature of the brotherhood was probably a response to various influences from within both New Mexico and the wider colony of New Spain.
Early Anglo-American observers attributed the origin of the movement to sixteenth-century Spain and the early Franciscan missionaries to New Mexico. Pointing out the scourging that Juan de Oñate self-administered during Holy Week 1598, they concluded that the Franciscans established the Penitentes in New Mexico as their Third Order of Saint Francis and that it had "degenerated" into the Penitentes and the practices they had witnessed. Recent scholarship accepts a Franciscan influence on the penitential behavior and organizational structure of the Penitentes but places their emergence within a wider context of confraternity (cofradía) organization in New Spain. It is likely that New Mexicans adapted the Penitentes during the 1790s from a confraternity already existing elsewhere in northern New Spain. Confraternities of penance came to the colony from Spain during the early colonial period, and penitential societies had long existed in New Spain and the southern Spanish colonies. There is little evidence of a tradition of penitential cofradías in New Mexico before the emergence of the Penitentes, so it is likely that such an organization was imported from New Spain and took root there because of the Catholic Church's weak organizational presence. In this context, the Penitente brotherhood brought intense religious devotion into villages that had little regular contact with secular parish clergy.
The Penitentes flourished until 1888, when Archbishop Jean Baptiste Salpointe of Santa Fe excommunicated them, after warnings from Bishop Zubiría of Durango in 1833 and from Salpointe in 1886. The decline of active Penitente moradas (buildings that housed Penitente meetings) was more the result of migration from the northern New Mexican villages, beginning during World War I, than of the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to stamp out the brotherhood. The 1970s marked the movement of a younger generation of New Mexicans back to "traditional" forms of vecino religious devotion, including the renewal of Penitente organizations in northern New Mexican villages, with the active encouragement of the Catholic Church.
Carroll, Michael P. The Penitente Brotherhood: Patriarchy and Hispano-Catholicism in New Mexico. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Chávez, Fray Angélico. "The Penitentes of New Mexico." New Mexico Historical Review 29, no. 2 (1954): 97-123.
Darley, Rev. Alexander M. Passionists of the Southwest. Albuquerque, NM: Rio Grande Press: 1968.
López Pulido, Alberto. The Sacred World of the Penitentes. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Steele, Thomas J., S.J., and Rowena A. Rivera. Penitente Self-Government: Brotherhoods and Councils, 1797–1947. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1985.
Weigle, Marta. Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.
Ross H. Frank
Leah G. Allen