The Americas 61.2 (2004) 315-316
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Here is the latest addition to the extensive bibliography on New Mexico's penitential brotherhood known as the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, or the Hermanos Penitentes. What characterizes this account is its searing critique of the extant literature, offering as its own modest antidote a strident positivist reading of well-worn sources, glazed with a psychoanalytic confection of its own. So viewed, the Penitente ritual is "pervaded by a great many elements that seem ideally suited to the gratification of homoerotic desire" (p. 204). This desire, Freud and the author claim, is a "defense mechanism against the unconscious feelings of oedipal rage and hostility that are activated by the Penitente emphasis on the intense suffering of their Padre Jesús" (p. 205).
To reach this conclusion the author contends that just about every previous interpreter got it wrong. The Hermanos were not born of antique Spanish confraternities. They were not a variant of Third Order Franciscanism imported during the colony's formation. Nor were they some contorted organization spawned by the lack of clerical supervision in the early 1800s. Instead, the Hermanos emerged as a religious association in northern New Mexico during the late 1700s rather spontaneously, with few if any historical antecedents, and persisted into the beginning of the twentieth century largely because of deep socio-political displacements Hispanos witnessed in these years. Initiated by the economic impact of the Bourbon Reforms, intensified by the United States military conquest of New Mexico in 1846, and exacerbated by Anglo American hegemony as the territory became a state in 1912, [End Page 315] these transformations provoked a crisis in patriarchal authority relations. Hispano men responded to this putative crisis with the creation of Penitente moradas that reaffirmed their ties of communal solidarity as men. Penitente religiosity was initially condoned and maybe even encouraged by priests such as Padre Antonio José Martínez of Taos, because the rituals emphasized social disciplining of an interiorized self that would ultimately serve the bureaucratic purposes of state.
The story told here has some compelling interpretive twists and perceptive textual readings. But its thesis teeters on a house made of cards, offering no empirical evidence that the changing system of land tenure in northern New Mexico provoked a crisis in authority relations that played itself out in such a ritualized oedipal drama. Penitente moradas developed in southern New Mexico where there was no competition for arable land. How does a crisis in patriarchal authority explain these? The book's other intriguing sub-theses—that Hispanos were not particularly religious before the end of the eighteenth century; that Padre Martínez was a modernizing reformer inculcating locals with ideas akin to those of the Italian Counter-Reformation—deserve deeper investigation. At the moment they remain the evocations of a learned scholar of popular European Counter-Reformation Catholicism who has a theory and travels to New Mexico intent on reading Hispanos as Italian peasants.
The human geography of nineteenth-century New Mexico does not permit such facile comparisons. In 1800 roughly one third of New Mexico's population were Genízaros, detribalized former Indian slaves congregated into autonomous villages along nomadic Indian raiding routes to serve as attack buffers for Spanish towns. Nowhere do the Genízaros appear in this account despite the flurry of morada construction between 1820 and 1846 that occurred in Genízaro hamlets and villages, including at the southern New Mexican Genízaro villages of Tomé and Belén. Genízaros and vecinos ("Spanish" landed citizens) are herein lumped together as Hispanos, thus obliterating the area's ethnic landscape and forestalling alternative hypotheses about the origins of the Hermanos that might as convincingly be found in Native American rituals. Pueblo Indian religious practice was also organized around exclusive masculine lodge houses where flagellation, bloodletting, and other theatrical rituals of purification were routine...