Many recent theories about the origins and nature of the Chaco Phenomenon, from a variety of perspectives, have focused on pilgrimage as a key aspect of the system. This is indeed an elegant way of addressing many of the more puzzling characteristics of the Chacoan record, particularly the presence of so many valuable imported goods in a location without any obvious resources that could have been offered in exchange. The (somewhat controversial) evidence for periodic feasting events at some of the great houses and the oddly impractical nature of the road system are other things that make a lot more sense in the context of Chaco being a pilgrimage destination.
Pilgrimage is by no means a silver bullet for explaining Chaco, however, and the theories employing it still end up in very different places on account of the other assumptions they add. While “ritual” aspects of the Chaco system tend to be invoked primarily by advocates of a more egalitarian Chaco, there is no necessary contradiction between ritual and hierarchy, and some of the pilgrimage models see elites harnessing the ceremonial authority granted them by virtue of association with a pilgrimage destination and turning it into more “secular” political and economic power.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps useful to examine a living pilgrimage tradition elsewhere in New Mexico, not too far from Chaco, to see what implications its history and characteristics might have for these theories. The story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than it appears at first glance, and I think there are many lessons that can be profitably taken from it and applied to the study of Chaco.
The tradition I speak of focuses on the small Hispanic village of Chimayo in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and a pit of dirt there that is reputed to have miraculous healing power. It is described in a thorough and well-researched but short and very readable book by Elizabeth Kay.
The early history of Chimayo, before the coming of the Spanish, is shrouded in mystery, but the hill from which the village gets its name is considered sacred to the local Tewa-speaking pueblos, and there is some evidence that the area was inhabited from around AD 1100 to 1400. Toward the end of this prehistoric occupation there was apparently a pueblo right by the place of the healing dirt. This pueblo was apparently totally abandoned by the time of Spanish contact, but the people from the remaining pueblos continued to mix the dirt from the site with water and drink it as an elixir long after the settlement of the area by the Spanish after the reconquest of New Mexico in 1692.
There is little evidence of the Spanish paying much notice to this native tradition until the early nineteenth century. Kay suggests that the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1780 and 1781, which caused immense death and suffering among both the pueblos and the Spanish settlers, was instrumental in causing the settlers to become more interested in traditional Indian remedies such as the healing dirt of Chimayo. Northern New Mexico in those days was a poor, isolated frontier area far from the main population centers to the south and both the physical and spiritual well-being of the colonists were hampered by the lack of sufficient priests and doctors to tend to the far-flung villages. Given this persistent vulnerability, it is hardly surprising that a devastating epidemic might test the villagers’ faith in the methods of their own society and cause increased interest in the practices of their neighbors who had lived in the area much longer and knew it very well.
Be that as it may, the first evidence for the villagers’ interest in the healing dirt comes from considerably later, and involves an odd and unexpected connection to a very distant place of pilgrimage with its own holy dirt. It is not at all clear how the villagers in Chimayo learned about this other tradition or decided it was connected to their own area, but the implications of the transmission of such information over such a vast distance are intriguing.
The first direct mention of this connection comes in a letter written in 1813 by Bernardo Abeyta, a prominent citizen in the Chimayo area, to his local parish priest, who was based in the nearby village of Santa Cruz. The letter was written on a new piece of high-quality paper, an extremely scarce and valuable commodity in colonial New Mexico, and in it Abeyta asked permission to build a formal chapel to venerate Christ “in His Advocation of Esquípulas,” which the villagers had been doing for three years in a makeshift shack next to Abeyta’s house which he had built at his own expense for the purpose. The priest passed the request on to his superior, who was in charge of all the missions in New Mexico, and in 1814 the request was granted. The villagers of Chimayo soon built a church next to the shack and dedicated it to veneration of the crucifix of the Black Christ of Esquípulas which, legend has it, Abeyta had found buried at the site of the healing dirt and attempted to bring to the church in Santa Cruz, only to have it miraculously return to its original location. The church is still there and has become a major pilgrimage destination for Catholics throughout northern New Mexico.
But wait. Who or what is this “Esquípulas”? And what does he or it have to do with the healing dirt of Chimayo long known to the Tewa pueblos?
For the answer, strangely enough, we must leave nineteenth-century New Mexico for the moment and head for sixteenth-century Guatemala. In 1524, when the Spanish entered the area occupied by the Chorti Maya bent on conquest by any means, a Chorti chief (or king) named Esquípulas surrendered his people immediately to avoid a violent confrontation. Both the Spanish and the Chorti were thankful for this decision, which avoided the massive brutality seen so often in similar situations throughout what would become Latin America, and when the Spanish finally got around to displacing and resettling the Chorti about 50 years later they named the new town established for the purpose Santiago de Esquípulas. Though a new colonial establishment, the town happened to lie on the ancient trade route to the major Maya city of Copán, which as a ceremonial center attracted a fair number of pilgrims. The area around the town of Esquípulas itself had been known since precolumbian times as a pilgrimage center in its own right, famed for its sulphur springs and healing earth, which the Maya ate to cure a variety of ailments. (Sound familiar?)
The Spanish missionaries, no fools, took advantage of the reputation of the sulphur springs in 1578 by building a chapel near them and equipping it with a crucifix carved out of dark brown balsam wood. This “Black Christ” soon gained a reputation for performing the miracles previously (and to some extent still) associated with the healing dirt of Esquípulas, and the chapel became a famed destination for pilgrims throughout New Spain.
Which brings us back to Chimayo. The parallels between the two locations, with healing dirt long venerated by the local Indians becoming Christianized and accepted by Spanish colonists, are obvious and unmistakeable, but the process by which the New Mexican shrine became associated with the Guatemalan one remains quite obscure. Clearly someone from Chimayo, possibly Bernardo Abeyta himself, had either traveled to Guatemala or heard detailed accounts of the shrine at Esquípulas from someone who had seen it. Travel was quite restricted by the Spanish authorities in the colonies, but some people got around, and pilgrimage was one major way to do so. Another was trade, and the main lifeline to the outside world for the villagers of northern New Mexico was the regular caravan that would bring whatever meager goods they had to sell down to the summer trade fairs in Chihuahua.
However Bernardo Abeyta learned about the cult of Esquípulas, he learned it in detail. In his 1813 letter he spells the name correctly, which is quite remarkable given the general standards of education at the time and the long distance over which that name must have traveled. He also seems to have learned about the distinctive dark crucifix, at least enough to identify it with the similarly dark image of Christ in his own chapel, and presumably about the healing dirt which was the main similarity between the two shrines. Kay doesn’t go as far as to argue that Abeyta himself had traveled to Guatemala, but she does suggest that someone from Chimayo likely had, and I think the preponderance of evidence, circumstantial though it is, points to Abeyta as the most likely traveler. Abeyta was also a key figure in the rise of the penitente brotherhood, which seems to have developed with at least some knowledge of similar organizations elsewhere in the Hispanic world, so there is some additional evidence that he may have been unusually well-traveled for a resident of Chimayo.
Once Abeyta’s chapel was built it quickly became a focus for local pilgrims, and just as had happened in Esquípulas the crucifix of the Black Christ began to gain credit for the miracles formerly attributed to the healing dirt. The hole with the dirt in it is still there, in a little room to the side of the main structure of the chapel. This room is reputed to be the original shack built by Abeyta over the hole. Today it is lavishly decorated with offerings brought by pilgrims, mostly religious art and the canes and crutches no longer needed by the miraculously healed.
The story would be interesting and improbable enough were that the entirety of it, but it actually goes on and takes another odd twist. Bernardo Abeyta died in 1856, by which time his shrine, known as the Santuario de Chimyo, had become a major destination for pilgrims. Not long after Abeyta’s death, however, his neighbor Severiano Medina began to suffer from severe rheumatism and had a revelation in which he was told to pray to the Holy Child of Atocha. He did so, promising to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Child’s shrine if he were healed. He recovered and duly made his pilgrimage to the shrine, in the town of Plateros in the Mexican state of Zacatecas near the city of Fresnillo. When he described his experience to the priest at the shrine and requested a statue of the Holy Child he was given a papier-mâché doll, apparently of German origin, which had been bent into the Holy Child’s traditional sitting pose and dressed in pilgrim’s garb. He brought this statue back to Chimayo in February 1857. The people of the village, entranced by Medina’s story, donated land for a private chapel to the Holy Child, which was completed by the next year. It is very close to the Santuario built by Bernardo Abeyta to honor the Black Christ, and the miracles sought by pilgrims soon began to be attributed to the Holy Child. Much as traditions about the healing dirt had become blurred with those about the Black Christ, so the stories of the Holy Child, who was said to wander about the countryside at night helping people, were added to the mix. Since the Holy Child was said to wear out many pairs of shoes in night-time wandering, offerings at the chapel largely consist of pairs of baby shoes. The tradition of offering shoes continues to this day, and the chapel is now festooned with innumerable pairs.
Medina’s chapel was such a hit that it began to overshadow the Santuario, which was still privately owned by the Abeyta family. To try to compete with this new interloper, the Abeytas acquired a Holy Child of their own, but in their haste the statue they got was actually of the Holy Child of Prague, who carries a globe, rather than the Holy Child of Atocha, who carries the staff and gourd of a pilgrim. As if that weren’t enough, the Santuario’s image somehow became associated with yet another Holy Child, known as the Lost Child, who represents Jesus Christ at age twelve when he allegedly got lost in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s not clear how the confusion arose, but the name stuck.
So what’s the story behind this Holy Child of Atocha, anyway? Well, it turns out that the Spanish town of Atocha (now best known as the location of the main train station in Madrid) does not in fact have a tradition of venerating a Holy Child, or at least it didn’t at the time the Mexican cult began. What it did have, however, was a church of the Dominican Order with a holy image of the Virgin Mary, with the Christ child on her knee, known as the Virgin of Atocha. Early Dominicans active in the initial missionary efforts in the New World apparently introduced this cult to certain parts of the Spanish colonies, including the silver-mining town of Plateros in Zacatecas. In the late eighteenth century a prominent citizen of Plateros apparently made some sort of pilgrimage to Atocha and brought back a statue of the Virgin, which was placed in the church there. The church burned at some point in the earlyy nineteenth century, and this may or may not have been the reason that the statue of the child was separated from the Virgin, dressed in pilgrim’s garb, and venerated on its own as the Holy Child of Atocha. The connection between the child and pilgrimage seems rather arbitrary, but it may relate to the ancient Aztec cult of a child god named Teopiltzintli who was a guardian of pilgrims and travelers.
As the attention of pilgrims to Chimayo became more and more focused on the Medinas’ Holy Child, the Abeytas’ Santuario began to suffer, and by the 1920s the family was becoming unable to afford to keep it up. They began selling off pieces of devotional art that had accrued over the years, which attracted the attention of the growing community of Anglo scholars and amateurs, mostly in Santa Fe, who were concerned about the preservation of New Mexico’s rich cultural heritage. They went into action to save the Santuario and managed to raise enough money to buy the property and donate it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1929. The chapel thus became for the first time an official mission of the Roman Catholic Church, and so it remains. It has since recovered some of its popularity as a pilgrimage destination, though the chapel of the Holy Child, still in the hands of the Medina family, continues to be a popular destination as well. The main time for pilgrimages to Chimayo is Holy Week, when thousands make the journey on foot, but smaller numbers come throughout the year to take advantage of the strong spiritual power, whatever its direct association, adhering to the place.
So what does this all have to do with Chaco? Quite a bit. Most directly, the origin of the Chimayo pilgrimage tradition among the Tewa pueblos shows the importance of holy sites and pilgrimage within the living tradition of which Chaco was one manifestation. This is a substantial piece of evidence indicating the plausibility of models of Chaco involving pilgrimage as a substantial aspect of the Chacoan system. It also hints that the reasons for pilgrimage can be quite subtle. A pit of holy dirt is not the sort of thing that is easy to find in the archaeological record. Furthermore, the fact that there was apparently a pueblo at the site of the dirt in prehistoric times suggests that some communities may have had particularly strong roles in controlling access to pilgrimage destinations. Perhaps the residents of that pueblo, like the residents of Chaco Canyon, derived political and economic power and influence from their proximity to a place of great spiritual power. Or perhaps not; one of the key things about the prehistory of Chimayo is how little we know about it, which is good reason for humility in considering what we can determine from archaeology and ethnohistory.
On a more abstract level, too, the Chimayo example is instructive in evaluating pilgrimage models of Chaco. One of the most striking things about the history of Chimayo is its complexity. While the overall function of the place as a pilgrimage center has been quite constant, the exact nature of the devotion involved and its relationship to traditions elsewhere has shifted enormously just in the two hundred years or so for which we have written records. Could similar shifts account for some of the puzzling and rather rapid changes seen in the Chacoan archaeological record? It would be difficult to know for sure, but I think the likelihood is definitely there.
Also, the geographic scale of the influences involved is interesting, particularly in light of the recent discovery of chocolate at Chaco. While transportation and communication systems in the southwest and Mexico were somewhat more elaborate and reliable in Spanish colonial times than in prehistory, largely due to the presence of draft animals, wheeled vehicles, and writing, travel and transmission of detailed information over long distances was still quite difficult. And yet, it was done, and we see clearly here that quite detailed accounts of devotional practices in Guatemala could make their way more or less intact to northern New Mexico. It just so happens that the chocolate found in Chaco was almost certainly grown in roughly the same area and brought roughly the same distance and by a similar route. Given the important role of chocolate in Mesoamerican ritual, and the striking similarity of form between the cylinder jars used by the Maya in these rituals and the ones in which the Chaco chocolate was found, a process of information dissemination extraordinarily similar to the journey of the Black Christ from Esquípulas to Chimayo is looking remarkably likely eight hundred years before.
Ultimately, I think the most useful aspect of this comparison is the reminder that it’s important to look at things with an open mind. A cult being transported from Guatemala to New Mexico sounds unlikely in either the eleventh or the nineteenth century, and yet we know for a fact that it did happen at least once. Sometimes unlikely things do happen, and it’s important not to disregard possibilities just because they go beyond a conservative reading of the available evidence. Occam’s Razor is an important and useful principle, but it shouldn’t become an ironclad law.