Santuario de Chimayó

Highway 76, the “High Road” from Santa Fe to Taos, makes an excellent driving tour of northern New Mexico. Just don’t try it on Holy Week. Upwards of 10,000 people make a pilgrimage, i.e. walk, from around the Santa Fe Opera to El Santuario de Chimayó.

Shortly after the Pueblo Revolt,1680-1692, Don Diego de Vargas returned to New Mexico and re-established the capital at La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asissi: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Several groups of Spanish colonists continued northward into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and settled in the northwestern section of the fertile Chimayó Valley. The colonists were hard working, independent farmers and artisans whose occupations included weaving, day labor and stock raising. They came to the area in hopes of receiving the title hidalgo (nobleman) if they stayed. Frequently they were granted land, building lots, subsidies and farming implements for their new life of hardship on the frontier.

Around 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta, a Penitente Brother, was performing his penances during Holy Week and ran toward a bright light coming out of the ground not far from the river. He dug at the spot where the light emitted and found a santo (statue) of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas.) Santos (carved wood statutes) of Christ, usually black or dark in color, can be found from New Mexico down to Guatemala. By 1816, a sanctuary had been built around the sandpit where the santo was found. Dirt from the sandpit (of which there seems to be an inexhaustible supply) is believed to have curative powers. The entrance to the sanctuary is decorated with crutches and retablos praising the healing powers of the earth in the “posito”.

The cult around Our Lord of Esquipulas comes from Guatemala. The miraculous power of Our Lord of Esquipulas is attributed to sulphurous springs near the Esquipulas shrine in Guatemala. Kaolin-rich clay known as tierra santa is made into Benditos which are blessed by the Church and sold to pilgrims. The clay is prized for its curative powers and is usually eaten by the pilgrims. In New Mexico, likewise, faithful pilgrims remove a bit of “holy earth” from the Santuario in Chimayó; however, it is gathered from a small opening in the earthen floor. Usually it is taken by the pinch or by the handful by visitors seeking miraculous cures.

Dr. Charles Carrillo, himself a santero (“santo”-carver) has a theory about the origin of the name “Esquipulas”. Throughout the Mediterranean region, there are temples to a godling known as the master physician of mortals. In Latin, the healer’s name was Æsculapius; in Greek:Asklepios. A great temple complex dedicated to Æsculapius was constructed in Ephesus under Hadrian in the second century A.D. Sanctuaries dedicated to this deity were associated with springs and healing earth which was used for curative purposes by the followers. Dr. Carillo contends that an Augustinian priest familiar with the Roman mythology of Æsculapius and the healing muds and springs associated with sanctuaries associated with his cult purposely named the Guatemalan tradition of the black Christ after the Greco/Roman mythological physician. Charles Carrillo, Ph.D., “Our Lord of Esquipulas in New Mexico”,Tradicion Revista, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 1999). If Carrillo is right, attributes of Pre-Hispanic Mayan symbology were assimilated to a devotion to the crucified Christ, given a name lifted from Greco-Roman mythology, which now graces a two-hundred year old church in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

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