Travels & Traditions: Chimayo Pilrimage - #610

BURT WOLF: Every year on the Friday before Easter, over 50,000 people make a pilgrimage to the small chapel of Chimayo in northern New Mexico. They are Roman Catholics and Protestants--Moslems and Buddhists--Jews and Native Americans. Most of the pilgrims have walked from the town of Espanola which is about 10 miles from the chapel. But many have come from much farther away and have been walking for days.

Some carry giant crosses in remembrance of Jesus.

Thousands are physically handicapped and make the trip in wheelchairs or on crutches.

They come in search of an inner peace--to heal both their body and their mind.

Chimayo has become the Lourdes of North America.

ARCHBISHOP MICHAEL J. SHEEHAN ON CAMERA: Let us pray. Dear God, we thank you for this beautiful day for our pilgrimage. We ask you to bless us.

BURT WOLF: Michael Sheehan, the Archbishop of New Mexico, joins the procession but not in his official capacity--he walks as just another pilgrim.

ARCHBISHOP MICHAEL J. SHEEHAN ON CAMERA: I've made the walk for 14 years. It's a spiritual thing for each individual person, and those who make the pilgrimage, some of them make it every year, others maybe making it in thanksgiving to God for some favor they've received, maybe they have made what's called a promesa, in Spanish the word promise.

And so they may have made a promesa that if God would help them with something, they would come on pilgrimage to Chimayo.

A pilgrimage is an opportunity for personal spiritual renewal, and it's an opportunity for people to pray to God in their own words, and to reflect as they go with others along the path to deepen their own religious values and their own commitment to God.

WOMAN PILGRIM ON CAMERA: For me what it's done is deepen my faith in God's way of dealing with the personal, because everyone does have a different experience with the pilgrimage. It's unique, and yet it's a community experience. It's people walking together. It's people making a statement of faith. So for me it's a blending of my interior life with my outside life.

ARCHBISHOP MICHAEL J. SHEEHAN ON CAMERA: There's two things really with the pilgrimage. It's a public expression of our faith, and because our world has become so secular and so materialistic that a lot of believers have kind of retreated to within themselves. And they don't want to impose upon others by talking about their religion unfortunately. So the pilgrimage gives people a chance to publicly express their faith, and to do it in a way that is prayerful and joyful as they move through the countryside on their way to Chimayo. So there is a personal dimension, and also a communal dimension to the pilgrimage. 

The uniqueness perhaps here in Chimayo is the humility of the shrine itself, the simplicity of it. It's made holy by the faith of the people who have been going for hundreds of years in pilgrimage.

MAN PILGRIM ON CAMERA: I've been making this walk now for about since 1974. And we make this walk to, for my brother Knight’s first of all, you know? And then for my family for their good health and to let the Lord know that we love Him and that we're with Him and we appreciate everything He's done for us.

BURT WOLF: For many, the walk is a family tradition--their parents walked with their grandparents, they walked with their parents and now they are walking with their children.


FATHER JIM SUNTUM ON CAMERA: The legend, as we have it, is that in around 1812, Bernardo Abeto, a member of the Hermanos Benetentes of this area - which would be Holy Cross Parish of Santa Cruz - was herding sheep, checking on them at night, and saw a light in the hillside. And in the hillside, he found a hole with light coming out of it, and found at the source of the light, a crucifix.

He decided that the crucifix belonged in the parish church. It was an impressive looking crucifix. He took it that night to the parish church, which is about nine miles away. And then he gave it to the pastor, and they hung it in the parish church. But the next morning, it was back in the hole in the hillside. 

Eventually, Bernardo decided that the crucifix wanted to have its own church, and he began to build a church around that crucifix here. 

The place was - even before Bernardo Abeto was considered by the Native Americans, a healing place. And they would do their dances, they would come here for peace and healing.

But then, when he built the chapel, it became, a praying place for the hermanos, and later on the people of New Mexico, the world wars turned it into a popular shrine, because before World War I and II, Mexican Indians and Hispanics and citizens of Mexico were being drafted into the Army, and their families would come here to pray for safety. And after the wars, they came here to thank God for the safety, or thank God for bringing their sons to Heaven.


BURT WOLF: The chapel was put up in 1814, but the land around that chapel has been scared for Native Americans for over 10,000 years. It’s only a simple adobe mission, and yet it is one of the most valued religious sites in America.

The main chapel of the mission was built around the crucifix of Esquipulas which hangs over the main altar. It dates to 1595 and was made for a group of Native Americans in Guatemala. They wanted a statue of Christ where his skin color was as dark as their own.

The sculptor couldn't find wood as dark as they wanted, but it was a step in the right direction and they stored the crucifix while their new shrine was being built. When the shrine was finally finished they opened the cabinet where the statue had been held and discovered that the crucifix had turned the same dark color as the local people.

FATHER JIM SUNTUM ON CAMERA: This Christo some people think is the one that was found in the hole by Bernardo Aveda. And of course it’s much more the size that would fit in and come out of that hole. And it seems to have been around about the same length of time as the one on the alter.

But it’s obvious the church was build around the one on the altar. So history and the church itself favor the one on the alter being the one that Bernardo found. But this is just as old and it actually looks a little bit more like the Christo in Exipulous.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well when we generally think of important churches we think of the National Cathedral maybe in Washington or St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York but Chimayo reminds us of the fact that many important churches are for the local people that we may never have heard of but play an extremely important role in their lives.

I remember a missionary once telling me he was in the mountains in Latin America and he came upon a family where the father and husband was very sick and dying and he said why don’t you sell the family cow to buy the antibiotics to save you and the father said well this is my family's only means of support. If we lose that and the medicine doesn’t cure me then the family will not have their father and will not have the cow to support them so better they keep the cow.

And this is the kind of faith and the kind of poverty and need of healing that so many in the world face as an everyday reality.

And this is the role and the importance of the church in Chimayo for these people.

FATHER JIM SUNTUM ON CAMERA: In the world in which we live that God may give us health and peace through the blood of Christ we pray to the Lord.

CROWD RESPONDS: Lord hear our prayers.


BURT WOLF: At the rear of the church is a room with a small round hole in the floor. It's the sand pit at the center of the mission and the primary focus for many of the 300,000 pilgrims who come here each year. Pilgrims kneel or lie down on the floor and reach into the pit. They use a spoon or a trowel to scrape out some of the sand which is considered to have the ability to both cure and protect. Some pilgrims taste the sand; others take a little home and mark their doors and windows to guard against evil spirits.

FATHER JIM SUNTUM ON CAMERA: This room was added on, I believe, in the 50s, as a receptacle for the tokens of gratitude left behind by pilgrims. The pictures, the crutches, the rosaries - everything in this room has been left here by somebody who experienced some sort of favor. So people came and prayed for peace, healing, a change in their life, experienced it and came back with their thanksgiving offering.

BURT WOLF: It’s easy to write off the stories about the cures that have been reported, but you would be making a big mistake.

Every year we see more and more medical evidence indicating that belief can have a monumental effect on the course of an illness. And that’s true even if you are not consciously aware that you believe.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A while back, there was an interesting experiment. They took a group of people who were fast asleep under anesthesia for an operation and told half of them that they were gonna get better faster. And when they woke up, that half did get better faster even though they had no conscious memory of having received the suggestion. So it appears that if you believe in something, even though you’re not aware of it, it can be quite powerful.


BURT WOLF: Most non-Hispanic Americans first came across the word milagro in the title of Robert Redford’s film The Milagro Beanfield War. The Spanish word milagro means miracle or surprise and in the case of the film it refers to the miraculous greening of a long fallow beanfield.

Traditionally, the word milagro is used to describe small silver or gold colored offerings in the shape of arms, legs or other body parts or animals. They’re attached to the statues of a saint or the wall of the church as a request for help in connection with that body part or as thanks for help already received.

Milagros can be flat or sculptured, small or large and made of virtually anything that the petitioner thinks is appropriate. You can have one made for the occasion or purchase a ready made model from the vendors that surround the church. 

Raymond Bal is the owner of the Milagro shop adjacent to the mission at Chimayo.

RAYMOND BAL ON CAMERA: A lot of times we wonder what they do with them. But when we get feedback and they tell us it worked, it's really great.

BURT WOLF: The use of milagros in Mediterranean cultures is a pre-Christian ritual that goes back for thousands of years. When the practice was brought to the Americas it was easily adopted by the Native Americans who had similar traditions involving small amulets.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Like most folkloric forms, Milagros tends to keep up with the times. Here’s a very contemporary piece. It’s an airplane that you wear in the hope that you don’t get the center seat. There is also one that I will be purchasing shortly. This is one you wear in the hope that your hard drive never goes down. Very contemporary, very nice to keep up with the times.

BURT WOLF: In essence, everyone from pilgrims to the most sophisticated visitors purchase Milagros in an effort to heal someone or themselves. The impulse underneath these purchases is to help someone in need.


BURT WOLF: As Spanish priests established congregations throughout the New World they found it increasingly difficult to obtain traditional European images for their churches. The shortage was particularly acute in areas that were distant from Mexico’s major cities.

The problem was partially solved by having local craftsmen produce the statues. In some cases the priests did the carving and painting. The images were taken from contemporary paintings and sculptures in Mexico as well as prints of works by European masters. When they were blessed by the priest they became the receptacle for the supernatural spirit of the saint. They were called Santos.

In Chimayo, the most popular Santos figure is a representation of the baby Jesus. It's believed that each night he leaves the chapel and travels through the district on errands of mercy, often wearing out his shoes in the process, which is why pilgrims bring baby shoes as an offering.

Something to pray to is an essential element in all religions, and Santos offer a physical object that can receive the prayers of the faithful. They are still used in homes throughout the Americas. One of the largest collections of Santos is in the Santa Fe Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.

Robin Gavin is the curator.

ROBIN FARWELL GAVIN ON CAMERA: Santos in New Mexico were made in two forms that are referred to as Ratablos and Bultos. And Ratablos are paintings that are on flat board, on pine panels, and the Bultos are images that are rendered three dimensionally, it's the local term for sculpture. In Mexico these would have been referred to as escultoros, but in New Mexico they're called Bultos.

There's a very active tradition today of making Santos, and the artists that make these images are known as santeros, and this is a term that was coined probably in the 20th century, because in the early documents they're usually called, pintores, or painters, or escultores, for sculptors. But in the 20th century these artists are known as santers.

The parishioners would ask for their images to be included in the altar screens in the churches they would have images of the saints in their homes, and they would also often commission the santeros, the artists, to make images of these saints for the churches. 

BURT WOLF: Ramon José López is a native of Santa Fe and has been instrumental in the revival and preservation of the art forms of colonial New Mexico. By studying both private and museum collections he has been able to master the traditional method for producing these works. His designs come from images used by New Mexican colonial craft workers who were influenced by artists in Spain, France and Latin America.

RAMON JOSÉ LÓPEZ ON CAMERA: I’m a Santero. Santero is a wood carver that carves religions imagery. This alter screen of Samposé E Maria is special to me because I painted my four children on the top. When they were small they would bring their school friends over and say "that’s me".

This bed is very special to me because when I was displaying it at Spanish market one year many people came up to me and said, "this is the bed I would like to die in".

This piece is a Guardenjo, it's a writing desk. And I embellished it with sterling silver and there’s about ten pounds of silver on this piece here. This was a gift to my wife for her birthday. This writing desk is one of the best forms of furniture the Spanish introduced to the world. This one I made with little reliquaries inside these little pockets here. They’re kind of like secret drawers. There are different secret compartments underneath the drawers also. 

This is a very special place for me because it’s our family chapel. It’s just a little special place to come and pray and meditate.

This is a second chapel I made for my house. The first one I made is down the hill which I made 31 years ago. And it was to thank God for helping me build my house.


BURT WOLF: Chimayo’s second claim to fame comes from its chili peppers. Chili first came to New Mexico in 1598, along with the earliest Spanish settlers and today more chili peppers are grown in New Mexico than any other state in the United States. Red and green chili comes from the same plant. The green chili is fresh, the red chili has been given time to ripen

They are ripened on strings, then ground to bring out their natural sweet flavor and they are highly valued by the world’s chili lovers. The birthplace of the hot pepper was probably central Bolivia, and they have been in use by the native population of Mexico for at least 7,000 years.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But for many of those years hot peppers were used as a medication. The chemical in a hot pepper that gives it it's heat is called capsaicin. And it is a natural decongestant and the active ingredient in many of our common cold remedies.

BURT WOLF: Some authorities believe that hot peppers are addictive. They say that when the capsaicin in the pepper hits the nerve endings on your tongue your brain thinks your body is being attacked and responds by delivering endorphins that are painkillers. The endorphins also give you a slight but pleasurable high similar to a very mild dose of morphine. Every time you take a bite of the pepper, you get another hit of the endorphin.

The place to test out the theory that chili is a source of pleasure would be the restaurant at the Rancho de Chimayo, which is in an old hacienda near Chimayo’s central plaza.

The Rancho was originally put up in 1601 by the Jaramillo family who can trace their roots to the earliest Spanish settlers in New Mexico.

FLORENCE JARAMILLO ON CAMERA: Hi there how are you today?

BURT WOLF: These days, Florence Jaramillo runs the restaurant. The cooking is typical northern New Mexican, prepared with local ingredients and based on recipes that have been in the family for generations.

Their most famous dish is made with chunks of pork that have been marinated in red chili and cooked in the oven for about three hours. It's served with white corn that's been treated with lime. It's called Posole and it's something like hominy.

Their other signature dish is stuffed fried bread. It's stuffed with rice, beans and cooked beef. Then covered with green chili sauce and shredded cheese.


BURT WOLF: The town of Chimayo is also known for its weavers including the Centinela Weaving Shop which is run by Irvin and Lisa Trujillo. They are award winning weavers whose works have been shown and collected by museums throughout the United States including The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. They specialize in hand-woven wool works that use natural dyes and hand spun yarns and traditional Chimayo and Rio Grande weaving styles.

Irvin’s father was one of New Mexico’s Master Weavers and he taught Irvin the traditional skills of the craft.

IRVIN TRUJILLO ON CAMERA: I started when I was ten years old, and my father was weaving at a loom, and I wondered what he was doing, because he was making a lot of racket, and I walked up and he asked me if I wanted to see what he was doing so I said yes, and he had me move a couple of spools on his piece, and then after about two weeks he asked me if I wanted to weave.

The white threads are what are called the warp, and the weft, or woof, is the horizontal thread. Most of the weaving in the Southwest is weft-face weaving, meaning that the weft thread is the only thread that shows on the surface. 

BURT WOLF: Their work continues the amazing culture of Chimayo and its role in the history of the United States.


BURT WOLF: Chimayo and the pilgrims who come here reflect the cultural history of New Mexico. Native Americans who have lived here for over 10,000 years, Spaniards who arrived in the 1500s and Anglo-Americans who came here during the 1800s. 

Each group brought their own religious beliefs and rituals, and today the shrine and the town around it mirror that history. The mission’s most important function, however, is to act as a looking glass for the people who come here--to let them catch a reflection of their own inner faith, and to remind them of the importance of the spirit--something that Chimayo has been doing for thousands and thousands of years.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.