Fray Angelico Chavez’s My Penitente Land

Manuel Ezequiel Chavez – better known as Fray Angelico Chavez – was a Franciscan priest born in northern New Mexico in 1910. He was a genuine polymath, known not only for his artistic talents, which explain his Franciscan name (a tribute to the famous Italian painter and priest), but also a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a genealogist, a biographer, an historian, and even (like Saint Francis) a restorer of churches. He authored 24 books, and also served as an Army chaplain in both World War II and the Korean War. In World War II, he took part in the beach landings at Guam and Leyte Gulf. As a priest, he also served several poor villages and Native American pueblos in New Mexico. He died in 1996, and today his statue stands outside the Palace of the Governor’s History Library in Santa Fe, which was renamed in his honor in the year of his death.

This post reviews Chavez’s historical survey, My Penitente Land: Reflections of Spanish New Mexico (1974) (original edition; multiple new editions available). This book gives tremendous insight into the Spanish Castilian heritage of the peoples of northern New Mexico, where Chavez was born.

Throughout the book, Chavez repeatedly points out the similarity in landscape and atmosphere among northern New Mexico, Castilian Spain, and the Holy Land, all of which are situated on the same or similar degrees of latitude. This fortunate geographical congruence made the Spanish settlers of northern New Mexico quite at home. Their rugged new Mexico landscape lends itself mainly to the raising of livestock, particularly cattle and sheep, which today still can be seen when traveling in this part of New Mexico.

Chavez consistently makes biblical references, comparing the experiences of the Spanish Castilian New Mexicans with those of the Hebrews in Israel. Thus, for example, he analogizes the flight of the Hispanic New Mexicans from Santa Fe after the 1680 Pueblo revolt as a type of “Babylonian captivity,” which only ended with the reconquest of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas in 1693.

My Penitente Land often refers to the Hebrew and Spanish concepts of hesed (loving kindness or compassion) and castizo (pure [blood] or genuine) in describing his forebears in northern New Mexico. He sees the Castilian world view as one which combines the contradictory approaches of “rugged realism and rigid idealism,” often referring to Don Quixote on this point. In Chavez’s view, his people are neither romantic nor logical. They rely more on symbols (consider the popular folk art in retablos and bultos), than on text. Consequently, unlike the post-Reformation “Aryan” “new peoples of the book” in Europe, they are not “text-bound.” Indeed, they are “more given to exaggerating the concrete symbols of faith,” often portraying the crucified Christ in a more bloody, and therefore more realistic, depiction that the sanitized crucifixes so often seen in other European and American countries. They starkly identify with the suffering servant Christ, emphasizing personal penitence, sometimes taken to extremes, as in the “exaggerated penitential spirit” of the Penitentes.

Chavez is critical of the American takeover of New Mexico with the arrival of General Stephen Kearney in 1846. He sees the American influence as diluting, and threatening to overwhelm, the Castilian Spanish heritage of his northern New Mexico people.

My Penitente Land  is a well-written and informative work which deserves a wider audience for its compassionate understanding of the Castilian-rooted Spanish peoples of northern New Mexico.







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