COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume I



Military Hierarchy of Mexico Religious Superstitions Legend of Nuestro Senora de Guadalupe A profane version of the Story A curious Plan for manufacturing Water Saints and Images Processions How to make it Rain The Sacred Host Fanaticism and Murder Honors paid to a Bishop Servility to Priests Attendance at Public Worship New Mexicans in Church The Vesper Bells Passion Week and the Ceremonies pertaining thereto Ridiculous Penitencia Whitewashing of Criminals Matrimonial Connexions and Mode of Contracting them Restrictions upon Lovers Onerous Fees paid for Marriages and Burial Anecdote of a Ranchero Ditto of a Servant and a Widow, illustrative of Priestly Extortion Modes of Burial, and Burial Ground of the Heretics.

     THE Mexicans seem the legitimate descendants of the subjects of 'His Most Catholic Majesty,' for the Romish faith is not only the religion established by law, but the only one tolerated by the constitution: a system of republican liberty wholly incomprehensible to the independent and tolerant spirits of the United States. Foreigners only of other creeds, in accordance with treaty stipulations, can worship privately within their own houses. The Mexicans, indeed, talk of a 'union of Church and State;' they should rather say a 'union of Church and Army;' for, as has


already been shown, the civil authority is so nearly merged in the military and the ecclesiastical, that the government, if not a military hierarchy, is something so near akin that it is difficult to draw the distinction. As Mr. Mayer very appropriately remarks, you are warned of the double dominion of the army and the church " by the constant sound of the drum and the bell, which ring in your ears from morn to midnight, and drown the sounds of industry and labor."

     In the variety and grossness of popular superstitions, Northern Mexico can probably compete with any civilized country in the world. Others may have their extravagant traditions, their fanatical prejudices, their priestly impostures, but here the popular creed seems to be the embodiment of as much that is fantastic and improbable in idolatrous worship, as it is possible to clothe in the garb of a religious faith. It would fill volumes to relate one-half of the wonderful miracles and extraordinary apparitions said to have occurred during and since the conquest of the Indian Pueblos and their conversion to the Romish faith. Their character may be inferred from the following national legend of La Maravillosa Aparicion de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe anglice, the marvellous apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which, in some one of its many traditionary shapes, is generally believed throughout the republic. I have seen some half a dozen written versions of this celebrated tradition, and heard about as many oral


ones; but no two agree in all the particulars. However, that which has received most currency informs us, that, on the 12th of December, 1531, an Indian called Juan Diego, while passing over the barren hill of Tepeyacac (about a league northward from the city of Mexico), in quest of medicinal herbs, had his attention suddenly arrested by the fragrance of flowers, and the sound of delightful music; and on looking up, he saw an angelic sort of figure directly before him. Being terrified he attempted to flee; but the apparition calling to him by name, "Juan Diego," said she, "go tell the bishop to have me a place of worship erected on this very spot." The Indian replied that he could not return, as he was seeking remedios for a dying relative. But the figure bade him to do as commanded, and have no further care about his relative that he was then well. Juan Diego went to the city, but being unable to procure an audience from the bishop, he concluded he had been acting under a delusion, and again set off for his remedios. Upon ascending the same hill, however, the apparition again accosted him, and hearing his excuse, upbraided him for his want of faith and energy; and said, "Tell the bishop that it is Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary, come to dwell amongst and protect the Mexicans, who sends thee." The Indian, returning again to the city, forced his way into the presence of the bishop, who, like a good sensible man, received the messenger with jeers, and treated him as a maniac;


telling him finally to bring some sign, which if really the Mother of God, his directress could readily furnish.

     The perplexed Indian left the bishop's presence resolved to avoid further molestation from his spiritual acquaintance, by taking another route; yet, when near the place of his first meeting, he again encountered the apparition, who, hearing the result of his mission, ordered him to climb a naked rock hard by, and collect a bouquet of flowers which he would find growing there. Juan Diego, albeit without faith, obeyed, when, to his surprise he found the flowers referred to, and brought them to the Virgin, who, throwing them into his tilma, commanded him to carry them to the bishop; saying, "When he sees these he will believe, as he well knows that flowers do not bloom at this season, much less upon that barren rock." The humble messenger now with more courage sought the bishop s presence, and threw out the blooming credentials of his mission before him; when lo! to the astonishment of all, and to the entire conviction of his Senoria ilustrisima, the perfect image of the apparition appeared imprinted on the inside of the tilma.*

thin black line
* This is a kind of mantle or loose covering worn by the Indians, which, in the present instance, was made of the coarse filaments of a species of maguey, and a little resembled the common coffee sacks. The painting, as it necessarily must be on such a material, is said to be coarse, and represents the Virgin covered with a blue robe bespangled with stars.

Virgin of Guadalupe Medal     The reverend Prelate now fully acknowledged the divinity of the picture, and in a


conclave of ecclesiastics convened for the purpose, he pronounced it the image of La verdadera Virgen and protectress of Mexico. A splendid chapel was soon after erected upon the spot designated in the mandate, in which the miraculous painting was deposited, where it is preserved to the present day. In the suburbs of every principal city in the republic, there is now a chapel specially dedicated to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, where coarse resemblances of the original picture are to be seen. Rough paintings of the same, of various dimensions, are also to be met with in nearly every dwelling, from the palace to the most miserable hovel. The image, with all adapted motto, has also been stamped upon medals, which are swung about the necks of the faithful.*

thin black line
* The accompanying cut represents both sides of a medal of "Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Mexico," of which, as I have been informed, 216,000 were struck at Birmingham in the year 1831, designed for the Mexican market. Similar medals are worn by nearly nine-tenths of the population of Northern Mexico. On one side, as will be seen, the Virgin is represented in her star-spangled robe, supported by a cherub and the moon under her feet; a design, which, it has been suggested, was most probably drawn from Revelation xii, I. The date, "A. 1805," is that perhaps of some one of the innumerable miracles, which, according to fame in Mexico, have been wrought by the Virgin Guadalupe. The motto, "Non fecit taliter omni nationi" (She "hath not dealt so with any nation") which is found on the reverse of the medal, is extracted from Psalm cxlvii.20.

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     As a further confirmation of the miracle, it is also told, that when Juan Diego returned to his home, he found his relative in good health that he had suddenly risen from the last extremity about the time of the former's meeting with the Virgin.

     Now comes the profane version of the story, which the skeptical have set afloat, as the most reasonable one; but against which in the name of orthodoxy, I feel bound to enter my protest. To the better understanding of this 'explanatory tradition,' it may be necessary to premise that the name of Guadalupe was already familiar to the Spaniards, the Virgin Mary having, it is said, long before appeared in Spain, under the same title; on which occasion an order of monks, styled Frailes Guadalupanos, had been instituted. One of these worthy fathers who had been sent as a missionary to Mexico, finding the Indians rather stubborn and unyielding, conceived the plan of flattering their national vanity by fabricating a saint suited for the occasion. The Guadalupano had a poor friend who was an excellent painter, to whom he said, one day, "Take this tilma" presenting him one of the coarsest and most slazy tex-


ture (a sort of manta de guangoche); "paste it upon canvas, and paint me thereon the handsomest effigy of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe that your fancy can portray." When this was done according to order, and the tilma separated from the canvass, the picture appeared somewhat miraculous. Viewed very closely, it showed exceedingly dim; but upon receding to some distance, so that the eye could embrace a larger field of the open texture, it appeared quite distinct and beautiful. This effect is often alluded to at the present day, and easily as it might be accounted for upon philosophical principles, I have heard many an ignorant Mexican declare, that la Santisima Virgen concealed herself from such as profaned her shrine by a too near approach, and only shone forth in all her brilliancy to those who kept at a respectful distance. But, in conclusion, the story relates, that a suitable damsel being selected and decked out to represent the Virgin, the affair was played off as it has been narrated.

     As regards the miracle of the fresh flowers in December the profanos say, that there was nothing very wonderful about it, as flowers were known to bloom in the lowlands, and only a few leagues from the spot where the affair took place, at all seasons of the year; implying that these had been engrafted upon the rock for the occasion. There are some who go so far as to insinuate that the bishop and other ecclesiastics were privy to the whole affair, and that every precaution had been


taken to see the Indian who played first fiddle in the matter, provided with a tilma, similar to the one on which the image of the Virgin was painted, and that this was artfully slipped in the place of the former, which the Indian had doffed when he climbed the rock after the flowers. I have not seen the original portrait, but most of the copies and imitations I have met with, represent the Virgil with that peculiarly tawny complexion which was probably deemed indispensable to conciliate the prejudices of the aborigines.

     The reader may reconcile the foregoing discrepancies in the best way he can: all that I have to add is, that the apparition having been canonized by the Pope, a belief in it now constitutes as much a part of the religious faith of the Mexicans, as any article of the Apostolic Creed. To judge from the blind and reverential awe in which the Virgin Guadalupe is held by the lowly and the ignorant, one would suppose her to be the first person in the Divinity; for to her their vows are directed, their prayers offered up, and all their confessions made.

     Among the many traditions implicitly believed in by the people, and which tend to obstruct the advancement of knowledge, there is one equally as amusing and extravagant as the foregoing, which has been gravely recounted by the present Vicar of New Mexico and ex-delegate to Congress. During the memorable insurrection of 1680, the Pueblo of San Felipe was about the only one that remained faithful to the Spaniards in all the North. It was during that exciting period that the padre of another Pueblo took refuge among them. Being besieged by their neighbors and their communication with the water entirely cut off, they applied for advice to the reverend padre, who bade them not despair, as he had it in his power to supply them with water. He then began to pray very fervently, after which he opened a vein in each of his arms, from whence there flowed two such copious streams of water that all fears of being reduced by thirst were completely allayed!

     It is a part of the superstitious blindness of these people to believe that every one of their legion of canonized saints possesses the power of performing certain miracles; and their aid is generally invoked on all occasions of sickness and distress. The kindest office, therefore, that the friends of a sick person can perform, is to bring forward the image of some of those saints whose healing powers have been satisfactorily tested. The efficacy of these superstitious remedies will not be difficult to account for, when the powerful influence of the imagination upon disease is taken into consideration.

     The images of patron saints are never put in such general requisition, however, as in seasons of severe drought. The priests, being generally expert at guessing the approach of a pluvial period, take good care not to make confident promises till they have sub-


stantial reason to anticipate a speedy fulfilment of their prophecies. When the fitting season draws nigh, they carry out the image of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, or that of some other favorite saint, and parade about the streets, the fields and the meadows, followed by all the men, women, and children of the neighborhood, in solemn procession. Should the clouds condescend to vouchsafe a supply of rain within a week or two of this general humiliation, no one ever thinks of begrudging the scores of dollars that have been paid to the priests for bringing about so happy a result.

     Speaking of processions, I am reminded of another peculiar custom so prevalent in Mexico, that it never fails to attract the attention of strangers. This is the passage of the Sacred Host to the residence of persons dangerously ill, for the purpose of administering to them the Extreme Unction. In New Mexico, however, this procession is not attended with so much ostentatious display as it is in the South, the paradise of ecclesiastics, where it is conveyed in a black coach drawn by a pair of black mules, accompanied by armed soldiers and followed by crowds of leperos of all sexes and ages. During the procession of the Host, the church-bells of different tones are kept sounding by alternate strokes.

     Also the carriage is always preceeded by a bell-man tinkling a little bell in regular time, to notify all within hearing of its approach, that they may be prepared to pay it due homage.

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     When this bell is heard, all those that happen to be within sight of the procession, though at ever so great a distance, instantly kneel and remain in that position till it has passed out of sight.

     On these occasions, if an American happens to be within hearing, he endeavors to avoid the cortege, by turning the corner of a street or entering a shop or the house of a friend; for although it may be expedient, and even rational, to conform with the customs and ceremonies of those countries we are sojourning in, very few Protestants would feel disposed to fall on their knees before a coach freighted with frail mortals pretending to represent the Godhead: I am sorry to say that non-compliants are frequently insulted and sometimes pelted with stones by the rabble. Even a foreign artisan was once massacred in the Mexican metropolis because he refused to come out of his shop, where he was kneeling, and perform the act of genuflexion in the street!

     This abject idoltry sometimes takes a still more humiliating aspect, and descends to the worship of men in the capacity of religious rulers. On the occasion of the Bishop of Durango's visit to Santa Fe in 1833, and event which had not taken place for a great many years, the infatuated population hailed his arrival with as much devotional enthusiasm as if it had been the second advent of the Messiah. Magnificent preparations were made everywhere for his reception: the streets were swept, the roads and bridges on his route re-


paired and decorated; and from every window in the city there hung such a profusion of fancy curtains and rich cloths that the imagination was carried back to those glowing descriptions of enchanted worlds which one reads of in the fables of necromancers. I must observe, however, that there is a custom in all the towns of Mexico (which it would not be safe to neglect), providing that whenever a religious procession takes place, all the doors and windows facing the street along which it is to pass, shall be decorated with shawls, carpets, fancy cloths, according to the means and capabilities of the proprietor. During the bishop's sojourn in Santa Fe, which, to the great joy of the inhabitants, lasted for several weeks, he never appealed in the streets but that 'all true Catholics' who were so fortunate as to obtain a glimpse of his Senoria Ilustrisima immediately dropped upon their knees, and never moved from that position till the mitred priest had either vouchsafed his benediction or had disappeared. Even the principal personages of the city would not venture to address him till they had first knelt at his feet and kissed his 'pastoral ring.' This, however, is only a heightened picture of what occurs every day in the intercourse between the rancheros and the common padres of the country. The slavish obsequiousness of the lower classes towards these pampered priests is almost incredible.

     No people are more punctual in their attendance upon public worship, or more exact


in the performance of the external rites of religion, than the New Mexicans. A man would about as soon think of venturing in twenty fathoms of water without being able to swim, as of undertaking a journey without hearing mass first. These religious exercises, however, partake but seldom of the character of true devotion; for people may be seen chattering or tittering while in the act of crossing themselves, or muttering some formal prayer. Indeed, it is the common remark of strangers, that they are wont to wear much graver countenances while dancing at a fandango than during their devotional exercises at the foot of the altar. In nothing, however, is their observance of the outward forms of religion more remarkable than in their deportment every day towards the close of twilight, when the large bell of the Parroquia peals for la oracion, or vespers. All conversation is instantly suspended all labor ceases people of all classes, whether on foot or on horseback, make a sudden halt even the laden porter, groaning under the weight of an insupportable burden, stops in the midst of his career and stands still. An almost breathless silence reigns throughout the town, disturbed only by the occasional sibilations of the devout multitude: all of which, accompanied by the slow heavy peals of a large sonorous bell, afford a scene truly solemn and appropriate. At the expiration of about two minutes the charm is suddenly broken by the clatter of livelier-toned bells; when, presto, all


is bustle and confusion again the colloquial chit-chat is resumed the smith plies upon his anvil with redoubled energy the clink of the hammer simultaneously resounds in every direction the wayfarers are again in motion, both pleasure and business, in short, assume their respective sway; and a buenas tardes (good evening) to those present closes the ceremony.

     Although the Catholics have a saint for each day in the year, the number of canonized fiestas in which labor is prohibited has been somewhat reduced in Mexico. La Semana Santa, or Passion Week, is perhaps the period when the religious feeling, such as it is, is most fully excited: Viernes Santo (Good Friday), especially, is observed with great pomp and splendor. An image of Christ large as life, nailed to a huge wooden cross, is paraded through the streets, in the midst of an immense procession, accompanied by a glittering array of carved images, representing the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and several others; while the most notorious personages of antiquity, who figured at that great era of the world's history, the centurion will a band of guards, armed with lances, and apparelled in the costume supposed to have been worn in those days, may be seen bestriding splendidly caparisoned horses, in the breathing reality of flesh and blood. Taking it all in all, this spectacle, the ceremonies and manoevres which attend its career through the densely crowded and ornament-


ed streets, are calculated to produce impressions of a most confused description, in which regret and melancholy may be said to form no inconsiderable share.

     It has been customary for great malefactors to propitiate Divine forgiveness by a cruel sort of penitencia, which generally takes place during the Semana Santa. I once chanced to be in the town of Tome on Good Friday, when my attention was arrested by a man almost naked, bearing, in imitation of Simon, a huge cross upon his shoulders, which, though constructed of the lightest wood, must have weighed over a hundred pounds. The long end dragged upon the ground, as we have seen it represented in sacred pictures, and about the middle swung a stone of immense dimensions, appended there for the purpose of making the task more laborious. Not far behind followed another equally destitute of clothing, with his whole body wrapped in chains and cords, which seemed burled in the muscles, and which so cramped and confined him that he was scarcely able to keep pace with the procession. The person who brought up the rear presented a still more disgusting aspect. He walked along with a patient and composed step, while another followed close behind belaboring him lustily with a whip, which he flourished with all the satisfaction of an amateur; but as the lash was pointed only with a tuft of untwisted sea grass its application merely served to keep open the wounds upon the penitent's

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back, which had been scarified, as I was informed, with the keen edge of a flint, and was bleeding most profusely. The blood was kept in perpetual flow by the stimulating juice of certain herbs, carried by a third person, into which the scourger frequently dipped his lash. Although the actors in this tragical farce were completely muffled, yet they were well known to many of the by-standers, one of whom assured me that they were three of the most notorious rascals in the country. By submitting to this species of penance, they annually received complete absolution of their past year's sins, and, thus 'purified,' entered afresh on the old career of wickedness and crime. In New Mexico, the institution of marriage changes the legal rights of the parties, but it scarcely affects their moral obligations. It is usually looked upon as a convenient cloak for irregularities, which society less willingly tolerates in the lives of unmarried women. Yet when it is considered that the majority of matches are forced and ill-assorted, some idea may be formed of the little incitement that is given to virtue. There are very few parents who would stoop to consult a young lady's wishes before concluding a marriage contract, nor would maidens, generally, ever dream of a matrimonial connexion unless proposed first by the father. The lover's proposals are, upon the same principle, made in writing direct to the parents themselves, and without the least deference to the wishes or inclinations of the young lady whose hand is thus sought in marriage. The tender emotions engendered between lovers during walks and rambles along the banks of silent streams, are never experienced in this country; for the sexes are seldom permitted to converse or be together alone. In short, instances have actually occurred when the bethrothed couple have never seen each other till brought to the altar to be joined in wedlock.

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     Among the humbler classes, there are still more powerful causes calculated to produce irregularity of life; not the least of which is the enormous fee that must be paid to the curate for tying the matrimonial knot. This system of extortion is carried so far as to amount very frequently to absolute prohibition: for the means of the bridegroom are often insufficient for the exigency of the occasion; and the priests seldom consent to join people in wedlock until the money has been secured to them. The curates being without control, the marriage rates are somewhat irregular, but they usually increase in proportion to the character of the ceremonies and to the circumstances of the parties. The lowest (about twenty dollars) are adapted to the simplest form, solemnized in church at mass; but with the excuse of any extra service and ceremonies, particularly if performed at a private house, the fees are increased often as high as several hundred dollars: I have heard of $500 being paid for a marriage ceremony. The following communication, which appeared


appeared in a Chihuahua paper under the signature of "Un Ranchero," affords some illustration of the grievances of the plebeians this respect. Literally translated it runs thus:

     "Messrs. Editors of the Noticioso de Chihuahua:

     "Permit me, through your paper, to say a few words in print, as those of my pen have been unsuccessfully employed with the curas of Allende and Jimenez, to whom I applied the other day for the purpose of ascertaining their legal charge to marry one of my sons. The following simple and concise answer is all that I have been able to elicit from either of these ecclesiastics: 'The marriage fees are a hundred and nineteen dollars.' I must confess that I was completely suffocated when I heard this outrageous demand upon my poor purse; and did I not pride myself on being a true Apostolic Roman Catholic, and were it not that the charming graces of my intended daughter-in-law have so captivated my son that nothing but marriage will satisfy him, I would assuredly advise him to contrive some other arrangement with his beloved, which might not be so ruinous to our poor purse for reflect that $119 are the life and all of a poor ranchero. If nothing else will do, I shall have to sell my few cows (mis vaquitas) to help my son out of this difficulty." The 'Ranchero' then appeals to the Government to remedy such evils, by imposing some salutary restrictions upon the clergy; and concludes by saying, "If this is not done, I will


never permit either of my remaining three sons to marry."

     This article was certainly an effort of boldness against the priesthood, which may have cost the poor 'Ranchero' a sentence of excommunication. Few of his countrymen would venture on a similar act of temerity; and at least nine-tenths profess the most profound submission to their religious rulers. Being thus bred to look upon their priests as infallible and holy samples of piety and virtue, we should not be so much surprised at the excesses of the 'flock' when a large portion of the pastores, the padres themselves, are foremost in most of the popular vices of the country: first at the fandango first at the gaming table first at the cock-pit first at bacchanalian orgies and by no means last in the contraction of those liaisons which are so emphatically prohibited by their vows.

     The baptismal and burial fees (neither of which can be avoided without incurring the charge of heresy) are also a great terror to the candidates for married life. "If I marry," says the poor yeomans "my family must go unclad to baptize my children; and if any of them should die, we must starve ourselves to pay the burial charges." The fee for baptism, it is true, is not so exorbitant, and in accordance to custom, is often paid by the padrino or sponsor; but the burial costs are almost equally extravagant with those of marriage, varying in proportion to the age and


circumstances of the deceased. A faithful Mexican servant in my employ at Chihuahua, once solicited forty dollars to bury his mother. Upon my expressing some surprise at the exorbitancy of the amount, he replied "That is what the cura demands, sir, and if I do not pay it my poor mother will remain unburied!" Thus this man was obliged to sacrifice several months' wages, to pamper the avarice of a vicious and mercenary priest. On another occasion, a poor widow in Santa Fe, begged a little medicine for her sick child: "Not," said the disconsolate mother, "that the life of the babe imports me much, for I know the angelito will go directly to heaven; but what shall I do to pay the priest for burying it? He will take my house and all from me and I shall be turned desolate into the street!" and so saying, she commenced weeping bitterly.

     Indigent parents are thus frequently under the painful necessity of abandoning and disowning their deceased children, to avoid the responsibility of burial expenses. To this end the corpse is sometimes deposited in some niche or corner of the church during the night; and upon being found in the morning, the priest is bound to inter it gratis, unless the parent can be discovered, in which case the latter would be liable to severe castigation, besides being bound to pay the expenses

     Children that have not been baptized are destined, according to the popular faith, to a kind of negative existence in the world of


spirits, called Limbo, where they remain forever without either suffering punishment or enjoying happiness. Baptized infants, on the other hand, being considered without sin, are supposed to enter at once into the joys of heaven. The deceased child is then denominated an angelito (a little angel), and is interred with joy and mirth instead of grief and wailing. It is gaudily bedecked with fanciful attire and ornaments of tinsel and flowers; and being placed upon a small bier, it is carried to the grave by four children as gaily dressed as their circumstances will allow; accompanied by musicians using the instruments and playing the tunes of the fandangos; and the little procession is nothing but glee and merriment.

     In New Mexico the lower classes are very rarely, if ever, buried in coffins: the corpse being simply wrapped in a blanket, or some other covering, and in that rude attire consigned to its last home. It is truly shocking to a sensitive mind to witness the inhuman treatment to which the remains of the dead are sometimes subjected. There being nothing to indicate the place of the previous graves, it not unfrequently happens that the partially decayed relics of a corpse are dug up and forced to give place to the more recently deceased, when they are again thrown with the earth into the new grave with perfect indifference. The operation of filling up the grave especially, is particularly repulsive; the earth being pounded down with a large maul,


as fast as it is thrown in upon the unprotected corpse, with a force sufficient to crush a delicate frame to atoms.

     As the remains of heretics are not permitted to pollute either the church-yard or Campo Santo, those Americans who have died in Santa Fe, have been buried on a hill which overlooks the town to the northward. The corpses have sometimes been disinterred and robbed of the shroud in which they were enveloped; so that, on a few occasions, it has been deemed expedient to appoint a special watch for the protection of the grave.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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