For 400 years, Los Hermanos Penitentes have been serving the people of rural northern New Mexico -- taking care of widows, helping to bring in the harvest, and offering comfort to those mourning the dead.
However, the group also known as the Penitente Brotherhood has not always been treated well. The secretive society, often made up of generations of males from the same family tree, has developed a deep mistrust of outsiders over the past few decades. Over the past half-century, as stories swirled in the press about the brothers' ritual mortification practices during Holy Week, the Hermanos retreated from the outside world.
That's beginning to change.
Hermano Angelo Sandoval is at least the fourth generation of his family to be involved with the Penitente Brotherhood. He believes the link between the Hermanos and their communities is too precious to give up.
"The more publicly we're seen by the community, the more the relationship stays strong," the 36-year-old told HuffPost. "But when the brothers hide themselves, the relationship weakens and people forget they're there."
The Penitente Brotherhood was practicing a type of folk Catholicism in the Upper Rio Grande Valley before settlers arrived from the United States and even before Mexico declared independence from Spain. Some say aspects of their spirituality can be traced even further back to the early Native American tribes who lived in the region.
Although the lay brothers are deeply spiritual, they have not always been embraced by the Catholic Church. The church pulled its priests out of New Mexico following Mexico's independence in 1821. In the decades that followed, the Penitentes stepped in to keep the faith alive, although it wasn't until the mid-1900s that the group was reconciled with the church.
Sandoval says the group became "the essence of the faith" in his rural community.
"We maintained the faith," he told HuffPost. "We took care of the faith, so when the priests did come back, they had faithful to come back to."
The problems began to arise as outsiders developed a curiosity about the brothers' sacred ceremonies. Like other penitent groups, the Hermanos have been known to practice self-flagellation and other types of physical punishments as a penance for their sins.
Alberto Pulido, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego, spent six years studying the Penitente Brotherhood. He says intrusions from the outside world have haunted the Hermanos for decades.
"In history, they've always been portrayed as flagellants, as non-Christians, as immoral individuals," Pulido says. "It's time to recognize the fact that we need to see them in a different way."
Unlike the very public penances conducted in other parts of the world, such as the crucifixions that occur every year in the Philippines, the brotherhood in New Mexico gathers inside small, windowless buildings, called moradas. Modeled after the kiva meeting chambers of the Native American tribes who previously inhabited the region, the moradas are sacred spaces where the men of the community meet to conduct religious rituals.
Since secrecy is a priority for this group, it was especially hard for the Hermanos when outsiders began asking questions about their traditions.
During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal program intended to bolster the economy, sent thousands of men and women into rural parts of America to pen "snapshots" of local cultures and folklore.
Sandoval traces much of the group's current "paranoia" to fallout from that time. He claims men who came to the valley during that time reportedly infiltrated the brotherhood's meetings, only to leave and write sensationalistic articles about their sacred practices.
"A lot of the brothers were very paranoid," Sandoval told HuffPost. "And to a degree, they were right, because people were writing about them as savages and barbarians... and not understanding that some questions can't be answered due to the sacredness of it."
During Holy Week, the most important part of the year for many Hermanos, Sandoval's morada in Cordova is praying the rosary with the community, participating in Mass at the local Catholic church, and serving dinner for its neighbors. But at certain times during the next few days, the doors of the morada will close and the brothers will retreat inside to take part in their secret, sacred rituals.
Sandoval told HuffPost that the Penitentes' brand of spirituality has taught him much about suffering.
Sandoval joined the brotherhood when he was just 11 years old. For most of his adult life, he has worked in health care, taking care of people who are experiencing intense periods of suffering. He's seen people at their most vulnerable -- sick, dying, dealing with mental illness or addiction. For him, Holy Week and the accompanying rituals are cleansing. They recharge and refresh him so he can maintain the positive energy he needs to bring healing to his community.
"Everything I've helped others get rid of during the year, I take it and offer it to God," Sandoval told HuffPost. "It reminds me that I'm not better than anyone else, I'm here to serve and not to be served. Despite my achievements in life, I have to remember to keep myself humble and grounded."
Sandoval says he sees three types of brothers in his community nowadays -- those who are extremely secretive, those who are willing to "sell out" and share the community's practices with anyone who asks, and finally those, like him, who want to take back the narrative.
He believes it's important to speak up for the brotherhood -- especially now that the younger generations in his town don't seem to be as devoted to the Catholic faith or respectful of the Hermanos.
"When you come from a modern society and a modern way of thinking, stepping into the morada is going back 200 or 300 years in time," Sandoval said. "You have to have faith that there's value in the ancient and old ways."
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