In times gone by, many traditional homes in New Mexico had a small, well-decorated altar upon which was kept a statue of the household saint. These simple wooden santos were greatly treasured, becoming much-loved family heirlooms.
Of course, each small village and town also had its own patron saint, the celebration of its feast day being the high point of the year. The image of this patron, kept in the church, might wear clothes carved and painted as part of the statue, or it might have actual cloth garments that could be removed for cleaning.
The saints were appealed to, as intercessors, for various favors or for aid, particularly in instances of emergency. Since the early-day New Mexicans were at the mercy of capricious weather, nomad Indians, and periodic epidemics, they faced plenty of occasions when prayers for help seemed appropriate.
Often times the saints seemed to respond, providing the relief requested. But then once in a while they appeared to turn a deaf ear and no matter how hard or long the villagers prayed, their appeals went unanswered.
When that happened, the santos might be punished. The penalties assigned sound strange to modern ears, but they were an accepted part of Hispanic folk culture on the upper Rio Grande.
San Ysidro, the patron of farmers, was one santo frequently mentioned as receiving punishment when he failed to deliver. On his day, May 15, his image was taken in a procession through the fields, so that crops might be protected from hail or frost.
Later in the summer, if the rains failed to come, the faithful farmers prayed furiously to San Ysidro for an end to the drought. When that occurred at Truchas, once long ago, a huge flood followed and destroyed the crops.
The outraged petitioners placed their santo on his platform with four handles and carried him back to the fields, so he could see the disaster he had caused them. Their aim was to shame him.
The ususal way to punish a santo was to turn its face to the wall. Or if the failure had been a large one, then it might be locked in a trunk and left in darkness for a considerable period of time.
Jose Gurule provides an example dating from 1867. In that year, at age 16, he joined a wagon train on the dangerous journey over the Santa Fe Trail to Missouri.
As the caravan left Las Placitas, he says, the wives or mothers of the departing men gently wrapped a cloth around the household saints and put them in the bottom of trunks to be held hostage for the safe return of their loved ones. When the men got back, the santos in their houses were removed from captivity and a ceremony was held in their honor with dancing and singing. But in those homes where the mend had died on the trail, the saints were taken out and buried in sad and solemn ceremony.
Young English tourist R.B. Townshend witnessed an astonishing episode of punishment at one of New Mexico’s pueblos in 1875. The village had a life size statue of San Joaquin, kept in a small chapel on the edge of the village. The saint in the past had always responded to pleas for rain, but now in the middle of a severe drought, he ignored them. Townshend was allowed to accompany the angry party of avengers.
A crowd of Indianson horseback rode up to the chapel door. They shouted: “Bring him out. Lasso him. Down to the river with him!” Then a man went inside, tied a rope around the santo’s neck, and came out, looping the other end over his saddle horn.
The saint was jerked out the door and the whole band raced for the river. “Down in the sand, under the heels of ponies,” Townshend related, “the besmeared San Joaquin wallowed and rolled beneath a shower of curses and a hurricane of blows.”
“When it was all over, wonder of wonders, they retrieved him, cleaned him up, and dressed him in his own proper garments. And again they set him up in his shrine and worshipped him harder than ever.”
For outsiders, the strange folkways of New Mexico starting with “punishing the saints” were beyond comprehension.