What is the Chimayo Pilgrimage?
A brief history of one of Northern New Mexico's oldest traditions.
To the uninitiated, the yearly pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico may seem an incredible, if not strange, sight. Thousands of people walking in droves along the path leading to a sleepy town in the hills north of Santa Fe is something that is certainly an uncommon sight, both to locals and visitors alike. To the modern eye, the sight of thousands of people all forgoing motorized transportation to travel, in some cases, hundreds of miles along dusty paths and perfectly drive-able roadways is a troubling thought.
Where are they going? Why don’t they drive there? What is the purpose of this arduous journey?
The answer to all these questions is faith. Faith is the reason, motivation, and even in a sense, the destination for these pilgrims. The reasons behind why this annual journey takes place here in New Mexico, and the origins of the nuances of this event however, are a bit more complicated.
The story starts long before the Hispanic originators of modern Chimayo’s spiritual observances ever settled. Tewa Indians had been living in the valley for countless years before the first Spanish settlers began exploring the area. Over 33 prehistoric sites have been recorded near the Santa Cruz River, which includes the Chimayo area. The stigma of the area can be traced to even these earliest of records, with one source claiming that before the Spanish arrived, the area was sacred to the Tewa people for it’s healing powers and curative properties.
Around 1696 Spanish settlements started growing around the valley, and so did the Catholic influence. Whether assimilated from those early beliefs, or by coincidence, the Spanish Catholic Santuario that would one day sit in the same place claims that the land still holds those same healing powers. Indubitably, the current denizens attribute those powers to their own histories.
Many differing accounts of the origins of what would become today’s Santuario de Chimayo exist. Most relate to a very specific location, usually where a crucifix was discovered or vision of a saint was beheld and most also conveying the curative properties of this specific location. This exact location is still preserved today in a small room to the rear of the main chapel called the El Pocitoroom (though there is speculation regarding it’s original location). A small hole in this room is filled, and representatively refilled, by the clergy of the Santuario with “holy dirt” also said to possess healing powers. To it’s testament, a room nearby displays the discarded crutches and testimonials of previous visitors.
The concept of “holy dirt” may have even deeper roots within Spanish Catholic history as well. In 1810 one influential family in the area built a small chapel dedicated to Our Lord of Esquipulas, devotion to whom had grown in popularity since 1805 or earlier . Devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas originated at an early colonial shrine in Guatemala and by 1800, the practice’s popularity had most likely traveled from Guatemala through Mexico and north, meaning the origin of this version could date to the 1600’s or earlier, and hundreds of miles from where the Tewa peopled claimed a spring that delivered healing properties lay.
While whether the land itself has a spiritual connection and curative properties is a belief that each must make on their own, there is an absolute fact of faith evident in the determination and conviction of the pilgrims who make this journey. There are records of participants who have walked from as far away as Albuquerque, Denver, and likely more distant unrecorded locations. Between the conviction of these pilgrims, and the support of the communities along the path, the incredibly long journey on foot may seem less daunting. Of course, after that long of a walk, there’s nothing better for sore feet than the curative powers of the Santuario de Chimayo, and, of course, the warmth of faith, whatever version of the history it comes from.