Chimayo Reflections

Chimayo in New Mexico often appears in novels by people who make the Southwest  their canvas. I have been there twice in the past year, a passenger in my son’ car on days he felt like showing Mom around the area north of Santa Fe. It is not quite so twee as the location of the famous who own houses to escape to from Los Angeles and New York. In fact, it looks pretty rough and dirty. But then so does Santa Fe at the end of summer.

 In September we did not enter the little church. We went to a small room on the side that has a packed earth floor in which a hole has been dug so that visitors can dig out a handful or more of “Holy Dirt.” 

Remembering loved ones at Chimayo.

Remembering loved ones at Chimayo.

The Catholic Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, or simply El Santuario de Chimayó, was built as a private chapel before 1816 so that local people could worship Jesus asEsquipulas, a black Christ named for the Guatamalan city that is a major center of Catholic pilgrimage. Preservationists bought the chapel and handed it over to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1929. Believers say that the dirt can heal physical and spiritual ills. About 300,000 people visit it yearly. This pilgrimage center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Chimayó (chee-may-YO) is famous for two other local products, weavings by the Ortega and Trujillo , and Chimayo chile powder, which goes quickly when it becomes seasonally available. My son was lucky to get some on that trip.My highlights of that first trip involved an eight-year-old, who ran her small hand gently over a bas relief on the outer wall of one of the buildings. It depicted the Holy Family and their animals in the familiar 1930s Mexican mural style. She was even more impressed by the gallery adjacent to the dirt room, dedicated to the sick, dying and “infirm.  In this long, low-ceilinged structure are placed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of loved ones. On one wall there are hanging dozens of crutches. When we got back to her home that afternoon she set up a row of toy animals and said, “These are the infirm. I will take care of them.”

This time, in May, we walked through the sanctuary. People were there praying in the semi-darkness. The strong sweet fragrance of incense hugged us as we passed between the walls primitively painted in bold colors, and turned at the lavishly prepared altar to go into the side chapel that contains the dirt room and the gallery. But it wasn’t until we were returning to the car that I saw the wire fence decorated with crude stick crosses (above). Who left them? Children? People of various ages? It appeared to me that a whole group of people spontaneously picked up twigs and wound grasses around them, and fastened them into the ugly mesh to make a joyous panorama of hopes, dreams, thanksgiving, and perhaps even losses.

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