Pilgrims make the journey to New Mexico's holy land

·5 min read

Apr. 16—CHIMAYÓ — Pilgrims approaching El Santuario de Chimayó on Good Friday were greeted by the scent of roasted corn and the sound of paleteros chiming their bells as they pushed snow cone carts along the road.

It was the first time the Catholic shrine, a popular site for Good Friday pilgrimages, had opened its doors to Holy Week visitors since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. A line of visitors leading to a room in the shrine with a small hole filled with holy dirt — believed to have healing power — wrapped around the chapel and up to a road.

The Rev. Julio González, a priest at the shrine, said many visitors who have been healed by the sacred dirt have left gifts behind, including crutches and canes.

Manuel Bojorquez and his wife, Rosa, of Albuquerque were happy to be back to the santuario. They have visited the site every Good Friday for the past 35 years, even during the pandemic. Last year, when the site was closed, they brought their RV and spent the day nearby.

They rested Friday outside the santuario gift shop after their walk from Nambé.

"It is very important to us to do this every year," Manuel Bojorquez said. He was preparing to be baptized and celebrate his 50th anniversary with his wife.

Pilgrims trekked throughout the day along highways and rural roads to the historic site north of Santa Fe. Some carried large wooden crosses as they made the journey through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Locals lined the roads to the shrine, offering food and water to the walkers.

Traffic came to a crawl throughout the community as law enforcement officials and firefighters patrolled the area.

While there had been concerns about pilgrims' safety throughout the week, spokesmen with New Mexico State Police and the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office said their agencies hadn't responded to any incidents throughout the day.

"All was calm, quiet with [sheriff's office] activity," spokesman Juan Ríos wrote in an email.

Attendance was not as high Friday as in previous years, González said, but the crowd was keeping him busy as he offered confessions throughout the day.

He said one man he had spoken with had walked almost 50 miles from Taos.

Two of the visitors, Lorna Salazar and her childhood friend, Charlene Martinez, reminisced about their days growing up in Chimayó.

"I remember we used to go soak our feet in the stream while our grandparents were working," Salazar said.

Her great-grandparents, Benita and Jacinto Ortiz, who are buried in the chapel's courtyard, were caretakers of the santuario and passed down the role to their granddaughter, Angelica Medina.

"My mom washed the manteles," Salazar said of Medina. "She did that for many years to take care of the santuario."

Martinez's grandmother, Frances Chavez, was a caretaker at the shrine for 23 years.

"I remember coming here with my grandmother," Martinez said. "She made sure there weren't too many candles lit. At the time, it was mud floors and mud walls, and I would come to help her redo them."

Her ancestors helped build the santuario in 1816 after Don Bernardo Abeyta discovered a crucifix at the site. The small pit filled with holy dirt is believed to be the spot where he discovered it. Legend has it, Abeyta took the crucifix back to his church in nearby Santa Cruz, but it had disappeared by morning; he discovered it again in its spot in Chimayó. This happened multiple times until Abeyta requested that a chapel be built to house the crucifix.

Lorna Salazar's son, Ryan Salazar, joined his mother at the shrine to visit the graves of his great-great-grandparents.

"It feels really good to have such deep roots here," said Ryan Salazar, one of three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in state House District 46.

He has never done the pilgrimage, he said, but he remembers sitting outside his grandmother's house as a child, watching people march toward the shrine.

"You didn't really know the significance of it as a kid, but now that I'm getting older, I really appreciate it," he added.

Jesus de los Santos is a regular visitor at the shrine on Holy Week. He first visited in 1984; he returned in 1992 and has been making the pilgrimage every year since then.

De los Santos — also known by his Native American name, Mazatli — banged a small leather drum and burned incense as he made his way through the grounds. He and Roberto Mustrangelo came from Los Lunas; they walked 13 miles to the santuario from U.S. 84/285.

A small group gathered around the two men.

"Every one of you has four spirits with you," de los Santos told the crowd in Spanish. "The spirit in front of you is your guide, the one behind you is your protector ... to your left is the healing spirit ... the other spirit to your right is the consoling spirit."

De los Santos performs cleansing rituals and offers blessings to people of all religions, from Catholics to Buddhists. He refuses to take any payment, he said.

"I come to pray for those who could not be here today. I walk for those who cannot walk. I come to do limpias and to play my drum," he said.

While de los Santos is a seasoned pilgrim, Friday was his companion's first time taking part.

"I have never walked 13 miles," Mustrangelo said. "It's very spiritual because my fiancée and I are moving here, and things seem to be falling into place, and this is an amazing experience."

Though he could not feel his feet, Mustrangelo said, he felt joy in his heart.

Many of the shrine's visitors make the pilgrimage to honor someone they have lost. Mike Duran and Annette Tafoya sat beneath pink blossoming trees after their eight-mile trek to the shrine.

Duran, of Albuquerque, said he started the tradition eight years ago after he lost his son.

"We've been doing it ever since, except during COVID," Duran said.

Tafoya, a Chimayó native, said the celebration was bittersweet this year after losing her mother at the beginning of the pandemic.

"She was born and raised here, so this was a big tradition for her," Tafoya said. "Last time she was here, I actually pushed her in a wheelchair. ... So, it was nice to be able to come back."