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In The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido addresses popular religion in the southwestern United States from an innovative point of view. By concentrating on the story of the penitentes as told by actual participants in the religious brotherhood, he is able to deliver an interpretation that transcends the official history as well as popular beliefs held since the nineteenth century. Lopez Pulido also breaks away from common views on penitentes by focusing more on the beliefs (the sacred) and less on the ritual components of the brotherhood.
The penitentes, a Catholic brotherhood (with possible Franciscan origins) established in New Mexico and Colorado in Spanish colonial times, flourished in the Southwest, possibly as a consequence of the area's neglect by Spanish, and later Mexican, religious authorities. From the United States government's move into New Mexico and the establishment of a Catholic bishopic there by 1850, penitentes were always at odds with the Church's hierarchy. The bishops perceived the brotherhood's rituals-especially the public display of penance and flagellation during Holy Week-as a threat to Catholic orthodoxy and resented the secret confraternity for having too much influence and power in local society. They tried therefore to control the penitentes by applying regulations and finally, in the 1880s, by condemning the brotherhood altogether. Popular beliefs on penitentes as a secret flagellant society were reinforced in the twentieth century by travel accounts, newspaper articles, and cinema attracted by the exoticism of their ritual practices.