The Hole World
A woman leans against the outdoor altar, smoking. Wrapped arou
nd her knees are the arms of a man who leans his head into her thighs, his eyes and his lips silently moving.
A loudspeaker strung up in a cottonwood tree behind the altar whispers the Mass being said in the church up the hill behind them. The words are indistinct, the rhythm indifferent. The woman doesn’t look at the man, or at the rough-hewn crucifix to which he prays, Christ’s arms dangling a rainbow of rosary beads, his feet tied off with surgical tubing. She stares past. Over the stream, into the cow pasture beyond. Another cross stands amidst the beasts. Not a crucifix but a chaos of two-by-fours, cloth, shoes and hats, shellacked together into a vertical intersection that’s unified by a coat of blue paint so haphazard it might have been carried there by the wind.
It was a pilgrim, one of thousands who come to this place, who built this thing here and painted it the color of the New Mexico sky. A cross made of everything that he wore on his long walk to Santuario de Chimayo, a shrine to dirt believed to be so holy—by the Pueblo Indians, then by the Spanish, now by anyone who bothers to make a pilgrimage high up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains—that a handful rubbed on withered limbs can make the lame walk, a dash sprinkled on a bared chest can mend a broken heart, a pinch swallowed can cure cancer, top bullets, save souls.
Maybe the man at the woman’s knees has a tumor in his belly, maybe his arteries are clogged, maybe his woman’s lungs are black with tar. Maybe his prayers will be answered; maybe her indifference will cause them to float away in the stream. He kneels at her knees and prays with his heart, his face buried in her thighs. She leans against the altar, smoking and looking at the strange blue cross in the field.
If she abandoned the man, and climbed the mesh fence, and jumped, in her red leather mules, from stone to stone across the stream, and bent down the barbed wire and stepped through the cow patties, she’d see that the heart of the cross is studded with nails. Some of them two-penny, some of them heavy iron spikes; some red with rust, some shining dull silver. The first one tapped in by the unknown artist, the rest hammered by subsequent pilgrims, participants in a democratic crucifixion of blue jeans and a cracked pith helmet and some old sneakers.
The blue cross, a half-pagan construction beyond the perimeter of the church property, stands in sight of the cottonwood cross, an outdoor altar for a more formal outpost of Rome. Up the hill from both, there’s a cave that the Pueblo Indians considered an entrance to the underworld. Below that, a rough adobe church is perched on the hillside. Its tin roof shelters the dirt in a small chamber off to the side of the sanctuary, just a crooked floor that gives way in the center to a pit filled with red sand.
The earth here is dry but the air is alive with smells. There’s the smoke of the woman’s cigarette drifting down onto the man around her knees like the incense in the church up the hill; the powdery whiff of dust a slight breeze kicks up around their feet; the stink of manure; and the sweet scent of dried chilies hanging on the trees that line the path from the Santuario to this outdoor church down the hill.
Pilgrims travel this path. They come from as far away as Albuquerque, 80 miles to the west through the poorest state in the nation, to the number one Catholic pilgrimage site in America, a place that’s quaint or curious or maybe even Medieval, a remnant of the bad old Spanish world. The path travels through Sante Fe, where hand-carved wooden santos go in the galleries for $300, $500, a thousand bucks a pop to visitors from Manhattan, Seattle, and Berlin; where pictures of Pueblo medicine men are more popular than the velvet Jesuses hawked by vendors along the road to Chimayo; on to Española, low-rider capital of America, where on Good Friday, to celebrate the end of Lent, Mary rides three inches off the ground in a glitter green 1965 Chevy Impala; up the winding road, past old women selling plastic Virgins of Guadalupe; behind a Honda Civic with tinted glass and tricked out mag wheels and a bumper sticker that reads, “The Guad we trust”; past a 1990 Cadillac Coupe d’Ville covered grill to back bumper by a mural of Chimayo, Jesus on the hood, Mary on the trunk, a glowing Holy Ghost on the roof (the valve caps, though, are gold skulls with red eyes; “Every church is built on bones,” explains the car’s creator); to the shrine of Chimayo. Built on the spot where in 1813, Bernando Abeyte, a “penitente,” a man who considered self-flagellation a form of prayer, saw, while in the act of self-flogging, a glow from the earth. The glow turned out to be the crucifix that blesses that dirt to this day, formed by the hand of the Holy Spirit, goes one legend, from the raw material of allegedly virgin land: a black Christ nailed to a cross that sprouts leaves.
There are as many myths about the cross’s origins as there are families in the Chimayo Valley, and there are some facts as well: for instance, the fact that it looks like “Our Lord of Esquipulas,” a Guatemalan crucifix carved with Mayan motifs; and the fact that it appeared, conveniently, during the so-called “Secular Period,” when the Spanish Catholic church left the peasants of the valley to their own devices (and their own gods) in order to save on overhead.
So the locals made do, and what they came up with was this: A Christ who’s also a black Indian god nailed to a Mayan cross. Three for one, mix with dirt, stir, eat.
People go to Chimayo to eat dirt. They pray to more gods than you can count on two hands. They believe that a paper mache baby doll decked out in garb appropriate to 18th-century Prague is in all actuality El Santo Niño, that this baby doll leaves a neighboring church built just for him every night and wears his shoes out wandering the countryside. They believe this so much they bring him baby shoes; for years, a woman who lived next door kept a supply on hand for those who forgot. They pray to the baby doll, they eat the dirt, they sprinkle it in their hair, they pay people large sums of money to carve santos they can leave in the church so the priest who’s been there for nearly half a century and who recently supervised the paving of all the soil around the church can throw them in the trash: false idols. They think the dirt will never vanish, they love the priest, they look the other way when he refills the hole with ordinary soil that he shovels in with a quick blessing. The priest scorns those who think there are miracles in the dirt: “Never did the Good Lord do such a stupid miracle like bringing dirt here,” he tells us. “I buy it. Twenty-five tons a year.”
Pilgrims take it away an ounce at a time, pour it into plastic baggies, paper envelopes, chewing gum wrappers. On a Monday when there is hardly anyone else there, a woman comes to the sanctuary to scoop holy earth into a Tupperware bin as if she were collecting night crawlers for fishing. She is short and solid and very pretty, with black hair down to her hips and a determined set to her eyes. Her name is Geraldine Trujillo. She needs a lot of dirt because her family has known a lot of pain; they are nearly every one of them poor and sick and wounded, but because they have the dirt and because they have Geraldine, they don’t despair. Outside the church Geraldine summons one of her sons, a big-bellied boy named Desidero with a giant clown’s face tattooed on his right arm and a crew cut and, when Geraldine asks him to tell us what the dirt has done for him, a pout. It’s not that he doesn’t believe, just that he doesn’t talk, not when he can help it. So Geraldine talks for him. “He just almost died three weeks ago,” she says. “He had a surgery.” Desidero nods and traces the incision around his midsection. “My other son,” Geraldine goes on, “they say they got to amputate his arm. He needs the dirt too. And my daughter-in-law,”—a dew-eyed brunette with a heart-shaped face who stands beside Geraldine, somehow looking pale despite her dark skin—“she got a tumor.” Geraldine turns to her. “What are you gonna do with the dirt?” she asks.
“Rub it in,” the younger woman replies.
That’s how it is with some of the younger people, they’re afraid to go all the way, they’d rather have a holy pumice than a blessed meal. Not Geraldine; it’s this blessed earth that’s kept her fit enough to care for her afflicted brood. She pulls the Tupperware tub open, takes out a thick pinch of soil, sprinkles it on her tongue. “That’s all it takes,” she says. “And you have a miracle.”
“It’s so simple, it’s hardly a matter for words.”
Behind the church the smoking woman drops her cigarette dangerously close to the kneeling man and grinds the butt out in the dust before the altar. It’s March in the high desert, and everything is brown—dried blood-brown chilies, ready-to-spark dried grass, pale beige milkweed crosses twined into the fence by pilgrims. Beneath the brown, other colors: watery yellow shoots of new cottonwoods, hills of red sandstone and pink granite, the pale green of juniper and piñyon, the strange blue cross in the cow field. Yellow, red, green, and blue were the sacred colors of the Pueblo. Now every color is just a tertiary stream feeding into the blinding white light of one god’s love, a river so strong it turns dirt into medicine, earth into manna.
The man finishes his prayers, leans back, crosses himself, and stands. We approach them; but they speak only Spanish. So we point to the blue cross, and mime walking with our fingers. The woman shakes her head, the man looks away, at the church on the hill. We point to it and move our hands as if eating. The man smiles. The woman shakes her head again. She’s maybe 45, her hair hennaed red and her face just beginning the transformation into that of a heavy, handsome older woman. She has kind green eyes, but we don’t know what they’re saying. Does she abide her man’s prayers, or does she channel her devotion through him? To which god—Jesus, Mary, St. Jude, the Pueblo twin gods known as Towa e, El Niño—do they pray?
Maybe all. Maybe none of them. Maybe they pray simply to the place. Kneel down in the red dust and pray to be healed, to be made whole, to make it to heaven. Maybe. The couple won’t tell—they just bless us, they bless themselves, her thick hands moving as if pulled down by weights, tracing the sign of the cross with its edges rounded off, trimmed to fit into this narrow valley.
After they leave we stay at the altar, closer now to the loudspeaker in the cottonwood. We catch a few words, “Jesus,” “mother,” “angel.” Then it crackles and we hear nothing more.
There’s no scientific rationale behind this dirt—no special minerals, no odd chemical effect—and for that matter none of the wonders attributed to it are all that remarkable. During our visits we meet a man who rubs it on his head every night and is in remission from a brain tumor, and a man who rubs it behind his ears and yet still smiles dumbly while his wife calls him from over his shoulder. The owner of the Cadillac painted to look like Chimayo attributes his car’s fine performance to a sprinkling of dust he routinely applies to the engine, but the fact that his car still runs probably has more to do with Detroit than the soil of the Sangre de Cristos. A couple of guys from Española, covered with tattoos of spiders and Virgin Marys, sexy naked women and their mothers’ names, tell us about a childhood friend who comes to Chimayo to eat dirt in place of shooting heroin at least one day a month; they swear the dirt has saved his life, even though he keeps using.
But maybe that’s the miracle: just the fact that people keep coming.
On Good Friday we meet an old man who comes every year from Albuquerque toting a five-foot cross of his own making, shellacked, with “christ-redeemer” painted in red, flowers twined around the arms, “vinegar” written on the crossbar and “thirsty” carved into the base. His name is Mel Chavez. He’s 66-years-old, not much bigger than the El Niño doll, filthier than the dirt in the sanctuary. His fly is down and his tongue is too big for his mouth. White hair sprouts up from his sweater and swirls down from a black cap like smoke around his jaw, which he works constantly, grinding the dirt his younger brother, Victor, gathers for him in the sanctuary, grinding and laughing and teasing his brother. “Hurry hurry hurry,” he says.
“C’mon, Mel,” Victor, ten years younger, ages wearier, says. “Do your prayers. Gotta get back to Albuquerue.”
“Gotta gotta gotta,” says Mel. “Pray pray pray.”
“Is he ok?” we ask Victor.
“Ok ok ok,” answers Mel. “Got the nerves.”
“You come for your nerves?”
“Yes! Healing! Dirt, dirt, dirt.”
Victor calls Mel, but he doesn’t listen. “Some people,” he says sadly, “don’t believe in dirt.” He nods, rolling his tongue around his mouth, wipes his hands on his jeans. “Happy day to you!” he says. Then he swipes off his cap and enters the shrine of El Niño. Victor holds his cross for him and Mel kneels, giggling and praying. When he’s done he stands, lurches toward El Niño, and pivots toward a painted santo, which he pats on the head gently. Then he spins on his heel and marches out of the church, his younger, bigger, saner brother falling into step like a bodyguard. At the gate he pauses to inspect another pilgrim’s cross, two thin sticks pained white, with “I pray for my family” written in black across the arms, “& Hole World” inscribed down the spine. Mel points at us, then the cross, and cackles.
As we walk him back toward Victor’s truck, he tells us about his nerves. He’d lost them in a factory, on an assembly line. It’d been smoggy—the memory makes him laugh—terribly smoggy, and when the smog had cleared and he’d stopped feeling dizzy, his nerves had departed, so far never to return. He comes to Chimayo every year looking for them.
“Who do you pray to?” we ask.
“Who-whoo!” he shouts, then laughs like an old scratchy record of a loon that’s stuck in a groove. “Ha ha ha—Ha ha ha!”
When we ask Victor the same question—Mary? Jesus? El Niño?—he gives us the look he uses on his crazy brother, minus the love. “All of them,” he says as if we’re idiots. “Who else is there?”
Mel, meanwhile, has accosted two state troopers and is telling them a joke, twisting between the cops and us, spraying us all with spit and incomprehensible story. Both officers are pilgrims themselves when they’re not on duty. One’s young and hides behind iridescent wraparound shades, more surfer than sheriff; the other’s a middle-aged man with a paunch and a tolerant smile. The younger one seems uneasy as Mel crowds too close to them, but the older one just leans back against his cruiser and waits for the story to take its course, even as his hand moves slowly, falling like a leaf to land on the butt of his gun, just in case Mel is really as crazy as he seems. Mel laughs; he has reached an intermediate gag none of us understand. His brother glares at him from up the road. Mel continues his joke, and as he approaches its crescendo, he starts rocking. He looks like a rabbi, davening, saying a prayer. Now he needs his hands to shape the story; something about a man, just like this trooper, also a cop, looking for something in the desert. His hands trace a cross, none of us knows why.
“And then,” he says, breaking into a clear voice he seems to reserve for revelation and punch lines. “The troopers opened the trunk. And do you know what they found?” he asked. The older cop rolls his eyes. Mel shuffles his feet in a little dance. “Everybody!”
A trunkful of suspects and a valley full of gods. A plastic baggy full of dirt in Mel’s back pocket, from which he takes two pinches, one for his tongue and one for the ground, before scuffling off to catch up with Victor, leaving us and the cops literally in the dust; but it’s alright, because he’s already made this dirt holy.
Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.