The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó

America's Miraculous Church

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Brett Hendrickson
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The American Southwest is an area of the country that highlights the ways multiple cultures react to and interact with each other, a dynamic which is integral to the formation of the United States as we know it. Indigenous components and colonial elements are simultaneously visible, showcasing the power struggles that have exerted influence in the area for over five centuries. Brett Hendrickson’s The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó is a prime example of new academic work that investigates the peoples and beliefs of the Southwest through the lens of religious studies theory. It is one of a very few academic monographs to center its focus around the small New Mexican shrine that holds the title of “most popular site of Catholic pilgrimage in the United States” (1). Pilgrimages are made to the sanctuary to acquire dirt from a hole on site that is alleged to have healing properties. Drawing on historical records, anecdotal evidence, and rich ethnographic fieldwork, Hendrickson explores the political, cultural, and social threads that illuminate the rich tapestry of lives shaped by their relationship to the shrine.

The author opens by contextualizing the geography of the area, fleshing out important historical events that situate the physical site of Chimayó both within its indigenous origins and as a highly important nexus of religious devotion for the Catholic Church, starting in the nineteenth century. The first chapter explores the historical record of Chimayó. Hendrickson describes settlement at the site before the Spanish invasion, then relating the heavily influential roles Franciscan friars played in shaping the land through missionizing efforts. Hendrickson covers the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and its repercussions for subsequent Spanish interaction, and it is in investigating the nuances of assimilation and resistance that he brings some attention to indigenous voices which have been institutionally silenced, specifically when exploring the origins of the Penitente Brotherhood (33-37). It is refreshing and sorely needed to see a scholar challenge entrenched historical narratives that are rooted in racial inequality. Chapters 2 and 3 investigate origin stories of the sanctuary as a Catholic shrine, detailing the political consequences of Chimayó being seen as a focal point of colonial religion and identity. He writes: “One of the primary purposes of origin stories is to explain the state of things for the group to whom the story belongs” (66). Hendrickson is clearly interested in examining history from perspectives that can enrich the narrative being told and offer a platform for marginalized voices.

Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with changes in devotional patterns (e.g., the veneration of the Santo Niño de Atocha) and using interactions at Chimayó as an example of a “microcosm of widespread Anglo attitudes concerning the Hispano population and Hispano aesthetic in northern New Mexico” (122). The final two chapters of the book showcase Hendrickson’s personal observations regarding the shrine as they recount his ethnographic work which includes site visits, interviews with devotees, and accounts of many who claim to have been healed by the dirt found in the sanctuary at Chimayó. The author details modern-day pilgrimages that pay tribute to the beliefs of Catholics in search of medical and spiritual relief.

Historical research that focuses on the lives and beliefs of minorities, especially Americans of Mexican heritage, is quickly becoming more politically relevant than ever before. Throughout the text, Hendrickson clearly outlines his personal positionality which is a critical element of responsible ethnography, especially when the work is about an ethnic and cultural group the scholar themselves does not belong to. It is through this responsible approach that we can paint a brighter, more detailed image of the past which can in turn supplement the work scholars do in the present. This text is a well-written, expertly crafted monograph that is a must-have for any anthropologist or religious studies scholar with an interest in U.S.-Mexico borderlands studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Israel Dominguez is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett Hendrickson is associate professor of religious studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania and author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press 2014). 


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