Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series of articles written by NMSU students, Nicolás Cabrera, a graduate student studying Spanish literature, filed this report about a longstanding New Mexican tradition that takes place during Holy Week.
In the borderlands, Good Friday is one of the most important days of the year. People across the region mark the solemn occasion in many ways, including long walks known as caminatas to pilgrimage sites.
In central New Mexico, there is a brown and dry hill that overlooks the green and fertile bosque of the Río Grande and the Village of Tomé. This giant hill, called the Cerro de Tomé, has three crosses at the top and is a pilgrimage site for thousands of people on Good Friday. Each person who makes the journey does so in his or her own way by carrying crosses, walking barefoot, singing, praying, or simply taking each step in silence.
Mary Rose Páiz is from Pajarito y Los Padillas, a historic community nestled between Albuquerque and Tomé. She said that she started the annual Holy Week walk with her family when she was seven years old. Although she does it alone now, she continues to make the pilgrimage as an adult every year because it is important to her. Along the way, she sees fellow pilgrims keeping religious and cultural traditions alive that have existed for generations.
“One can expect to see church groups and families walking together from their church or homes,” said Páiz. “Prayers that are often prayed while walking are the rosary, Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and the Litany of Saints. A person can expect to see pilgrims of all ages, including some who are barefoot and others who carry large crosses on their shoulders.”
For decades people have made the long trek up this dusty hill in Tomé, a land grant settlement some 30 miles south of Albuquerque. Some of the Good Friday pilgrims are New Mexicans who have lived in this area for generations and are heirs to the Spanish-Mexican land grant known as a merced. Others are recent arrivals from Mexico who are fulfilling their mandas, which are vows or promises they have made.
Josefina Olivas and her daughter Norma Muñoz are from the San José neighborhood of Albuquerque. This year they made the walk together. Slowly they made their way up the hill as they prayed in Spanish out of a worn and fragile book whose pages are turning brown. Olivas, who will be 83 in May, said that she has walked to the Cerro de Tomé since she was a child.
“I remember making the walk when I was a little girl in catechism,” she said in Spanish. “Now they have to bring me or I can’t come. We also make other sacrifices, such as fasting. We don’t eat in the morning or in the evening, just a little bit in the afternoon.”
Muñoz, whose husband and children start walking four miles away from the hill, said that many Good Friday travelers set out to complete their mandas. Speaking in Spanish she said, “A lot of people vow to God that they will make the pilgrimage a certain way, such as carrying a cross, to fulfill the promises they have made.”
The Good Friday caminata to the top of the Cerro de Tomé continues year after year as thousands of pilgrims make their way to the hill. Some people start as early as five in the morning from Albuquerque, Belén, Los Lunas, Pueblo de Isleta, and other nearby communities. One step at a time they move closer to their destination, leaving behind a dusty trail that drifts away in April’s notorious winds.
Anahai Guillermo de Bustillos is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who started making the pilgrimage 17 years ago from her parent’s home in Los Lunas on the banks of the Río Grande. Now her husband Efraín Bustillos Jr. accompanies her along with their children, Mario, Manuel, Alejandro and Elaina, who range in age from 18 months to 14 years.
“We make the walk in memory of our loved ones in heaven and for the ones here who can’t do it anymore,” said Guillermo. “We also do it for our elderly grandparents and the sick. The walk is also in remembrance of what Jesus did. It’s a very long walk, but it’s worth every step.”
Bustillos, who is from Los Lunas, has been making the walk with her for over 14 years. This yearly journey up the arduous hill is significant in his life because it reminds him how important it is to pass down the Catholic faith to his children.
“I bring my children because it is important to teach and show them our Catholic beliefs, just like our parents showed us,” he said. “I want my children to grow up with our faith which is an important part of our culture.”
At the top of the barren and rocky hill are three crosses that have been erected to echo the crosses of Calvary. There are also some tombstones written in Spanish and candles, scapulars (garments), rosary beads, and other objects that have been left behind by pilgrims in thanksgiving or prayer. Muñoz said that when she and her family get to the top of the hill they pray the Stations of the Cross in Spanish, which are known as the Viacrucis or Vía Dolorosa.
“It’s a sacrifice to make it to the top of the hill for my mom with her age,” said Muñoz. “All of this is a sacrifice for the both of us but this is a tradition we have kept for many years.”
Her mother agrees. “We promised to God to make this sacrifice,” said Olivas. “It’s a tradition I’ve kept all my life.”
Before they walk back down, people sing hymns, pray, and most importantly, rest at the top of the hill. Páiz said that the walk and activities that take place on this journey bring people together. “It allows the community to pray together and get to know each other on a deeper spiritual level,” she said.
At the bottom of the hill and alongside the many roads and trails that lead to it, there are people who give away water, drinks, and snacks to the travelers. Noemí Chávez and her family gave bottled water and aguas frescas to pilgrims in front of their home. For this family from Chihuahua, Mexico, giving away drinks is part of their special manda and how they now commemorate Good Friday.
“This is the second year we’ve done this,” said Chávez talking in Spanish. “Last year my husband wanted to buy this land and since we were able to do so, he promised that each year we were going to share water with the people who come to fulfill their own mandas or walk to the hill.”
Chávez said that they bought hundreds of bottles of water but that the people who stopped preferred the traditional drinks from Mexico called aguas frescas. By noon she said that her children had already filled the five-gallon jug holding horchata, a sweet beverage made with rice, milk, and cinnamon, four times.
One of her daughters started serving at 7:30 in the morning, even though some people had begun their walk in the pre-dawn hours. Although her family misses making the pilgrimage to the top of the hill, Chávez said that being generous is also important.
“It is important to teach my children to share,” said Chávez. Her son Rodolfo Chávez who stood next to her agreed and said in Spanish that he enjoyed both giving away drinks and making the pilgrimage.
“I like it because it’s a lot of fun,” said the young child. “I also like to go on the walk with my mom and dad.”
The Cerro de Tomé continues to draw people from different backgrounds year after year. This special hill has become more than just a pilgrimage destination, as people share a common bond and tell their stories, one step at a time.
— Nicolás Cabrera