History Library

El Niño

By Sam Sanchez, Sr.

    The legend of El Niño had its beginnings like most other legends, based on historical fact and coming to us from the past. The ancient Mexicans worshipped many gods. A god for every aspect of their lives. One, Quetzalcoatl, was the most prestigious of all. Both their king and their god, Quetzalcoatl was toppled over by his envious enemies and forced to leave. Quetzalcoatl left Tula in the year 999. During his life, followed by a certain number of his faithful, he traveled through the central valleys. Among other signs of having been there with which he pierced trees, leaving them thereby transformed into crosses.
    He settled for a short while in Cholula and later made for the coast, where he set sail for Yucatan. Before his final departure, Quetzalcoatl promised to return to re-capture the throne, which was rightfully his. Remembering that legends described him to us as a bearded white man and recalling the crosses on the trees and his final promise, we understand why, five hundred years later, when Cortez came ashore in Veracruz, Moctezuma was quickly convinced that he was dealing with a god: Quetzalcoatl. The Spanish went on to conquer the Aztec Empire in 1519. By 1598, the Spanish Conquistadores had settlements as far north as Santa Fe, New Mexico.
    Every so many years the weather-disrupting phenomenon known as El Niño makes its presence known. The effect it has on certain parts of the world can be termed at times disastrous. El Niño has been in the Mexican indigenous people’s minds since the early 1770’s.
    Shortly after the colonization of New Mexico by Juan de Oñate, settlements developed along the 1500 mile commercial route know as the Camino Real. These farming communities benefited from the opportunities the trail offered as farming became the main activity that sustained the live of the local Indians of that time.
    They offered prayer dances to their gods for conditions favorable to planting and harvesting crops. Religious ceremonies developed around the seasons and became the feast days of today. On the hill of Tepeyac, the goddess Tonantzin was worshipped as the goddess of Fertility and the sustainer of life. Tonantzin remained in their lives- a hope of better things to come.
    Already with a well-established system of prayer, the natives embraced Catholicism with the apparition of the Lady of Guadalupe in 1531. The Lady appeared to one of their own on the same hill of Tepeyac where the goddess Tonantzin already had a temple. They learned to pay homage to the new Lady of Tepeyac. She became to them a substitute for the Aztec goddess, putting her far above any other deity in their worship category.
    The Franciscan Friars were quick in promoting Christianity among the natives, whose souls were there to be saved whether they liked it or not. Church buildings were erected in some of the most populated settlements and decorated with religious icons. Not understanding the things of the spirit, the need to worship something visible evolved from a long history of worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.
    The Lady of Perpetual Help was the patron saint of the Piro settlement of Socorro before the statue of St. Michael the Archangel got stuck in the mud and refused to go onto Santa Fe. San Pedro de Alcantara was a farming community bordering the town of Socorro on one side and the Rio Grande on the other. Not having a church of their own, Alcantarais villagers worshipped in the church of Socorro. The image of the Lady of Perpetual Help was carved out of a cottonwood tree, the statue had, sitting on her lap, an image of the Christ Child. (Lovingly referred to by the natives as “El Niño”.) El Niño could be removed from the arms of the mother for special ceremonies.
    The drought of 1728, found the settlements bordering the Rio Grande in desperate need of divine intervention. The period of dryness prolonged causing extensive damage to crops. Such was the drought that after two years of non-rain the village farmers found themselves struggling with a decision; whether to put the last of their treasured seed stock in the ground in hopes of a harvest or in their babies mouths to curb starvation and prolong death. Surely, the need for divine intervention stood as the only hope. It is at this time that a group of village elders from Alcantara approached the Padre at the church of Socorro. They wanted to take the statue of the Lady of Perpetual Help out of the church to parade through their fields of corn and beans. They hoped for a miracle to end the drought and rain would come once again to the settlements.
    The Padre refused to allow the statue of the Lady to be taken out of the church. He offered instead the statue of El Niño the Christ child. Reluctantly, the villagers agreed and put the little statue on a two-wheel cart. They paraded El Niño with prayers and supplications. From field to field the villagers took El Niño in solemn procession.
    That evening on their way to return El Niño to the Padre at Socorro, the villagers of Alcantara experienced a spark of hope. Clouds could be seen on the eastern horizon. Flashes of lightening and the pounding of hail and rain on the dirt roofs of their jacales awoke the villagers to a tremendous storm. By midmorning, the rain had inflated the waters of the Rio Grande and jumped its banks. The flood that followed caused immense damage on all the villages of the lower Rio Grande valley. The fields of beans and corn that had survived the drought stood in total ruin. At the village of San Pedro de Alcantara, even some of the villagers jacales were ruined.
    The angry villagers presented themselves the next morning to the priest at Socorro. They insisted in taking the statue of the Lady of Perpetual Help to the fields. They wanted to demonstrate to the mother the damage her son El Niño had done. The villagers of Alcantara struggled for existence in a land that was already less than friendly. With the shortage of food the hostile tribes became more daring in their plundering raids. The villagers tried to rebuild their lives and their farms after the flood, but they never stopped blaming “El Niño” for their dismay. Eventually, the villagers moved on to other settlements and became farm laborers. San Pedro de Alcantara was ultimately abandoned. The land of Alcantara became part of the estate of Don Tiburcio Ortega were he built his hacienda.
    To the people, the mean looking Quetzalcoatl could be responsible for any disaster, but it is hard to imagine that an innocent looking religious icon such as the little statue of the Christ Child could be blamed for the unnatural weather phenomenon known throughout the world as “El Niño”.

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