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Katacha Díaz

Holy Dirt Pilgrimage

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.  — Anaïs Nin

In 1969, after a 4-year college deferral, followed by 2-years volunteering with the Peace Corps, my husband DJ's US military draft number came up.  He enlisted in the US Air Force.  After basic training, DJ was on the move for advanced training and a short break before reporting for duty with his unit.  We settled comfortably in our base housing at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 1972, DJ received orders for a 12-month tour of duty in Ubon, Thailand.  Contemplating married life in the armed forces with an uncertain future, we decided I would live with my in-laws in Connecticut, and travel to visit with dear Mamama, my elderly grandmother, in Peru.  The Air Force had put our household furnishings in storage for the year, so we were ready to hit the road and drive across the country.  

But before bidding adios to the Land of Enchantment, DJ and I were on a pilgrimage to collect Mamama's holy dirt from a small shine nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  We drove north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, heading northeast out of the city, along the scenic High Road to Taos with no other cars on the road, just a never-ending scenic desert landscape.

An hour later we arrived in the village of El Potrero where the small religious shrine is located.  The crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas was found here in 1810. El Santuario de Chimayo is where people go to pray and collect the dirt with miraculous healing powers.  The shrine is a holy destination that draws thousands of religious pilgrims from around the world, and is often called the Lourdes of North America.

Chimayo is a tiny town set in hill country; if you blink, you'll miss it.  We turned onto a dusty road with a sprinkling of santos shops selling religious folk art, including carvings, paintings and holy soil tin boxes with the image of Santo Niño de Atocha, the Infant of Atocha, another local devotion.  El Santuario de Chimayo sits in the middle of the tiny plaza.  The adobe church has twin front towers with belfries, massive wooden doors, a walled garden, and an arched gate with a cross on top. 

We chatted with the Spanish-born priest, the custodian of El Santuario, who offered a prayer and blessed us outside the main chapel connected by an anteroom where devotees had left letters, holy cards, and canes, shoes, crutches hung along the wall in gratitude for the holy earth's miraculous healings.  DJ had to duck entering the Room of Miracles called El Pocito, or Little Well, filled with more photos, holy cards and letters tacked on the wallsThere was a plastic spoon by a small hole in the middle of the packed earthen floor.  We bent down and filled several small wooden boxes, which had been blessed earlier by the padre in the courtyard and lit several candles by the small altar outside.


France has Lourdes.  But I have not been on a pilgrimage to that small village, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, nor taken the holy water from the spring in Lourdes.  My grandfather was Peru's ambassador to France when Mamama and Papapa took water and left our family's prayer requests at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.  As a memento from this deeply inspirational pilgrimage, Mamama had brought back a small stone from the beloved grotto in Lourdes; it was placed between other stones in the family's newly built grotto, complete with a recently blessed statue of Mary, and a small pond my Papapa stocked with exotic goldfish. 


It was a warm, spring morning when we headed back to lunch at the oldest restaurant downtown Santa Fe on the historic plaza.  I was on the patio at The Plaza Cafe sipping a margarita, vibing to the strolling mariachis and peeking at the menu for the legendary blue corn enchiladas and puffy sopapillas on the side for DJ, who was soon to arrive.

"So now that you have Mamama's holy dirt, sampled the blue corn calabacitas vegan enchiladas, chatted with the locals, and were kissed by a hummingbird zipping by our table, what do you want to see tomorrow in New Mexico?" asked my husband, smiling.

"Mi amor this is the vaya con Dios farewell from the Land of Enchantment.  Who could ask for anything more?"

A few weeks later DJ and I were on the move, making new memories in Asia and South America.  He reported for duty in Ubon, Thailand, while I happily delivered Mamama's holy dirt box to Miraflores, Peru, from El Santuario de Chimayo, the Lourdes of North America.

Even 40 years later, my dear Mamama vividly remembered the pilgrimage with Papapa at the Sanctuary of Lourdes, and spoke about Bernadette Soubirious digging in the grotto when the Marian apparitions took place in 1858.  The spring water in Lourdes, like the holy earth in Chimayo, is believed by some to have healing properties.


My own spiritual journey at the shrine in Chimayo had started some thirty years ago with DJ.  And so, while vacationing in Santa Fe with my former sister-in-law, I invited her to join me on an early summer morning pilgrimage to El Santuario.  We stood at the entrance of the small, well preserved adobe church and walked through the wall-enclosed lush gardens in the courtyard.  The church interior remained unchanged, with a colorful mix of Indian decorations and Spanish colonial religious folk art.  The miraculous statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas stands behind the altar.  Pam and I offered prayers before entering the small room where we took holy dirt from "el pocito", filling our tiny wood boxes purchased earlier at the santos shop and blessed by the padre.

As we drove back along the scenic High Road to the historical plaza in downtown Santa Fe, Pam and I expressed heartfelt gratitude for the gift of our friendship over the years.


About the Author: Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. She earned her BA and MPA from the University of Washington, and was a research associate of the University of California at Davis. Wanderlust and love of travel have taken her all over the world to gather material for her stories. Among the children’s books she has authored is Badger at Sandy Ridge Road for the Smithsonian Institution’s Backyard series, and Carolina’s Gift: A Story of Peru for the Soundprints’ Make Friends Around the World series. Her work appears with Skipping Stones Multicultural Literary Magazine, ZiN Daily Literary Magazine, Fresh Water Literary Journal, 10 By 10 Flash Fiction, Galway Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, Big Windows Review, Anak Sastra, Shimmer Spring, Hibiscus, Barely South Review, Gravel, Westview, New Mexico Review, Foliate Oak, The MacGuffin, among others. Katacha lives in the Pacific Northwest, near the mouth of the Columbia River, USA.



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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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