Book 5 Chapter 1
Book V: Padre Martínez
1. The Old Order
Summary: Latour visits Taos to call on Father Antonio José Martínez, the corrupt priest who rules all northern New Mexico parishes like a dictator. Martínez lives a life of wealth and privilege, openly violating his vow of celibacy; he even has (at least) one son. He treats his student, Trinidad Lucero—a nephew of one of Martínez’s old friends, Father Lucero at Arroyo Hondo—very poorly, ridiculing him publicly and treating him as a common errand-boy, rather than a priest in training (even though Latour considers Trinidad a poor candidate for Holy Orders). Martínez flatly defies Latour to try and change his ways, threatening to start a splinter church should Latour undermine Martínez’s power. Despite Martínez, however, Latour is pleased with the church building and congregation of Taos. Leaving Taos, Latour visits Kit Carson’s ranch house to update Carson’s wife on Magdalena’s current, much happier life. She gives Latour a piece of lacework for Magdalena and her sisterhood. At Santa Fe, Latour is reunited with Vaillant, whom he has not seen since Easter. Latour tells Vaillant that Latour has been summoned to conferences in the Vatican in the coming year, and that Vaillant will need to leave Albuquerque in order to return to Santa Fe to help aminister the vicarate—now officially elevated to a diocese; not just in Latour’s absence, but permanently. He also tells Vaillant that, for the time being, he will make no changes to Martínez’s position in Taos. Latour recognizes that Martínez’s time is naturally coming to a close.
Analysis: If Cather presents Bishop Latour as the ideal priest, she presents Padre Martínez—like Kit Carson, an actual historical personage—as being as far from that ideal as could be imagined. She not only tells us that Martínez is a “dictator” (p. 139), she shows us: his “not very gentle kick” to the sleeping Trinidad’s ribs (p. 143), for example; or the tortured theology by which he justifies his breaking of his vow of celibacy (p. 146); or his involvement in (and profiteering from) the Taos Indian revolt of 1847. On January 14, 1847, the newly appointed American governor of New Mexico, trader Charles Bent, traveled to Taos. A group of Hispanic and Indian rebels led by Pablo Montoya (who called himself “the Santa Ana of the north”) broke into Bent’s house and killed both him and his brother-in-law. The rebellion erupted because many New Mexicans “resented the [American] invasion, the loss of sovereignty, and being cut off from Mexico. Some were afraid of losing their land (and in fact later many of them did). Also the occupying American soldiers and their ethnocentric attitudes were a continual source of friction” (New Mexico Office of the State Historian, http:www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=515). In Cather’s novel, Padre Martínez is portrayed as the instigator of the rebellion, who “profit[s] considerably” from it (p. 139) by promising to save the lives of the rebels if they deed him their lands; once they do, he does not intervene, but merely inherits their farms after the conspirators are executed. In actual fact, however, while Martínez “was accused of complicity in the rebellion by American commentators… the facts of the matter make this accusation most unlikely. Over the years he had maintained good relationships with most of the Anglo-Americans who had settled in Taos (although his relations with Bent were strained)… He tried unsuccessfully to convince the rebels of both the moral wrong of killing unarmed people and the futility of trying to drive out the powerful Americans. The priest urged moderation on both sides. He testified neutrally at Pablo Montoya’s trial and later wrote a letter to Colonel Price complaining about the lack of due process and the unfairness of the conduct of the trials of the insurgents. Proper to the role of a priest, he conducted burials of the dead on both sides” (New Mexico Office of the State Historian, http:www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=515). Nevertheless, Cather’s account serves her novelistic purpose of providing a foil to Bishop Latour; her characterization of Martínez should be dealt with on its own terms, within the world of the novel.
Cather’s Martínez is animalistic—notice the imagery of the bull buffalo used to describe him (p. 140), as well as the comment that his “full lips” look like “the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire” (p. 141)—in his possession and exercise of power. Or, perhaps more accurately, the appearance of power: “Father Latour judged that the day of lawless personal power was almost over, even on the frontier… [Martínez] was to him already like something picturesque and impressive, but really impotent, left over from the past” (p. 141). Here we see yet another dimension of the complex relationship between past and present in Cather’s novel. Generally, it seems, the past is to be respected and venerated, and perhaps even feared (as in the cavern in IV.2). Continuity with the past can be a source of strength for the native population of New Mexico (as with the Acomas on their rock of shelter in III.3). Here, however, we see an aspect of the past that is not desirable and that must be left behind: “the day of lawless personal power.” What Latour recognizes, and the reason why he later tells Vaillant that he will not act against Martínez, is that this day is inevitably passing. Latour demonstrates wisdom in being able to discern his historical moment—wisdom that Martínez, focused as he is on temporal pleasures and his own wealth, does not share. Ironically, however, Martínez’s place as Latour’s foil is underlined by the fact that, at one level, he seems to share Latour’s understanding that the Catholic faith must adapt to the New Mexican setting: “We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church… The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous” (pp. 146-147). He echoes, to some extent, the warning given by trader Zeb Orchard at the close of the previous chapter: Martínez tells Latour, “I advise you to study our native traditions before you begin your reforms. You are among barbarous people… between two savage races. The dark things forbidden by your Church are a part of Indian religion” (p. 147). What differentiates the two men, of course, is that Latour is able to identify and empathize with the native population without forgetting his own identity as a priest. Martínez is not able to do the same—or has not chosen to do so. A symbolic moment that illuminates this fact is found in the way that Martínez’s clothes, strewn about his room, and the snuff and the theology books on his table “almost hid the crucifix” (p. 143). Priests are called to identify with the Christ: Latour does, and Martínez does not. To be sure, Martínez is not presented as a wholly unambiguous “bad” person. For instance: “The Bishop had never heard the Mass more impressively sung than by Father Martínez. The man had a beautiful baritone voice, and he drew from some deep well of emotional power… Rightly guided, the Bishop reflected, his Mexican might have been a great man” (pp. 149-150). Also, we learn that Martínez taught himself to read as a young man and studied long and diligently for the priesthood. And he maintains his own positive connection to the past by making “periodic pilgrimages on horseback to Abiquiu,” his home village, where he first served as a parish priest (p. 153). Martínez perhaps initially attempted to be a good and faithful priest—this is why his visits home are “medicine to his soul” (p. 153)—but he somewhere lost his way. Perhaps, in the end, Martínez acts in this novel not only as foil to Latour but also as a warning—an alternate fate that Latour must avoid as he, even as Martínez did, expands his authority and influence over the New Mexican church. Fortunately, it appears as though Latour will continue to make better choices. This much is evident even in his treatment of Martínez. As he tells Vaillant, “I do not wish to lose the people of Taos in order to punish its priest” (p. 157). In other words, Latour is putting the people he has been called to serve first, above his own right to exercise his power.