It is difficult to imagine El Cerro de Tomé (Tomé Hill) without the three crosses that crown its peak. It is just as difficult to see the hill’s three crosses without thinking of Edwin Berry, the man most responsible for their planning, construction and maintenance as a place of worship for nearly half a century.
Edwin Antonio Baca was born in Adelino on May 15, 1918, the oldest of seven children born to Manuel Atocha Baca y Vigil, of Adelino, and Leocadia Sanchez y Gallegos Baca, born in Jarales and largely raised in Adelino.
Having attended what is now New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, Manuel Baca was a well-educated man for his day. Employed as a teacher, he taught in several communities, including Chilili, Jarales, Casa Colorada, Adelino and Chapelle in San Miguel County. A devout Catholic, Manuel joined the lay Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene, better known as the Penitentes, while he lived in San Miguel County, a stronghold for the religious group.
The Penitentes of New Mexico date back to the 18th century when many men felt a religious void in their communities. With few Catholic priests to serve their religious needs, these men developed their own prayers, songs and rituals, not to replace the Catholic Church, but to supplement it.
Meeting in their moradas (chapels), the Penitentes worshipped throughout the year, but especially during Holy Week, culminating in Good Friday and Easter. The men provided many important services to their communities, including arranging for funerals and caring for destitute widows and orphans, as instructed in the Bible.
Unfortunately, the Penitentes were most known for their unorthodox religious practices, on Good Friday in particular. Members engaged in self-flagellation and symbolic crucifixions to express their sorrow and do penance for their sins. Knowing little more about the group, outsiders often jumped to conclusions that its members were fanatical extremists.
As Edwin Berry later explained, it was a secret society not because it had “malicious intent,” but because “in those days it’s the only way they could survive.”
Moving home to Adelino to teach, farm and raise his growing family, Manuel Baca soon joined the local Penitente organization. Manuel and his fellow Penitentes climbed Tomé Hill each Ash Wednesday to erect a wooden cross that remained standing throughout the Lenten season. The Penitentes stayed by the cross, praying and singing from Good Friday to Easter Sunday morning. Local residents, including young Edwin, could hear their songs from far away. At sunrise on Easter Sunday they sang their final songs and removed the cross, symbolizing Christ’s resurrection.
The Penitentes remained active throughout the year. As an expression of humility and penance, they often lay face down at the doorway to Tomé’s Immaculate Conception Church so that churchgoers could walk over them as they left Sunday Mass.
Father Jean Baptiste Ralliere, the long-time pastor in Tomé, did not disturb the Penitentes, but his successors discouraged their activities and many parishioners considered them to be foolish. As Edwin Berry recalled, some uttered hateful words like “no seas tan pendejo” (“don’t be so stupid”). Someone went so far as to set the Penitentes’ cross on fire while it stood atop Tomé Hill during a Lenten season in the early 1920s.
Despite these attitudes, the Penitentes survived. Edwin, in particular, admired their perseverance and dedication. “They were all good men and all good citizens,” Edwin insisted. According to Edwin, their main purpose was “to teach others morality and patriotism.”
Work and war
As Manuel and Leocadia’s family grew, there were more mouths to feed and more work to do. The oldest child, Edwin, worked particularly hard and finally had to drop out of school during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Edwin worked on his father’s farm, helping to grow alfalfa, wheat, corn and chile. He helped grow tomatoes, onions, garlic and other crops in his family’s garden.
He also spent several summers herding his grandfather’s sheep in the Manzano Mountains. At other times, he worked on railroad gangs and made terrónes, earning $3 for every thousand bricks he cut.
The United States entered World War II in late 1941. Edwin and three of his four brothers, Ramon, Doroteo and Gladio (“Lalo”), soon entered the military and, after basic training, were shipped out to fight overseas.
A member of the 5th Army, Edwin saw action in North Africa and Italy, mostly as a military policeman, an interpreter and, later, as a baker. Although seldom on the front lines, Edwin witnessed great loss and suffering.
His 19-year-old brother, Ramon, was killed by German small arms fire in Belgium on March 2, 1945, just 20 days after he arrived in Europe and 65 days before V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. Ramon posthumously received the Bronze Star for his heroic action.
In one of his most traumatic moments of the war, Edwin recognized the body of an old friend, Foch Romero, as it was transported in a Jeep driven by Romero’s captain. Taken aback, Edwin forgot to salute the captain, who chided him for his neglect of protocol. Edwin apologized, saying that he had gone to school with Romero back in New Mexico. The officer responded, “Yes, Romero was one of my best soldiers. It is a shame to lose him.”
Edwin suffered from both injury and disease while overseas. He contracted malaria while in Morocco and suffered a leg injury that threatened his life in Italy. The wound was so serious that his leg became gangrenous. Allergic to sulfa drugs and penicillin, he claimed that only salt water healed his leg and saved his life.
Despite the horrors he witnessed and experienced, Edwin found new friends and much happiness in Italy. The young solider met Enrico Pastore, a local Italian who worked on the American army base to help support his large family of ten children. Pastore graciously invited Edwin and two other American soldiers home to meet his family in September 1943. Edwin never forgot the family and its kindness to strangers.
Returning home, making plans
Although still ill from malaria, Edwin re-entered civilian life and became more and more active in his local church. Inheriting his music skills from his mother, he directed the Immaculate Conception church choir and became especially committed to the five-act Passion Play that the parish performed from Wednesday to Sunday each Holy Week. Edwin played many roles in the Passion Play. He even helped sew many of the costumes needed for the large performances’ many characters.
Grateful that he had survived the war, but saddened by the loss of so many men of his generation, Edwin helped build a memorial to the 16 soldiers from Tomé and its neighboring communities who had died in World War II.
The 16 men were Ramon Baca, Antonio Blea, Romulo Chavez, Paul Guerrera, Willy Lopez, Gregorio Lucero, Leandro Lucero, Feliciano Montaño, Luis Peralta, Clovis Perea, Arturo Saiz, Santiago Saiz, Jose Torres, Pedro Torres, Florenio Trujillo and Juan Vallejos. The impressive structure, built in 1946, still stands near the entrance to the Immaculate Conception Church.
The Belen High School band played “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” while World War I veterans served as honor guards at its dedication. A smaller memorial for the veterans of the Korean conflict was added in the 1950s.
But Edwin hoped to do more to express his faith and assert his gratitude for those who had died in World War II. Remembering his father and the Penitentes’ crosses at Easter, he began to plan the construction of a more permanent cross to stand at the peak of Tomé Hill. It would be a major project, but he never doubted that he could complete it with the same strong faith that had helped him survive so much hardship in the war.
Tomé Hill was an ideal place for Edwin to build a cross. The hill had spiritual significance for every group that had populated the area, from Native Americans to Spanish colonists, over the years. Many of the hundreds of petroglyphs that cover the hill had spiritual meaning for those who had drawn them centuries ago.
Giving his ambitious undertaking much thought, Edwin developed a plan to begin work on his hilltop cross. His hand-written, well-illustrated plan included a statement of his three main purposes: To “build a true Christian monument atop this mount,” to “bring happiness, faith, hope and peace to all people of Good Will,” and to “commemorate our fallen heroes, the boys who gave their lives in the war.” He later added a fourth goal: It would be a monument to religious freedom and tolerance, according to the News-Bulletin of Sept. 17, 1948.
Well aware of the great cost and labor his project would entail, Edwin wrote in his plans that while he would “bear all costs,” he would “invite all good people to help me.”
Each volunteer was to bring a bucket “in which to carry ten pounds of cement up the mount” after the material was prepared in a cement mixer at the foot of the hill. Anticipating the need for food to fuel his brigade of workers, Edwin noted that each volunteer should bring enough lunch “for a good day’s work.”
Edwin declared that he was willing to do the work singlehandedly, anticipating that it would take about three years “if people leave me alone.” If a small army of 500 people assisted, he was sure that “I can do the job in one day.”
Having worked with volunteers in the Passion Play and in the building of the war memorial in Tomé, Edwin promised to “listen to sound, constructive advice or criticism.” He clearly implied that he would decide what was “sound, constructive advice,” and that he would be the project’s final decision-maker.
Edwin made a list of the “approximate cost” of the materials he would need, including $63 for the cross and cement, $20 for the “Tablita of the Law,” $300 for a bronze plaque “plus a few dollars more for miscellaneous items.” Edwin estimated that the altar he envisioned would measure 8-foot by 4-foot, while a single cross, made of wooden railroad ties covered by scrap metal, would stand 16 feet above the altar and face southwest in the direction of the Immaculate Conception Church.
Edwin even made plans for the final dedication of his project. He declared that when all was ready, “I will invite Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York to deliver the sermon when we bless and dedicate our monument.”
Building the crosses
Work began on March 3, 1947. As with the best of plans, Edwin’s helped clarify his vision, but little more. He did recruit volunteers, but few came and most were boys, such as Doroteo “Joty” Baca, Clemente Romero, Ladis Romero and Jesus Sanchez, who often had more energy than muscles for the hard work of hauling materials up the steep half-mile distance to the hill’s top.
Seeing Edwin shouldering much of the work for days at a time, Lalo, Edwin’s younger brother and fellow veteran, pitched in whenever he could. Years later, Lalo had fond memories of slipping along and laughing with Edwin as they made countless trips up the hill hauling water, lumber, scrap metal, sand, cement and tools by hand and, sometimes, with the help of a mule.
Others helped in other ways. A.S. Torres, who owned a general store in Adelino, offered good advice and much of the needed supplies. But most people watched from a distance and, while many admired Edwin’s dedication, some thought that he was foolish, much like their parent’s generation had thought that Edwin’s father and his fellow Penitientes had been foolish when they erected a cross and worshipped at the top of Tomé Hill.
By September 1947, Edwin had decided to alter his plans and build not one, but three crosses on the hill. The decision added much time, labor and material to the project, but added greater spiritual meaning as well. Symbolically, Christ’s cross would still face the church in the valley below, while the repentant “good” thief’s cross would turn slightly toward Christ’s and the unrepentant “bad” thief’s cross would turn away.
As Edwin later told his son Ricardo, it was as if the crosses were meant to be positioned as they were since the natural cracks in the rocks favored their placement and directions.
Edwin completed his great project in early 1948, about a year after he began. Cardinal Spellman did not attend the monument’s dedication on March 25, 1948, as initially planned. In fact, given the lack of attention in the local newspaper, it must have been a humble ceremony, without fanfare or the blessing of high church officials.
Now crosses stood high over the Rio Grande Valley, much as crosses have stood over other communities in New Mexico and throughout the world, including Tierra Santa in Buenos Aires, the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania and Mount Soledad in San Diego. Tomé and El Cerro de Tomé would never be the same again.
(The second article of this two-part series will appear in next week’s News-Bulletin.)
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus. He is the author of 19 books, including “Murder, Mystery and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” co-edited with John Taylor. This column is part of a new book, co-edited with Taylor, titled, “A River Runs Through Us: True Tales of the Rio Abajo,” to be published later this year.
The author wishes to express his extreme gratitude to the Berry family for their kind assistance in the writing of this column.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)