History of Tome Hill: Edwin Berry's Legacy (Part II)

(Photo courtesy of Baldwin G. Burr) Edwin Berry would bean a drum during his annual pilgrimage up Tomé Hill on Good Friday.

Last week’s edition of La Historia del Rio Abajo described Edwin Berry’s early life, military service in World War II and return home to Tomé after the war. It also described his efforts to construct the crosses on Tomé Hill for several reasons, but especially in memory of his fellow soldiers who had died overseas. The crosses were completed after a year’s labor by Edwin, his younger brother, Lalo, and several other members of the surrounding community. The crosses were dedicated, on March 25, 1948.

Life changes

Edwin suffered a major medical setback in 1948, shortly after he had completed his work on Tomé Hill. Still suffering from the malaria he had caught in North Africa, Edwin fell so ill that he became, in his words, “black velvet blind.”

Hospitalized for a time, Edwin later said he recovered by singing old alabados (hymns in praise of God, the Virgin Mary and the saints). Finally regaining his eyesight and strength, he returned home to resume his activities, especially in the Passion Play at the Immaculate Conception Church.

Having learned hundreds of secular and religious songs with what some believed to be a phonographic memory, Edwin considered a career in music. He traveled to California and stayed with relatives, but could not land a job in the music business. Frustrated, Edwin went so far as to change his name from Baca to Berry in hopes of eliminating any unfair prejudice that might stand in his way. But nothing worked. Dejected, he returned to New Mexico only to find that interest in his beloved Passion Play had waned so much that it was no longer performed after 1956.

Edwin filled this void in his life with new happiness. He had remained in contact with Enrico Pastore’s family in Italy, exchanging frequent letters over the years and traveling back to Europe in 1957. He became particularly fond of the Pastore’s younger daughter, Assunta, and, despite their 10-year age difference, asked her to marry him. She initially refused, saying that she could not bear to leave her family behind to live in distant New Mexico.

But Edwin persisted, traveling to Italy again in 1959. With her father’s support, Assunta finally agreed to marry Edwin and live in New Mexico. Edwin vowed to bring Assunta home to visit her family in Italy every ten years, at least. They were married in Assunta’s home parish in Naples on June 7, 1959. Returning to the United States to make arrangements for Assunta’s arrival, Edwin met his bride in New York City in September 1959. They celebrated their marriage with Edwin’s family once they arrived in Adelino.

The couple had four sons in the ensuing years: Dante, born in 1961; Romano, born in 1962; Ricardo, born in 1963; and Eduardo, born in 1971. All were taught to speak fluent English, Spanish and Italian.

Assunta took them to visit her family in Italy numerous times. Meanwhile, she gradually grew to love New Mexico, often defending her adopted state as much if not more than its own natives.

Sharing his culture

Although their numbers and activities had dwindled over time, Edwin joined Tomé’s Penitente brotherhood and studiously learned their songs, prayers and rituals. Tomé’s last Penitentes, including Edwin’s father, Placido Chavez, Reyes Chavez and Guadalupe Rael, urged Edwin to do whatever he could to help preserve their culture and ways.

Edwin’s father, Manuel, died in 1974. Now, rather than keep the Penitente culture a secret to preserve it, Edwin felt compelled to share all he knew for the same preservation goal. He readily met with historians, anthropologists, journalists, photographers and musicologists.

John Donald Robb, one of the most famous musicologists in New Mexico, visited Edwin’s home quite often, starting in the early 1950s. The two men became close friends, climbing Tomé Hill together and discussing Edwin’s vast knowledge of hundreds of religious and secular songs, many of which Edwin had inscribed in spiral-bound notebooks.

Robb recorded at least 30 hours of Edwin’s songs and included 14 of them in his book, “Hispanic Folk Songs of New Mexico,” first published in 1954. Edwin could recall each song’s origin, its history and how he came to learn it.

Edwin also became good friends with Father Thomas J. Steele, a Jesuit priest and historian who studied Tomé’s Passion Play with Fred Landavazo and Edwin’s assistance. Based on this valuable information, Father Steele’s book, “Holy Week in Tomé,” was published in 1976. The book’s 17 hymns were largely based on Edwin’s remarkable memory.

Reies Lopez Tijerina was Edwin’s most controversial visitor in the 1960s. Lopez Tijerina led La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, the movement to reclaim old Spanish and Mexican land grants and to prevent the sale of those that still existed. Edwin did not agree with everything that Lopez Tijerina believed in or did, but Edwin joined La Alianza and the two men agreed that the Tomé Land Grant should not be sold because it represented so much of Hispanic culture and heritage. After much acrimonious debate, the land grant was nevertheless sold to the Horizon Corporation in 1968.

Edwin and Lopez Tijerina remained in contact, with Edwin visiting his friend’s Albuquerque office just days prior to its bombing by unknown assailants. Edwin dismissed those who considered Lopez Tijerina a malicious “loudmouth,” predicting that the land grant leader might someday be respected and honored, much like Martin Luther King Jr., was honored after years of criticism by his detractors.

In an effort to erase popular misconceptions about the Penitentes, Edwin donated blood as often as possible and insisted that modern Penitentes gave far more blood than they shed. A Good Samaritan, Edwin not only gave hitchhikers rides, but also brought them home to dinner before taking them to their destinations. As his son, Dante, remembers, being a Penitente was a state of mind for Edwin. “It meant loving Christ and doing good things for others.”

Always opinionated, Edwin also wrote many impassioned letters to the editors of the Albuquerque Journal, the Albuquerque Tribune and the local News-Bulletin. Edwin expressed his opinions on topics as varied as Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, unsolved murders, land grants and the plight of many of his fellow Hispanics.

In 1977, for example, he wrote to the Albuquerque Journal, insisting that “the poor Indo-Hispanic is always under pressure from all sides and all elements. He is always in a rat race in the labyrinth of legal shenanigans” controlled by unscrupulous lawyers and judges.

Pilgrimages begun

In yet another attempt to preserve his threatened culture, Edwin Berry began to climb Tomé Hill each Good Friday morning. Others joined him, climbing as a group to the foot of the crosses he had erected so long ago. As in Tomé’s Passion Play, some participants wore costumes as they prayed at each of the 12 Stations of the Cross. A large statue of Christ was placed on the cross and then covered, symbolizing Christ’s death.

In the ensuing years, the pilgrimage became a Good Friday tradition in the valley, much like the pilgrimage of the faithful to the Santuario in Chimayo in the north and the pilgrimage from Socorro to Polvadera in the south. Newspapers and television stations covered the event in Tomé nearly every year. The pilgrimage was featured in the April 1994 edition of New Mexico Magazine.

Edwin led the procession up Tomé Hill for many decades. He and Assunta baked bread for the part of the procession commemorating the Last Supper. Accompanied by increasingly large groups, Edwin climbed the hill, praying, beating a small Indian drum and singing religious songs. Thousands still remember the short, stocky man with his long, graying hair and his deep, booming voice. You could not see or hear Edwin Berry without feeling his strong spiritual presence, no matter what your faith or professed religion.

Not always easy

Having created the crosses on Tomé Hill, Edwin felt responsible for their maintenance and security. Residents along N.M. 47 often saw him driving slowly by in his green 1963 Dodge pickup, heading for the hill to add concrete steps on steep parts of the terrain, strengthen the crosses, or erect barricades to discourage the use of four-wheel drive trucks or ATVs. Edwin told people that he considered Tomé Hill to be the perfect church: It was always open, was non-denominational and never passed a collection plate.

Despite Edwin’s efforts, vandals struck the crosses and the monument he had built to the 16 local soldiers who had lost their lives in World War II. In one instance, someone tried to topple the unrepentant sinner’s cross on the hill. In another case, someone stole the memorial’s heavy metal plaque. Edwin suspected who might have taken the plaque and let it be known that he would not press charges if the thief simply returned it.

Edwin eventually received an anonymous phone call with information about where to find the stolen item. After retrieving the plaque, Edwin never returned it to the monument for fear that others might try to repeat the foolish crime. It is now located in the Thome Dominguez de Mendoza Community Center and Museum.

In a far greater tragedy, Edwin suffered a major stroke on Nov. 11, 1996, while undergoing an angioplasty procedure to clear a blocked artery. Ironically, it was Veterans Day. Edwin struggled to regain his health, but he continued to decline, first at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, then at a nursing home and finally at his home in Adelino, where he could be with his family and Assunta could serve him his favorite foods, at least in liquefied form. Reies Lopez Tijerina was among the many old friends who visited Edwin in those difficult times.

More than 100 of Edwin’s friends and relatives gathered at the Harvey House Museum in Belen on March 28, 1999, to give tribute to the man who had given so much of himself to his family, his church and his community. The event was organized by the Valencia County Historical Society.

Edwin sat among us to hear our words of admiration, but it seemed strange that he was so silent and still. We fully expected him to jump up, beat a drum, begin to sing and share all he knew of his beautiful culture, history and folklore.

Edwin Berry died at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque on Jan. 19, 2000, after suffering another major stroke the day before at his home, less than a mile from where he had been born 81 years earlier. Before his stroke, Edwin had told his son, Ricardo, that he had no regrets in life.

In his words, “We have tried to be good to Tomé Hill and Tomé Hill has been very good to us and everybody in this valley.”

While other issues like the land grant’s sale, modern bridges and widened roads have sometimes divided Tomé, the hill and its crosses have served to unite the small community in ways no one could have imagined when a young veteran led the way in building a fitting monument to his deep faith and fellow soldiers of World War II.

(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 in May.

The author wishes to express his extreme gratitude to the Berry family for their kind assistance in the writing of this column, the second in a two-part series. The author also thanks Rita Padilla-Gutierrez and her fellow volunteers at the Thome Domingez de Mendoza Community Center and Museum.

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.)

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