Book 3 Chapter 4
4. The Legend of Fray Baltazar
Summary: Latour stops again at Isleta, where Father Jesus tells him the story of Friar Baltazar Montoya, priest of Ácoma sometime early in the 18th century. Baltazar exploited the native population, concerned only with church finery and his own comfort. Although the Indians resented him, they feared the power of the supposedly magical painting of Saint Joseph, and so continued to obey Baltazar’s commands—until the night when, during an extravagant feast Baltazar hosted for some other priests, the drunken friar threw a pewter mug at a serving-boy, striking the boy in the head and killing him. After the sun goes down, the Ácomas captured Baltazar, binding him and tossing him off the rock.
Analysis: Fray Baltazar embodies all the worst traits of earlier priests who did not faithfully represent Christ. Enamored of the elaborate cathedral at Ácoma—“It was his belief that the pueblo of Ácoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his” (p. 104)—and more concerned with cultivating his garden (and using forced native labor to do so) than with caring for the Ácomas’ souls—“The difficulty of obtaining an interesting and varied diet on a naked rock seemed only to whet his appetite and tempt his resourcefulness” (p. 106)—Baltazar is aptly summed up in the story’s judgment: “the Fiar at Ácoma lived more after the flesh than after the spirit” (p. 105). The priest disregards the biblical admoniton, “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). His ultimate fate bears out the apostle Paul’s warning in a dramatic and literal fashion! It also illustrates the truth of the biblical maxim, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). It is Baltazar’s prideful desire for “someone to admire his fine garden, his ingenious kitchen, his airy loggia with its rugs and water jars” (p. 107) that leads him to arrange the feast at which he kills the Indian serving boy. Granted, the boy’s death is accidental; just as surely, however, Baltazar killed the boy because Baltazar proudly and haughtily treats the native population, not as people, but as tools to do his bidding. Even when Baltazar is “left alone with the consequences” of his action (p. 110), his pride prevents him from fleeing for his life: “For a moment he entertained the idea of following [his departed dinner guests]; but a temporary flight would only weaken his position, and a permanent evacuation was not to be thought of. His garden was at its prime, his peaches were just coming ripe, and his vines hung heavy with green clusters” (p. 111). In other words, Baltazar would rather cling to what he has accomplished (again, through using others harshly) than preserve his life. At this point in the text, incidentally, Cather makes good use of a pointed simile—“The airy loggia… was like a birdcage hung in the breeze” (p. 111)—to indicate the sudden reversal in Baltazar’s status: he will soon no longer be a tyrant over the Ácomas. Rather, they will exercise dominion over him! Cather relates the slow way in which the Ácomas make their move against Baltazar in such a way that it does not become a stereotypical account of “Indian hostility”; rather, readers clearly understand that Baltazar has brought his doom upon himself. His murder emerges as the only way in which the Ácomas can free themselves of one who, as we were told at the legend’s outset, “was of a tyrannical and overbearing disposition and bore a hard hand on the natives” (pp. 103-104). By relating the story in the way she does, Cather provides the often marginalized native perspective. Who knows how many of those “frightful stories of the torture of the missionaries in the great rebellion of 1680” (p. 112) might read differently, had we the Indians’ side of those tales? Baltazar’s tale highlights the literal life-and-death importance of identifying with and seeking the best interest of the native population in New Mexico—as Latour, motivated one senses not so much by the will to survive as by a passion for seeing the Church revive and prosper, certainly does.