Alabados (from alabar, "to praise") are Spanish Catholic hymns that have been preserved by the Penitente Brothers of northern New Mexico. The Brotherhood is present in rural north central New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Local chapters, called “moradas” (from morar, "to reside"), are governed by elected officials headed by an “hermano mayor” (elder brother).
In past times, the Brothers tended the sick, helped with heavy work, and fed the indigent or stricken. Moradas also helped maintain law and order through the supervision of their own members and a strong, though indirect, influence over non-members.
The Brothers' pious observances are centered around the Passion of Jesus and the spirit of penance. During Lent and Holy Week they worship in retreat as well as in public rituals. They also sponsor funerals, burials, wakes for the dead, and wakes for the saints.
Although it is difficult to trace the exact origins of the Brotherhood, it very likely evolved from lay (Third Order) Franciscanism sometime late in the eighteenth century when the Church could not provide adequate ministrations to a growing frontier province.
The first unequivocal mention of "brotherhoods of penance" is in an 1833 pastoral letter by the Mexican Bishop Zubiría of Durango. The relationship between Church and Brotherhood was complicated after 1851, when the French Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived in Santa Fe to establish an Anglo-American Catholic diocese.
After the American occupation in 1846, New Mexican Hispanos had to cope with a new government, a new language, and a new Church administration with a predominantly Gallic clergy.
By the late nineteenth century, the Brotherhood had found various ways to preserve their traditional forms of Spanish worship. They began to incorporate themselves under civil law. They also built privately or corporately owned meetinghouses, known by 1878 as “moradas”.
From the Spanish Catholic ancestry of these settlers came their passionate identification with the physical sufferings of Christ, which led them not only to meditate on those sufferings but to reenact them, enduring physical pain even as their Lord did. When the Penitente sings of the “azotes” (lashes) that Christ suffered, he sings with profound understanding.
Witnessing the penitential processions in Seville during Holy Week and hearing the passionate songs (“saetas”) to Christ and the Virgin, one suspects that the New Mexican alabados are echoes from penitential Spain.