Beto O'Rourke and the eating-holy-dirt story is actually about a Catholic shrine in New Mexico

The story began to filter out a few weeks ago: How failed U.S. Senate (for Texas) and now U.S. presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke went off to find himself earlier this year and, in the process, imbibed “magical dirt” in New Mexico.

“Magical” dirt? Is that the right word?

Having lived a year in New Mexico as the city and entertainment editor for a small daily in Farmington, I knew of only one place where that could happen: The sanctuary of Chimayo, aka El Santuario de Chimayo, in a mountain village about 14 miles north of Santa Fe. The dirt there is said to have healing powers, like an American Lourdes.

The customs surrounding this site are explained here, and I’ve visited the place twice myself. Yes, visitors do collect small amounts of the dirt to take with them, as Lourdes pilgrims collect vials of water, but I’d never heard of anyone eating the dirt. This 2008 New York Times story says people occasionally do so, but it’s still rare.

Mentions of Beto eating the dirt first appeared in this March 19 Washington Post story, which categorized Beto as a modern-day Odysseus; a ‘bro-philosopher’ who drove north from El Paso into New Mexico to clear his head on whether a 2020 presidential run has his name on it. (His eldest son is named Ulysses, by the way.) Reporter Ben Terris tossed in one paragraph about the Chimayo visit:

Whatever post-defeat sadness Amy felt, she was able to kick quickly; she’s always been the stable one. Beto, on the other hand, more prone to higher highs and lower lows, was in a “funk.” In January, Beto hit the road, much as his father had done before him, and drew energy from the people he met, and — on one stop in New Mexico he didn’t write about in his blog — by eating New Mexican dirt said to have regenerative powers. (He brought some home for the family to eat, too.)

Odd that the writer didn’t figure out that Beto was in Chimayo. Or did Beto say more about the visit and Terris simply didn’t include it? Talk about a religion ghost which, if you’re not a regular reader of this column, means a religion angle to a story that a reporter completely misses.

Fortunately, the Santa Fe New Mexican quickly figured it out:

Although the (Post) story doesn’t identify the source of the dirt, in a Jan. 25 blog post on his visit to Taos Pueblo, Beto wrote, “I left the Pueblo heading south toward Chimayo, aiming to be back in El Paso by bedtime.” Chimayó, of course, is home to El Santuario de Chimayó, where believers have long taken dirt supposed to have healing powers, though more often rubbing it on themselves than ingesting it.

So even the locals thought the eating part was weird. As Jonathan Tilove of the Austin-Statesman recounts, reaction was swift.

Tilove added:

So, Beto O’Rourke, while contemplating running for president, made a quiet visit to a Catholic pilgrimage site (he is Catholic) and, perhaps not sure where exactly in this circumstance to rub the “holy dirt,” he got a little carried away and had a taste. I mean he’s running for president. It couldn’t hurt. And he did raise more money in his first 24 hours as a presidential candidate than Bernie Sanders, who probably hasn’t eaten holy dirt.

Other than that, the main reaction is from conservative news sites, which have ridiculed Beto for such a weird practice. I would like to know more about Beto’s trip north.

Was the Chimayo stop an effort to hear from God? How desperate do you have to be before you eat dirt?

Beto was raised Catholic, but he is assailed by conservative Catholic media for favoring abortion. This Jewish outlet has mixed reviews on the candidate.

Is Beto ever seen at Mass these days? Does he attend a local parish?

I’ve not seen any reporting on this, but if he stays on the campaign trail much longer, that question is going to come up. I’m surprised it hasn’t already hit the fan.

Even though his Catholic status is up for debate, when desperation hit, Beto showed up at a Catholic shrine. Is he more of a New Agey kind of guy who believes in Gaia-like restorative powers? Or is there a bit of his Irish Catholic past that hangs on? I’ve never heard of a politician, Catholic or otherwise, visiting Chimayo in recent times. It seems so elemental, so superstitious, so everything Beto’s image is not.

There’s obviously a lot going on in this guy’s head. I’m hoping that journalists writing future profiles can reveal it to us.

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