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Colonial Angels

Colonial Angels
Narratives of Gender and Spirituality in Mexico, 1580-1750

How writing by and about colonial religious women participated in the transformation of Spanish culture into Mexican, and the role that gender played in imposing the Spanish empire in Mexico.

February 2000
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222 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 map |

Spain's attempt to establish a "New Spain" in Mexico never fully succeeded, for Spanish institutions and cultural practices inevitably mutated as they came in contact with indigenous American outlooks and ways of life. This original, interdisciplinary book explores how writing by and about colonial religious women participated in this transformation, as it illuminates the role that gender played in imposing the Spanish empire in Mexico.

The author argues that the New World context necessitated the creation of a new kind of writing. Drawing on previously unpublished writings by and about nuns in the convents of Mexico City, she investigates such topics as the relationship between hagiography and travel narratives, male visions of the feminine that emerge from the reworking of a nun's letters to her confessor into a hagiography, the discourse surrounding a convent's trial for heresy by the Inquisition, and the reports of Spanish priests who ministered to noble Indian women. This research rounds out colonial Mexican history by revealing how tensions between Spain and its colonies played out in the local, daily lives of women.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Moving Stories: New Spanish Hagiographies and Their Relation to Travel Narrative
  • Chapter 2. Chronicles of a Colonial Cloister: The Convent of San José and the Mexican Carmelites
  • Chapter 3. From the Confessional to the Altar: Epistolary and Hagiographic Forms
  • Chapter 4. The Exemplary Cloister on Trial: San José in the Inquisition
  • Chapter 5. Cacique Nuns: From Saints' Lives to Indian Lives
  • Afterword
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2
  • Appendix 3
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Elisa Sampson Vera Tudela is a Research Fellow in Hispanic Studies at King's College, Cambridge.


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... los que son naturales españoles, si no tienen mucho aviso, a pocos años andados de su llegada a esta tierra se hacen otros ...
Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, bk, 10, chap. 27

Bernardino de Sahagún's concern about the power of the New World to transmogrify the Spaniards who traveled to it is one that was shared by any number of writers, readers, and, above all perhaps, inhabitants of the Indies. Nuns immured within their convent walls were not exempt from worries about what the New World environment might do to their search for personal and communal spiritual perfection. By the eighteenth century, the powerful ecclesiastical reform movement that grew in New Spain to curb the "abuses" and "relaxation" of convents seemed to confirm that the nuns had succumbed to America, abandoning the purity of their Peninsular origin and becoming otras, just as Sahagún had warned happened to all things and persons Spanish.

There were, of course, exemptions: nuns and convents that tried to remain faithful to the Old World models of piety that had been exported to the New World and who resisted both the real and the imaginary differences of the Americas. To this day, for example, the Carmelite nuns of Puebla, Mexico, keep in a well-protected box a Carmelite habit sent to them by a convent in Spain in the seventeenth century. By way of explanation, the nuns tell how their predecessors were uncertain whether they were wearing the correct habit and keeping to the exact rules on clothing. Sta. Teresa of Avila appeared in a vision to the mother superior, assuring the convent of her help. Soon afterward, they received a complete Carmelite habit from their sister convent in Spain. The contents of the box were intended to instruct the New World nuns in the path of orthodoxy and to confirm their kinship ties to the Old World Carmelites. The vast distances of the discoveries cohabit here with the intimate and familial space of the cloister and its customs that unite two communities in sisterhood across the oceans. The story of this box and what it encloses is fundamentally also the story of this book.

In applying to their Peninsular sisters to provide guidance on matters of correctness and decorum in religious practice, these Mexican nuns make vivid the uncertainties attached to the validity and legitimacy of colonial practices. There are, of course, competing versions or stories of what exactly these practices were and how they constituted New Spanish culture in the period. One characterizes Mexico as perennially in opposition to the Peninsula: black to Spain's white; while the other sees the colony as eternally subservient to Madrid, copying its every move slavishly. These interpretations go from political appraisals of viceregal government, seeing it either as an instance of independent municipal traditions inspired in the medieval fueros of Castile, or as a typical example of the encroachment of royal absolutism, to economic analyses that propose radically divergent opinions of the extent to which the colonies were implicated in the "decline" of Spain. More broadly cultural judgments also display this tendency to polarize the constitution of the colony. In these cultural evaluations, academic culture, artistic production, and civil society in general in New Spain are alternately praised for their perfect execution of European models or condemned for their provincialism. This book argues that both these extreme explanations are inadequate. The material examined in Colonial Angels suggests some very complex ways of thinking about and overturning, more than once, the simple oppositions between colony and capital, center and periphery, New and Old, as well as the distinctions, hardly ever discussed in this context, between male and female, and enclosed and free.

The New World in this period is less El Dorado or Utopia than the land of Cockaigne—a land, that is, of change and exchange. Take, for instance, the two most often quoted examples of the exchange involved in colonization: the building of Mexico City's cathedral on the site of the most important Aztec temple in the city, and the adoption by the Spaniards of the Indian maize tortilla as a replacement for the wheaten bread of the Peninsula. The stark disparity between the two examples means they could easily be thought of not so much as evidence of exchange but of brutal imposition, on the one hand, and pragmatic appropriation, on the other. Without in any sense negating the trauma of the Conquest, it is possible to see that even the adoption of the tortilla carried with it considerable cultural weight. Bread of either kind was a staple food, quotidian and yet symbolically resonant, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition. Maize grows more quickly than wheat and requires less care. Tortillas were prepared exclusively by women at specific times of the day. All these factors would have meant that the switch from the one to the other inevitably entailed cultural shifts, in this case particularly in the distribution of time in agricultural work and in the sexual division of labor.

Colonial Angels is in part an attempt to understand the histories and stories of such negotiations as these. It stresses the reciprocity of the exchanges while not ignoring their often unequal nature. There are hundreds of examples of the kind of "down-up" transmission of culture embodied in the tortilla example, where the dominant Spanish group in some measure acknowledged the existence and value of the conquered and marginalized indigenous group. The investigation of these kinds of exchange is a difficult one to document because it concentrates on spheres that leave less obvious "traces" than the reproduction of institutions or the ideological import of the evangelical work of missionaries. The writings connected to convents and their inhabitants provide such a source. While certainly a record of the transplantation of an Old World institution to the New World, they also reveal aspects of this transplantation that have less to do with the machinery of imperial domination than with the personal experience of cultural exchange and negotiation.

Colonial Angels studies this kind of transmission of culture with an emphasis on the issue of gender and its place in the imposition of the Spanish empire. This takes us back to the Mexican Carmelites and their precious box. Any Old World inheritance had to make a hazardous journey in order to reach the New World, but the dangers and difficulties encountered on this journey by women and by a "feminine" tradition, if we may call it that, were especially perilous. The founding mother of the Carmelites occupies an important role in this respect. As a writer and spiritual model, she is the figure that dominates the Mexican Carmelites and that influences nuns of every religious order in the New World. Sta. Teresa of Avila's spiritual and textual legacy, however, is not easily assumed—how, for example, does one inherit a "tradition of reform" without falling into paradox?

Access to women's texts of this period is itself complicated and often tangential. It frequently involves the examination of works by male authors who use primary material written by women. Thus, an important part of Colonial Angels involves an attempt to understand the cultural context, the imperatives and sanctions, in which the re-elaboration and use by men of texts written by women took place. The writings by women that I examine were absolutely necessary to the being of their authors as nuns. Writing defines these women; it is their "work." The very existence of the nuns is justified by their representation, their writing of themselves as virtuous individuals, even as potential saints. Their ability to represent themselves is both a source of vulnerability (because it was always monitored by the authorities) and of strength (because it was impossible to control completely). Although this literature is in many senses similar to propaganda, its techniques are never straightforward or univocal. Colonial Angels may not reveal the literary sisters of sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, but in this context it is of little significance that the nuns in this book appear at first sight to be less artistically talented than sor Juana; their importance lies rather in the fact that they write in another ambiance where exemplarity is more important than aesthetic virtuosity. This does not mean that they are conformist. Their exemplarity is, in fact, better thought of as a negotiated originality: negotiated with priests, with literary traditions, with cultural values. What it reveals are novel literary forms that, though not necessarily outstanding according to aesthetic norms, are nonetheless dynamically creative.

Colonial Angels examines various examples of the range of this creativity and the literary acculturation it illustrates and argues that the New World context necessitated the creation of a new kind of writing. The first chapter concentrates on the shock of the new, on the transformations undergone by women and their convents when they were transplanted to the New World, and on how these were represented. Its principal focus is to see how the hagiography succumbed to the influence of that other genre so intimately connected with the discovery of America: the travel narrative. It is intended to be read as an extended introduction to the book, laying out the principal concern of the other chapters in a very precise form; what is the relationship between generic change and historical change, and what is the gendered dimension of both?

In the next three chapters, which form the center of the book, the convent and its collective and individual histories are the focus. In the first, the founding of the Carmelite convent of San José in Mexico City and the narratives of disunion, rebellion, and reform that it gives rise to are discussed in relation to how they borrow from and change both the Teresian narrative tradition and the more general inheritance of hagiography as a guiding genre. In the second chapter, the focus is more refined and concentrates on the individual, examining the letters written by a nun to her confessor and his reworking of them into her hagiography. In the third, we return to the Mexican Carmelites, only this time to find them in the Inquisition, accused of heresy. The testimonies and letters connected to this trial provide an opportunity of seeing how the cloister and its nuns represent themselves and their community in this extreme situation, what the literary models they recur to are, which they privilege and which they ignore. In the Inquisition, the hagiographic topoi of reforming nun and recalcitrant community are rehearsed to suit the requirements of the Holy Office's forensic rhetoric, and their terms become very political—a politics connected to institutional struggles in the New World and to the power of different ecclesiastical factions. Once again, questions of the exchange and negotiation of cultural values in the colonial context are raised. The central quarrel between these Mexican Carmelite nuns and their archbishop is the same as that which brought Sta. Teresa of Avila into conflict with the clergy in Spain and eventually led to the splitting of the order into opposing factions. In both the Peninsular and the Mexican cases, the Carmelite nuns argued about whether their spiritual purity and the integrity of the Carmelite reform was better safeguarded under the jurisdiction of the regular or of the secular clergy. The Carmelite tradition was transplanted whole to the New World; that is, with its heritage of fractures and fissures intact. Significantly, however, as the chapter shows, the New Spanish version of the tradition splinters in specifically New Spanish ways.

The book closes with a chapter on the foundation of a convent for noble Indian women, a piece which, like the first chapter, confronts the differences of the Americas directly and tries to evaluate the new kind of narrative system through which they are represented. To ascertain the feasibility of the foundation, the authorities demand reports from priests who have had varied and long experience of ministering to the spiritual needs of Indians. Their testimonies certainly form part of the classic debate as to whether the Indies were truly Christian (and civilized) or still pagan (and barbaric). However, through the transformation of the intimate material exchanged between priest and Indian woman in the confessional into information of a more general nature, these accounts also contribute to a newer kind writing on the Indies—one which shares the comparative and epistemological stakes of ethnography and which, in this extraordinary case, also considers issues of gender. Once more, the strict association of feminine piety with the hagiographic model is broken in these narratives.

The shape of Colonial Angels then moves from direct contact with the difference of the New World, to the more complex, if attenuated, differences of established colonial society, and then back again. Hagiography is the genre at the heart of the book, serving as the medium through which to narrate every stage of contact with the New World. As a genre, hagiography has a very distinct form that relies on well-established conventions, and it is the modification and transformation of these that is so revealing about the transmission of culture in the colonial situation. For example, a recurrent pattern in the genre is for the virtuous individual to find herself in conflict with the sinful society around her. In the convent chronicle, this pits the saintly nun against her monastic community. In many of the Mexican writings, this conflict is expressed in terms of birthplace, the sinful nuns being insulted variously for being criollas (of Spanish blood but born in America), gachupinas (Spaniards in America), or Indias (indigenous women), and for exhibiting the supposed characteristics of these peoples. Thus, the gachupinas are condemned as modernas or lovers of novelty, the criollas are regalonas or spoilt and indulgent, while the Indias are chocolateras or eaters of chocolate in a period when it was considered an aphrodisiac.

Throughout the New Spanish vidas, the sins of the less virtuous find exempla rooted in experience, in the politics of the moment. Greedy nuns add chili to their food, revealing their decadence and their inability to eat simply, in an opposition where "decadence" is connected to the new spice discovered in the Indies, and "simple" qualifies the food of the pure Peninsula. Vain nuns wear numerous jewels, a complaint usually directed at criollas, who were considered to be utterly superficial and ostentatious, while lazy nuns are described as Indias, ruined by the climate whose pernicious effects were well established. The specificity of these insults reveals how the issues of birth were social and cultural before they became racial. They also reveal the extent to which the chronicle hagiographies were a literature of everyday life in the cloister. In this respect, they are an extraordinarily valuable source because descriptions of this kind do not exist in more official literature. In the manuscript chronicle of the Carmelite convent, for example, the conflict between the reforming nun who is a gachupina and the criolla monastic community is represented exclusively in the cultural terms described above. However, when Parayso occidental, a version of the same chronicle, comes to be published, the conflict is represented as pertaining only to spiritual virtue and religious orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it is the other versions that remain vivid, versions telling the stories of wicked nuns, lazy and indulgent, lulled by the climate and rendered lascivious by the food, who smoke, who watch plays and listen to concerts in their cloisters, and whose convents are like small cities where Indians, blacks, and children also live and work in a misceginated social chaos far removed from the more official pictures of the stately order of baroque Mexico City.

The convent, which seemed initially the perfect institution to transplant to the New World (because of its implied rejection of any world), became instead an important arena where political influence was negotiated strategically by the New Spanish elite and the Peninsular authorities. Similarly, though the subject matter of the texts associated with convents was supposedly transcendental, these writings became instead histories of the cultural values in the colony. The New World cloister—in its theoretical distance from the world and in its real submersion in it; in the silence vowed by its members and in their lived communication, writing, and sociability—provided the space for the representation of what more usually remained silent: women and their creative role in colonial society. The tremendous force of the writings about New World nuns, and especially the writings by them, lies in their revelation of other prodigies, new conundrums, and situations notably unlike those presented by the America written about and marveled over by missionaries, colonizers, adventurers, and philosophers and with which we have by now become so familiar.



“This is a fascinating, well-written, and suggestive account of the intersections of gender and genre in writing by and about religious women in colonial Mexico.... Sampson's overview of these women's narratives provides a wealth of information about the personal lives and thoughts of a doubly silenced group: cloistered religious women.”
Catherine Jaffe, Associate Professor of Spanish, Southwest Texas State University


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