In her new book, Indigenous Writings from the Convent: Negotiating Ethnic Autonomy in Colonial Mexico (UA Press 2010), Mónica Díaz presents the writings of a noble class of Indigenous nuns living in colonial Mexican convents. These writings constitute some of the earliest instances of Indigenous women in Mexico writing and crafting their own identity and, in doing so, engaging in remarkable acts of autonomy and perseverance despite the strong rule of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church. The book challenges notions of Spanish hegemony and domination by telling the stories of Indigenous families that thrived under colonial rule, adopting Spanish dress, religion, and customs but also maintaining their own ethnic identity. Drawing on letters, biographies, sermons, and other text, Díaz argues that the survival of Indigenous ethnic identity was effectively served by this class of noble Indigenous nuns. In this guest blog post, Díaz describes her research in critical new archives containing the writings of colonial era Indigenous nuns.
Uncovering the Writings of Indigenous Nuns of Colonial Mexico
By Mónica Díaz
Indigenous Writings from the Convent was conceived as a project that could challenge preconceived notions about Indigenous women during the colonial period of Mexican history. Many of these notions are due to the lack of written sources that can provide details about specific cases in which Indigenous women actively participated in public life. Legal documents and inquisitorial records have been valuable to many historians, opening possibilities to rescue the voices of women from the colonial period, yet documentation that contains biographical and autobiographical information on Nahua or Otomí women from this period is rare.
The three convents founded in eighteenth-century New Spain, exclusively for noble Indian women, presented an opportunity to search for the kinds of written sources that other nuns, mainly white elite women, produced in colonial times, during the early modern period. Scholars in literary studies have located and analyzed many of these sources, which range from autobiographies to mystical treatises. Reading the well-known biographical manuscript published by Mexican historian Josefina Muriel in 1963 about a group of noble Indian women who lived in the Convent of Corpus Christi led me to believe that there might be more documents like that one in a dusty archive in Mexico. The quest to find an autobiographical document authored by Indigenous women, like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Respuesta, or like María de San José’s journals, became daunting. The archives and libraries of the three convents where Indigenous women lived in the eighteenth century were destroyed for the most part, and their holdings had been dispersed.
One hot summer day in 1999, in front of the famed Tule Tree in Oaxaca outside of the Templo de Santa María de la Asunción, I encountered a group of Franciscan nuns of the First Rule of Saint Claire selling rompope and cookies. I approached them and began chatting about my frustrated research for the now nonexistent archives of the Convent of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Oaxaca City. They all seemed to know exactly what I was referring to, and one nun asked with great interest: “Oh, so you are looking for the convent of the indias caciques?”
I was speechless. I had simply volunteered information that I thought would be of no interest to them, but actually prompted an earnest question that specifically identified the subject of my research, the indias caciques. I was more surprised when they related their knowledge of the convent’s history and the ethnic lineage maintained by its nuns. Furthermore, they all considered themselves descendants of the indias caciques who had lived there, just like their sisters in the Convent of Corpus Christi in Mexico City.
The clarisa nuns at the Tule tree reported that although the conventual archives in Oaxaca and Morelia had been destroyed, the Convent of Corpus Christi was still standing. The nuns directed me to the present day Convent of Corpus Christi, as the original building and most of its holdings had been lost during the early years of the nineteenth century. Once at the convent, I realized that working in a conventual archive required time to establish bonds of trust between the nuns and the researcher, as well as help from someone close to the Church who could provide a secular historian access to the convent. I was fortunate to have both time and help, and to locate a biographical manuscript that differed from the one published by Muriel. Still, the material from the Convent of Corpus Christi that survived was not enough for what I originally intended to do.
The awareness of the Clarisa nuns at the Tule tree of their own ethnic lineage maintained by their families well into the twentieth century became then the focal point of Indigenous Writings from the Convent. The Clarisa nuns at the Tule Tree were different from their eighteenth-century sisters; in the intervening years, the independence and revolutionary wars had been waged, and the reform laws in place had affected Church matters greatly, simply to mention three historical watersheds. Yet there bore an ethnic consciousness that suggested that a crucial aspect of their identity had survived all of the political and social turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would be erroneous to contend that Indian identities have resisted change, but we cannot deny the enduring influence of the colonial regimes. We cannot help but ponder, while hoping not to oversimplify, the complexities of identity-making and the multiplicity of meanings that the concept “Indio” connotes.
In the case of the noble Indigenous nuns of the eighteenth century and their families, they expressed senses of community and autonomy through their religious practices. Having been indoctrinated into the Catholic faith and adopted the Spanish language and Spanish genres in their communications, they were able to legitimize their aristocratic standing vis-à-vis ecclesiastical institutions. The book examines the ways in which different religious discourses produced by nuns and priests revealed beliefs about ethnic and gender identifications.
Ultimately, by engaging the archive, I aimed to make available texts that could reveal the ways in which Indian noblewomen actively participated in defending the conventual spaces granted to them at a key historical moment, when Bourbon policies required the secularization of indigenous parishes. Official petitions, complaints, letters, biographies, and sermons generated before and during the foundations of the only three convents exclusively for Indigenous women of the noble class showcase the mechanisms of control and resistance employed within the ecclesiastical arena.
Mónica Díaz is an assistant professor at Georgia State University, where she teaches colonial Latin American literature and culture. She completed a dual PhD in Hispanic literature and Latin American history from Indiana University in 2002. Her research interests include Latin American history and culture, gender and ethnicity in colonial discourse, post-colonial theory, and women’s literature. She has published several articles in journals and edited volumes on gender and indigenous writing.