About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nun Essays or, I Showed Great Restraint in Not Making a Pun Using the Word Nun in the Title

Students in the History of Religion in Latin America had to read Margaret Chowning's (fantastic in my opinion, pretty good in the opinion of the students) book Rebellious Nuns on the La Purisima Convent in what is today San Miguel Allende.  They also read a few short documents with brief accounts of female religious in other locations like Peru.  Their reflections on the meaning and power of the female religious range from the topical and political to the culinary and comical (yep, Thomas Gage's story of chocolate will make an appearance).  I don't think we're seeing any deep breakthroughs on the idea of the female religious in these essays, but we are seeing some students starting to think about "nuns" in a little more complex way.  My response (thinking about Teresa Forcades) is at the bottom.


Ms. Littman

In colonial Mexico, convents served as so much more than a house of God for women. In the seventeenth century especially, there were clear ties between convents and the social, economic, and political stability of the towns they were built in. However, I read of not one aspect more striking than the impact convents had on women and education. Latin American society was extraordinarily male dominant, and the kinds of opportunities convents offered allowed women to escape the inevitable of marriage. The patriarchal standard still applied as nuns still answered to a bishop, but convents still served as both a safe and a socially acceptable option for women. From a modern perspective, I can’t help but be reminded of present day India and its persistent degradation of women’s rights. Beyond the similar social understanding Colonial Spain and modern day India have with their practice of arranged marriages, or the judicial response to rape, education comes to mind again. There is still a public outcry for a safe place where women can have an equal to education.

That being said, in my readings I noticed that in the book, Religion in Latin America, document fifty was entitled “A Unique Holy Woman from Seventeenth-Century New Spain”. As I read on, I was disheartened to find that it was a letter from a nun with an insatiable hunger for learning. Her name was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and she spent half the document expressing how she dealt with her need for knowledge throughout her life, and the other half listing all the most learned women she had ever heard of. I found it so disappointing the book would call this incredible woman “unique” because I feel like any woman in colonial Mexico who aspired for something greater than becoming a housewife considered becoming a nun. Cruz even states, “I became a nun… in view of my total disclination to marriage, it was the most becoming and proper condition that I could choose to ensure my salvation.”


Ms. Holbrook-Bruhns

As I study Catholicism in pre-independence Mexico I find myself deeply intrigued by the women who chose the habit as a way of life. One major thing that has captivated my interest is the idea that nuns are obedient, biddable, patient, peaceful creatures, but that underlying it all there is a core of strength and sometimes even obstinacy. For example, Estafania de San Jose, a professed Franciscan in Peru during the seventeenth century, was charitable, patient, and compassionate. However, when she was ill and visited by the Viceroy and his wife she “made them pray on their knees” and she blessed them.1  She may have been a quiet holy woman, but she was confident enough in her authority to tell the viceroy how to pray. Isabel Flores de Oliva was equally contradictory. She would fast for days on end to show her piety and was reportedly really quite modest. On the other hand, she defied her mother and cut all of her hair off to avoid taking care with her appearance. Nuns, it seems, are pillars of strength and personality, wrapped in ribbons of devotion and virtue.

The New York Times did a piece in August of 2012 on American nuns opening dialogue with the Vatican and male church hierarchy.2  The nuns feel that women do not have enough opportunities within the Church and the Church says that you cannot change doctrine. The nuns are determined to solve these differences through peaceful dialogue with no arguing or anger. However, they are also unwilling to negotiate on certain aspects of the debate and hold steady to their tenets, showing that nuns today are just as pious and determined as they were in the 1600s.

The nuns today like their sisters from four hundred years ago, want their way of life respected and affirmed. They hold to it just like Oliva cutting her hair, or San Jose visiting the sick and blessing her viceroy. Their strength and religious devotion has persevered for four centuries. Does it have a future today?

1 Lee M. Penyak and Walter J Petry ed, Religion in Latin America, 102. 
2 NY times website http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/us/national-nuns-group-seeks-dialogue-with-vatican.html?_r=0 accessed 1/21/13.


Mr. Mailhot

Chocolate has an important place in Mexico’s history. In fact, one of Mexican cuisine’s most well-known uses of chocolate, molé sauce, has its roots in a convent in Mexico during the Spanish Colonial period. The widely accepted version of molé’s history traces back to nuns from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, Mexico. Upon learning that the Archbishop was to pay them a visit, and realizing they had little to serve him, the nuns scrambled to throw together whatever they had (nuts, spices, chilies, and yes, chocolate), boil it down, and serve it over turkey. Much to the nuns’ relief, the Archbishop was delighted with the meal.1  Today, that same meal is the Mexican National dish, often served during holidays. There is even an annual Feria de los Molés (molé fair), drawing over 30,000 people and showcasing up to 13 regional molés.2 

But, the relationship between nuns and chocolate in Mexico goes deeper than a story of humble nuns hoping to please a venerable visitor. Even in reformist convents, as described by Margaret Chowning in Rebellious Nuns, chocolate was a nearly obligatory refreshment taken up to three times a day, even during times of fasting. In La Purísima, the convent detailed in Rebellious Nuns, chocolate was allotted at 1.6 ounces per nun, per day. In the convent’s daily schedule, it is simply recorded; “9:15 Chocolate.”3  But, the most scandalous account involving nuns and chocolate is of a seventeenth century bishop in Chiapas who, after banning the addictively popular chocolate drink from being consumed during mass, was found dead as a result of a (ironically) poisoned cup of that very beverage!4  Though never confirmed, legend has it that some of the nuns of Chiapas were implicated in the poisoning.  

The history of chocolate in Mexico is closely tied to the nuns of colonial times. When the sisters of Santa Rosa decided to add some to their concoction, it was an act of great generosity, a deed of respect. Later, the chocolate addiction even led to murder, the first “death by chocolate.”  

“History of Mexico’s Most Famous Culinary Preparation,” Mexonline, http://www.mexonline.com/molepoblano.htm (accessed 22 Jan. 2013).

http://feriadelosmoles.com/ (accessed 22 Jan. 2013). 

Chowning, Margaret, Rebellious Nuns the Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752-1863 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Gage, Thomas, and J. Eric S. Thompson, Travels in the New World (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 145.


Ms. Trott

After reading Rebellious Nuns by Margaret Chowning, it was surprising to read about the upheavals that the convent of La Purísima faced while trying to appease the nuns that resided there. It seems as though each of the nuns had a different interpretations of how to abide by the original constitution of the convent, which created a large rift between the convent and the bishops. The main rule over the convent and the church fell from the Spanish Crown, and this made it difficult for the struggling towns in New Spain. These towns faced extreme economic downfall when Mexico declared its independence, making it difficult for the convent to survive without the dowries of pledging nuns. The sexist perspective towards women led to the economic downfall, as women had no high standing in the community. They were unable to collect debts owed to the church as their beliefs led them to believe in austerity and poverty. Due to the controlling aspects of the Spanish Crown, convents in New Spain were unable to survive with their original intents. Their responsibilities to the community were challenged by their economic status, which then led the communities to desire separation from Spanish rule.

This is similar to the situation of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz1, a woman who desired an education but had to join the convent to pursue her dreams. The perfect example of hegemony in Mexico, the moral codes of the church were that women should either take care of their families, or to commit their lives to God in a convent. These beliefs were gently pushed upon Sor Juana, making it known that her desire to study was seen as a criminal offense in the eyes of God. This re-enforced the gender roles of women2, only allowing them to profess their devotion to God, or to bear children and cater to their husband’s needs. The continuity of gender roles displayed between the church and modern times of humanity in Latin America show evidence that the rules put forward by the church are still present.

1 Yo, la peor de todas. Dir. Maria Luisa Bemberg. Perf. Assumpta Serna. First Run Features, 1990. DVD.
2 http://www.pearsonhighered.com/assets/hip/us/hip_us_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0205743153.pdf


Mr. Lamers

My recent area of historical study has dealt with the situations of nuns in Latin America mainly during the colonial period. Perhaps the most significant aspect of a nun’s life that I noticed from my recent readings was how empowered these women became. Overall, women devoting themselves to the religious life placed them at a higher social status in Spanish Colonial Society than the typical submissive female status. Magaret Chowning’s writings of the La Purisima Concepcion convent in Mexico (Rebellious Nuns) described women joining nunneries not just for religious purposes but to avoid the compliant life of a wife/mother while pursuing literacy and expanding their intellects. Chowning commented on how nuns exercised authority within their convents and outside to a degree while receiving great respect from this rather devout area of the world. I observed a clear example of this deference toward nuns in a letter from Seventeenth Century Peru depicting the life of Sister Estafania de San Jose, a mulatto, who gained a reputation as blessed and humble. On her sickbed, Estefania was visited by the Spanish Viceroy and his Marchioness who asked the nun to commend them to God. He and his wife then kneeled before her to receive the blessing. This event illustrates the degree that nuns were empowered as women in colonial Spanish society. I would never think that such a powerful man would bow before any woman in this time period. Furthermore, Estafania would be thought to be of even lower rank than a typical woman since she was a former slave of mixed race.

A contemporary example of a woman rising to prominence through her position as a nun is Sister Simone Campbell of the “Nuns on the Bus” movement. Campbell is known for her resistance to Vatican policies of suppressing liberal American nuns and “promoting the needs of women.”1  Her activities have gained the attention of powerful men such from Pope Benedict XVI to President Obama and several other politicians. Overall, women have definitely empowered themselves through life as a “religiosa” in the past and present.


Mr. Melton

The assigned reading, written by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, reinforced the theme of the film I, the Worst of All and our recently assigned book Rebellious Nuns.  In her reply to the bishop of Puebla, Sor Juana describes her struggle as a female in the seventeenth century who desired to garner an education equal to that of her male peers.  Not surprisingly, Sor Juana had to be proactive, educating herself and seeking out tutors who were willing to teach her.  Her resolve to learn trumped all other personal endeavors, and according to the first excerpt from her Reply, she went to the extreme of cutting her hair as a personal incentive to learn in an efficient and timely manner.  I was impressed by the determination she showed at a very early age, and I was equally astonished by her ability to absorb knowledge in such an oppressive environment.  Even under the domineering rule of her archbishop and abbess she was able to develop her craft, which allowed her to speak out for the equal rights of women, even those who, like her, had devoted themselves to a religious order that was by nature oppressed.

Sor Juana’s story is a prequel of sorts to the drama that is laid out in Margaret Chowning’s book, Rebellious Nuns.  The nuns in Chowning’s account also struggled with the bishop, vicar, and abbesses in order to obtain certain personal freedoms.  In the epilogue of Rebellious Nuns, however, there seems to be a breakdown in the hierarchy after the convent was closed.  When the nuns are allowed, or forced, to leave, they start home groups, continuing communal prayers and worship with more personal freedom than had been allowed under the direct rule of their bishop and vicar.1   I can only imagine how much Sor Juana could have thrived in such an environment.   

1 Margaret Chowning, Rebellious Nuns (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).


Latin America was a world in which the moral integrity of a person was judged by his and his family’s outward expression of devotion to his faith. It became a status symbol then, to be able to not only afford to have a daughter join a convent but also to have a daughter whose faith was strong enough to want to sacrifice what was necessary to join.  

The perception of women as delicate, pliable, and in need of protection encouraged the idea of women joining convents. They would be not only safe from physical harm, but from attacks to their faith as well. They would, in their absolute faith and subordination to their male clergy, be a role model and positive influence within a city, for both the feminine and masculine persons. This is how the New World thought. Cities sought to have a convent established within their limits. An example of this is the convent in San Miguel. The nuns were supposed to help encourage religiosity and be a shining example in a mostly creole city that was attempting to establish themselves on the map.

The lure of a convent to women was different. Convents offered the freedom to pursue academic interests, to be freed from the need to marry, even the possibility of positions of power – albeit within the limits of the convent. There were some examples of particularly influential women outside of the convent in which they professed but a majority sought power from within such as the power struggles endured by the women at La Purisma.

Inheritance played a role in the decision to place women into convents. As mandatory inheritors under Spaniard law, removing women from the equation allowed estates to stay better intact when being passed through generations. She would be well cared for, by both the convent and her family, but it allowed powerful, wealthy families to maintain that status.

Under Spaniard law and customs having a daughter within a convent was both a status symbol and critical to certain legal situations, such as inheritance. 


Dormady Response

Reading Rebellious Nuns puts me in mind of the Spanish (Catalan) nun Teresa Forcades.  A crusader for women's health, skeptic of large-pharma, and a critic of capitalism, Forcades has a number of windmills to tilt at.  I previously commented on Fordades crusades for women's health and choice here, but today I'll place a link to a series of her speeches and interviews (most of which are in Spanish or Catalan).  Some female religious use their power to make monarchs bend, others use it to gain personal fulfillment, power or comfort, and others look into the abyss of structural sin and seek to change the world for everyone.

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