Indigenous Writings from the Convent

Negotiating Ethnic Autonomy in Colonial Mexico
Mónica Díaz

Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps

Sometime around the year 1740, Sor María Magdalena, an indigenous noblewoman living in one of only two convents in New Spain that allowed Indians to profess as nuns, sent an undated letter to Father Juan de Altamirano asking for his help. Sor María asked Father Altamirano to write a letter to the king of Spain on behalf of all the indigenous nuns living in the Convent of Cosamaloapan in Valladolid (today's city of Morelia), informing him of the situation in the convent. She wanted the king to know that the prelates in charge of the cloister, which was supposed to have been established exclusively for Indians, were allowing Spanish women into their convent.1 The indigenous women wanted to be left alone in their convent, she argued, since the Spanish women had many cloisters and the "pobres indias" (poor Indian women) had only two (AINAH, FF, vol. 100, fol. 166).

Colonial sources that mention indigenous women are not scarce, but in every case it is easy to recognize colonial constructions of ambivalent spaces filled with racial and gendered stereotypes. Documents in which women emerge as agents who actively participate in the construction of their own identities are rare, and Sor María Magdalena's letter is one of those unique documents in which the voice of the subaltern can be heard.

From the convents of the colonial period come writings that offer new possibilities for developing a history of Mexico's indigenous women and for recognizing their contributions to the country's literary and cultural heritage. This book analyzes the ways in which indigenous women participated in one of the most prominent institutions in colonial times---the Catholic Church---and what they made of their conventual life experience. The indigenous noblewomen who inhabited the convents studied in this book engaged in discourses that defended the native autonomy of the space conferred on them and performed agency by manipulating the set of rules established by the new colonial order. These women were not alone in the colonial scene, however; they followed a long list of other subalterns who grappled with the ever-changing world they inhabited. In particular, Indians from the elite class attempted to preserve their lineage with the new knowledge they acquired from the colonial order to create spaces in which they could reinvent themselves and survive.

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