The Virgen and the castas: further comments

Sor María Antonia de la Purísima Concepción, 18th century, Ex Convento de Culhuacán (pictures), Mexico City. Click on the image to enlarge. The caption records her parents’ names, her birthdate, and the date and place she took the habit for the first time. As the picture indicates, by the time of its making the Virgen de Guadalupe had become an officially-approved icon for devout Catholics.

Image found here via a correspondent.

My source for this image was a recent visitor to this blog, and her kind e-mail, which mentioned in passing that entering a convent was a way for young women of mixed race to obtain a more-secure place in colonial Spanish America, has prompted me to pick up a loose end from my more recent posts on the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The loosest of those ends (for me) was how the Church reconciled the Virgen de Guadalupe’s association with the Immaculate Conception with her depiction as a mestiza, especially given the Church’s active role in the policing of racial hierarchies. That question begins to get answered via María Elena Martínez’s excellent book Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Martínez notes that, whereas limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”) originated in Spain during the Reconquista as a way of determining not race but a genealogy of religious affiliation (those who could demonstrate that their families had been Christians for at least three generations (unless someone in their family had been a Muslim) were thus eligible for the higher government and Church posts–as an aside, this explains why Cabeza de Vaca refers to himself and his fellow castaways not as Spaniards but as Christians), over time in the Americas the term came to indicate racial distinctions.

The existence of the Indians were the cause of this change in the term’s meaning. They were regarded as pure, but:

Ambiguities in the purity status of native people [. . .] emanated from the very contradictions of Spanish colonialism, from a political ideology that on the one hand announced that they were untainted because they lacked Jewish, Muslim and heretical antecedents and had willingly accepted the faith, and on the other constantly iterated that they would revert to idolatry if left to their own devices and in the hands of misguided leaders. (214)

These contradictions led as well to a lack of consistency among the different religious orders regarding how to think through this question. The Franciscans, for example, didn’t regard indigenous descent that was sufficiently distant in one’s past as a hindrance to determining one’s purity (and, thus, access to sinecures in the Church and government). But the Spanish-born and those born of Spanish parents in Mexico (read: those traditionally the only ones eligible for such positions) obviously did not agree with less-strict understandings of purity (Martínez, 219).

Enter both the genre of casta paintings and the rising prominence of the Virgen of Guadalupe.
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Scholar’s Rant I

What, really, is one to make of a history of colonial Mexico titled The Forging of the Cosmic Race that makes no mention–literally, none–of the source of the phrase “cosmic race”? I mean, not even in the Introduction?

I can only register disbelief and incomprehension regarding this.

“Forgetful at times of that native land”: An initial, mostly speculative response to A History of Ideas in Brazil

A temple to positivism in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Image found here.

In the interest of getting through a bunch of books I’ve obtained through interlibrary loan, I’ve had to put aside my recent obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not to worry, though: in a few days I hope to have something of a summary post that picks up where this one and this one before it leave off.

At present, I’m reading up on Brazilian positivism as treated in João Cruz Costa’s A History of Ideas in Brazil: The Development of Philosophy in Brazil and the Evolution of National History (California, 1964). To be quite honest, up to the discussion of positivism, it’s been an intellectual snooze-fest: There are only so many ways Costa can say, over the course of the 80 or so pages devoted to chronicling the three centuries before the constitutional monarchy established in 1822 that gained Brazil its independence from Portugal, “Brazil had no history of ideas, and it’s mostly the Jesuits’ fault.” (Costa is no neutral chronicler of this history: he openly mocks some of his subjects, and either he personally is no fan of the Jesuits, or he just happens to have selected sources to cite that see the Jesuits more as a bane than a blessing on the colony’s early years; a little more about that later on. I’ll just say, regarding the allegedly pernicious effects of the Jesuits, that I don’t know enough to form an independent judgment about this issue.) Part of the problem, I think, is also due to a combination of Costa’s rather haphazard organization (which compels him to repeat himself) and a less-than-smooth translation. Now that I’m (finally) up to the section on positivism, it’s doing a better job of holding my interest, if only because it was the institutionalizing of positivist principles in education and governance that marks official Brazil’s first adoption of a coherent set of ideals on which to begin building itself as a nation.

[Just as a quick aside: Brazil is one of the few Latin American countries who gained its independence relatively peacefully rather than via a violent overthrow of the metropole. Good old Wikipedia has a quickie summary of these events. Anyway, as I read all this I found myself thinking about the U.S.’s experience during the last quarter of the 18th century and wondering if that transition to independence was as smooth as it was because it was, after all, a war based clearly on a set of principles regarding good governance. Brazil, by contrast, simply wanted to remain a sovereign nation once it had been declared as such–so far as I can tell, there was no grand philosophical ideal at stake. Indeed, as noted above, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a school of thought that was identifiably Brazilian.]

But I’m not writing this because Costa’s book is tedious going. Rather, it has some rather odd moments in it that I want to talk my way through and that perhaps someone out there might find interesting, or maybe even comment-worthy.
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“Passing Strange”

Just heard about this remarkable story (and the book that relates it) on NPR yesterday morning. As the title suggests, the story is about passing–but what it doesn’t prepare one for is that the man at its heart, Clarence King, was a white man passing as black, even marrying and having five children by a black women without telling her until his death that he was actually white.

More on this as soon as I get my hands on the book.

UPDATE: I’ll have a longer post on this book here later; in the meantime, here is a brief-ish review at my other blog.

The last Virgen de Guadalupe post. Maybe

What follows is not a coherent argument but an attempt to present some ends that so far refuse to be tied via someone’s addressing them directly. Those ends: I have yet to find even a trace of a colonial-era discussion of the religious significance of the Virgin’s appearing as a mestiza. You’d think someone, somewhere during that time, would have contemplated that particular mystery. Speaking for myself, the more I have contemplated it, the stranger she becomes–especially, by the way, if the image is fraudulent.
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Quick notes on some current/recent reading

Engraving by Samuel Stradanus, c. 1615, the earliest known pictoral representation of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known depictions of the apparitions and the miracle of the image would not appear until 1648. Image found here.

The recent reading: Stafford Poole, C. M., Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. I am about done with my Virgen de Guadalupe kick, my reader(s) will probably be pleased to learn. For those who want a thorough, Occam’s Razor-based examination of the historical record regarding the apparitions and the accompanying tradition, though, Poole’s book is definitely the place to start. It could use an update, seeing since its publication some additional documents concerning Juan Diego emerged during the process leading to his canonization. But it remains extremely valuable, especially for such things as providing the ecclesiastical context in both Spain and Mexico during the colonial era and the vagaries of Nahuatl poetry (chief among them, the fact that Nahuatl was a spoken and written language vital to aiding in the conversion and education of indigenous peoples up till almost the end of the colonial era). Here’s the thumbnail summary of Poole’s conclusions:

From 1531 (the year the apparitions are said to have occurred) till the 1550s, no written records of any sort exist which refer to Juan Diego or the apparitions;

beginning in the 1550s, there begin to appear references–not all of them positive–to a chapel (ermita) at Tepeyac (the hill in present-day Mexico City where the Virgin is said to have appeared) and the veneration of an object or objects there;

by 1615 (the year of the Samuel Stradanus engraving above), a pictoral tradition depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin had arisen, thus indicating the existence of an oral tradition that had given rise to them;

in 1648, there suddenly appeared (re Poole) the first narratives regarding Juan Diego and the apparitions and the miracle of the image on his ayate, accompanied by the admission of no prior written records of these narratives but that they had been perpetuated via the memory of those whose relatives or familiars had known Juan Diego;

from 1650 on, the Virgin was vigorously promoted as a sign that God had shown His favor on Mexico and, thus, on criollos (those of Spanish blood born in Mexico), and less-vigorously promoted as a means of evangelizing to the Indians.

As to the veracity of the story and image as currently-received tradition has it, Poole is careful to say that the currently-existing historical records–their words and, as importantly, their silences–don’t support that tradition . . . which is not the same thing as saying that they are untrue. Still, Poole’s incredulity that something as momentous as the apparitions and the miraculous image would go completely unmentioned in Church documents for over 100 years speaks for itself. As to the Virgin’s image’s link to casta paintings, which I speculated on here, Poole doesn’t address either those paintings or even, for that matter, the Virgin’s mestiza appearance. Still, in his thorough examining of sermons that establish a link between the Virgin and the affirmation of crilloismo, Poole helps provide tangential independent confirmation of that connection.

Speaking of casta paintings . . . I also had a look at Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. It contains some examples of these paintings, one of which is the first image you see in this earlier post of mine. From its discussion of that painting, written by Ilona Katzew:

Tobacco and chocolate [depicted in the painting] were staples of the New World. Featuring these typical American products in paintings whose subject was miscegenation–believed to be especially widespread in the New World–offered a highly mediated view of life in New Spain, one that casts the colony as the producers of goods and people. (245)

Yes. And add to this Katzew’s observation elsewhere that the enactment of the mid-18th century Bourbon Reforms, among other things, sought to insist more firmly on rules based on New Spain’s racial hierarchy (casta paintings would begin to be numbered accordingly); yet, in this painting and in others depicting all but the very lowest castas, the families would be shown as prosperous and anything but the moral degenerates that the casta system implicitly claimed the less-than-pure were. The casta paintings thus became, in this argument, somewhat akin to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter: they honored the letter of the law but violated its spirit. They, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe in a parallel course (which is to say, these traditions seem not, or only rarely, to intersect), came to be manifestations of criollo pride rather than its official inferiority relative to Spain.

There is more to say about this.

Current reading: George Washington Cable, Strange True Tales of Louisiana (1888, 1889). Over at good old Blog Meridian, I recently posted on the potential dark side of literary regionalism, of which Cable is definitely a part, but it seems to me that he himself doesn’t fall prey to that dark side, either here or in The Grandissimes. Strange Tales is a collection of (so far) linked stories that Cable claims are based on actual memoirs and diaries that have come into his possession about life in antebellum New Orleans and southern Louisiana plantation life. Let’s just say I have my doubts about those claims, but that does nothing to lessen their interest for me. [UPDATE: Via this article (.pdf), I’ve learned that Cable indeed did use a combination of actual letters and diaries, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, to produce these stories. But the collection has, overall, a unified feel not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.] And let’s just say as well that I think Edna Ferber read this book fairly attentively, but that that and other matters will have to wait for a fuller airing later on.

Strange Fruit: Some comments

Lillian Smith. Image found here; Wikipedia entry here.

I’ve just finished rereading Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, a novel that, though still in print, I suspect not many people read today. That’s a shame, really. Given its title’s origin (the Billie Holiday song), its setting (early Depression-era rural southern Georgia), its chief subject (an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman) and the time of its publication–not to mention the fact that it was banned in some places when published–Strange Fruit is brave in ways that better-known Southern novels whose big subject is racism finally aren’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, good as it is (and happy 50th anniversary, by the way), comes to mind here). Which, after all, is braver for a Southern novelist in the pre-Civil Rights Act South to do: to show us as we’d like to think of ourselves as being, or to show us as most of us in fact are–and why we are the way we are?
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