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.

Casta paintings, as both I in this post, and Martínez assert, played a role in simultaneously defining and, intentionally or not, complicating discussions of racial boundaries during the 18th century as Spain sought to reassert its control over the colonies. Martínez pushes this further, though: “[T]he existence of multiple definitions of purity of blood, some religious, others more secular, helped fuel a creole patriotic defense of Spanish-Indian unions at a time of growing concern about mestizaje and its supposed degenerating potential” (228).

That defense received religious sanction in the cult of Guadalupe:

As the cult of Guadalupe reached its apogee, her image became part of an increasingly complex symbolism. Not only did her apparition to Juan Diego come to represent the promise of a renewed Christendom in Mexico and a kind of collective baptism of its disparate populations, but members of clergy incorporated it into a vision of New Spain as a product of two spiritually unsullied communities: one brought the Catholic faith; the other was redeemed by it. Within this vision, it was the latter community, the indigenous people, that at a symbolic level was the more important. The Virgin’s appearance on the hill of Tepeyac had accelerated the eradication of idolatry, thereby sacralizing both the land and its original inhabitants; she had made Mexico into the new Holy Land and the Indians her chosen people. (252)

Martínez then goes on to discuss the Mena painting, which you see here, and which she confirms as being the only known example of a casta painting that directly incorporates the iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as something like the apotheosis of both the celebration of New Spain’s racial diversity and the anxieties attendant upon that same diversity. It occurs to me, though, in looking again at the Sor María painting at the beginning of this post, that we could also read it as a casta painting over which the Virgen presides. Though her parents do not appear in the painting, María Antonia is pretty clearly of mixed race; moreover, it was during the mid-18th century that the Church began to admit mestiza women into convents–the same time, incidentally, that the Virgen de Guadalupe had been declared by the Pope to be a Patroness of the Americas. Perhaps for María Antonia, then, the Virgen was both a model of chastity and, on a more intimate level, one of validation–an exemplar of her own (ethnic) worthiness.

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