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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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.

Casta paintings and the Virgin of Guadalupe: a link?

Luis de Mena, casta painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

As part of my research for the book project, the other day I revisited this post‘s accompanying image, and some further reading–especially in reading the historical record supporting the authenticity of the story and, more directly, here–I was reminded, in a different way this time, of the contested nature of just about everything regarding the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, from the very earliest days of that story (she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531). Some (much?) of that argument, we find between the lines, was driven by rivalries among bishops and their respective orders (which I first speculated on here). Thus, it makes sense that we also have overt written and visual assertions of Juan Diego‘s worthiness as a way of asserting the truth of the Virgin’s appearance to him on the hill of Tepeyac; hence, in the frieze over the east entrance of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin, Juan Diego’s accompanying hat and staff, which mark him iconographically not only as a shepherd but also as someone making a pilgrimage to a shrine, and the beaver in the foreground (a symbol of chastity in medieval bestiaries).

Anyway, that and the fact of the Virgin’s appearance as a mestiza to an indigenous person–that is, she appears, in effect, as always already of mixed ethnicity–made me wonder about linkages, whether direct or thematic, between depictions of the Virgin and the genre of casta painting that arose in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Peru during the colonial era. Those paintings are not merely secular in content, they are quite literally domestic: often their settings are the interiors of houses, or they show a family out for a promenade; some standardized depictions of castes show physical violence occurring between the spouses, their child attempting to intervene. So, off to Wichita State University’s library I went yesterday, and in one of the books I looked at I ran across the Luis de Mena painting you see at the top of this post. As it turns out, this same image also appears in Ilona Katzew’s excellent book on the subject; I own this book, but I didn’t remember seeing it in there and so didn’t bother to look again before last night. (Man: the things I tell you people.)

In a way, it’s my forgetting this image that really prompts this post.
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New World babies as articulations of cultural difference

Note: This is heading in the direction of a preface or introduction to the book project. The image below is its starting place, at any rate. Would reading this make you want to read more? Comments welcome and encouraged.

detailfromriveramuralatnationalpalaceDetail from a panel of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Click to enlarge. Photograph by the Mrs.

In a panel filled with figures, most appearing in full or partial profile, all going about the business of colonizing/being colonized, this infant, suspended in a plain rebozo from its mother’s back, its skin slightly lighter than its mother’s, slightly darker than that of the soldier I assume is its father, gazes fixedly at something just above and beyond the viewer’s left shoulder. It is difficult to say what accounted for my standing in front of this image for some minutes when my wife and I visited the palacio (Mexico’s national capitol building) back in October: whether it’s that the baby is the only figure in the panel’s foreground looking in the viewer’s direction yet not quite returning the viewer’s gaze; or the color of its eyes–two tiny stones of aquamarine in a sea of reds and browns and yellows. Or both.

Though I did not have this image in mind when I worked on my dissertation, in a sense it is precisely because of what we see in it that I chose that dissertation’s subject: an attempt to discuss historical and fictional narratives of consensual miscegenation as tropes of New World culture more generally. It is not merely that individual mestizos, métis, and mulattoes are, to borrow Joel Williamson’s phrase, new people; it is that the culture that has emerged in this hemisphere is also, I argue, something demonstrably different from the European, African and indigenous cultures that contributed to its creation. Analogous to the baby’s not quite gazing directly at the viewer, New World culture is simultaneously familiar and strange–and, moreover, not one fully explained by most mainstream critical theories of culture.

As an example of what I mean by that last statement, here is a passage from the introduction to Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, coincidentally published in the year I defended my dissertation:

The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions–of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation–that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood–singular or communal–that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself.

It is in the emergence of the intersticies–the overlap and displacement of domains of difference–that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between’, or in excess of, the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender. etc.)? How do strategies or representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (1-2, emphasis mine)

Readers of Bhabha will recognize in this passage an implicit articulating of the concerns at stake in his concept of hybridity, an idea that has great resonance–and potential pitfalls–for the citizens of the Western Hemisphere1, and one I am largely sympathetic with. But, the bolded passage strikes me, a citizen of this hemisphere and someone who attempts to understand and write about its culture, as not quite speaking to our cultural condition. I would argue that it is precisely in “those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference”–phenomena that Bhabha calls on critics to examine so as to be “theoretically innovative and politically crucial”–that we find the New World’s “narratives of original and initial subjectivities”: the very sorts of texts Bhabha argues we “need to think beyond.” To put this in terms of the baby in Rivera’s mural, Bhabha’s stance is that we already know where babies come from. I contend that, in this hemisphere, we’re still trying to figure out how to articulate where this particular baby comes from–and what those origins tell us about ourselves as a culture.
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