Leonor de Caceres and the Mexican Inquisition
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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.1 (2001) 81-98

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Leonor de Cáceres and the Mexican Inquisition

Margaret Mott

Introduction: The Family and the Times

The Carvajál family, well-known to historians of colonial Mexico, achieved its enduring status largely through the records of the Mexican Holy Office. 1 The governor, Luis de Carvajál, after becoming embroiled in a boundary dispute with the Viceroy of New Spain, was denounced as a Judaizer in 1589. He was eventually cleared of the crime of Judaizing, of performing Jewish rituals while pretending to be Catholic, but was sent to prison for one year for having concealed his Judaizing relatives from the authorities. He died while serving out his prison sentence. Many of the rest of his family, whom he brought over from Spain as part of the privileges of his office, were condemned as judaizantes pertinaz, persistent Judaizers. In the auto de fe of 8 December 1596 the governor's sister Francisca Núñez de Carvajál and four of her adult children were, in the language of the Holy Office, "relaxed to the secular arm for burning." Francisca's daughter, Mariana, was spared the stake in 1596 because she was deemed to have lost her senses. Once she regained them, she, too, was condemned as a persistent Judaizer and died in the auto de fe of 25 March 1601.

From all accounts the Carvajál family was used by the Holy Office as a warning to the crypto-Jewish community of New Spain. Even Stephen Greenleaf, known for his balanced accounts on the Mexican Inquisition, 2 describes the persecution [End Page 81] of the Carvajáls as a "Counter Reformation tact," concluding that "the Holy Office wanted to use the Carvajáls as an example to the Jewish community of Mexico." 3 Yet more was at issue here than just a display of the naked power. The questions the inquisitors posed and the rhetoric they used suggest something beyond flexing a coercive muscle in front of the crypto-Jewish population of colonial Mexico.

Not all members of the Carvajál family perished in the flames of so-called Counter Reformation intolerance. One of Francisca's sons, a Dominican monk, was able to maintain his commitment to his order even after being convicted of concealing his heretic relatives from the authorities. A son-in-law, Antonio Diaz de Cáceres, was reconciled after paying what biographer Martin A. Cohen considered an "unusually light" penalty, a public abjure de vehementia and a fine of a thousand Castilian ducats. Cohen explains this unusual pardon in terms of political intrigue. "Because he was a man of esteem and had served the king on several occasions," wrote Cohen, Antonio was spared the lash. 4 Yet political favors were not the only consideration. Francisca's granddaughter (and Antonio's daughter) Leonor de Cáceres, who was nine at the time of the first auto de fe, was reconciled along with her father in the auto de fe of 1601. Although she was fourteen at the time of her trial, much of the evidence concerns events that took place in her childhood, before the age of reason. Rather than a "Counter Reformation tact," her trial reflects some of the Catholic reforms of the sixteenth century, a time in Spanish political and social thought when natural law arguments for education and evangelization were on the ascendant.

The term Counter Reformation implies an entrenched position against any efforts of reform. "Counter Reformation," writes historian John O'Malley, "expressed the quintessence of Catholicism, which was reaction and repression." 5 Counter Reformation underscores intolerance and obscures the radical reforms of the times (for which reason O'Malley offers the more neutral term, Early Modern Catholicism). In actuality sixteenth-century Catholicism was a time of both unification and universality, of shoring up the papacy and experimenting with evangelical techniques. Balanced against the heightened authority of the Vatican were the educational experiments of the Jesuits. 6 Alongside the racist arguments in support of the encomendero system was a very...