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  • Danger in the Convent: Colonial Demons, Idolatrous Indias, and Bewitching Negras in Santa Clara (Trujillo del Perú)1
  • Rachel Sarah O’Toole

In early 1674, troubling rumors began to circulate throughout the city of Trujillo on the northern Peruvian coast. The local nuns of Santa Clara were said to be bewitched by bad spirits or perhaps possessed by demons. Surprisingly, these reports originated from the Santa Clara convent itself, as religious women there along with their servants swore that malicious spirits were inciting causing them to disobey clerics, become repulsed by the Host, and experience demonic visions. In response, the Franciscans arranged exorcisms and the municipal council sponsored religious processions to expel the demonic from the sole female religious institution of the provincial city.2 The Inquisition’s commissioner began to take testimony from inhabitants of the city and members of the convent. Laypeople of Trujillo speculated about the causes of the enchantment while members of the Dominican order debated the veracity of the nun’s possession. Within Santa Clara, multiple narratives emerged as nuns and members of their household blamed one another for allowing idolatrous indias or bewitching negras into the nunnery.3 In particular, one young nun, Juana Luisa Benites claimed that legions of torturing demons led by a sexual predator, a “black man,” continually afflicted her.4 Inquisitors would later turn their attention and condemnation to the unorthodox beliefs and practices of Juana Luisa Benites and her close companion, Ana Nuñez. But, for a long time to come the nuns, their dependents, and their servants would continue to blame another for contaminating the convent with dangerous “others,” in spirit and corporeal form.

This article unpacks the accusations circulating among inhabitants of the Santa Clara convent to explore how the dangers identified imagined by the nuns and their servants reflected and reproduced racial hierarchies of local colonial society. In contrast to the Inquisitors’ concerns with orthodoxy, women within the nunnery constructed accusations of witchcraft that marked boundaries between rural and urban, enslaved and free, as well as varying levels of acculturation and acceptance within colonial society. Utilizing scholarship regarding the convent as a place for women’s autonomy as well as a microcosm for the reproduction of colonial hierarchies, this article works to understand the construction of racial ideologies and colonial differences. For those with economic privilege or elite social status, convents served as schools for girls and offered relief from domestic abuse.5 Convents housed financially independent widows as nuns and laywomen who constructed alternative households within the convent’s walls.6 Convents even offered opportunities to enslaved women who could manumit themselves or their offspring with the funds earned through their independent commerce.7 Some nunneries housed beatas, donadas, and other religious women who were not permitted to take formal vows because of their casta (their colonial designation as a mestiza or a mulata).8 Thus, women and girls regardless of their social status could find shelter and relief in the colonial convents including that of Trujillo’s Santa Clara. Simultaneously, as Kathryn Burns has explained, convents produced and reproduced colonial hierarchies within and beyond their walls.9 Professed nuns formed familial blocks to control political alliances and economic strategies of their convent.10 Nuns maintained rules of membership that excluded all African-descent women and many indigenous women as well as those that could not prove their “purity of blood” or pay a sufficient dowry.11 Finally, as this article will explore, nuns of the black veil relied on the work of large numbers of servants, slaves, and other female dependents.12 Convents, then, provided alternative, independent locations for many women and girls while at the same time replicating, and adding to, colonial hierarchies, discrimination, and stereotypes.

This article examines how elite and non-elite women of Santa Clara replicated colonial tensions between dependence on non-Spanish laborers and the perception of them as dangerous. The inhabitants of the convent exploited the spiritual or magical position of non-Spaniards while at the same time stigmatizing and shunning them.13 By contextualizing the cultural forms of danger within the social relations of the convent, the following exploration blends methodological approaches. Elite and non-elite women...

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