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  • Crossing Mexico (1620–1621):Franciscan Nuns and Their Journey to the Philippines
  • Sarah E. Owens (bio)

In 1620, almost a hundred years after the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego on the Hill of Tepeyac, a small group of Spanish nuns paid a visit to the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Like many others before and after them they stopped at the shrine on their way to Mexico City. The Franciscan nuns were traveling from Toledo to Manila and were about to cross Mexico to board the yearly Manila Galleon at the port of Acapulco.

The leader of the expedition, Sor Jerónima de la Asunción (1556–1630), is relatively well known because her portrait hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid (see Figure 1).1 She posed for the portrait during a stopover in Seville on the way to the port of Cádiz. The painter was none other than Diego Velázquez. His brushstrokes capture the essence of the nun from Toledo, a religious woman who had already received much acclaim as a would-be saint. By the time of the portrait Sor Jerónima had spent the majority of her life depriving herself of material comforts, living on bread and water, wrapping her skeletal body in coarse hair shirts, and tending to the sick, poor, and destitute. Her wrinkled face and veined hands reveal the intractable desire of the 64-year-old nun to traverse two hemispheres to establish the first convent in the Far East under the strict First Rule of Saint Clare.

The nuns who journeyed with Sor Jerónima to the Philippines played an important role in the foundation of the new convent, yet until recently they [End Page 583]

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Figure 1.

Portrait of La Madre Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, by Diego Rodríguez Velázquez

Source: Private collection, made available through Album/Art Resource, New York. The painting is 162 × 107 cm.

[End Page 584]

remained virtually unknown. Most notably, one of the women, Sor Ana de Cristo (1565–1636), penned a 450-folio manuscript that provides a fresh look into the trajectory and byways of the nuns’ journey from Spain to the Philippines.2 Her unique voice recounts the saga that began in their cloistered convent of Santa Isabel de los Reyes Toledo in Spain. Although the nuns lived enclosed, they had received special dispensation to leave their community to establish a new one, and to do so the group had no choice but to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to New Spain on their way Manila.3 A series of papal bulls issued during the preceding years by Alexander VI led to the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), which granted the other feasible route to the East, that is, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the Portuguese.4 The odyssey took the small group of religious approximately 15 months; they left Toledo at the end of April 1620 and arrived in Manila in early August 1621.5

This article focuses on the women’s transatlantic journey, in particular their short stop on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, and then their crossing of Mexico from the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to Acapulco. For many reasons, their transatlantic voyage and the time they spent on the North American continent are noteworthy. First, there are very few other texts (if any) written from the perspective of a nun that describe the actual route to the Philippines. Sor Ana’s account provides the reader with a bird’s-eye view of the sights, challenges, and dangers that this small entourage faced in the Caribbean and Mexico, and for this reason several fairly lengthy quoted passages are included here. Her telling of the sisters’ encounters with multiple indigenous populations enriches our knowledge of the mentality of female religious and how they reacted to these completely new experiences. Moreover, Sor Ana’s depiction of the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe sheds light not previously seen in historical studies of this religious site. To explore some of the reactions and descriptions penned by Sor...


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