Ursula de JesúsA Seventeenth- Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic Selection by: Nancy E. Van Deusen Powerpoint by: Jamie Fonden
Lima, Perú in the 1600sLima, Perú had a population of 2,500 in 1619 and by 1680 the populationhad grown to 80,000. In 1687, a series of violent earthquakes significantlydecreased the numbers of residents as they fled from the disease,famineand destruction that ensued.One of Lima’s largest sources was wealth was the abundence of silver. Silverwas largely traded for European items as well as illicit ones. There were largequanities of money to be made from silver mining and the trade of slaves.Lima’s social hierarchy in the 1600s was tiered into four levels; in the highestwere wealthy Spaniards and Creoles.Second to the Spaniards and Creoleswere the custas or people of mixed race ancestry then the Amerindians orindigenous people. The lowest level of the hierachy was the freedmans andslave population. It is the lowest tier of the social hierarchy to which Ujrsulade Jesús belonged.
A Holy CommunityLima’s community was deeply religious and the hierarchy present in its societywas born from the stratefication within the church. Within the religiouscovenants, nuns with black veils reigned supreme followed by nuns of thewhite veil. Donadas were servants of particular spiritual prowess and beneaththem were regular servants that tended to the basic household needs. Ursulade Jesús served in the Convent of Santa Clara. Much like the caste system inIndia, it was not possible for a black slave to enter the upper tier of eithersociety or within the convent. Since Lima’s relgious and social communtieswere so grossly intwined, even seats and access to relgious ceremonies werebased on your ranking within both. The spaniards and creoles being thepriority for seating and inclusion.Ursula was naturally rebelious spirit and it was not until she experiened a neardeath trauma that the mystic she became known to be developed.
Born out of slavery• In 1604, Ursula de Jesús was born an Afro-Peruvian religious servant or donada to Gerónima de los Rios• Gerónima was a wealthy member of high society that conducted business via a male representative.Her primary source of income was from buying and selling slaves,Naturally,she had a plethera of slaves from racially diverse origin. In a period when Lima,Peru rivaled Rome’s religious eccentricity, many strongly associated themselves with religion. Ursula was no exception and during her time with Gerónima developed a strong affinity for the Virgin of Carmen.• It was in 1612 when Ursula lived with Luisa de Melgarejo,a mystic and beata(pious laywoman) that she was exposed to mysticism. Mystics were purveyors of divine visions received via religious meditation with a deity. They were important people in the deeply religous Lima community.• Ursula experiened a divine vision in which a respected man,Licenciate Colonia, aired his grievences regarding his excruciating entrapment in Purgatory and his desire to be forgiven. Jesus spoke to her and said the man had no hope for release and was dammed forever. This vision itself was not peculiar as many mystics were visited by the tormented souls of Purgatory. However, Licencia Colonia was a man that occupied the highest tier of society and so it was strange that his soul should seek out a lowly donada like Ursula. The strangeness and rarity of this event reflected the inherent racism and classism prevelant in Lima. If not for Ursula’s writings of her experiences, her life may well have been unacknowledged. Due to her status as not only a slave but an african slave, she was afforded experiences different than those occupying a high social sphere. Her writings illuminated the inherent rascism in the hierarchies of both church and state.
Ursula’s female peers Ursula was not the only documented female in the seventeenth century in Latin America. Catalina de Cristo was a baker within a convent and reported seeing souls of Purgatory in mass and claimed she was awoken each morning by a saint. Juana de Cristo was a spirtual advisor to the slaves within the convent and exuded her spirtitual dedication by sleeping on an uncomfortable wooden bench each night for Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Gerónima did not discriminate by race when she kissed the feet of the dead and was also signed as “Slave of the Blessed Souls of Purgartory”. Saint Clare originally intended for all the nuns within the convent to do the chores as the slaves because it was humbling to lead a life of poverty and labor for god. Unfortunately,the convent maintained a large slave population due to the increase in the needs of an increasing number of those who sought the black veil.
Ursula,the well and after the wellTo lead a life without vanity or desire for material posessions is no easy feat.Many of the nuns living in the convent were plagued by the desire to wearstylish clothing. These articles of clothing were treasured and after receiving askirt she had lent thoroughly soiled, she angrily began cleaning it on planksover a well. The boards on which she was standing snapped and left her in adire predicament. Ursula trutly believes she was saved from a painful death bythe Virgin of Carmen. From that day on she dedicated herself vigorously to alife of servitude. Ursula became humble and sought the most grueling taskswithin the convent and tended to the most ill of patients. She had manyspirtual experiences and was regarded within her convent as a verydevout,religious woman. She had significant contact with Jesus and in oneinstance, Jesus even equated her with two of the most highly regarded,blackveil female saints. Despite this,she remained a slave.In 1645 Ursula’s ownerwas very disgruntled by her inattention to the regular chores of a slave. Ursulawanted to focus on leading a spirtual life and sought to leave the convent andfind a new owner. Ursula had become such a valuable mystic that doña Rafaelade Esquivel purchased her freedom.Ursula chose not to become a donadabecause she wanted to be free of the tasks of slavery and finally be free afterforty-one years.She did later become a donada as it was the best path for herown personal spirituality.
A life of service1633 in Santa Clara there were 47 donadas and 16 white veils. Almost all belongedin the upper tiers of Andean descent with the exception of Ursula and few otherafricans that had received their freedom. Racism and classism were inherent notonly in convent life but within the public sphere as well. Ursula de Jesús was apioneer for women in the seventeenth century and her visions are still discussed inBarrio Altos today.
Sources Cited• Van Deusen, Nancy E. "Ursula De Jesús: A Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic." The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002. 88-101. Print.