A West African Slave becomes a Nun in New Spain

SLAVERY. WOMEN. Gómez de la Parra, José; and Gómez de la Parra, Martinez

Fundacion, y primero siglo, del muy religioso Convento de Sr. S. Joseph de Religiosas Carmelitas Descalzas de la Ciudad de la Puebla de los Angeles, : en la Nueva España, el primero que se fundo en la America Septemtrional, en 27 de diziembre de 1604. Governando este obispado el illustrissimo señor doctor D. Diego Romano, quien lo erigiô, y fundô, en virtud de Breve apostolico de N.M.S.P. Clemente VIII. que con la subscripcion de capitulo 25. del libro 12. del tomo tercero de la Reforma de los Descalzos de Nuestra Señora del Carmen de la primitiva observancia, hecha por Santa Theresa de Jesus, en la antiquissima religion, fundada por el grande propheta Elias / escribe, y saca a luz el Dr. D. Joseph Gomez de la Parra, angelopolitano, colegial del Maior de Santos, magistral en la Santa Iglesia de Michoacan, y despues en esta de la Puebla, electo maestre escuela, examinador synodal en los dos obispados, cathedratico de prima de theologia, en los Reales Colegios de S. Pedro, y S. Juan de esta ciudad, y regente de sus estudios. ; Y por su fallecimiento, proseguida, por el doctor D. Joseph Martinez de la Parra, decano en la facultad de Sagrada Theologia, y calificador del Santo Officio de la Inquisicion de este reyno ; dedicada por las religiosas de este convento, a nuestra Sra. de el Carmen.

Puebla: Viuda de Miguel de Ortega, 1732


Folio: 28.6 x 19.5 cm. [18], 603, [7] p. Collation: pi² [sec.]-3[sec.]² 4[sec.]² ( -4[sec.]2) A-I² J-Z², Aa-Ii² Jj-Vv² 1-71² 73-103² chi² ( -chi2). For the peculiarities of the printed pagination, see JCB.


An EXCELLENT copy, bound in contemporary limp vellum with two of four rawhide ties (and part of a third). The contents are unusually fresh, the majority of the volume very bright, with little of the foxing and browning that usual plagues this edition. Where there is browning it is very light and inoffensive. One small clean tear to outer margin of one leaf.

A history of the first Discalced Carmelite convent in New Spain (established in 1604), written by the Peruvian-born criollo theologian, José Gómez de la Parra, who preached in the Cathedral Church of Puebla and the city’s convents, and made use of the convent's archives while writing this work. The book include a description of the interior of the convent church, with details of the artworks, among them lienzos of the Life of Saint Teresa.

The bulk of the book consists of biographies of 51 of the convent’s nuns (including the mystic Sor Isabel de la Encarnación, who endured visions in which she was tortured by demons), making this an invaluable record of the lives of the women who lived within the convent’s walls in the first hundred years of its existence. Perhaps the most remarkable biography in the work is that of Juana Esperanza de San Alberto, “la Morena”, who came to the convent as a slave from West Africa and whose vita is one of the very few lives of cloistered African women in New Spain to have come down to us.

The convent traces its history back to its founding after the arrival in New Spain of Ana and Beatriz Núñez de Montealbán, sisters originally from Gibraleón in southern Spain. Beatriz married Juan Bautista Machorro in Veracruz, and Ana lived at her sister's home in a sort of domestic cloister. Elvira Suárez and Juana Fajardo followed Ana Núñez’s example and in 1563, the three women founded a religious community dedicated to San José. However, because of the inclement weather and regional insecurity, they decided to move the house to the city of Puebla. 

In 1601 they received a license from Don Diego Romano to found a sanctuary (beaterio) for women, providing them with a chapel and a small adjoining house. María Vides, Beatriz Nuñez, and María Fajardo also joined the community. In 1603, on 6 June, arrived the papal bull authorized the founding of a Carmelite convent in Puebla, the first in the new world. To this bull was added a royal certificate of 27 December 1604, authorizing the establishment and construction of the convent of Saint José and Santa Terésa.

A West African Slave becomes a Nun:

“Juana Esperanza de San Alberto, an enslaved African born at the end of the sixteenth century, lived a life of deep religiosity as slave and then servant to a convent of Discalced Carmelites in Puebla. Her 1678 profession as a nun while on her deathbed was possible because of her reputation as exceptionally pious; black men and women did not normally take formal ecclesiastical vows. Her piety was described in a posthumous hagiographical biography written by José Gómez de la Parra, a priest who relied on the writings of Juana de Jesus María, a nun who had known Juana Esperanza for thirty-nine years.”(Bristol and Harvey)

“Although during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many Black women lived and worked within the convents of Spain and New Spain, it was rare for one of these women to achieve the status of a nun. It was even more rare that she became the subject of a biography…

“The first part of Esperanza's life journey as a slave was quite typical for her time. In 1611 Esperanza was captured as a child in what is today Guinea-Bissau and was brought to New Spain, the colony that contained the second largest population of African slaves on the American continent in 1640. Upon arriving in Veracruz, Esperanza was bought by a woman named Doña Maria Fajardo, who upon her death bequeathed her as a servant to the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of San José in Puebla. Esperanza lived there for 68 years, during which time she worked in the kitchen and infirmary. The arrival of African slaves like Esperanza in the convents was quite routine since upon entering the religious community, many women brought their slaves to serve them (as Doña Fajardo had done.) 

“However, in contrast with many other female slaves, after following the Carmelite rule for several years, Esperanza managed to be confirmed and obtained permission to stay in the convent indefinitely. Also, unlike the majority of black women inside the convents, some discalced Carmelites who were visiting the community met Esperanza, identified her as an exceptional person, and began to pressure her to profess as a nun. Esperanza agreed to do so, but only just before she died. In 1678, when she thought she was about to pass away, Esperanza had Bishop Santa Cruz called to return to the habit. After becoming a nun, Esperanza survived for almost a year, but she never rose from bed again.” (Valerie Benoist, El "blanqueamiento" de dos escogidas negras de Dios: Sor Esperanza la negra, de Puebla y Sor Teresa la negrita, de Salamanca, in Afro-Hispanic Review , Fall 2014, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 23-40. Translation mine.)

Medina, Puebla 388; Palau 104272; Sabin 27763