In 1715, colonial New Spain (now Mexico) is haunted by waves of plague and the ever-present threat of the Inquisition. These dangers permeate even the cloister walls of the prosperous Convent of San Jeronimo, just outside what is now Mexico City. One morning, three young women arrive to join the community: Jesusa, a confident mestiza with a gift for music and language, brought to the convent to care for the ailing nun Sor Isabel; Tomasita, a fearful Nahua Indian who has come to serve in the kitchen; and Manuela, a noblewoman who arrives at the convent under mysterious circumstances and whose place there is uncertain. Thrown together to live in a crowded basement storage room, the girls are warned by Sor Rufina, the nun supervising their arrival, never to open the locked armoire that sits in the corner.
Later that day, as they are shown more of the convent grounds, they meet San Jeronimo’s stern Mother Superior, the mischievous cook, Sor Filomena, and Sor Isabel, Jesusa’s new mistress. The girls soon find the keys to the mysterious armoire. Inside, they find it overflowing with masses of paper and notebooks containing poems, songs and plays. To amuse themselves in their strange new home, they begin reading one of the plays, House of Desires—which, unbeknownst to them, was written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun who died in the convent 20 years before. The roles they assign themselves in the play upset the class order they occupy in the outside world, and their secret playacting uncovers additional secrets about their talents, limitations and desires while serving as a refuge from the forced conformity and hardship of convent life.
In time, they are discovered by Sor Rufina, but rather than putting a stop to their playacting, she keeps guard so they may continue, joined by Sor Isabel and Sor Filomena. Isabel tells them they must guard the texts they have found and the legacy they represent. The words that give the women comfort and inspiration nevertheless put them in danger with the Mother Superior, herself struggling to keep the Inquisition from her doors. Jesusa, Tomasita and Manuela learn the true cost women pay for raising their voices, out loud or on paper, and the risks they are willing to take to preserve those voices.
e-Luminations: The Tenth Muse
This edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
In the early years of Spanish colonial rule in what is now Mexico, after the 1521 conquest of the Aztec empire, few women joined the male settlers to the New World. As a result, many Spanish men had relationships and produced children with native Amerindian women. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, African slaves were also brought to the Americas, and they too produced children with those of Amerindian and European backgrounds. The Spanish crown responded to this unprecedented and potentially disruptive collision of cultures, ethnicities and races by creating a strict sistema de castas (caste system) that placed individuals within a rigid hierarchy. Those with the purest Spanish bloodline were at the top; those with Indian or African heritage were on bottom.
Peninsulars were those of fully Spanish descent who were born in Spain. Directly below them were the criollos, those of fully Spanish descent who were born in the colonies; the mere location of their birth put them at a political and social disadvantage to the peninsulars. Beneath both peninsulars and criollos were numerous categories of mixed-descent colonial subjects: castizos were 75 percent Spanish, 25 percent Amerindian (so, one grandparent could be of native descent); mestizos were 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent Amerindian; cholos were 25 percent Spanish and 75 percent Amerindian; and indios were of completely indigenous descent. Similar categories were used to describe percentages of African blood in colonial subjects: mulattos were half-African, half-European; zambos were half-Amerindian, half-African; and negros were of fully African descent.
These caste designations were assigned by a priest at baptism, and were officially recorded—therefore bribes to priests to assign a baby to a “higher” caste were extremely common. Caste determined everything from the kind of occupations or positions that were available to the level of taxes one was required to pay. Although one could improve his or her social standing through marriage—and by marrying someone of a higher caste, one’s children could be of a higher caste than their parent—a caste designation was unchangeable and inescapable.