Tornome morena

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María de san Alberto (1568-1640)—daughter of a well-known humanist mother,Cecilia de Morillas and a father, Antonio Sobrino, who worked as a functionary in the University of Valladolid—was an intellectual, convent leader, and mystic. Both visually and aurally, her writings resonate with an early modern Spanish popular culture inflected with the cultural and racial diversity of her time and place. She mixed Renaissance forms and tropes with those from various popular Spanish lyrical traditions and also turned to a broad range of poetic genres— décima, lira, octava, redondilla, romance, soneto, terceto, and villancico—to express thoughts and feelings that were in line with the policies and practices of the institutions that had most structural power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Iberian peninsula: church and state. At the same time, she embedded the daily life of ordinary people into her poetic production, thereby reflecting a broad spectrum of the society of her time and place.

The verses she produced, including those she included as dialogue or accompaniments for her theater pieces, are deeply imbued with the poetic and ideological norms of the period during which she wrote. They rely on the conceptual framework and dogma of the Counter- Reformation, as well as on the mystic and lyric tropes of the reformers of the Carmelite Order , St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, founders of the Discalced Carmelite Order. Unlike the poetry of her younger sister Cecilia del Nacimiento (1570-1646), in whose company she spent her creative and religious life and with whom she collaborated on several writing projects, her texts draw on the sights and sounds of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain’s multi-ethnic social reality— although only partially. Importantly, she omits Arabs and Jews, and New Christians of both Jewish and Muslim lineage; they are erased, invisible, simply not present. Through characterization and linguistic usage, however, Sor María recognized in her poetry at least some of those considered “other” in early modern Spain.

In this essay, I explore the multi-racial literary universe from which the author conveyed, taught, and reinforced the messages of Carmelite practice, Catholic dogma, and spiritual experience. She engaged in two modes of writing which lent themselves to performative functions: poetry and theater. To exemplify this aspect of Madre María’s work, I draw on two villancicos (popular carols) written in literarily imitative guineo (the dialect that enslaved African people spoke after they arrived in Spain and Portugal). The speakers, in these villancicos, engage in preparing for festivities to honor St. Teresa of Avila. Then I will focus on the racially diverse characters and speech in three short Christmas plays, which the author called fiestas.

Especially in the plays, the holidays provided a space for a carnavalesque recreation in which people from varying social strata might somehow come together in ludic activities. In this case, the celebration took place in honor of Jesus’s birth. The stage offered an arena not only for reproducing hierarchy, as would be expected, but also for a kind of convivencia with the participation of Africans and Gypsies, although Jews and Muslims remained excluded.1

The public actuality of spectacle vis-à-vis the fiestas was complicated. The plays were written and directed by a nun; costumed, produced, and performed by nuns; and nuns were the— primary audience, even if church patrons or ecclesiastic officials also attended. Convent retainers lay sisters, servants, and slaves—were also probably present as spectators. Almost all or most of the women came primarily from European ancestry; choir nuns were often from a background and family that enabled them to afford the dowry required to profess; if not, they had a patron who could. Africans and people of African descent were considered their property. Gypsies and shepherdesses were also considered inferior, belonging to a lower social class than they did; such women rarely, if ever, entered the world of the convent as equals to the choir nuns, women religious who lived, prayed, and worked, behind convent walls yet maintained a certain level of privilege.2 Still, in María de san Alberto’s texts we “hear” and “see” African women dressing sacred icons (a visual image that resonates with the routines associated with monastic life): Balthasar—the Black kin—offers gifts to the baby, shepherdesses sporting a skin that has taken on darker tones from working outside, and Gypsies dance and sing in adoration of the child Jesus.

Intimately linked with the characters, sound is especially salient in the fiestas and the villancicos in guineo. In the plays, Madre María makes use of a variety of musical instruments such as drums and the vihuela (a precursor of the guitar) to punctuate the performances. In this, she followed the literary modalities of sixteenth-century Spain. Sound also plays an important role in the poems: the repetition of words evokes the beat of African rhythms. And, as noted above, the words themselves imitate, although somewhat artificially, the popular dialects and hispanicized African speech that began to extend throughout the peninsula in the early sixteenth century,3 and which the writer transforms into poetic dialogue.

With this linguistic usage, María de san Alberto accomplishes two apparently contradictory tasks: first, she broadens the possibilities of cultural discourse to incorporate those who traditionally had little or no place in “high” literary culture. At the same time, like her Mexican counterpart later in the seventeenth century, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/1651-1695), whose villancicos gained enormous popularity and were sung in the cathedrals of several cities in the colony, she draws on a mostly masculine tradition whose topoi included mocking parodies of those same speech patterns. As Baltasar Fra Molinero, Glenn Swiadon, and others have shown,4 Golden Age texts by male writers contain a substantial number of racialized discourses; in addition, they are peopled with characters of many skin colors.

A case in point may be found in the writings of Miguel de Cervantes, to whom this special issue is dedicated. The novela El celoso extremeño, for instance, describes a multi-racial, multi-ethnic universe in which gender, class, and race hierarchies are at once replicated and critiqued—through parody, but also through the protagonist’s self-reflection. As the narrative develops, the author avails himself of ideological, structural, and rhetorical strategies that engage many of Spain’s key social realities in the early modern period. For instance, in the protagonist Carrizales’ house, the women are totally cloistered, with the expressed intent of chastity (except in the case of the protagonist’s wife, and the exception only applies to the husband-wife relationship). The setting is reminiscent of an “Oriental” seraglio, complete with a (Black) eunuch guard. Thus, a space that in a Catholic country would be expected to resemble a convent instead suggests a harem, offering only one of Cervantes’ many multicultural gestures.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “Spain, as a society, combined gender and race in the development of stereotypes about Black women . . .”5 The image of the Black woman in Spanish literature rested on that same stereotyping, which pervaded the dominant ideologies and institutions of that time. In literature, popular songs ridiculed the speech of enslaved people and their troubles, and popular theater soon developed the stereotyped negra — bad tempered, with “black” speech, illusions of grandeur, and “loose” sexual morals.6 As evidenced in theater and narrative, Fra- Molinero argues, the Black woman embodied a complex set of desires and fears for Spanish women and men of European descent. He provides many examples, including María de Zayas’s “Tarde llega el desengaño” (“Disillusionment Arrives Late”), in which the Black woman became a symbol of evil: a liar, devil, usurper.7 On the other hand, in the novella “El coloquio de los perros,” Cervantes treated ironically the theme of honor as carried in the Black woman’s body.8

In her poetry and plays, María de san Alberto displays a deep awareness of the dominant “high” and popular cultures that framed literary production in early seventeenth-century Spain. Her works conform to stereotypes, but also break away from them to some extent, possibly because of her mother’s humanist training,9 possibly because of the particular vantage point that living in a convent may have offered. Still, the texts that constitute the main focus of this essay demonstrate that even from behind convent walls, she remained cognizant of and a participant in the society in which she, after all, lived.10

The two villancicos in guineo appear in a notebook of poems dedicated to St. Teresa, where the vast majority of María de san Alberto’s lyric output in praise of the Founding Mother may be found.11 They follow villancicos in Basque and precede one which she designated as being written “a tono de franceses” (in a French rhythm). As a group, this poetic sequence creates a culturally diverse section of the notebook pages. The poems are clustered together, suggesting intention on the author’s part; she must have seen herself as engaging in a literary game by experimenting with various linguistic codes to write the carols. And literary conceit was at the time a hallmark of poetics. Both poems are structured as three octavillas, preceded and followed by a festive four-line refrain. The consonant rhyme scheme of the first five lines in each octet belies the “popular” quality of the language, and reflects the author’s training in “high” culture.

While villancicos began in medieval popular tradition in Spain, many recognized literary figures in the Middle Ages and early modern period also cultivated the genre with great success. As Lipski notes, “the turn of the seventeenth century brought a flourishing of the habla de negros [Black speech] as a viable literary device in Spain.”12 The villancico mediated not only between “high” and “popular” cultures, but also between sacred and profane, spiritual and material, and masculine and feminine.13 Generally understood as a hybrid form characterized by a refrain, short (normally 7- or 8-syllable) lines, and asonant rhyme, the 1739 Diccionario de Autoridades de la Real Academia Española defines a villancico as a “composición de poesía con su estribillo para la música de las festividades en la iglesia” (a poetic composition with a refrain for festival music in church).14 In the group of popularized poems that modern scholars designate as “villancicos de personajes” (villancicos with characters), those whose protagonist was an enslaved African constitute the most important category.15 They were written in a dialect partly based in guineo, but also partly based in contemporary Spanish theater. Their authors availed themselves not only of living people and customs but also of literary models.16 These villancicos de negrilla, which originate in the sixteenth century, most often draw on the stereotyped use of words without meaning — and clichés such as dancing and singing — to enhance their musical qualities.17 These characteristics are evident in the two villancicos discussed here.

Some critics argue that Black poets also wrote villancicos, to be sung during religious festivities, and in turn influenced writers of European descent who listened to the poems:
La aparición de nuevos textos manuscritos . . . parece indicar que los negros, esclavos o libres . . . compusieron sus propios poemas, incorporando a ellos elementos populares, como correspondería a su condición social, habiéndolos tomado de la tradición lírica castellana y mezclándolos con versos “africanos”.18

(The appearance of new manuscript texts . . . seems to indicate that Blacks, whether enslaved or free . . . composed their own poems, incorporating into them popular elements, as would correspond to their social condition, having taken them from the Castilian lyric tradition and mixing them with “African” verses.)19

In the poems that reflect rhythms of work, Swiadon argues, “la alegría de los cantos de trabajo de los africanos, divinizados en los villancicos, se mezclaba con el júbilo ocasionado por el nacimiento del Cristo” (the delight in work songs by Africans, made sacred in the villancicos, mixed with joyfulness about the birth of Christ).20 In addition, villancico poets africanized Christian tradition by associating biblical themes with motifs that Spaniards linked to Africans.21 As Paul Julian Smith has noted, referring to the “Captive’s Tale” in the Quijote, but which equally applies here: “[L]anguage is based on a network of differences both internal and external; and . . . meaning is produced both within and between cultures.”22 These tendencies all reflect the culturally syncretic environment in which the poems were written. Influences must have been at least partly reciprocal, which is an assumption and a perspective that distance modern criticism from the notion of Black inferiority implied and/or openly articulated in hegemonic ideology historically.

The majority of the villancicos de negros were written for the Christmas season, and featured characters engaged in the act of giving the Christ child gifts; there were also villancicos dedicated to the Virgen Mary.23 Some writers expanded the literary boundaries of the genre. Among convent authors, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is the most famous practitioner. Her villancicos took up religious themes such as the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, and legends of Sts. Joseph and Peter;24 perhaps her best-known today are those dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, a female figure of wisdom.25 In another part of the American colonies, in Bogotá, New Granada, seventeenth-century villancicos written for a wide range of religious occasions, including a nun’s profession, have been uncovered at the Convento de Santa Clara, where Franciscan rule governed the Clarissan nuns who, like the Discalced Carmelites, adhered to a relatively austere religious life.26

María de san Alberto adapted the villancico form to the worship and celebration of her Order’s Reforming Mother investing an evident emotional charge in the lines. This may have to do with situational factors: more than one of the (male) members of her family had played a prominent role in advocating and presenting the case for, and winning the Saint of Avila’s canonization in 1622, at which time Madre María had already spent thirty-four years in the Discalced Carmelite convent in Valladolid.27 Clearly, the Sobrino Morillas brothers participated in an unusually active way in the effort to gain sainthood for the reformer of Carmel and founder of the Discalced Carmelite. Also, since María de san Alberto belonged to the generation of nuns in the Order immediately following St. Teresa’s, the appellation “Daughter” must have felt concrete and immediate.28

While the two villancicos in guineo are not dated, so that we cannot know with certainty when they were written, they appear toward the end of the notebook of poems devoted to St. Teresa. We may therefore conclude that the author probably composed, or at least copied them into the notebook — they are in her handwriting — after the Saint’s canonization. Both reflect what a Spaniard of European extraction and the intellectual elite might understand, would expect to “hear,” when listening in on Africans speaking to each other in a Spanish influenced by one of the African languages, a literary guineo related to that of other authors of the period.

We can only conjecture how stereotypical María de san Alberto’s notions of African cultures and peoples were. And, the history of African peoples in early modern Spain has yet to be fully written. As a beginning, a perusal of the Valladolid convent’s records might offer an indication of how many (if any) enslaved women lived and worked there, although I have not yet found any evidence in the archive. Their possible absence does not preclude, however, their likely presence in Madre María’s childhood home. Black slaves were not unusual in middle-class homes of the period; for instance, on the first page of the first chapter of her Libro de la Vida (Life), St. Teresa demonstrates her father’s exemplary virtue with a description of his benign treatment of an enslaved girl belonging to his brother.

According to Baltasar Fra Molinero, by the middle of the sixteenth century, the majority of enslaved persons in Spain came from Sub-Saharan Africa; at the same time, owning slaves became the exclusive privilege of Christian Whites. Further, slavery in Spain was mostly an urban phenomenon, although slave owners included all sectors of society.29 As noted above, even if there were no enslaved women in the Convento de la Concepción, María de san Alberto quite possibly grew up with some in her family abode. In any case, she availed herself of a literary trope that was meant to reflect and honor the pride that Spaniards of widely divergent cultures and social strata felt upon hearing of St. Teresa’s canonization. Certainly, there is an immediacy of feeling to the verses, which were undoubtedly read out loud, perhaps even in chorus, that situates readers/listeners squarely in the middle of the festivities.

Nevertheless, the marginalized status of the speakers, and the fact that they become the protagonists of the scene, ensures, as Paul Julian Smith has suggested of the juxtaposition of different cultures in Cervantes’ “Captive’s Tale,” “that certain practices held to be natural or universal, are relativized, denaturalized," for instance, as “when gender intersects with ‘ethnic’ difference, the conventional paradigms suffer interference . . . ”30 The distinction between the speakers in the poems, enslaved African women, and the nuns for whom the lines are written, and who recite or sing them, blurs in performance. Who, exactly, are these characters? While those seeking spiritual perfection (including nun-authors) commonly used the metaphor of slavery to describe their relationship to God, who, because he was perfect, could demand absolute obedience, here the relationship of superior and subordinate carries a particular charge: it would have been relatively easy for the audience to remind themselves of one of the three vows that all nuns took (that of obedience). In that framework, St. Teresa substitutes for God. The trope of “the best master,” which appeared in early modern Spanish drama, is made dramatically Carmelite and radically female, and made so by enslaved women of African descent, the poetic voices present here. In addition, and not coincidentally, María de san Alberto’s writings consistently feminized authority, as demonstrated with her use of intertwined maternal models: biological mother, St. Teresa, Mary.31

The first of the two villancicos contains the poetic language that creates a carnivalesque environment for celebrating St. Teresa’s canonization. The speakers dress her—an image whose presence is felt with such immediacy that she actually seems to be in that place— in scarlet and white, adorned in gold, silver, and pearls. This is the kind of finery which, ironically, as a nun, she would never, could never have worn, but which celebrates her attainment of divine status, her worthiness to be worshipped as a saint:

Tanto oro e perla fina So much gold and fine pearls

tanto rica vistidura so much rich dress

tanto carmisi e brancura so much scarlet and white

que pareçer cravellina that she seems a little carnation

entre las dimas vicina (207).32 nestled among the others.

While the lush visual and aural effects appear to contradict the Founding Mother’s ascetic ideal of poverty, they serve another purpose: to place her in the realm of sacred personages, as a member of the heavenly court whose status is far above that of her spiritual daughters. The poem evokes the common religious iconographic imagery of the period, with a visual symbol such as might ordinarily have been seen in church chapels and niches. The lines thus resonate with another spectacle: the one the nuns encountered on the way to and from prayers, or in the convent church, several times a day.

The shared activities lead to a move by the poetic voice from the singular “I” to the plural “we.” A collective poetic voice imitates the Saint, by putting on holiday finery:

Tamèn todos nos vistamo We also dress ourselves

nostras ropas coluradas Our clothing in colors

de branco e verde labradas worked white and green,

las colores de noso amo the colors of our master

que como garridos vamo (208) so that we go around dolled up.

Naming green and white as Jesus’s colors, the speakers link to the divinity through their clothing. After adorning the statue of the Saint, they dress themselves to celebrate. Thus, in the second villancico, everyone (in the recitation) shares in the rich colors and textures that accompany the Saint. A veritable feast for the eyes, articulated and duplicated verbally in the fractured Spanish that the author reproduces, enlivens the holiday. Here the refrain, “Gurugu, gurugu mandinga/fachico que festa haver/de vistir a Teresa una ropa/ay chechu que mi da placher” (207) [Gurugu, gurugu mandinga/I make a party/of dressing Teresa in clothing/oh Jesus it gives me pleasure], expresses the joy the worshippers feel for Teresa, articulated by the link between costuming her and themselves, and by having a party.

With the refrain, “Fachico vinir cun migo/ver la festa de Teresa/chechu? que senta a su mesa/si bofee que Dios testigo” (208) [Fachico come with me/ to see Teresa’s party/ Jesus? so he sits at her table/ if . . . that God is witness], the spotlight shifts to the party itself, to the poetic speaker’s good time, to seeing Teresa participate in a celebratory meal. The verses suggest divine approval, which heightens the impact of the festivities. Further, the celebration has a kind of familial quality; the reader envisions a large table at which all the attendees sit, Teresa and celebrants alike, sharing their joy with the newly canonized saint.

Vivid colors and adorned objects also create a festive atmosphere. Because it evokes a world of the senses seemingly very far from the vows of poverty that Discalced Carmelite nuns took upon profession, and according to which they pledged to live their lives, the imagery of the second villancico may startle the twenty-first century reader. The Saint, white as a lily, red as a rose, so beautiful that she seems a full moon, is portrayed through highly sensual similes that emphasize color and the visual, perhaps to reinforce the sense of Teresa’s extraordinary place in the Catholic pantheon, as well as in the poet’s world view. In other words, once again, luxury of language substitutes for a lived reality of scarce worldly goods, while underscoring the poet’s filial devotion to the Founding Mother. The last octave links St. Teresa’s children in the celebration:

No querer sola, salire I don’t want to be alone, I’ll go to

mucha festa ojente branco a lot of parties of white people,

die rico die flanco of the rich, of the wealthy

mucho siñor que lo mire many gentlemen who look at it

bamo e seremo amigo (209). let’s go and be friends.

A seeming dichotomy between the spiritual and the material turns out to bring resolution of any implied (inner) conflicts and struggles within each individual member of the audience, as well as in the group as a whole.
Unlike most of her poetry, María de san Alberto’s fiestas were written for the Christmas season. Of the four that are extant, three include characters whose skin is designated as dark: a shepherdess, Gypsies, and the Black King (Balthasar).33 Because they were intended as part of the Christmas festivities, the action in all of the fiestas revolves around the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the enactment of gift-giving to the holy child.

Little information remains about the actual staging of the plays. What there is comes primarily from the author’s annotations and stage directions. These convey a great deal about movement and music and a little about the sets, but nothing about costumes or make-up. Unlike her contemporary Marcela de san Félix, also a seventeenth-century Spanish convent playwright, director, and performer,34 María de san Alberto left no written descriptions of performances, no legacy on paper with which to enlighten later readers. Did the nun-actors who played the roles of the shepherdess, Gypsy, and/or Black king darken their faces for the performance? What kinds of costumes were permitted? Did others, such as the bishop or confessors, view the spectacle as well? Indeed, aside from the scripts, I found no written documentation in the convent archive that the plays were performed at all — though surely they were. First, St. Teresa’s rules for recreation would have encouraged such productions. And, the nuns in the same convent today occasionally write and perform plays, although they have less time for recreation than María de san Alberto and her Sisters had, because they have no servants or slaves in the convent to do the work of maintaining the building and its inhabitants. Still, the theatrical tradition is alive; several years ago, the then-Mother Superior informed me that they had even performed among themselves one of María de san Alberto’s fiestas. Therefore, one can assume with relative certainty that they were indeed produced during the author’s lifetime.35

The first fiesta under consideration here, like the villancicos examined earlier in this essay, recapitulates an African ethnic reference, since the play recounts a version of Three Kings’ Day. A re-creation of their visit to Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus, the play uses for the Black king’s dialogue the same pronunciation and syntax, even some of the same words, as the two villancicos in guineo. In the fiesta, the Black king is no longer the medieval “Ethiopian,” but Sub-Saharan, from “Guinea,” and thus part of the ideological geography of slavery.36

After the first king salutes the Child, and narrates the story of his and his companions’ journey, the second king, “el rey negro,” chants:

churume churume churume churume

churumu churumu

face nublado it is cloudy

i quiere llober (74). and about to rain.

This stanza, which appears at the end of the fiesta as well, appears to help set the stage, literally; while forecasting the weather, the Black king’s speech evokes the rhythm of song. This is not surprising, since the lines are a common refrain of the time, repeated in several entremeses (skits during intermission) and bailes (dances) with Blacks.

Like the first king, Baltasar then describes the Annunciation and their subsequent journey, but his account is delivered in the hispanicized Afro-Spanish literary language typical of the period. After describing the revelation of Jesus’s birth, he continues reciting a poetic version of the biblical story:

logo qui vimo la istrella after we saw the star

procuramo caminar we tried to walk

guiadus di su cintella guided by its twinkle

buscandu aquiste logar seeking this place

y asi paramos donde ella (74-75). and so we found it.

The use of “u” for “o” and the “i” for “e” is probably meant to evoke the stylized “foreign” sound of seventeenth-century theater. Of course, it could have referred to Italian or Portuguese, but in the mouth of Balthasar, we — and the nuns who watched the spectacle — understand its import as a pseudo-African speech. In her imaginative realm, María de san Alberto thereby made the story itself more “authentic,” while at the same time alluding to those Africans who lived and worked in Spain.

When the black king continues, the pronunication patterns hold true: “lo” is used as an article, “i” substitutes for “e,” and “o” for “u,” while the final “s” is dropped. He refers to Psalm 71(numbered 72 today), dedicated to Solomon. It cannot be coincidental that this is the very same psalm which, since Tertullian (160-220), has been included in the liturgy of the feast of the Epiphany, remaining the classic Old Testament forecast of the magi.37 In María de san Alberto’s fiesta, Balthasar the Black king describes the reign of a just monarch, portraying Jesus as such a one, as an agent of God:

qui lo salmo sitenta e uno so that psalm 71

se complir lo quis escrito is fulfilled as it is written

esti ofricer tre a uno which is to offer three to one

. . . . . .

Llegar llegar lo primero Come, come first

e ofrezca alo Ree virdadero (75-75). and make an offering to the true King.

In keeping with the psalm, he speaks as a king about the King of kings, delineating his duties and loyalty, and assuring the audience that he follows biblical dicta, especially focusing on rule with justice. Verse 2, for instance, demands that the king judge God’s people and care for the oppressed: “a tu pueblo con justicia/y a tus oprimidos con equidad” (He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment). Verse 4 continues, “Haga justicia a los oprimidos del pueblo,/salve a los hijos del menesteroso/y quebrante a los opresores” (He shall judge the poor of the people, / he shall save the children of the needy/ and shall break in pieces the oppressor). In the fiesta, he offers a gift as a gesture of recognition of the true King. María de san Alberto’s allusion to Psalm 71 (72) and the theme of (in)justice, voiced by Balthasar the Black king, thus highlights — although possibly unintentionally — the marginalization of Africans in Spanish society.

The black king assumes protagonist status in the fiesta. Notably, he has more lines than any other character. And, it is left to him to sum up the meaning of the act of gift-giving, and the feelings associated with it:

E pos hemos ofricido And so we have offered

los donis e coraçon our gifts and our hearts

a lo Ree reçien nacido to the newborn King

aligrados di raçon joyous with good reason

mostremonos gradeçido let us show our gratitude

Ol moços frachica dominga Oh boys it’s like Sunday

da[n]ça dilante mandinga (76). dance as mandingas.

Reminding the audience of the gratitude and joy they are expected to re-experience during the re-enactment of Jesus’ first few days on earth, Balthasar states that they, the three kings who serve as representatives of humanity, have given both gifts and their hearts to the “Ree reçien nacido.” He finishes the speech with an “African” incantation, thus reinforcing the spectators’ consciousness of his place of origin and otherness, which in the iconography of the period was emphasized by his opulent clothes. Typically, the pictorial trope of the third king’s elaborate dress and narcissistic behavior, implicitly alluded to here, emphasizes the extent to which he is both exoticized and feminized.38

Ending the fiesta by repeating his song, “Gurume gurume/que fa cenublado/i quiere llober” (77) [Gurume gurume/ so it is cloudy / and it looks like rain], Balthasar also reinforces the “African” quality of his language. He invites a kind of people’s celebration with speech that despite his royal status, does not resonate with aristocratic discourse, but that rather reminds the audience of the social status of those whose African origin places them in a precarious social position, whether freed or enslaved.

Fiesta I, on the other hand, is a pastoral in which shepherdesses and shepherds hear (in Latin, recalling liturgy and the Vulgate bible) the divine announcement of the birth of Christ. Subsequently, they vie with each other in giving the Child and his Mother gifts. The play begins, however, on a far more mundane plane (although it quickly moves to the spiritual), with an exchange between the first and second shepherdesses about the former’s skin color:

Con el ayre de la sierra With the mountain air

tornome morena I become dark-skinned

quando paçe mi ganado when my flock grazes

haçe un ayre tan [h]elado there is such a cold wind

quel color acostunbrado that my normal color

de perderle tengo pena I fear losing

tornome morena (52).39 I become dark-skinned.

The theme of the dark woman of the Song of Songs here is combined with the popular songs about skin darkness that circulated in sixteenth-century Spain.40 Of course, the references in these lines also refer to being outdoors, in nature, doing manual labor, caring for sheep. Tellingly, the speaker expresses the concern that her white skin is darkening, and that therefore she will lose her beauty. While one might possibly read “negra” for “morena,” no indication of “Africanness” or “Moorishness” emerges, in either speech or costume. Still, the fear of an undifferentiated “dark Other” so prominent in the social ideas and mores of early modern Spain makes an appearance in these lines.

The second shepherdess attempts to quiet the fears of the first, assuring her friend that men will want her, despite her tanned skin:

No tengas pena pastora Don’t worry shepherdess, for

que la morena enamora the dark-skinned woman enamors

si graçia con ella mora if she retains her grace

de que tu no estas ajena (52). which you haven’t lost.

Beauty, she avers, resides in (spiritual) grace, not in white skin — on the inside, so to speak. Thus she links skin color to religious experience. But the first replies by emphasizing the effects of her toil, and thus continuing to focus on external appearance, rather than on her soul:

Tornome morena I become dark-skinned

Como estoy acostunbrada As I am accustomed to

a subir por la majada climb up the sheepfold

con la fresca de la [h]elada with the fresh cold air

mi color se me cubriera my color is covered up

tornome morena (52). I become dark-skinned.

She insists upon the detrimental impact of working outdoors, driving home the point: wind and cold, over which she has no control, tan her skin. Strikingly, she does not complain about wrinkles or other damage — just the change in her skin color.

The concern with physical attractiveness in a Christmas play written by and for an audience of nuns derives from the conventions outlined in the Song of Songs, which conflict with the racial reality of early modern Spain. The metaphor of beauty in the search for spiritual perfection and union with God, even the pastoral mode of that Old Testament book, dominates. In verse 5 of the first Song, the Wife refers to her dark skin: “Soy morena, pero hermosa” (I am black, but comely), continuing in verse 6 with: “No miréis que soy morena: / es que me ha quemado el sol” (Look not upon me, because I am black / because the sun hath looked upon me). One reading of María de san Alberto’s intent here is to understand the challenge to the Catholic framework in which original sin is gendered. Because of Eve’s transgression, all women are metaphorically “stained,” “dark,” in that they are presented as closer to the world, the flesh, and the devil than men. In the fiesta, God, through his grace, finds the shepherdess beautiful despite her dark skin because she seeks his favor and spiritual rectitude.

Among convent dramatists, Madre María was not alone in the use of the racial and/or ethnic tropes as manifested in a “dark” skin color to assert a religious argument. Sor Marcela de san Félix, mentioned earlier, asserts the same conceptual and lexical caveat to affirm a female character’s beauty — in spite of her dark skin. In the allegorical Coloquio espiritual del Santísimo Sacramento (Spiritual Colloquoy of the Holy Sacrament), one character, Alma (Soul), says of another, Fe (Faith), in a direct reference to the Song of Songs, that she is a “dama gallarda” (elegant lady), “Aunque morena hermosa / Señora de prendas raras” (290) [Although dark-skinned, lovely / Lady of rare gifts].

In both Sor Marcela’s coloquio and Sor María’s fiesta, the articulation of racialized categories necessarily refers to social realities at the same time that it applies a religious framework. Because the word “morena,” and all that it evokes, functions as a literary and religious device, and because, almost certainly, María de san Alberto had no firsthand knowledge of herding sheep, preoccupations with race, not verisimilitude, take, if not center stage, then at least appear on the set, not in the wings. These racialized nuances become metaphors for spiritual health as well as a commentary on the Song of Songs.

The same is true for an entremes in the second fiesta, which contains a song to which the playwright refers with a diminutive (“cantarçico”), executed by Gypsies, about Gypsies. Here too, the Child Jesus is racially inclusive: the Black king and dark shepherdess are replaced with Roma characters. The entremes is clearly meant to be performed, since it is accompanied by dancing on stage, in front of the Child Jesus. Each stanza suggests that a different musical instrument be played. As in a popular song, refrains are key; they constitute a strategy that invites the audience to sing along with the performers. The first quatrain sets the festive tone:

Gitanicas de alla de Eji[p]to Gypsies from over there, in Egypt

haçed una dança delante del niño dance a dance before the child

Si traeys un morteruelo If you bring a small mortar41

haçed una danca delante del niño (71). dance a dance before the child.

A celebration is requested (or perhaps demanded), and one is held, using the fiesta as a vehicle. The catchy rhythm of the verses almost requires the audience to actively participate. Like the shepherds in the first fiesta, although Gypsies were (and are) relegated to the lowest echelons of the Spanish class and caste system, they represent here the fervor and unadulterated joy associated with the religious holiday.42

A long benediction to the Child Jesus by one of the Gypsies reflects the author’s literary re-creation of Gypsy speech. The stage directions clarify the playwright’s intention. They note that “en el tono de la habla y en hacer todas las eses çees esta el hablar como gitana” (72) [in the tone of the speech and in making all the “s” into “c” constitutes speaking like a Gypsy]. Two stanzas highlight Mother and Child:

Digote niñu divino I tell you, divine child

que nazes para zer grande that you are born to greatness

ninguno [h]abra que ti mande none shall command you

porque erez hijo en el trino because you are the child in the trinity

pues no pierdez por Maria for you do not lose because of Mary

que al fin ez virgen e madre who is after all virgin and mother

pariote en tierra zin padre she bore you on earth without a father

madre tienez de valia (72). you have a valiant mother.

Here, orthodox doctrine regarding Jesus’place in the Holy Trinity and Mary’s maternal virginity is presented through the voices of attractive, seemingly unorthodox human vehicles: the Gypsies. The lines have an earthly quality, produced by the aural effect of the “z”s and by the emphasis on Mary as exemplary, yet at the same time a woman who gave birth “en tierra.” María de san Alberto thus appropriates her namesake and the Church’s most sacred female divine figure for the ordinary women who strive to be extraordinary by professing as nuns. They, like she, are understood as virgins; while most of them have not given birth, still they yearn to transcend their gender in a social and practical sense, through prayer and contemplation, while at the same time knowing that they are inescapably in the category of woman.

Following the description of Jesus as benefactor who gives light and food, the Gypsy asks him first for bread, then for wine. Certainly, these lines constitute an allusion to the Eucharist, so that again María de san Alberto clearly interweaves material and spiritual levels, simultaneously paying homage to both. The last two stanzas of the poem move the speaker from a request for red wine to divine love, thus establishing a tie between the speakers and the divine personages:

Dame un poquito de vino Give me a little wine

de aquello rojo en color of that one red in color

de lo que en rubio el amor from the blonde one I love

para pazar mi camino to walk my path

Bien ze que me lo daraz I know well you will give it to me

quedate niño con Dioz remain child with God

y tambien virgine voz and you too virgin, you

quedaos en el mismo en paz (73). also remain in peace.

Madre María connects ordinary life, especially the physical sustenance offered by food and drink — the red wine that symbolizes Jesus’ blood — with the struggle to achieve spiritual perfection. The reference to the “camino,” a common mystical metaphor, especially evocative of the Teresian stages of religious experience, reminds the viewers of their mission, of their commitment to walk that path, no matter how difficult to traverse it may become. Also, the allusion to Gypsies’ itinerant way of life in “camino” should not be missed; they are, of course, the paradigmatic pilgrims. Finally, the Gypsy reference invokes Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt, a common iconographic image of the time, and a story of persecution, Jewish diaspora, and taking refuge among strangers.

Importantly, as the Gypsy invokes the nexus of the material and spiritual realms, she highlights the mother-child relationship once again. At the same time, she offers a wish for peace, engendered by the symbology of the season, for the Mother and Child, in God. Mary and Jesus, first portrayed as an earthly dyad, which then comes to form part of an expanded divine trinity, a family formation in which God protects them both. In a sense, the nun-spectators are members of the extended holy family; since they are Brides of Christ, Mary could be considered as their mother-in-law from a symbolic point of view. Consequently, they may participate in the attainment of peace as well.

The depiction of mother-child intimacy pushes the boundaries of seventeenth-century dogmatic trends and iconography, which, after the Council of Trent (1543-1565) declared Mary as free of original sin, and shifted emphasis on the triad of St. Anne, Mary, and Jesus to one that made Joseph a significant member of the Holy Family.43 While Mary’s mother does not appear in the lines cited above, neither does Joseph. What emerges from the dialogue, though, is the speaker’s easy intimacy with the Child and his Mother.
María de san Alberto’s use, however artificial and racialized, of dark-skinned characters of varying tones — enslaved Africans and an African king, Gypsies, and shepherds — places her among the literati of her world who gave voice to those other than the elite classes. This choice, and her use of musical instruments of different cultural origins, contribute to an aesthetic and an ethic of inclusivity. The nun-author’s humanistic framework, learned from her mother, allows a space for characters (mostly female) and audience (almost all female) to claim agency, within the confines of ruling social hierarchies. Despite the omission of Jews and Moors in her literary universe, sor María’s poetry and plays afford a glimpse into the complex, highly structured world of a broad spectrum of Spanish society, unusual in the “high” literature of her time and place.
West Chester University


1 Although I am aware of its tangled political and social connotations in medieval and early modern Spanish history, I use the term “convivencia” because it expresses a sharing of space and activities that I wish to convey here.

2 In Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989; revised edition forthcoming, 2010), Electa Arenal and I discuss the writings of one such nun, Isabel de Jesús, who had herded sheep in her childhood and youth (see chapter 3, 190-227).

3 John M. Lipski, “Sobre el español bozal del Siglo de Oro: Existencia y coexistencia,” in Scripta Philologica: In Honorem Juan M. Lope Blanch, 387.

4 See Works Cited for citations.

5 Baltasar Fra Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women,”in Black Women in America, ed. Kim Marie Vaz (Thousand Oaks CA, London, New Dehli: Sage, 1995), 159.

6 Fra Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women,”171.

7 Fra Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women,”174.

8 Fra Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women,”173.

9 Cecilia Morillas was a well-known intellectual in her time. Fluent in Latin and French, she wrote her husband’s official University correspondence for him in those two languages. In addition, she corresponded with King Philip himself, and with his cosmographers and mathematicians. See Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, 131-32 and 137-38 and my “Introduction,” in Viva al siglo, muerta al mundo (New Orleans: Univrsity Press of the South, 1998), 11-18, for a discussion of Cecilia Morillas’ life and work, including her influence on and training of her children, especially her two daughters María and Cecilia.

10 María de san Alberto and Cecilia del Nacimiento entered the Discalced Carmelite Convento de la Concepción soon after their father’s death, in 1588, when María was twenty and Cecilia eighteen years old. They spent the remainder of their lives there, except for the ten years that Cecilia del Nacimiento spent exiled, as prioress of the convent in Calahorra.

11 A significant portion of María de San Alberto’s lyric praises St. Teresa of Avila, much of it in one notebook.

12 Lipski, John M., A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82.

13 See Constanza Toquica and Luis Fermando Restrepo, “Las canciones del coro alto de la iglesia del Convento de Santa Clara,” Cuadernos de literatura. Homenaje a Montserrat Ordóñez (1941-2000). Número especial sobre estudios coloniales 6.12 (2000-2001): 97.

14 Diccionario de Autoridades de la Real Academia Española (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1739), 487.

15 Glenn Swiadon, “Los juegos cromáticos en los villancicos de negro del siglo XVII,” Contesting Poetry—Gender and Race, Society for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry Seventh Biennial Conference, 11 Nov. 2005, 3.

16 Swiadon, 3.

17 Mario A. Ortiz, “Villancicos de negrilla,” pp. 126-27. As John M. Lipski points out in “Sobre el español bozal,” 395-96, the majority of Blacks living in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spoke Spanish just as their White counterparts did — the first Africans arrived in Spain during the fourteenth century, or even earlier.

18 Labrador Herraiz, José J and Ralph DiFranco, “Villancicos de negros y otros testimonios al caso en manuscritos del Siglo de Oro,” in De la canción de amor medieval a las soleares, Profesor Manuel Alvar in memoriam, ed. P. M. Piñero Ramírez (Seville: Fundación Machado y Universidad, 2004), 176; quoted in Swiadon, “Los juegos crómaticos,” 11-12.

19 All translations from the Spanish, except biblical quotes, are mine.

20 Swiadon, “Los juegos crómaticos,” 14.

21 Swiadon, “Los juegos crómaticos,” 15.

22 Paul Julian Smith,“The Captive’s Tale: Race, Text, Gender” in Quixotic Desire: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Cervantes, ed. Ruth A. El Saffar and Diana de Armas Wilson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 232.

23 Swiadon, “Los juegos crómaticos,” 4.

24 Electa Arenal and Amanda Powell, ed. and trans., The Answer/La Respuesta (New York: Feminist Press, 1993, 2009), 17.

25 Many critics have analyzed these poems, several from a feminist perspective. See, for instance, Mabel Moraña, “Poder, raza y lengua: La construcción étnica del Otro en los villancicos de Sor Juana,” Colonial Latin American Review 4.2 (1995): 139-54”; Georgina Sabat de Rivers, “Blanco, negro, rojo: Semiosis racial en los villancicos de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” in Crítica semiológica de textos literarios hispánicos, ed. Miguel Angel Garrido Gallardo (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1986), 247-55; and Natalie Underberg, “Sor Juana’s Villancicos: Context, Gender, and Genre.” Western Folklore 60.4 (2001): 297-316, for discussions especially of the role of race and gender in the villancicos. See Arenal and Powell, The Answer, for texts and translations of some.

26 Toquica and Restrepo, “Las canciones del coro alto,” 93.

27 On the king’s orders, her brother José had gathered Teresa of Avila’s writings, to support the beatification process. See Schlau, Introduction, 17.

28 See Stacey Schlau, “Following St. Teresa: Early Modern Women’s Religious Authority,” MLN 117. 2 (2002): 286-307, for a discussion of this relationship.

29 Fra Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women,” 162-64.

30 Smith, “’The Captive’s Tale’,” 231 and 235.

31 Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, 137-43.

32 Quotations in Spanish from María de san Alberto’s texts are from my edition, Viva al siglo, muerta al mundo; page numbers are from that volume and appear here in parentheses. For the poetry, I have chosen to translate the lines fairly literally, with a tendency toward colloquial modern English, so as to approximate the tone of the original. I do not, however, reproduce the variations in spelling that attempted to imitate perceived speech patterns.

33 The fourth fiesta is purely allegorical; each character — Peace, Justice, Truth, and Compassion) — gives the child Jesus gifts as well.

34 Marcela de san Félix (1605–1687) was Lope de Vega’s daughter. For a discussion of her literary career, see Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, chapter 4; for a critical edition of her works, see Electa Arenal and Georgina Sabat de Rivers, ed., Literatura conventual femenina: Sor Marcela de San Félix, hija de Lope de Vega. Obra completa (Barcelona: Ediciones PPU, 1988).

35 For an overview of early modern Spanish convent theater, see Alisa Joanne Tigchelaar, “Instruction and Self-Identification on the Cloistered Stage Instruction and Self-Identification on the Cloistered Stage: Dramatic Production in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish Convent” (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1999). See also Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, 148-49.

36 Most Africans in early modern Spain came from West Africa. See Robert Stevenson, “Sub-Saharan Impact on Western Music (to 1800),” Inter-American Musica Review 12 (1991), 108.

37 Richard C. Trexler, The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 12.

38 Trexler, The Journey of the Magi, 104-11.

39 Because of context and meaning, I interpet the verb “tornome” in this section of dialogue as intended to indicate present (progressive), not preterite. The somewhat sporadic use of accents in seventeenth-century Spanish makes the author’s intended use of tense a bit ambiguous.

40 One of these songs has the refrain: “morenica me era yo/dicen que sí, dicen que no” [I had dark skin/they say yes, they say no] (Baltasar Fra Molinero, in a personal communication to me, 14 April 2006).

41 A smaller version of the mortero, this is a wooden percussion instrument consisting of a hollowed-out container with a ball or stick to make sound. For a photograph, see My thanks to Mario Ortiz for the information and reference.

42 Like the fourth fiesta, this one, the second, contains allegorical characters, here Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, and Patience. The first three virtues are, of course, the vows that nuns took upon profession. María de san Alberto’s addition of Patience on a par with the others signals her practical experience as Mistress of Novices and Mother Superior: life in community was, naturally, not without tension and stress.

43 See my “Angela Carranza, Would-Be Theologian,” in The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays, ed. Jeana Del Rosso, Leigh Eicke, and Ana Kothe (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 69-85, for a discussion of this phenomenon. During the seventeenth century the Spanish monarchy began to openly lobby for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. As Baltasar Fra Molinero pointed out to me (in a personal communication, 14 April 2006), Mary's purity was important in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain precisely because of the national obsession with “purity of blood.” Since Mary was Jewish, proof of her separation from original sin took on even more importance.


Arenal, Electa and Amanda Powell, ed. and trans. The Answer/La respuesta. New York: Feminist Press, 1994, 2009. 17, 160-69.

Georgina Sabat de Rivers, ed. Literatura conventual femenina: Sor Marcela de San Félix, hija de Lope de Vega. Obra completa. Barcelona: Ediciones PPU, 1988.

Stacey Schlau. Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works. Trans. Amanda Powell. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989, 2010.

Fra Molinero, Baltasar. “The Condition of Black Women in Spain d

uring the Renaissance.” Black Women in America. Ed. Kim Marie Vaz. Thousand Oaks CA, London, New Dehli: Sage, 1995. 159-78.

Diccionario de Autoridades de la Real Academia Española. Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1739.

Labrador Herraiz, José J. and Ralph A. DiFranco. “Villancicos de negros y otros testimonios al caso en manuscritos del Siglo de Oro.” De la canción de amor medieval a las soleares, Profesor Manuel Alvar in memoriam. Ed. P. M. Piñero Ramírez. Seville: Fundación Machado y Universidad, 2004. 163-87.

Lipski, John M. A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

“Sobre el español bozal del Siglo de Oro: Existencia y coexistencia.” Scripta Philologica: In Honorem Juan M. Lope Blanch. México DF: UNAM, 1992. 383-96.

Marcela de San Félix, Sor. Literatura Conventual Femenina: Sor Marcela de San Félix, hija de Lope de Vega. Obra Completa. Ed. Electa Arenal and Georgina Sabat-Rivers. Barcelona: PPU, 1988.

María de San Alberto, Sor. Viva al siglo, muerta al mundo: Obras escogidas de María de san Alberto (1568-1640). Ed. and intro. Stacey Schlau. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1998.

Moraña, Mabel. “Poder, raza y lengua: La construcción étnica del Otro en los villancicos de Sor Juana.” Colonial Latin American Review 4.2 (1995): 139-54.

Ortiz, Mario A. “Villancicos de negrilla: Imaginando al sujeto afro-colonial.” Calíope 11.2 (2005): 125-37.

Sabat de Rivers, Georgina. “Blanco, negro, rojo: Semiosis racial en los villancicos de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” Crítica semiológica de textos literarios hispánicos. Ed. Miguel Angel Garrido Gallardo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1986. 247-55.

Schlau, Stacey. “Angela Carranza, Would-Be Theologian.” The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays. Ed. Jeana Del Rosso, Leigh Eicke, and Ana Kothe. New York: Palgrave, 2007. 69-85.

“Following St. Teresa: Early Modern Women’s Religious Authority.” MLN 117. 2 (2002): 286-307.

Introduction. Viva al siglo, muerta al mundo: Obras escogidas de María de san Alberto (1568-1640). Sor María de San Alberto. New Orleans: UP of the South, 1998. 1-47.

Smith, Paul Julian. “‘The Captive’s Tale’: Race, Text, Gender.” Quixotic Desire: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Cervantes. Ed. Ruth A. El Saffar and Diana de Armas Wilson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. 227-35.

Stevenson, Robert. “Sub-Saharan Impact on Western Music (to 1800).” Inter-American Musica Review 12 (1991): 101-18.

Swiadon, Glenn. “Los juegos cromáticos en los villancicos de negro del siglo XVII.” Contesting Poetry - Gender and Race. Society for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry Seventh Biennial Conference. 11 Nov. 2005.

Teresa de Jesús, Santa. Libro de la vida. Ed. Otger Steggink. Madrid: Castalia, 1986.

Tigchelaar, Alisa Joanne. Instruction and Self-Identification on the Cloistered Stage: Dramatic Production in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish Convent. Diss. Indiana University, 1999.

Toquica, Constanza and Luis Fernando Restrepo. “Las canciones del coro alto de la iglesia del Convento de Santa Clara.” Cuadernos de literatura. Homenaje a Montserrat Ordóñez (1941-2000.) Número especial sobre estudios coloniales 6.12 (2000-2001): 90-117.

Trexler, Richard C. The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Underberg, Natalie. “Sor Juana’s Villancicos: Context, Gender, and Genre.” Western Folklore 60.4 (2001): 297-316.

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