Pious Accounts: Laywomen, Capellanías, and the Gendered Pursuit of Salvation in Guatemala City, 1750–1860

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 9:40 AM
America's Cup B (Hyatt)
Brianna N. Leavitt-Alcantara , University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
This paper explores how gender shaped the endowment of pious

foundations, known as capellanías, in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth

century Guatemala City.  Most scholars studying capellanías in colonial

Latin America focus on large endowments, which were created primarily by

elite males to sponsor the ecclesiastical careers of kin.  Among these, a

number of historians have explored the macro-economic significance of

capellanías, which in cash-hungry societies served as important sources of

credit for haciendas, commerce, and mining.  The eighteenth- and

nineteenth-century decline of the capellanía as an institution has also

been of interest.  This paper challenges the assumption made by much of

the historiographical literature that these foundations were an almost

exclusively elite – and largely male – practice.  In their wills, women of

different class backgrounds in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Guatemala

City regularly created small foundations of annual masses in their pursuit

of salvation.  These smaller foundations found in the testamentary clauses

of wills were apparently overlooked by the central registries of the

Juzgado de Capellanías and Obras Pías, which form the documentary basis of

much of the current scholarship on capellanías.  A gendered analysis of

wills suggests that while the majority of male capellanías focused on

patriarchal relationships with family members, specifically the

sponsorship of ecclesiastical careers, the majority of female foundations

revealed strong connections to local religion, particularly holy images,

chapels, and feast-days.  As ecclesiastical careers became less attractive

and large endowments became vulnerable to hungry governments, male

endowments of capellanías declined precipitously.   Yet, a sizeable

minority of women in the mid-nineteenth century continued to endow small

foundations of annual masses.  Based on available research, this paper

suggests that women’s foundations were better suited to survive the

social, political, and economic trends of the late-colonial period and

nineteenth century, while these trends tended to undermine men’s

patriarchal expression of piety through large endowments that supported

ecclesiastical careers.