Devotional Networks and Spiritual Geographies: Single Women in a Spanish American City

Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:30 AM
Pontalba Salon (Hotel Monteleone)
Brianna N. Leavitt-Alcantara, University of Cincinnati
Numerous scholars of colonial Latin America have demonstrated how nuns and female convents played vital spiritual, cultural, and economic roles in urban centers.  But far less is known about the experiences of ordinary laywomen in urban environments or the ways in which laywomen shaped urban colonial Catholicism.  This paper explores the lives of single and widowed laywomen in late colonial Santiago de Guatemala, Central America’s political, economic, and cultural capital.  Like other Spanish American cities, migration patterns and the urban economy resulted in a high number of female-headed households.  According to Spanish law, single women over the age of twenty-five and widows were legally and economically free from patriarchal oversight; however, being single or widowed also entailed economic, social, and cultural risks.  How did single and widowed laywomen respond to these risks?  What role did religious practice and devotional networking play in women’s survival strategies?  And how did these practices ultimately shape Santiago’s religious landscape?  Answering these questions is challenging because ordinary laywomen and daily religious practices generally caused no stir and generated little paper trail.  This paper explores wills as a source that provides a particular lens onto the lives of single and widowed women in late colonial Santiago de Guatemala.  Evidence from wills suggests that single and widowed laywomen actively forged devotional networks with monastic communities.  Several female testators highlighted how social, economic, and spiritual aspects of their daily lives converged in their relationships with nuns, priests, and religious communities and how these networks helped them to navigate both the here and the hereafter.  Although these practices may have originated as part of individual survival strategies, laywomen’s diverse devotional networks ultimately helped to overcome the hyper-local tendencies of urban neighborhoods and knit together a shared spiritual geography.
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