This article uses two case studies, a charitable foundation that provided dowries to orphans as well as efforts to fundraise for a convent for Indigenous women, to explore how philanthropy functioned in late colonial Oaxaca, Mexico. I argue that in both cases, gendered rhetoric proved essential for constructing compelling reasons for wealthy individuals to donate money. Additionally, both projects were intrinsically connected with material culture—ranging from the physical accoutrements of the lottery drawing to choose a dowry winner, to the geographic location and building structure of the convent. These material properties are still visible in Oaxaca today.

A few blocks away from the central plaza of Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital city of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, a large, two-story stone building occupies half a city block: since 1971, this has been the home of the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña, the Oaxacan cultural center. Thick grayish-yellow brick walls surround a central courtyard. Inside the building, a flurry of activities take place daily for both adults and children: music classes, dance classes, art workshops, and performances. A small library is located on the second floor; other rooms in the building serve as classrooms or auditoriums. Since the advent of the COVID-19 epidemic, the building has served as a center for the diffusion of art and instruction on virtual platforms; campaigns are also underway to increase the building’s influence, both by bringing in outside instructors and performers, and by setting up classes and art installations in other Oaxacan neighborhoods. The rear portion of the building holds the Archivo General del Poder Ejecutivo (General Archive of the Executive Power), one of Oaxaca’s many small archives. Alongside another wall, a church rises up, with a red-domed cupola topped with a cross soaring above the shorter brick building.

On the other side of the colonial city center, tucked away off a small side street, are the offices of the Archdiocese of Oaxaca. The offices primarily deal with the bureaucratic side of the Catholic Church: taxes, marriage annulments, baptismal records. A few rooms, however, are dedicated to housing the Archivo Histórico de la Arquidiócesis de Antequera-Oaxaca (Historic Archives of the Archdiocese of Antequera, Oaxaca, or AHAAO). In the past, a small folding table had been located inside the archivist’s office, allowing researchers a place to examine the documents—both the ones that had been catalogued (primarily from the colonial period) as well as the holdings that had only been loosely organized (such as the box marked simply “19th century letters”). Most relevant for historians of philanthropy, several boxes are labeled obras pías, a term that translates directly as “holy works” but more closely means philanthropies or charities. The archive had long operated with limited hours, technically from 10 am until 2 pm Monday to Friday, and its holdings were not in high demand, but researchers did come in from time to time. Since 2015, however, access to the archive has decreased. The official reason is that renovation has made the space too small to accommodate researchers; but when I visited in 2017, the rooms looked the same. After I sent a series of increasingly desperate emails to the archivist, I was allowed to enter the archive to conduct research, but instructed to tell anyone who asked that I was conducting research for a priest, rather than identifying myself as a historian.

Both buildings are essential for telling the history of philanthropy in Oaxaca through material culture. During colonial times, the building that now houses the Casa de Cultura was constructed to serve as a convent for a group of Capuchin nuns, a branch of the Franciscan order whose primary charism is a commitment to simple living and reliance on donations for support. Inaugurated in 1781, the building held about twenty-five nuns for the next several decades, until the convent was forcibly closed in 1867 due to anti-Catholic reform laws. More importantly, the convent was one of only four convents in Mexican history created specifically and exclusively for Indigenous women: only Indigenous women of pure descent, and ideally from the Indigenous nobility, were allowed to become nuns in this convent. Officially known as the Convento de Santa Maria de los Siete Principes, the convent was informally known as the Cacicas’ Convent, in reference to the nuns’ identity as cacicas, or elite/upper class Indigenous women.1

The diocesan archives hold the majority of the records relating to the Cacicas’ Convent from the nineteenth century. They also contain records of other forms of philanthropy common to the colonial period, for example, the donation of dowries to unmarried girls. Historians have noted that archives construct silences.2 Using a material lens of analysis with these stories of philanthropy—understanding the ways in which objects, geography, and other material conditions shaped the giving and receiving of charity—can help fill in these gaps. A lack of access to these sources, however, creates an additional layer of silences. The limitations imposed by the essential closure of the archdiocesan archive contribute to the erasure of the history of philanthropy in Oaxaca, especially the perspective of the recipients of philanthropy.

This paper argues that material objects are an essential tool for understanding the confluence of race, gender, and philanthropy in colonial Mexico, using two cases studies as examples: the creation of an obra pía that funded dowries for unmarried girls in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and the foundation of the Cacicas’ Convent in 1781. Both of these cases highlight the ways in which philanthropy operated in Oaxaca, but only one of these “charitable works” is still publicly commemorated. This article, therefore, concludes with a reflection on the barriers and challenges to telling these stories of religion and philanthropy through public history.

The story of the obra pía for unmarried girls begins in 1674, with the death of Don Andres de Carbajal y Tapía. Carbajal was a wealthy encomendero; he was descended from conquistadors on his mother’s side, who had been granted land (and the right to the forced labor of Indigenous people living on that land) by the Spanish monarchy in recognition of their service to the Spanish crown. Carbajal’s connection to Oaxaca is unclear: his land was located in Zacatlan, Puebla, Mexico, about three hundred miles north of Oaxaca, and he died in Mexico City. The fact that he designated portions of his land for charitable projects in his will is more easily explained: he was a Jesuit priest who died without heirs. Carbajal had also been dedicated to philanthropy throughout his life, most notably through his donations that supported a Jesuit school for boys in Mexico City, which was renamed to the Colegio de San Andres in his honor.3

In his will, Carbajal ordered the executors of his estate to create several obra pías in his honor. The Oaxaca obra pía focused on giving dowries to poor, unmarried girls, somewhat of a departure from Carbajal’s prior support for the Order of St. Philip Neri and the Jesuits. Still, donations for dowries were a fairly typical avenue for donations in early modern Iberia and Ibero-America.4 As historian Maureen Flynn explains, “Dowering orphans had sometimes been regarded as one of the acts [of mercy].”5 Dowries were an essential tool in a patriarchal society: Iberian tradition mandated that parents give dowries to their daughters before marriage, and most convents required them from postulants as well. In the case of the death of her husband, a woman’s dowry would revert to her possession, providing her with a certain level of financial security as a widow. But most importantly for donors to dowry-focused obras pías, the gift of a dowry could help ensure that a middle-class woman could find acceptable marriage options, rather than being forced by poverty into other living situations. As historian Jorge Augosto Gamboa Mendoza put it in his study of dowries in Nueva Granada, “Many charitable organizations recognized the need to give dowries in order to avoid this sad fate [of prostitution] for the girls.”6

In his will, Carbajal left explicit instructions about how his obra pía of dowering women should operate. He designated six thousand pesos for the purchase of a house (or houses) that would be rented out for the sum of three hundred pesos a year. The three hundred pesos, Carbajal indicated, would be divided into three parts. The largest portion, 225 pesos, was to be given as a dowry to one orphan per year, who would be chosen by lottery from a pool of potential recipients. Another twenty-five pesos would cover the administrative costs of collecting rent and paying taxes on the property. Finally, fifty pesos would be given to the cabildo to pay for a mass and public procession on the feast of St. Nicolas of Tolentino, the patron saint of souls in purgatory.7 The foundation would, in theory, be self-sustaining, and able to provide an annual dowry perpetually, as long as the rented houses stood.

Carbajal had specific qualities in mind for the women who would win the dowry. Only “poor, noble, and virtuous ladies, belonging to this city” were permitted to enter the lottery.8 Although the obra pía was commonly referred to as a project to give dowries to orphans, Carbajal allowed women who had one or both parents living to be selected, assuming that they had demonstrated an appropriate level of financial need.9 The cabildo accepted the parameters of this obra pía, but added a few of their own qualifications. They decided that the women entered in the drawing should be at least twelve years of age or older. The cabildo also defined a procedure for the disbursal of the dowry. They would hold the 225 pesos in reserve in their coffers until the day that the woman either married or entered the convent. “She will be given the pesos when she is certified to have taken the state of religious or married woman,” the cabildo concluded, underlining these conditions for emphasis. “She will not receive it before then.” Although at least one woman did use the dowry to enter the convent, the majority used it in marriage, which was clearly the cabildo’s focus as well: their title for the project was “the obra pía of marrying orphans and celebrating the anniversary of St. Nicholas.” With the appropriate signatures and acceptance on the part of the executers, they decided to begin the program that same year.10

The obra pía ran annually for around eighty years. Every August, fifteen days before the feast of St. Nicholas of Tolentino on September 10, each of the six members of the cabildo would submit the names of two girls who were eligible to receive the dowry, creating the biblically resonant number of twelve candidates. There is no existing documentation that describes how the cabildo members selected their two candidates, but based on the names of the winners as compared to the names of the men of the cabildo, family connections do not appear to have been a major factor. All of the entrants, however, seem to have been of Spanish descent—unusual given the racial diversity of Oaxaca.11 One winner would be randomly chosen from among the twelve entries. She attended the mass in honor of St. Nicholas, and then participated in a public procession to signify her gratitude.

As the cabildo had specified, however, the girl did not automatically receive her dowry. Instead, the woman (or her new husband) had to return to the cabildo to ask for the dowry to be disbursed upon the woman’s marriage or entrance into the convent. In the diocesan records, only seven petitions survive from the eight-plus decades of the obra pía. Five were written by women: Michaela de Viedma (1689), Juana Ortiz de Estrada (1690), Ana María de Paz y Martinez (1696), María Gonzales (1696), and María Luiza de Zeballos Niño (1724), and only two by men: Don Joseph Matheo de los Hijuelos on behalf of Magdalena de Aragon y Parada (1702) and Francisco Garcia de Villegas on behalf of Teresa de Morelos (also 1702). Finally, in the case of Nicolasa de Paz y Melo (1691), both Nicolasa and her husband Pedro de Vega wrote a petition. The petition document was largely a formality primarily for the purpose of introducing documentation of the marriage, but it did allow space for women to express their thoughts on philanthropy.

Many of the women began by reminding the council of the day in which they had been chosen for the dowry. “Your excellencies were pleased to enter me, along with others, in the lottery,” Paz y Melo reminded the cabildo.12 “I was selected for the lottery by your excellencies,” said Gonzales.13 The women then generally asked for the money to be disbursed. “I will receive the money through your excellencies’ charity, honor, and mercy,” said Paz y Melo.14 Ortiz emphasized her request by repeating it twice; after describing her marriage, she claimed that “therefore I ought to be given the aforementioned two hundred and twenty-five pesos,” and then concluded with a plea that “your excellencies…command that [it] be given to me.” Ortiz also mentioned that the dowry would be destined for “her wardrobe and her important sustenance.” Two other women, in contrast, stated that the dowry would be given to their husbands. For example, Gonzales asked that the council “command that the aforementioned quantity be handed over to my aforementioned husband.” The petitions closed with an appeal either to the justice of the cabildo, or to their egos, or both. “I ask this in justice,” wrote Viedma, while Ortiz thanked the “charity and piety” of the “illustrious lords” of the cabildo.15 Typically, the cabildo reviewed their own records, confirmed that the woman had been selected and was now either married or had entered a convent, and then disbursed the funds.

Figure 1.

Most petitions followed a standard format, as in this one signed by Michaela de Viedma. Petition of Michaela de Viedma, October 26, 1689. (AHAAO, cabildo, gobierno, correspondencia, caja 22, exp 11.)

Figure 1.

Most petitions followed a standard format, as in this one signed by Michaela de Viedma. Petition of Michaela de Viedma, October 26, 1689. (AHAAO, cabildo, gobierno, correspondencia, caja 22, exp 11.)

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Although nearly all of the records of the obra pía are archival, the documents indicate the ways that this philanthropic endeavor was expressed through material objects as well. Carbajal had specified that the city commemorate his donation annually through a mass, procession, and the double ringing of a bell. All three elements served as tangible reminders of Carbajal’s largesse, while simultaneously reinscribing Spanish colonial norms onto the Oaxacan landscape and soundscape. The fifty pesos designated for the mass and procession probably helped cover the cost of the needed material objects (communion wafers, wine, and candles), as well as the time of the priest and procession participants; one receipt indicates that a sacristan, a priest in charge of equipping the church for services, was the one who received this payment.16

It is unclear whether the mass was private or open to the public, but the procession was clearly an important public demonstration of Carbajal’s philanthropy, intended to make the city aware of his gift on an annual basis. Processions were a common method of demonstrating authority and religious devotion in colonial Spanish America. As historian Linda A. Curcio-Nagy has argued, the goal of festivals and processions was to “create a vision of an idealized colonial polity where everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy.”17 The procession in honor of St. Nicolas, as specified by Carbajal, utilized the geography of the colonial city to further indicate the importance of his charity. The archival record indicates that the procession departed out the doors of the cathedral, which in Oaxaca, as in most other Spanish colonial cities, was located in the zocalo, the main plaza where both the cathedral and town hall were typically located. The procession of the selected dowry recipient around the zocalo reinforced gender norms and highlighted the importance of proper marriages for women, “making it each time as a meaningful cultural landscape.”18

The double ringing of the bell functioned in a similar way to the procession. As historian Alex Hidalgo has noted, the Spanish introduction of bells, typically hung from church towers, transformed the ways that Indigenous people interacted with the world around them. Pre-Columbian Mexican cities were, of course, noisy places; but the bells “produced one of the loudest sounds that a person from the [Spanish colonial] period could hear.”19 Spanish officials used bells to announce celebrations and deaths, to communicate a daily schedule, and even to quell unwanted behavior. A double ringing of the bell, as Carbajal requested, indicated that a person had died. Once again, physical elements, like a bell, reinforced the memory of Carbajal’s generosity from beyond the grave—and indicated his desire for continued prayers for his soul after his death.

Secondly, material objects helped confirm the identity and qualifications of the women chosen in the obra pía. The petition of María de Angulo y Ordaz, dating from 1694, contains a lengthy description of the process by which she had been selected for the dowry. “Each one of the six members of the Cabildo put two slips of paper in a jar, which was then shaken; and then a little boy put in his hand, and withdrew one slip of paper with the name of Doña Anna María de Ordaz. And then they went back to count the remaining slips of paper, and found eleven still in the jar, which confirmed the legality of the drawing.”20 Each step of the process helped solidify trust in the impartiality of the selection. Given that the obra pía was not merit based, it was important that all the candidates be treated equally; this was accomplished through the material property of identical slips of paper, which transformed all twelve women into essentially identical options. The actual selection was made by a third party (the little boy), who was likely illiterate, and at the very least was prevented from being able to read the names by the fact that the papers were placed inside an opaque jar. Finally, tipping the jar over to reveal the eleven unchosen slips of paper helped verify that only one woman had actually been selected, as was intended.

The process of disbursing the obra pía also reveals Spanish colonial reliance on material culture to authenticate a person’s status. In order to disburse the dowry funds, the cabildo had to be given evidence of two events: the woman’s selection in the drawing, as well as her marriage. Records of these events were kept in different places. Several of the women mentioned in their petitions that the record of their selection for the obra pía would appear in the book of cabildo records. The marriage record, however, was kept in a different place, a “book with a red cover titled ‘book of marriages.’”21 A scribe from the diocesan offices would report to the cabildo to inform them that he had taken this book off the shelf, found the appropriate marriage record, and could confirm that the woman was indeed married.

Several books of these marriage records are now held by the AHAAO, but in a different physical format: they have been photographed and converted into microfilm records. Often, these marriage records have also been digitized and made available on, thanks to the work of dedicated family genealogists belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In colonial times, however, transmission of textual evidence (the bread and butter of most modern-day historians) relied on material conditions. In order for a woman’s identity and reputation to be confirmed, and her worthiness to receive a three-hundred-peso dowry established, there had to be bookshelves, books, and a scribe willing to write down information and carry it to other locations.

                      * * *

The Cacicas’ Convent was the third convent built in Mexico for Indigenous women. Up until the late seventeenth century, women of Native descent had been barred from becoming nuns, except for a few unusual cases. This prohibition reflected the Spanish system of “two republics” in New Spain: one for Spaniards and one for Indians, with different privileges, tax requirements, and catechetical expectations for both groups. After two centuries of colonization, however, the Spanish crown and local Mexican authorities began to blur the lines between these two groups—partly due to the influence of Enlightenment-era philosophy, and partly due to a desire to streamline taxation and governance, thereby opening a door for the creation of convents for Indigenous women. The first two, the Convent of Corpus Christi (1724, Mexico City) and the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Cosamaloapan (1737, Valladolid), were founded by wealthy Spanish politicians to demonstrate their largesse.

The Cacicas’ Convent in Oaxaca, however, had a different origin. The state of Oaxaca remains one of the Mexican regions with the highest percentage of Indigenous residents in modern times, and in the eighteenth century, numerous Indigenous villages with their own cultural and legal systems surrounded the Spanish colonial city of Oaxaca. Although each village (pueblo) operated independently, they generally fell into one of three populations: Zapotec, Mixtec, or Nahua. In 1742, a group of forty-nine caciques, elite Indigenous men, from multiple pueblos wrote a petition to the diocesan council asking for a convent for Indigenous women. The Native women of Oaxaca, they argued, should not be “less attended than those of other dioceses.”22

The process for creating the convent lasted several decades, as various factions in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and even Spain threw their weight in favor of or in opposition to the project. I will focus on two elements of the Cacicas’ Convent that resonate closely with the story of the gift of dowries discussed above: the importance of public demonstrations of philanthropic giving, and the gendered strategies of persuasion used to accumulate donations.

For decades, the diocesan cabildo was reluctant to support the caciques’ plan, but by 1766, the caciques seemed to have gathered many of the necessary elements to circumvent some of the roadblocks that the diocesan cabildo had put in place. The movement had grown to include over 300 caciques; they had gotten elite Spanish lawyers to join with them and present their case to the cabildo; and they had done their own fundraising. Most importantly, they had secured a location for the convent at the Church of the Most Precious Blood. The church was financially supported by the estate of don Lorenzo de Olivera y Ávila, who had been responsible for the construction of the church.

Like Andres de Carbajal y Tapia, Olivera had specified conditions for the continued funding of the church by his estate after his death. In this case, the requirements were that the Eucharist must be perpetually adored in the church, that the poor must be buried for free in the church courtyard, and that Olivera and his family must be buried in front of the main church altar. According to Olivera’s descendent, doña Petrona de Latatua y Pano, the estate was no longer able to provide income to support these three conditions. The coalition settled on a solution: doña Latatua would sell a few houses, which were part of the estate and lay contiguous to the church, to the caciques. With just a bit of renovation, the houses could be converted into a convent, the nuns could help ensure the perpetual veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the money from the sale of the house could help provide for burial costs for the poor.23

This time, the proposal went all the way to Madrid for approval. Carlos III decreed that the convent should be built, but rejected the proposal to use the Church of the Most Precious Blood. He was concerned that other heirs might come forward to object to the sale of the land from Olivera’s estate, but there was another, more material cause for his disapproval: “The church cannot shed its obligation that was placed upon it to bury the poor,” the King wrote, but this commitment was “improper for a convent of nuns and incompatible with their silence and rule of prayers.”24 In other words, the King believed that the public-facing philanthropy of burying impoverished people was materially incompatible with the private-facing philanthropy of convent life. The Indigenous coalition tried to protest, arguing that the nuns would remain behind the cloister walls within the church while the public funerals could take place in the outer gathering spaces of the church, but to no avail.25

Faced with the King’s approval of the convent but disapproval of the chosen site, both the caciques and the diocesan cabildo found themselves forced to seek new locations. The Indigenous coalition proposed the church of Our Lady of Patronage, which shared many characteristics with the Church of the Precious Blood. This church was not on the central streets of Oaxaca, but was still within a few blocks of the main plaza. Moreover, it was located in a traditionally Indigenous neighborhood of the city. In contrast, the diocesan cabildo proposed the Church of the Seven Princes (a reference to the seven choirs of angels in Catholic theology), a newly constructed church located on the outskirts of town. Many of the caciques objected to this location. Using the same strategy as Carlos III, they argued that material conditions made Seven Princes unsuitable. “It is in a damp part of the city,” they explained, “where all of the excess water flows…which will negatively impact the health of the nuns. Moreover, bringing clean water to the convent would require the construction of new waterways, which might be more expensive than the coalition can afford.”26 In response, the diocesan cabildo held a perfunctory examination of the two sites, and concluded that the site of the Seven Princes’ church was superior because the addition of a convent would not require rerouting some city streets.27 The bishop of Oaxaca, don Miguel Anselmo Alvarez de Aberu y Valdez, approved the new convent, but only at the Seven Princes location.

Although the caciques continued to support the new convent initiative, it seems clear that the diocesan council had managed to circumvent one of the goals of the coalition: creating a longstanding public demonstration of the importance of Indigenous Catholicism in the heart of Oaxaca. Instead, the house of prayer for Indigenous women would be located on the outskirts of the city. This physical location reinforced existing racialized geographies of the city. For example, it had two churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The northern parish, attended by wealthy Spaniards, was called Carmen Alto (upper Carmel), while the church attended by poorer mestizos was called Carmen Bajo (lower Carmen). The Cacicas’ convent, which would be the second convent associated with the Capuchin order in Oaxaca, received a similar designation: they were often called the capuchinas bajas in contrast to the Spanish nuns in the northern part of the city, the capuchinas altas. The terms upper and lower had geographic origins, but also social resonance with the racial hierarchies that governed the city.

Figure 2.

Map of potential Cacicas’ Convent locations, created by author using Google My Maps, 2022.

Figure 2.

Map of potential Cacicas’ Convent locations, created by author using Google My Maps, 2022.

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The Cacicas’ convent opened in 1781, with an initial population of six nuns who were transferred from the Convent of Corpus Christi (the convent for Indigenous women in Mexico City) and an additional twenty or so girls from the local area; records indicate that the convent continued to accept Indigenous women as novices for at least the next four decades. After Mexican independence in 1821, however, the new national government attempted to homogenize the population by erasing the legal category of “Indian.” This shift is clearly visible within the official records of the Cacicas’ convent. During the colonial period, for example, Bishop Ortigosa described the convent in his 1794 will as the convent of “Indian Capuchin Nuns of Santa María de los Ángeles.” In 1817, a Royalist report on the war of Independence in Oaxaca called it “the convent of Indian Capuchins.”28 After 1821, however, official documents and newspapers only used the official title of the convent, never the colloquial “Cacicas’ convent,” or gave any reference to Indian nuns. Circular letters from various Oaxacan bishops in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s simply mentioned both Capuchin convents—the one originally for Spaniards and creoles and the Cacicas’ Convent—as “the two Capuchin convents” without distinguishing between them.29 By the 1860s, newspapers commonly referred to the convent as the “Convent of Los Príncipes,” referring primarily to the church attached to the convent, or the “Convent of Santa María de los Ángeles.”30

In popular memory, however, the identity of the Cacicas’ convent remained strong. In 1832, for example, a man name Miguel Lazaro donated the money he had earned from selling a plot of land to the Cacicas’ convent. In his donation letter, he proudly stated that he was doing so because his daughter was a nun at the convent, and called it the Cacicas’ convent specifically.31 Other references to the Indigenous status of the nuns were more subtle. In 1849, the nuns of Corpus Christi petitioned Pope Pius IX for a special indulgence to be granted to those who visited any Capuchin convent in Mexico and had a mass there. The fee for the mass, presumably, would go at least in part into the coffers of the convents. Pope Pius IX gave his permission quickly, and the archbishop of Mexico City informed the rest of the Mexican bishops. In Oaxaca, Bishop Antonio Mantecón y Ibáñez had to decide which Capuchin convent to designate as the site for the indulgence. Although the indulgence documents never mentioned the identity of Corpus Christi as a convent for Indigenous women, Mantecón chose the Cacicas’ Convent church, perhaps mindful of the implicit connection between Corpus Christi and the Cacicas’ Convent.

The Cacicas’ convent, along with all the other convents in Oaxaca, were closed by order of the federal government in 1867, a result of President Benito Juarez’s reform efforts to limit the power of the Catholic Church. The approximately twenty nuns who had belonged to the Cacicas’ convent were sent to live in private homes, in groups of two or three. A handful of letters and other documents indicate that many of the women attempted to remain true to their religious vows while living outside of the convent, but the community was of course unable to accept any new nuns, and so the Cacicas’ convent’s existence ended with the death of the last nun, Sor Maria Teresa, in 1908.32

Public memory of the Cacicas’ convent, however, was kept alive through the existence of the convent building. Between 1867 and 1963, the history of the property is murky. A letter from the archbishop of Oaxaca in 1870 described the “convent of Capuchins” as being owned by the state of Oaxaca, and proposed that the archdiocese purchase the building to use it as a seminary, but nothing seems to have come of this plan.33 A geographical history of Oaxaca published in 1883 identified the convent as owned by private individuals.34 The “history” section of the current Casa de la Cultura Oaxaquña webpage mentions that Archbishop Eulogio Gregorio Clemente Gillow y Zavalza tried to acquire the building for the archdiocese once again sometime during his lengthy administration (1887–1922), but that the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 prevented this purchase.

Whatever exactly happened to the Cacicas’ Convent during this century, two facts are clear: the convent grounds had fallen into complete disrepair by the early 1900s (see Figure 3), and the building was acquired by the Oaxacan city council in 1963. By January of 1964, the city had begun reconstruction efforts with the goal of converting the property into a cultural center. These efforts followed the call for greater attention to Mexican art and culture, espoused in the early twentieth century by leaders like Secretary of Education José Vasconcelos (1882–1959). The opening of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) in Mexico City in 1934 marked Mexico’s new commitment to cultural preservation.35 A few decades later, the director of that museum, artist and actor Miguel Álvarez Acosta, began an initiative for the creation of a cultural center in each of Mexico’s twenty-seven states. Initially designated as a “School of Fine Arts,” the former convent grounds became the home of the Casa de Cultura Oaxaqueña in 1971.

Figure 3.

Undated early twentieth century photo of the ruins of the ex-convent of the Seven Princes. (Image 706, Biblioteca Fundación Bustamonte, photo archives, file V7)

Figure 3.

Undated early twentieth century photo of the ruins of the ex-convent of the Seven Princes. (Image 706, Biblioteca Fundación Bustamonte, photo archives, file V7)

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The continued existence of the stone walls that once formed part of the Cacicas’ Convent has helped this institution stay alive in public memory. Visitors’ guides identify it as the “ex-convent” of Cacica nuns. An article about the Casa de Cultura Oaxaqueña’s forty-fourth anniversary included this explanatory gloss about the building’s origins: “The CCO is located in what was originally the former convent of the Siete Principes, designated for the daughters of the Indigenous nobility of the colonial period.”36 Anecdotally, when I discussed my research with local residents during my trips to Oaxaca, most had heard of the Cacicas’ Convent. With recent scholarship focusing increasingly on Indigenous history in Mexico, the Cacicas’ Convent has been the subject of several monographs and articles in the past few decades.37 The story of Indigenous success and integration into the Catholic Church is one that the city of Oaxaca is happy to commemorate, and the physical demonstration of both Indigenous and archdiocesan philanthropy as evidenced by the convent building has helped reinforce this message.

In contrast, the obra pía founded by Carbajal has nearly been forgotten, and given the limitations in place at the AHAAO, the words of the female recipients of the dowries are currently inaccessible. Carbajal’s philanthropy, however, remains visible within public history, as a portrait of him, with an inscription describing his life and philanthropic efforts, is held by the Museo del Virreinato in Mexico City, and made available digitally by the Mediateca INAH. The effective closure of the AHAAO, therefore, silences female voices while allowing men’s actions to be continually commemorated.

Why has the archdiocese of Oaxaca shifted towards limiting access to its archives? The answer may lie with another contentious case of public memory and commemoration. In the year 1700, two Zapotec men, don Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Ángeles, reported to Catholic officials that idolatry was being practiced in their region. Local Dominican friars discovered and interrupted the non-Catholic ceremonies; don Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Ángeles were murdered by a group of Zapotecs shortly thereafter. In the late 1800s, Archbishop Gillow of Oaxaca gathered together information about these events, and began to describe the two murdered Zapotec men as martyrs for their Christian beliefs. Devotion to these men grew, attracting international attention, including official recognition of the martyrs via beatification (a step on the way to sainthood) by Pope John Paul II in 2002. The village of San Francisco Cajonos converted the home of Juan Bautista into a shrine.38 The Oaxacan Cathedral now includes a painting of the two men, and the archdiocese regularly celebrates their feast day, as can be seen in this Facebook post from 2021 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4.

The text in this Facebook post by the Archdiocese of Oaxaca celebrates the two Zapotec men as martyrs for the Catholic faith and invokes their intercession. (Archdiocese of Oaxaca, “Beatos Juan Bautista y Jacinto de los Ángeles – Mártires de Cajonos (Oaxaca),” September 17, 2020;

Figure 4.

The text in this Facebook post by the Archdiocese of Oaxaca celebrates the two Zapotec men as martyrs for the Catholic faith and invokes their intercession. (Archdiocese of Oaxaca, “Beatos Juan Bautista y Jacinto de los Ángeles – Mártires de Cajonos (Oaxaca),” September 17, 2020;

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Historians, however, have offered a different interpretation of these events. Much of the popular dedication to these two men stems from Gillow’s late nineteenth century book, rather than scholarly analysis. The topic began to receive more academic consideration in 1993, when Enrique Marroquín, a Claretian priest and Mexican scholar, wrote an article analyzing the usefulness of the veneration of the Zapotec men for the Catholic Church.39 Two years after the beatification of the two men in 2002, the Archivo Histórico Judicial published a record of the court trial of their murderers, making the documents more accessible to the public. In 2008, Yanna Yannakakis dedicated a chapter of her book on Indigenous intermediaries to examining the question of what happened in San Francisco Cajonos. Although Yannakakis did not question the Catholicism of don Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Ángeles directly, she did note that the two men “exercised their power” to exacerbate the conflict between Spaniards and the Indigenous. Finally, also in 2008, Rosalba Piazza, a historian based in Italy, published an article titled “Los ‘Mártires’ de San Francisco Cajonos: Preguntas y Respuestas ante los Documentos de Archivo,” [“The ‘Martyrs’ of San Francisco Cajonos: Questions and Answers from the Archival Documents”], which drew upon documents held by the AHAAO among other institutions. As her title indicates, Piazza was skeptical about Gillow’s account, and suggested that Gillow and other Catholic advocates for the beatification of the two men had placed undue emphasis on the issue of idolatry, rather than understanding the case as involving local politics.40 In a 2016 book, Piazza criticized even more directly the way that the Catholic Church had handled the affair, saying that in John Paul II’s homily for the beatification, he had reproduced the “distortions and historical errors received as the legacy of Eulogio Gillow.”41 It seems likely that the AHAAO’s current restrictions on academic research came as a response to these intensifying investigations of the Cajonos martyrs. Now that the two men have become objects of public veneration, the archdiocese has little interest in facilitating other versions of the story.

Material conditions, therefore, shape the histories that we can tell publicly about philanthropy. The process of disbursing dowries, of visibly commemorating acts of charity, or establishing centers of religious practice all relied on objects and geography to be enacted. These objects can help us learn more about how trust was created and established in colonial Mexico (the markers of impartiality in a lottery, for example, or the books where marriage records were kept), as well as the ways in which material conditions could be leveraged as arguments for or against different types of charities—as when King Charles III circumnavigated the caciques’ request for a convent in the center of the city by identifying material conditions of the church that were incompatible with their plans. But the types of stories that can be brought to public attention are also shaped by material conditions: the accessibility of the archive, the continual physical existence of historic items or buildings, or the digitization or publication of documents and other visual media. These conditions shaped the lives of people in the past, and continue to shape our own work today.


For the latest scholarship on cacicas, see Sara Vicuña Guengerich and Margaita R. Ochoa, ed., Cacicas: The Indigenous Women Leaders of Spanish America, 1492–1825 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021).


This concept was most notably theorized by Michel-Rolph Truillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1995) and expanded upon by Marisa J. Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen's Troubled Archive,” Gender & History 24, no. 3 (November 2010), 564–84.


Enrique López, “El destino de los colegios de la Compañía en Ciudad de México tras la expulsión de los jesuitas,” Revista de Historia Moderna. Anales de la Universidad de Alicante 32 (2014): 281–84, See also the text on the portrait of Carbajal. Anonymous, seventeenth century, “Don Andres de Carbajal y Tapia,” oil on canvas, 195.5 x 113 cm, Museo Nacional de Virreinato, Mexico City, Mexico,


See Asunción Lavrin and Edith Couturier, “Dowries and Wills: A View of Women’s Socioeconomic Role in Colonial Guadalajara and Puebla, 1640–1790,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 59, no. 2 (May 1, 1979): 280–304; for more on the decline of dowries, see also Muriel Nazzari, Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in São Paulo, Brazil, 1600–1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).


Maureen M. Flynn, “Charitable Ritual in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 16, no. 3 (October 1985): 340–41.


Jorge Augosto Gamboa Mendoza, El precio de un marido, trans. Jessica Lauren Nelson (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, 2003), 30.


Although beyond the scope of this paper, the reader is invited to speculate about the causes of Carbajal’s apparent belief that he would have spent a great deal of time being purified in purgatory before entering heaven, as indicated by his choice of the patron saint of purgatory as his designated intercessor.


Will of Don Andres Caraval y Tapia, 1674, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 21, exp. 4


It was common for children who had only one living parent to also be called orphans. See A. J. R. Russell-Wood, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa Da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755 (London: McMillan, 1968), 187.


Declaration of the Cabildo, January 21, 1681, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 21, exp. 4.


William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 19, 34.


Petition of Nicolasa de Paz y Melo, March 6, 1692, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 22, exp. 13.


Petition of María Gonzales, August 4, 1696, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 21, exp. 46.


Petition of Nicolas de Paz y Melo, March 6, 1692, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 22, exp. 13.


Petition of Michaela de Viedma, October 26, 1689, AHAAO, cabildo, gobierno, correspondencia, caja 22, exp 11; Petition of Juana Ortiz de Estrada, September 2, 1689, AHAAO, cabildo, gobierno, correspondencia, caja 22, exp. 12.


Receipt, September 9, 1686, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 21, Exp. 20.


Linda A. Curcio-Nagy, The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City (Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 2004), 7.


Curcio-Nagy, The Great Festivals, 8.


Alex Hidalgo, “The Echo of Voices after the Fall of the Aztec Empire,” Hispanic American Historical Review 103, no. 2 (2023): 225.


Petition of María de Angulo y Ordaz, June 7, 1694, AHAAO, obras pías, caja 21, Exp. 37.


Petition of María Luiza de Zeballos Niño, December 30, 1724, AHAAO, parroquial, disciplinar, correspondencia, caja 31, exp 35.


Petition from don Juan Manuel de Velasco and don Joseph López de Chávez to the Oaxacan Cabildo, undated (circa 1742–1743), Newberry Library, Ayer MS 1144, 46.


Manuel Caro del Castillo, letter to the Viceroy, June 1, 1767, Newberry Library, Ayer MS 1144.


Royal Decree of Carlos III, May 16, 1768, Biblioteca Juan de Cordova, Fondo Luis Castañeda Guzmán, Sección Religiosa, Caja 57, Fundaciones.


Joseph de Miranda, letter to Carlos III, March 18, 1769, Archivo General de las Indias, Mexico, 2661.


Don Manuel and don Vicente Velasco y Victoria, and don Manuel Velasco de Aguilar, letter to the Fiscal of New Spain, June 27, 1769, Newberry Library, Ayer MS 1144, 60v.


Diligencia, February 9, 1769, AGI, Mexico, 2661.


Will of José Gregorio Alonso de Ortigosa, July 24, 1794, Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca, Joseph Alvarez, Libro, 74, 88–91; Will of Antonio Jose Obañez de Corvera, May 5, 1817, Biblioteca Juan de Cordova, Fondo Luis Castañeda Guzmán, Civil, Transcripciones, Caja 53, “Testimonio del Expediente que contiene la informacion con testigos designados de oficio a pedimiento del Señor Tesorero…,” 9v.


Manuel Isidoro Pérez, circular letter, February 25, 1829; José Mariano Irigoyen, circular letter, November 29, 1838; Antonio Mantecón, circular letter, January 4, 1845, all in Luis Castañeda Guzmán and Miguel Esparza, ed., Cordilleras Eclesiásticas de Oaxaca, 1820–1880 (Oaxaca: INAH, 2002), 59, 76, 119, 44.


For example, see La Victoria, December 27, 1867, Tomo VI, Num 89, 1.


Testimonio de Laureana Josefa de Lazaro y Díaz, October 28, 1824, Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca, Francisco Mariscal, Libro 292, 134; Sale of Land by Miguel Lazaro, August 27, 1832, Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca, Vincente Castillejos, Libro 184, 127.


Luis Castañeda Guzmán, Templo de los Príncipes y Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Oaxaca: Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Culturas, 1993).


Vicente Fermín Márquez y Carrizosa, letter to the archbishop of Mexico City, May 31, 1870, Biblioteca Juan de Cordova, Fondo Luis Castañeda Guzmán, Sección Religiosa, Caja 54, Correspondencia.


Manuel Martínez Gracida, Cuadros sinopticos (Unknown city: Imprenta del Estado a cargo de I. Candiani, 1883), 3.


Graciela Schmilchuk, “Historia, Antropología, y Arte: Notas sobre la formación de los museos nacionales en México,” Runa: archive para las ciencias de hombres 22, no. 1 (1995): 21–38.


“Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña celebra 44 años de ser centro de iniciación artística,” trans. Jessica Lauren Nelson, Cronica de Oaxaca, July 1, 2015.


Josefina Muriel, Las Indias Caciques de Corpus Christi (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1963); Ann Miriam Gallagher, R.S.M., “The Indian Nuns of Mexico City’s Monasterio of Corpus Christi, 1724–1821,” in Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives, ed. Asunción Lavrin (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978); Asunción Lavrin, Brides of Christ: Conventual Life in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); Mónica Díaz, Indigenous Writings from the Convent: Negotiating Ethnic Autonomy in Colonial Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010); Jessica Lauren Nelson, “‘Women of Our Nation’: Gender in Christian Indian Communities in the United States and Mexico, 1753–1837,” Early American Studies 17, no. 4 (fall 2019): 414–42.


Enrique Marroquín, “Los mártires de Cajonos: implicaciones socioculturales de una causa de canonización,” Cuadernos del Sur 2 (Enero/Abril 1993): 53.


Marroquín, “Los mártires,” 37–58.


Rosalba Piazza, “Los “Mártires” De San Francisco Cajonos: Preguntas Y Respuestas Ante Los Documentos De Archivo,” Historia Mexicana 58, no. 2 (October 2008): 657–752.


Rosalba Piazza, La conciencia oscura de los naturales: procesos de idolatría en la diócesis de Oaxaca (Nueva España), siglos XVI – XVII, trans. Jessica Lauren Nelson (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2016), 390.