Class and Convents in Colonial Latin America

Colonial Latin America is fascinating. What I find most interesting about it is the intense stratification along class and racial lines. While said divisions can be found in other parts of the New World, I have never seen them quite as rigid as they were in Colonial Latin American Society. Even the convents were heavily stratified.

For wealthy women whose parents did not wish to pay numerous dowries, the convent provided a space in which they could live in relative luxury with women of their own class. They could decorate their own quarters, socialize with women of their class, and immerse themselves in literature and the arts all in the freedom of the convent walls. It is rather antithetical to our modern imagining of what took place in a convent. In fact, the perception of convents was so different back then that men would often make up rather lewd rhymes about the sisters.

Of course, that life of secluded luxury and artistic opportunity was only available to wealthy white women. Though they were technically marrying Christ, they had to pay a dowry to gain entrance to these convents, and had to pay to maintain their own apartments. They did have slaves, and the few times even biracial women tried to join these convents, they were summarily rejected.

There were some convents created for high ranking women of Native descent; especially for the biracial mostly illegitimate offspring of Spanish conquistadors and Native women. There were also convents for poor women. These convents were very serious and austere. The sisters were expected to spend their days praying and cleaning, not partying and studying music like their wealthy, white peers.

Race and wealth aside, being a woman in Colonial Latin America really sucked. If you were a wealthy woman, you had absolutely no privacy or agency and existed to be married off. Maybe once you were married and had produced a male heir you could have some control over the household or indirectly run your own business, but that was the full extent of it.

Middling class white women, and some Native women who had ranked highly in the civilizations predating the Spanish invasion, tended to be in the best situation, as they were in between enough to have more agency than the women at the top and had enough freedom to escape the sheer hell that poor white women and African women had to deal with.

Though they served as an escape from the harsh reality of womanhood in Colonial Latin America—which is why they became so popular and numerous—convents did not provide an escape from the harsh reality of not being wealthy or white; they merely reflected the society from which their members came.

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