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Book tells how a woman fought the Spanish Inquisition

SANTA FE, N.M. — Doña Teresa Aguilera y Roche was a privileged, educated, tenacious and outspoken woman who was not afraid to voice her complaints about living in what she considered a hardship outpost in dusty Santa Fe.

In the mid-1600s, though, those complaints combined with her misunderstood ways – not to mention the hardball politics of the day that pitted state against church – brought her under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition, whose reach crossed an ocean into the Americas.

Frances Levine.

Frances Levine.

Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors from 2002-14, brings the little-known story to light in “Doña Teresa Confronts the Spanish Inquisition: A Seventeenth-Century New Mexico Drama” (296 pp. University of Oklahoma Press), scheduled for release in July.

Few people are aware that the Spanish Inquisition was active in the Americas, even in the heart of what is now New Mexico, Levine said in a telephone interview. Now director of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Levine said she has learned that there also were cases in what is now Missouri and Louisiana.

So people who fled Spain to escape the Inquisition and its persecution of people who did not hold to the Catholic faith saw it appear again in lands controlled by Spain.

Levine’s book emerged from research she was doing on first ladies who had lived in the Palace of the Governors. She found arrest records that detailed every possession, every item of clothing confiscated from Doña Teresa before she was taken to the Inquisition’s Mexico City prison.

The imperious native of Italy and daughter of a high-ranking Spanish official popped out of the centuries-old documents and grabbed her.

“Her story became very compelling to me,” Levine said. “She literally grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t turn me loose. … She demanded her story be told.”

The dust jacket from the new book by Frances Levine, which is being released in July.

The dust jacket from the new book by Frances Levine, which is being released in July.

Governor’s wife

In many ways, Doña Teresa’s misfortune came from the fact she was married to Bernardo López de Mendizábal, governor in Santa Fe from 1659-62.

A man with a reputation for straying from his wedding vows, Don Bernardo quickly got himself cross-wise with the local friars, reminding them their authority did not extend to state matters and sometimes interfering with their exploitation of native and slave labor.

At the same time, he confiscated items from settlers and made use of such labor himself for the manufacture and shipping of goods whose profit apparently ended up in his pocket.

He wasn’t there long before local church officials were sending reports to their superiors about his alleged actions, which soon took the politically useful angle of claiming insufficient piety and even suspicions of activities related to Jewish rituals.

Those suspicions extended to Doña Teresa, whose upper-class background separated her from the people she was living among, according to Levine, and whom Inquisition officials accused of having a “haughty and presumptuous spirit.”

That didn’t endear her to those around her, and whispers from household help spread rapidly through the villa and to the church higher-ups:

She washed her hair and feet and changed into fresh clothes on Fridays (a sure sign of Jewish ritual). She laughed when reading a book written in Italian and kept a middle drawer of her desk securely locked (she must be hiding something evil). She put onion peels on her feet (she said it was for corns). She didn’t go to confession (she said the friars spilled her sins to others).

She and her husband avoided attending Mass and were not compliant in a host of religious rituals (they drank chocolate and ate meat even on Fridays and during Holy Week). They slept through the night behind locked doors, allowing only a young child in to serve them (what were they hiding?).

Inquiry suspended

But while Don Bernardo died while imprisoned in Mexico City, his wife, who described her health as delicate, fought tooth and nail to clear both their names. After two years, the investigation was suspended and Doña Teresa was released, but until her death she still appealed unsuccessfully to Inquisition officials to declare her innocent.

Those continued struggles to have her name cleared stemmed from the importance of showing “the purity of her blood,” Levine said, at a time when Jewish ancestry was considered a “taint” on the bloodlines. “She was trying to do it because of her family, on behalf of her brothers,” she said.

It might appear surprising that Doña Teresa was released at all from a system that seemed stacked against the accused – the fact that someone was arrested often was seen as proof they did something wrong.

But Doña Teresa vigorously denied all the accusations, often firing her defense attorneys and writing up her own defense documents, which still exist and offered a treasure trove of insight into the events.

“I don’t think the Inquisition quite knew what to do with Doña Teresa because she was such a force,” Levine said.

And while we tend to think every trial in the Inquisition ended with someone burned at the stake, officials did follow a very formal process and detailed rules on how to proceed, she said. “That was a surprise to me,” she added.

With Don Bernardo’s death, much of the political reason for Doña Teresa’s prosecution was removed, Levine noted. And the former first lady did confess finally to something, although it wasn’t among the 41 charges brought against her: participation in an unapproved sex position with her husband.

Inquisition inquiries, Levine noted, could be “extremely prurient.”

Even more surprising than her release might be Doña Teresa’s ability to demand certain supplies in prison, including embroidery thread and sewing materials, pen and paper for preparing her defense (even though every time she was told to examine her conscience and write down her misdeeds, she used most of the time and paper to spill the beans on her enemies’ wrongdoing) – and chocolate.

Some eight pounds of chocolate and four pounds of sugar were included in her monthly rations.

Chocolate presents a fascinating sideline in the book, with summaries of testimony against Doña Teresa offering many mentions of her drinking chocolate, an elixir that originated in Mesoamerica but still was viewed somewhat suspiciously among Europeans as stimulating libido and wanton behavior.

Maybe it did.

Levine’s book mentions an attempt by a Chiapas bishop to ban chocolate-drinking during Mass that ended with angry women severely beating him.

Now working on research on women who traveled the Santa Fe Trail, Levine will be at the New Mexico History Museum on July 24 to give a 2 p.m. talk about Doña Teresa and sign copies of her book.