Latin American Studies Mystics and Mysticism
Nora Jaffary
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0275


Mystics and mysticism became a topic of interest to scholars of religion in colonial Latin America beginning in the late 1980s, particularly among those focusing on women’s spirituality. Because women were prohibited from participating in other aspects of Catholicism, including pronouncing on matters of doctrine, private, individual contemplation of God unmediated by male intercessors became an important form of female religious expression. This was evident from the High Middle Ages in Europe through the entire colonial period in Latin America. Those who engaged in this form of spirituality often sought “mystical union” with God that they experienced though ecstatic raptures and visions. These were often facilitated though severe forms of bodily mortification (fasting, sleep deprivation, and self-flagellation). Evidence of mystics’ connection to the divine was sometimes manifest in their supernatural abilities to perform miracles, to see the future, to levitate, and, paradoxically, in episodes of demonic possession as well. While some scholars initially viewed such acts as evidence of women’s acceptance of their inherently less intellectual and more corruptible nature in comparison to men, in recent decades, many scholars following Caroline Walker Bynum’s lead in the European context, see mystics as figures marginalized from traditional sources of Church power who nonetheless used their bodies, their imaginations, and their social standing within their communities to claim power and spiritual authority. In both Europe and the New World, mystics threatened the Church because of the alternative access to divine power they represented. Scholarship on mystics in Latin America has focused on such topics as the influences that important medieval and Reformation era figures like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila exerted on New World figures but has also examined how local contexts—the dynamics of race and gender, interactions with indigenous religions, and the emergence of creole patriotism—affected the production of mystics. Historians and religious scholars have also examined the confluences and divergences between those mystics whom the Catholic Church ultimately sanctioned (including Teresa, although even she came under severe ecclesiastical scrutiny) and those deemed heretical. The latter group importantly included the sect of alumbrados that emerged in Spain simultaneous to the Lutheran threat, and that was prosecuted by the courts of the Inquisition there. Witnesses and officers of the Inquisition then imported their knowledge of the same deviancy into Spanish America in the last decades of the sixteenth century and prosecuted this heresy in Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

Primary Sources

Considerable primary source material is available in both Spanish and English detailing the mundane lives, spiritual practices, and mystical experiences of Early Modern Spanish and Spanish American mystics. The writings of 16th-century nun Santa Teresa de Jesús collected in Peers 1946 represent an essential starting point to such material. An abridged edition, Mary of Agreda 1978, of some of the writings of another influential 17th-century Spanish nun, María de Agreda, may be of particular interest to colonial Latin Americanists because of Agreda’s reputed bilocations in mystical rapture to the plains of New Mexico, where she allegedly proselytized indigenous populations in what was then the northern territory of New Spain. In Hispanic America, Spanish vidas, spiritual biographies, exist for both canonical and more marginalized spiritual women. The former include Hansen 1895, originally published in 1664, detailing the secular and spiritual life of Rosa de Lima, the New World’s first canonized saint, another influential model of mystical spirituality for women who followed her, and an important symbol of creole legitimacy as Hampe Martínez 1998, Iwasaki 1994, and Myers 2003 (all cited under Local Identities) discuss. Myers 1993 and Myers 1999 reproduces excerpts from the writing of María de San José, a mystic and founder of a prestigious reformed convent in the city of Puebla who was nevertheless forced to repeatedly negotiate her relationship to the male-dominated church. Ramos 2016 and van Deusen 2004 offer examples of sources documenting the lives of more marginalized mystical women from the colonial world: in the first case, an Asian slave who became a prominent holy woman in 17th-century Puebla, and in the second, one of the only African-descended women, Úrsula de Jesús, to become a nun in the colonial era. Ramírez Leyva 1988 documents the inquisition trials of two women of Spanish descent accused of “false” mysticism. Two volumes, Arenal and Schlau 2010 and Lavrin and Loreto López 2006, reproduce excerpts of accounts by and about a range of New World nuns and lay religious women (beatas).

  • Arenal, Elena, and Stacey Schlau, eds. Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works. Translated by Amanda Powell. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

    This volume is an introduction to Hispanic convent culture through the writings of nuns from the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru from the late fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, reproduced in both Spanish and English. The editors organized the writings around the central questions of how religious women reread, rewrote, revisited, and disrupted religious conventions, and include both well-known and more obscure figures.

  • Hansen, Leonardo. Vida admirable de Santa Rosa de Lima: Patrona del nuevo mondo; Escrita en Latín por El P. Fray Leonardo Hansen; Traducida al castellano por el P. fray Jancinto Parra. Lima, Peru: Tip. De el Santísimo Rosario, 1895.

    Leonardus Hansen published the first account of the life and death of Rosa, first saint of the Americas, in Rome in Latin in 1664. This 1895 Spanish translation, available digitally, is a useful edition of the influential text from which to begin tracking the key elements of Rosa’s embodied spirituality and the social and political factors that played a role in her canonization.

  • Lavrin, Asunción, and Rosalva Loreto López, eds. Diálogos espirituales: Manuscritos femeninos hispanoamericanos siglos XVI–XIX. Puebla, Mexico: Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades de la Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Universidad de las Américas, Puebla, 2006.

    This volume collects both introductory essays and excerpts of original writings, many of them previously unpublished, by thirteen Latin American nuns and religious lay women spanning three centuries and two continents (although Mexico is most heavily represented). The selections include biography and autobiography, letters, poetry, and theater.

  • Mary of Agreda. The Mystical City of God. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1978.

    This text abridges the four-volume life of the Virgin Mary revealed in visions and recorded by the 17th-century mystic, Spanish nun María de Agreda. Agreda’s text also treats such topics as the creation of the world and the meaning of the Apocalypse. Agreda is important in Mexican history because of her reputed bilocations to the American Southwest, discussed in Colahan 1994 under Mystics and Writing and MacLean 2008 under European Influences.

  • Myers, Kathleen, ed. Word from New Spain: The Spiritual Autobiography of Madre María de San José (1656–1719). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1993.

    Myers presents an edition of the first of twelve volumes that the nun María de San José. The selections detail such matters as the nun’s relationship to iconic European mystical models, Sor María navigation of her gendered world and her male confessors, and daily life in rural Mexico.

  • Myers, Kathleen, ed. A Wild Country Out in the Garden: The Spiritual Journals of a Colonial Mexican Nun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    This translation of María de San José’s writings is modeled on the literary example of Saint Teresa of Ávila, but also include observations about the social setting of 17th-century Mexican society.

  • Peers, E. Allison, ed. and trans. The Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946.

    Teresa de Jesús, the prolific 16th-century mystical nun from Ávila, Spain, was the most important literary and spiritual influence on mystical women in colonial Latin America. This comprehensive edition of her writings includes her life, and the mystical treatises The Book of Foundations, The Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle along with minor works in prose and verse.

  • Ramírez Leyva, Edelmira, ed. María Rita Vargas, María Lucía Celis: Beatas embaucadoras de la colonial. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1988.

    Ramírez Leyva has transcribed substantial excerpts of the inquisition trials of two beatas tried as ilusas, false mystics, in New Spain at the close of the eighteenth century. Their trial documents in detail the fantastical visions and unorthodox sexual practices that constituted elements of the spirituality the court investigated.

  • Ramos, Alonso. Los prodigios de la omnipotencia y milagros de la gracia en la vida de la venerable sierva de Dios, Catarina de San Juan (Libros II, III, y IV): Estudio, edición y notas de Robin Ann Rice. New York: Idea, 2016.

    Catarina de San Juan, was a 17th-century Asian slave brought to Mexico via the Philippines. In Puebla, Mexico, she eventually became a lay religious woman and practitioner of mystical spirituality. This biography, crafted by her Jesuit confessor, Alonso Ramos, details her heroic virtues, punishing mortifications, and fantastic visions.

  • van Deusen, Nancy E. The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.

    This is a translation of the spiritual diary of an Afro-descended mystic, Úrsula de Jesús. Born into slavery, de Jesús entered the convent of Santa Clara in Lima in 1645 after having labored in it as a donada (a convent servant.) The spiritual journal records both features of the spiritual and mundane experiences of this exceptional Afro-Peruivan holy woman.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.