In this LAS Blog series, you’ll learn about important events and people from Latin America’s rich past. This first entry is a timely one; with the Porres Lecture coming up on Monday, November 6th (7pm, Art History Auditorium), this is a great chance to acquaint yourself with the lecture’s fascinating namesake! So, here goes…
St. Martin de Porres (Peru, b. 1579) died on this day in 1639. Porres’s origins are murky and clouded by centuries of hagiography, but most scholars agree that his parents were a woman of African (and potentially indigenous) descent from Panama and a noble Spanish man. As such, he embodied the early phase of “mesitzaje” in Latin America: the mixture of cultures and peoples that laid the foundation for the vast diversity of the region today. Although some in today’s Latin America herald the region’s diverse heritage, views of mixture in Porres’s time were generally negative. Notions of race and class were fluid in colonial Peru, often based on social networks, demonstrations of wealth, education, and other factors. In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the flexibility, legal codes quickly emerged that defined and distinguished races, discouraged mixture, and, generally, discriminated against people of mixed parentage. For example, Spanish law barred people of indigenous, African, or mixed parentage from becoming full members of the religious orders introduced by the Spaniards through conquest and colonization.
Acknowledged but abandoned by his Spanish father, Porres occupied a place of uncertainty and insecurity in colonial Lima. While his mother was able to apprentice him to a barber-surgeon, he was still prohibited from most positions of public status. Nonetheless, he appealed to join the Dominican order and, despite the legal restrictions, began working with the Convent of the Most Holy Rosary by the late 1590s. During that time, he garnered attention for his dedication to working with Lima’s poorest inhabitants, completing many of the menial tasks required in the convent, and to raising funds for charitable efforts. Porres was occasionally the subject of scorn for his increasingly public activities, yet he eventually won the respect of the order’s superiors in Lima and gained the right, contrary to Spanish law, to assume the position of lay brother in 1603. He served the order and the broader community in Lima until his death at the age of sixty.
Porres’s life and later canonization (beatified in 1837, canonized in 1962) help to shine a light on some important themes of Latin American history and societies. Latin America is a region of significant diversity, arguably site of the first truly “global” societies to emerge in the modern period. It is also a region that has struggled, and still struggles, with the question of justice in a diverse society and the issues of inequality, exclusion, and violence. For those reasons among others, Latin America occupies an important place within the story of the Western and Catholic Traditions.
Inspired by Porres’s example of education, service, and social justice, the Latin American Studies Concentration has launched a lecture series known as the “Porres Lecture” to be held on or near the saint’s feast day (November 3rd). The series first lecturer is Dr. Dawn McCarty of the University of Houston-Downtown. Dr. McCarty is a Professor of Social Work with a research focus on rural Mexico and latinx immigrant communities in the United States. Like Porres, Dr. McCarty has also dedicated much of her life to working with marginalized communities. Her work has largely been based at the Catholic Worker House, Casa Juan Diego, in Houston. She is, then, a particularly appropriate choice as the first Porres lecturer. Come along and find out more about Porres, Dr. McCarty’s work, and Latin America!
See below for a Portrait of Porres and a photo of a chapel dedicated to the saint in the Convento Santo Domingo (where he is buried) in Lima.