Sellers Garcia on Leavitt-Alcántara, 'Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670-1870'

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The H-Women editor has chosen to repost the following review from H-LatAm.
Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara
Sylvia Sellers Garcia

Sellers Garcia on Leavitt-Alcántara, 'Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670-1870'

Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara. Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670-1870. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. 312 pp. $65.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5036-0439-1; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0368-4.

Reviewed by Sylvia Sellers Garcia (Boston College) Published on H-LatAm (June, 2018) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

We know relatively little about the lives of Central American women in the colonial and early independence periods. Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara’s meticulous and expansive study is a welcome contribution to the field. Its focus on religion aptly encompasses many related spheres of women’s lives, and the generous temporal framing, spanning two centuries, offers a satisfying canvas with both continuities and changes.

The title of Leavitt-Alcántara’s work suggests a pleasing contradiction, one that invites the reader to question assumptions about colonial norms. While single women seem to be “alone” because they lack spouses, we learn through the book that these women were not, in meaningful ways, really alone. They had ecclesiastical allies, in some cases they had spiritual followers, and in all cases they had plenty of company. Single women were never alone in their faith, however much they may have been alone in the eyes of the law.

The book’s focus is on non-elite laywomen. Elite women and nuns are generally better known because they are easier to research; the documentation on non-elite laywomen is both scant and relatively taciturn. Leavitt-Alcántara builds her study on close reading of more than five hundred wills from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These wills form the core of her documentation, allowing her to make meaningful quantitative observations and, in places, to find deeper stories by reading between the lines. In both the introduction and the concluding chapter, Leavitt-Alcántara unfolds the details of a woman’s will—the first from 1761, the second from 1850—using each as a point of departure for the exploration of explanatory contexts. Through these contexts we learn about diverse facets of life: material culture, business practices, family structure, and of course devotional habits. One of the strengths of the book is how it manages to support a chronology while focusing on different themes in each chapter.

A second body of documentation focuses on Central American holy women of local repute: Anna Guerra de Jesús, a poor woman of Spanish descent; and Sor María Teresa Aycinena, a wealthy nun belonging to Guatemala’s most elite family. The two are productive as counterpoints to one another, but Leavitt-Alcántara resists the temptation to simply compare them. Instead, she uses each as an opening onto her respective moment and related issues. Guerra de Jesús is the center of chapter 1, on poor, single women in Guatemala and their models of piety. A second chapter examines how and whether missionaries, particularly Franciscans, encouraged the devotions of non-elite women of mixed race. With characteristic willingness to embrace complexity and avoid overly neat answers, Leavitt-Alcántara concludes that we cannot definitively know whether male missionaries encouraged or merely tolerated the enthusiasms of non-elite women. What she does conclude is that Santiago de Guatemala, the Guatemalan capital, in some ways had a more forgiving atmosphere, a “greater tolerance of lay female religiosity,” than places like Mexico City and Lima (p. 71).

Leavitt-Alcántara builds on this conclusion in a third chapter, “Sex, Honor, and Devotion,” which follows the changing spiritual status of non-elite laywomen in the eighteenth century. Contrary to what we might expect, laboring women outside of marriage asserted their place in urban society by cultivating alliances with priests, participating energetically in confraternities, and acting as benefactors. Leavitt-Alcántara describes this as the development of “pious personas” that complemented or even challenged other aspects of their public image (p. 74). A fourth chapter on “shifting foundations” during the period of revolution focuses on schools for girls at the end of the colonial period. Not only does this chapter give readers in-depth case studies of several schools, but it also demonstrates aptly how “laywomen acted as pioneers and innovators, shaping educational reform through creative engagement with Bourbon reforms, Enlightenment ideas, and progressive Catholicism” (p. 104). Though the schools’ achievements were short-lived, their successful incorporation of diverse goals—women’s education, Bourbon productivity—will be instructive to any scholar working on this reform period.

A fifth chapter on Sor María Teresa manages a similarly deft treatment of politics and devotion. Leavitt-Alcántara benefits from the 2014 release of private documents (previously unavailable) on the nun’s life. The episodes described here are dramatic, and to my eye the nested stories of stigmata, letters written in blood by angels, sealed royal missives, and political maneuverings easily offer enough material for another book. Sor María Teresa, with her claim that “I am an instrument of Divine providence, and I speak although I do not wish to,” fairly begs for gender analysis (p. 163). (The striking cover image, which appears at first glance to be embroidered cloth, is in fact one of the handkerchiefs upon which Sor María Teresa’s blood miraculously painted flaming hearts.) Leavitt-Alcántara expertly untangles the knot of faith, family conflict, and revolutionary politics surrounding Sor María Teresa, though I suspect other readers, like me, would happily read more about this fascinating episode.

Continuities and changes are evident in a sixth chapter that treats the nineteenth century. Liberal reforms effectively crippled many of the religious institutions that pumped the lifeblood of colonial existence, but Leavitt-Alcántara finds that devotion, nonetheless, persisted. Acknowledging that the conclusion is not “tidy,” she finds that non-elite women in the nineteenth century were both political and pious, defying easy categorization. It is a suitably complex conclusion for a messy time.

Citation: Sylvia Sellers Garcia. Review of Leavitt-Alcántara, Brianna, Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670-1870. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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