The Souls of Purgatory (2004)

Eng: The Souls of Purgatory is both a historical analysis and an translated diary. Ursula de Jesus (1604-1966) is an Afro-Peruvian Catholic mystic, who helps souls escape purgatory. Her enslavement in Lima was largely in a convent, where she toiled on behalf of nuns. Only upon getting freedom in her 40s was she actually able to take her own vows and devote herself to her religious vocation, but even that was with the caveat of being a Black woman in a space heavily hierarchized by race and color. Free or enslaved, she still operated within a space of Black femininity. Many of the people whose souls she “saved” were other Black women who had been enslaved, unable to care for their own time and bodies freely, their souls were trapped in a suspended state between heaven and hell. Some were trapped for beliefs they never acted on and others for their inability to pray for lack of time away from the labor of servitude. While the reluctant intercessor seems an unwilling participant in these acts of salvation, her words are precious because very few women, much less Black women, recorded their religious and racial experiences during this time frame.

Not only is this book interesting for its beliefs about Christianity and the role of women, but the historical first part does us the service of providing information about other Black holy people from Ursula’s time. We learn more about her racial contemporaries, including Ana de Castaneda (Panama), Juana Esperanza de San Alberto (Puebla, Mexico), Benito de Palermo (Italy, 1526-89), Catalina Munoz (Peru), and Beatriz Kimpa Vita (Kingdom of the Kongo (Angola today?), 1684-1706).

Within the framework of African lineage in South America, the book also offers interesting data points. For example, “Merchants rich from the silver bullion produced by the Potosi mines paid high prices to buy and bring slaves to Lima. In fact, the vice-regal capital became a distribution center for slaves sold throughout Ecuador, Chile, and the interior provinces of Peru. As a result of the increased forced exodus of slaves from West African, and their insinuation into the urban environment, the African and Afro-Peruvian population reached 50 percent of the city’s population in 1593 and 54 percent in 1636.” (p. 13)

For Spanish speakers, part 3 are original excerpts from de Jesus’ diaries, written in their original Spanish. Although much of this has been translated in Part 2, it is worthwhile attempt to read the antiquated construction of the language, which has evolved significantly since the 17th century.

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