115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Que de las aguas te saquí—y por nombre Mosé te pusí”--Jewish Conversos and Their Multicultural Perspective in the New World in La Viuda del Panamá

Maria C. Herrera Astua, University of California, Santa Cruz

In this presentation, I explore how the multicultural perspective of a Jewish converso who becomes the corregidor of Nombre de Dios allows him to navigate the religious, political, and social challenges in New Spain. I explore these issues by commenting on the research process required for historical fiction and by reading from La Viuda del Panamá, a work in progress.  


One of the main concerns I have as a writer of historical fiction  is to create plots that effectively explore the tensions which exist in culturally diverse environments. I am fascinated by how skin tone, economic power, and education shape the interaction between ethnic groups and social classes, especially in eras when social mobility was promoted by drastic geographical, religious, or cultural changes. It comes as no surprise that I chose 16th century New Spain as the setting of La Viuda del Panamá. In this novel, I explore the tensions that shape the relationship between the New World and the Iberian Peninsula by creating characters which exist in what Mary Elizabeth Perry defines as the social periphery—a space where individuals “float … along the margins of respectability, bobbing between ostracism and integration, in an ambiguous area where social rules can be played with, questioned, or waived” (9). Though Perry defines this term to interpret the historical position of women in the 16th century, I use it to investigate how marginalized groups circumvented the cultural homogeneity Spanish society prescribed as ideal for its members. For instance, I like to explore how Jewish conversos disregarded the economic, social, and political limitations imposed on them in the Old and the New World.

To do so, I created Don Pedro, a fictional character I include in the family de Alcázar, which was economically relevant in 16th century Seville (Pike). To rule the city and its Casa de Contratación, the members of the de Alcázar clan married into other converso families involved in the government, in the Carrera, and even the clergy. As the only child of Captain Hernán Juarez de Alcázar and Beatriz Mezquita, Don Pedro is an anomaly—a Jewish converso with a Morisco mother. Because he fights bravely in the Turkish Wars and survives a religious massacre, he is rewarded by Charles V with a Christian wife and the corregimiento of Nombre de Dios in Panama. As a corregidor, Don Pedro constantly negotiates his ethnic and religious identity, instinctually adopting a flexible perspective to survive in an environment that can be hostile towards his cultural heritage and dangerous for those who cannot fit neatly into the categories promoted as natural by religious and social institutions. His ability to see the world as an ever-changing tapestry of cultural and religious diversity becomes an invaluable asset when, arriving as a widower to Nombre de Dios, he falls in love with Isabel, a mestiza who dislikes Spaniards and who despises officers from the Crown.