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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF SAN MIGUEL: The ancient Mulatto chapel

The Oratorio church is one of the most attractive architectural buildings in San Miguel de Allende. It stands on an elevated platform next to the church of La Salud on one side, and the Chapel of Loreto on the other. The building is not as old as the church of San Rafael—the Santa Escuela, or the Parroquia, but it goes back to the beginnings of the 18th century. However, there is a portion of the Oratorio that existed prior to its transformation into the major church that it is today, an old entryway is the remainder of a chapel that existed independently for almost 150 years before the Oratorians arrived in San Miguel.

The side entrance to the Oratorio, at its eastern end, is part of an old chapel built by the Mulattos of San Miguel in 1595. Its history is tied not only to the beginnings of the town of San Miguel el Grande, but to the arrival of Africans in New Spain, and ultimately to their settlement here.


One of the least talked about facts is the existence of a substantial community of African descendants that was part of the original town of San Miguel el Grande. The appearance of Africans on American soil, including in New Spain—present day Mexico—is inextricably tied to slavery. According to a royal decree the indigenous people conquered in the New World, were to be considered Spanish subjects, and could not therefore be held as slaves. But they could be subjected to forced labor. The indios therefore became slaves in deed, if not in name.


The exploitation of this free labor, lasted less than a century. The horrible physical abuse and exposure to new illnesses, had a devastating effect on the native population. By the late 16th century the Spanish conquerors turned to Africa, and the already thriving slave trade in that continent. Over a period of about 300 years, 12.5 million Africans slaves were uprooted and brought to the continent of America.  Around 200,000 ended up in New Spain, where some of the largest cities had a slave population that reached up to one third of the total population. As the population of San Miguel el Grande grew, its demographics included a substantial community of indigenous people, as well as those of African descent.


The mixing of natives, Blacks, and Spanish was common from the very beginnings of the Vice Regal, colonial period. The Spanish encouraged interracial marriage—mestizaje—partly because of the shortage of European women. This created a wide range of racial gradations in their caste system, with names for each type of racial mix. The product of a marriage between a Spaniard and an indigenous woman was a mestizo, while the progeny from a Spanish father and a Black mother was a mulato. The acceptance of racial intermarriage did not in any way suggest an equality of races, because the strict caste system imposed segregation of communities, with barrios of indios, mestizos, and Blacks living apart from the strictly Spanish neighborhoods.


One of the Spanish institutions brought to the New World were religious cofradias—ethnic brotherhoods organized around a particular saint, some aspect of Christ’s passion, or a specific manifestation of Virgin Mary. The cofradia de mulatos—mulatto brotherhood—of San Miguel el Grande chose the Virgin of Solitude as the focus of their worship, and in 1595 built a chapel dedicated to her.

The carved statue of the Virgin of Solitude—probably the oldest, extant, outdoor sculpture in San Miguel de Allende.



Above is the side door of Oratorio church, with the original doorway when it was the main entry to the Mulatto chapel of the Virgen de la Soledad. Membership in a cofradia offered a number of advantages. Aside from being part of a community, it provided medical and financial aid to the members, and at the time of death, financed the coffin, the shroud, and the candles for mass.


This was not considered charity, but a benefit of being a member. The cofradias had some financial power because they collected dues from its members, donations during mass services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. In time they could acquire some wealth. There was a second Mulatto cofradia in San Miguel el Grande, the San Benito de Palermo—a black saint—based in the Franciscan convent. But it did not have even a portion of the wealth of the former.


One of the major acquisitions by the cofradia de la Virgen de la Soledad was a wooden sculpture of Jesus, sometime in the late 1500s. A dark-skinned Jesus sits gazing down, with a crown on his head. It represents Jesus—scourged, bound, and crowned with thorns, as he is being presented to a hostile crowd before his crucifixion.  Pontius Pilate points to him and mockingly exclaims: “Ecce homo”—behold the man.  The Ecce Homo statue was considered miraculous and was brought out in times of plague, lack of water and other public needs. A priest went to the mulatto chapel and “borrowed” the statue, keeping it in the parish for as long as the priest considered it necessary. There was never any dispute among the brothers about the “lending” of the Ecce Homo image. The brotherhood was very strong economically and the Christ of Ecce Homo was of great renown in the entire region. It became an important image as a source of divine help against sickness and drought, and was brought out to ask for rain. The figure became the identity of the town and the region, bringing together all social groups.


The Mulatto chapel gained great notoriety because of this figure, and became known as the cofradia de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and Santo Ecce Homo—the brotherhood of our Lady of Solitude and Saint Ecce Homo. The Mulatto brotherhood kept its position in San Miguel el Grande until 1712 when everything came crashing down. I will delve into these momentous changes in part 2 of this article.

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4 comentários


daveblackart
14 de jun.

Very interesting. Thanks Natalie for this often overlooked piece of local history.

Curtir

Jan Davis
Jan Davis
13 de jun.

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

Curtir
Natalie Taylor
13 de jun.
Respondendo a

I am glad you enjoy the history of SM. There is so much here to tell! So many hidden stories.

Curtir

deancummer
11 de jun.

Fascinating! Thank you, Natalie!

Curtir
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