Wife of a controversial New Mexico governor, she successfully defended herself against the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City, as the Spanish Inquisition reached into North America. Historians value her testimony for insights into life, society, and the political and religious institutions of colonial Santa Fe.
Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche was the aristocratic, educated, and outspoken wife of New Mexico governor don Bernardo López de Mendizábal. Both were accused as sorcerers and judaizers—Christians who practiced Jewish rituals—and brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City, an extension of the Spanish Inquisition into North America. Arrested in the Palace of the Governors on August 26, 1662, they were forcibly taken from Santa Fe to Mexico City. Held for two years, her husband died in prison, but in a spirited defense, she exposed her accusers’ malfeasance, saying they had acted out of greed and envy. Her case was suspended in 1664 due to lack of credible eyewitness testimony. The case and her testimony provide valuable insights into life, society, and the political and religious institutions of colonial Santa Fe.
Born in Alessandria, Italy, Doña Teresa was the daughter of Don Melchor de Aguilera, the governor of Cartagena. Highly intelligent, she spoke Italian, French, and Spanish, and read Italian and Latin. In Cartagena in Columbia, she met her future husband, a well-educated native of Chietla in New Spain, who was appointed governor of New Mexico in 1658. During his tenure, her husband clashed with Franciscan priests over issues typical of the time–use of unpaid Indian labor, whether Native Americans could practice their religion–in classic struggles for power and control over limited resources.
Numerous rumors arose about the couple–many originating with their servants–including bathing on Fridays (a practice among Orthodox Jews), sleeping in separate rooms, and not attending church services on a regular basis. After two years in office, Doña Teresa’s husband was replaced as governor by Diego de Peñalosa Briceño y Berdugo, who charged him with 33 counts of malfeasance. Two years later, in August of 1662, the first lady and former governor were summoned before the Inquisition, though they would remain unaware of specific charges until their trial. Among those involved in the arrests was former New Mexico governor Juan Manso de Contreras, who López had replaced as governor. Manso reportedly held a grudge and had vowed revenge against Governor López after López had returned homes and property that Manso had illegally acquired.
In April 1663, Manso, former governor of New Mexico and chief constable of the Inquisition for the state, received an order that read as follows:
“We, Apostolic Inquisitors against heretical depravity and apostasy in this city and archbishopric of Mexico…order you, Don Juan Manso, who serve as chief bailiff of this Holy Office in New Mexico…proceed to the city of Santa Fe in the provinces of New Mexico and to such other places and localities as may be necessary and seize the person of Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, wife of Don Bernardo López de Mendizábal…wherever you may find her, even though it be in a church, monastery, or other sacred, fortified, or privileged place; and that once seized and secured you bring her to the secret prison of this Holy Office and deliver her to the warden thereof…whom we order to receive her from you…and keep her in detention and secured as stated and not release her on parole or bail without our permission and order.”
At odds with the Holy Inquisition, the religious and judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe in the Middle Ages, the couple was transported in restraints to Mexico City with Franciscan supply wagons (a six month journey), where they were placed in separate cells. Within the month, their two trials began, separately but concurrently. The former governor died on September 16, 1664, his case unresolved. Doña Teresa faced a total of 41 counts (her husband had faced 257 counts). The charges revealed the religious and political turmoil of the state in the years preceding the Pueblo Revolt. With unidentified citizens and servants in Santa Fe as sources, accusations against her had been collected by Fray Alonso de Posada, commissary of the Holy Office in the province of New Mexico, between 1661 and 1662. The charges ranged from not saying grace at meals, giving her husband “powders” to enchant him, placing onion peels on the soles of her feet, skipping mass, and reading from a book written in a foreign language.
On October 26, 1663, Doña Teresa was at last read the charges against her—but the accusers’ names were withheld. Between October 27 and November 26, 1663, Doña Teresa offered her reply to the charges. She explained that she and her husband, in fact, made no special act of bathing on Fridays, that the cap she had given her husband on Good Friday was in anticipation of their receiving guests, and that she put onions on her feet to cure her corns. The book she had been reading, she explained, was written in Italian, her maiden tongue, which she hoped not to forget. She also recited from memory the Ten Commandments and other prayers. After her initial testimony, Doña Teresa requested and received permission to submit to the Inquisitors a written statement, apparently to augment her testimony. This frankly-written document, seven pages (front and back), in which she opines about the names of those who accused her and the reasons they might have done so, contains discrediting (and sometimes scathing) assaults on the individuals—and perceived enemies—of her social and political life in the capital of Santa Fe at the time.
As France V. Scholes wrote in the New Mexico Historical Review in 1940, “In direct and brutal fashion, she laid bare the details of life and society in New Mexico, local jealousies and petty crime, the carousing activities of numerous citizens and their marital infidelities. She realized that the direct eye-witness evidence had undoubtedly been given by her household servants, and she wrote long blasts against them, describing their thieving activities, their quarrels and fist-fights, and their inveterate habit of sneaking out at night to carouse with undesirable citizens.”
The charges against Doña Teresa were suspended on December 19, 1664, largely because of the lack of credible eyewitness testimony and her well-documented defense, which today serves as a valuable recording of life and society in colonial Santa Fe.
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Gutiérrez, Ramón A and Thomas A. Foster, Ed. “Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche before the Inquisition.” In Women in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
Magdalena, Coll, Heather Bamford, Heather McMichael, John H.R. Polt. “Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche ante la Inquisición (1664).” Research Center for Romance Studies, University of California, Berkeley, January 25, 2010. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/00w4c1b2 .
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Levine, Francis. Doña Teresa Confronts the Spanish Inquisition: A Seventeenth Century New Mexico Drama. University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
Learn more about Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche and our resources for educators on the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program curriculum page.