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The New Spanish Inquisition: A Multimodal Lesson Plan

The New Spanish Inquisition archive is an enormous resource for the study of lives that did not conform to the expectations of colonial culture. These were often people who did not practice Catholicism or, at least, not in the "right" way; people who inherited non-Spanish cultural traditions; and people whose gender and sexual expressions were considered deviant in some way. Upon consulting even a couple volumes of New Spanish Inquisition cases, denunciations, and letters, it becomes obvious that these sources are among the most useful for understanding the lives of those most marginalized by colonial religious, racial, patriarchal, and cultural norms. Afro-Mexican, Indigenous, Asian, and mixed peoples, as well as women, appear frequently on those tattered, foliated pages. Although these individuals frequently gave testimony under threat of violence and to achieve specific goals, inquisition records afford an invaluable approximation of the everyday lives of people often ignored in historical accounts of the period and in contemporary imaginations of the colonial world.

For all their usefulness, though, these documents are largely unusable in classes below the graduate level. A knowledge of Baroque Spanish, awareness of the institutional structuring of inquisition records, and well-tuned paleography skills are necessary to consult them. With some exceptions, secondary sources are often the go-to readings for Anglophone classrooms. For these reasons, I offer this lesson plan to engage advanced secondary and undergraduate classes with material from two inquisition records that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Sources of this variety are nonetheless essential for accurately depicting the diversity, the prejudices, the mundane messiness, and, crucially, the humanity, of the colonial past.

The support of a LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Fellowship has made this project possible. I especially thank Albert Palacios and the transcribers (see below) for their contributions.

Learning Objectives

I. Understand how the New Spanish Inquisition contains and conveys non-normative colonial experiences.

II. Interpret understudied primary sources with an attentiveness to issues of race and gender.

III. Discuss the complexities of multiethnic interactions in New Spain.

IV. Experience primary sources through experimental historical simulations, and consider what "choice" means in a colonial context.

The New Spanish Inquisition (1571-1820)

The Viceroyalty of New Spain was a colonial Spanish territory ruled from Mexico City that lasted from 1535 to the end of the Wars of Mexican Independence in 1821. At its height, the viceroyalty ruled much of what is now the western and southern U.S., Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even stretched across the Pacific to the Philippines.

Although the Viceroyalty was the center of Spanish rule in the Americas, even at its core in central Mexico, Spaniards themselves were always a minority. Substantial populations of Indigenous, Afro-Mexican, Asian, and mixed peoples outnumbered Spaniards in the region. Therefore, histories of the colonial Americas focused exclusively on the actions of Spaniards and other Europeans often miss this larger context.

These demographic realities incited Spanish fear of the limitations of their own cultural influence throughout the Viceroyalty. The inquisition, therefore, was but one institutional response to the plethora of unorthodox spiritual practices that combined Indigenous, West and West Central African, and Catholic beliefs, that had become so central to colonial daily life. The founding of the New Spanish tribunal was a de facto acknowledgement that the mission to convert all colonized peoples to Catholicism had not been a universal success--far from it. As such, the inquisition policed the bounds of acceptable and unacceptable beliefs and, over time, established the expectations for normative behavior.


Gerónimo de Mendieta, "Types of Labor Friars Do in the New Indian World," 1571.

From the Benson Special Collections exhibit: "Hand-drawn diagram of the diverse spiritual work Franciscans did in New Spain among their Indigenous catechumens. It depicts their administration of sacramental rites, including matrimony, baptism, communion, confession, and penance. It also depicts other activities such as singing and teaching."

Primary Source 1

The first source is an inquisitorial denunciation from Veracruz in 1584 against several women accused of "sorcery and swindling." Veracruz was the primary Atlantic-facing port of central Mexico and, by the late-sixteenth century, had already acquired a reputation as a center of illicit activity and home to a large free and enslaved Afro-Mexican population. The denounced women were Ana de Herrera (described as mulata), Isabel (Galician), Lucía de Alcalá (no descriptor, likely Spanish), Isabel (free negra), and María de la Paz (mestiza). The documentation following the initial denunciation comprises the testimonies of 11 witnesses asked to speak about any suspicious spiritual activity that had occurred in Veracruz during the years leading up to 1584.

On August 24, 1584, Diego de Yerba of Veracruz, 30 years old, gave the following testimony in which he described how one of the denounced, Isabel, bewitched him in the night (ff. 25r-26r):


“He said that it could have been about five years ago, more or less, that one night he was sleeping in his bed in one of the rooms of his father’s houses (which are at present owned by Juan Moreno de Acevedo). It would be around midnight that he awakened with such a dread that he could not even speak. And awake, he saw that the curtains of the bed were raised and thrown over its rods. Though he had left them down when he went to bed, he found them wrapped around his arms. He saw that a negra [Black woman] named Isabel who is free, blind in one eye, and lives in [Veracruz] had him bound like this. And as he saw himself bound, he called to a man who slept in the same room named Gaspar Martín, who has since died. Having been called, Martín got up. For this reason, the negra had released Yerba. And in the meantime, Yerba told Gaspar Martín that he was going to light a candle and to guard the door to the room well. [Yerba] found the door of the room closed and blocked with two chairs like he had left it when he went to sleep. And he went to light a candle, leaving Gaspar Martín guarding the door. And returning with the lit candle, they walked around, looking through the entirety of the room, and they did not find her—the negra—nor any other person, which left Yerba in shock and very fearful. He could not sleep for the rest of the night. And from then on, he has feared the negra and has a bad opinion of her. She has a bad reputation according to what he has heard other people say…He said that on the same night, at dusk, the negra had come to the house to speak with Yerba, and he threw her out after fighting with her. And beyond this, the room was not so dark that the negra could not be seen because the moon was out, and the room’s window shutters were not even fully shut, nor together. Like so, some light entered with which he saw her clearly, the negra. And he recognized her, and it really was not a vision from dreams but what actually happened. And later the next day, he told the whole story to the same negra, who responded that it was not her. And for what he has said, and for the reputation that the negra has always had, he easily believed it to be her…He said that it was very possible [for her to enter through the window], although with difficulty, because the window had a grille that covered another entire grille of another low window that nearly reached the window above. But he does not believe that she entered through the window because when Yerba got up and lit the candle, the shutters of the window were closed, just the same as when he got into bed. And it was not possible to enter through them as they were.”

Primary Source 2

Francisco Hernández had the unlucky fate of appearing before the inquisition as a defendant two times in Mexico City in the span of a year, from 1601 to 1602. His first conviction was for blasphemy against God, the second for praying to a blasphemous image tattooed or "painted" on his arm. Given the frequency of Hernández's appearances before the Holy Office, we might assume that he had a working knowledge of the inquisition as an institution and that he understood that, if convicted, the inquisitors would have no appetite for clemency. These factors raised the stakes of his testimony and subsequent confession.

Testimony of the defendant, Francisco Hernández, an enslaved mulato of Pedro López Hidalgo, a tanner and citizen of Mexico City. March 8, 1602 (17-8):


Hernández thinks he has been denounced: “Because it could have been about four months ago that standing in the ditch in front of his master’s door there was a traveling indio [Indigenous man]—whose name he does not know, nor where he is from—washing his feet. And having uncovered his arms, Francisco saw that he had written and painted many hearts and Jesuses and some dogs and other bugs on them. And Francisco asked him how he painted those things, and the indio told him that [he did it] with the spine of a maguey cactus and that he could also draw with a razor that he had in his hands. Like so, the indio began to draw on Francisco’s left arm. He drew a dog and a Jesus at its feet. And having uncovered his arm, there appeared on it at the feet of an animal (that, for being somewhat erased he could not recognize which animal, only that it did not look like a dog but another vicious animal or devil) a Jesus. And after having drawn on him, Francisco asked the indio what the purpose of that drawing was. [The indio] responded that since [Francisco] sold candles, the painting would allow him to rise above his obligation to give his earnings to his master because, each day, he would sell many more than he used to. And with that, the indio left, and Francisco did not see him again. The same day this happened, [Francisco] entered his master's house with the painted arm uncovered. Inés—an india ladina [Hispanicized] that served a Pedro de Rehoyos, his master’s coworker in the store—asked him what he had drawn on his arm. And though he told her that it was nothing, she insisted so much that she had to see and then did nothing more than laugh.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Source 1: Diego de Yerba calls Isabel a “negra” nine times in his relatively short testimony. What stereotypes about blackness does Yerba rely on in his testimony against her?

  2. Source 1: Does it matter if Isabel was "actually" in the room? Why or why not?

  3. Source 1: What emotions does Yerba deploy in his narration? How do these emotions inform his description of the room’s physical space?

  4. Source 2: Why might Francisco have consented to being tattooed?

  5. Source 2: Francisco’s description of the tattoos’ form is vague and contradictory. How does he describe them, and why might he have found it advantageous to do so in this way?

  6. Source 2: What can this testimony tell us about how Afro-Mexicans and Indigenous people interacted with each other at the turn of the seventeenth century?

  7. Sources 1 & 2: Do the two excerpts contain thematic similarities? Explain.

  8. Sources 1 & 2: How do these selections intertwine economic vulnerability with witchcraft? In Source 1, consider that Isabel, a free Black woman, is being accused of breaking into a room, and in Source 2, pay close attention to the “purpose” of the drawings.

Simulating the Past

Beyond primary source analysis, simulation is another useful--albeit unconventional--mode of interacting with these documents in a classroom setting.* Based in a rigorous reading of the documents themselves, these scenarios offer an opportunity to consider empathy, historical agency, and archival accessibility in new ways. This is not a reenactment of the past. Rather, it is a curation of a rebuilt world of possibility and a chance to let students explore choice and consequence in ways that can disrupt 21st-century assumptions about the colonial world.

Overview: Scenario 1 is a simulation of the primary source itself. It is less about the element of choice as such than it is about exploration and storytelling. By contrast, Scenario 2 foregrounds choice and strategizing, though the results are intended to be difficult to predict.

Instructions: For the simulations to operate best, students will be in groups of 3 or 4 with one narrator that runs the simulation for the group. The narrator reads the opening text, offers the three possible choices, and after the students select their choices, flips a coin (or uses random number generation) to determine the outcome. It is essential that the student-players do not know the possible results of their choices before making them. After, student-players and student-narrator reflect on their respective experiences, they can read the historical resolutions to these scenarios together and consider the additional discussion questions below.

* I am currently developing a much longer, standalone role-playing simulation with character creation, resource management, and more than 50 scenarios based in archival records for classroom use. A prototype is forthcoming.

Scenario 1 (from Primary Source 1): The Rumor Mill

Daily life in colonial Veracruz is filled with problems beyond your control: sickness, unrequited love, and worry about the future, just to name a few. These problems are compounded for women who live in a deeply patriarchal society with Catholic expectations of gendered roles and behavior. You have been called to testify about anything you have observed in the town that goes against the Catholic faith. Which issue do you attest to having personally experienced? Consider your options carefully, as some topics may be more controversial to discuss than others.

  1. Option 1: Illness.

    1. Heads: You once overheard a woman from Santo Domingo say that her friend spent a night with a Black woman and has been sick ever since. You do not believe the story, but the inquisitors take copious notes on your report. You are let free, and you later hear that the woman was apprehended.

    2. Tails: You were once advised to cut your arm and place pebbles inside the cut for good health and fortune, which you did but did not receive any benefit from doing so. You denounce the one who gave you these instructions, and you both spend the next year imprisoned awaiting a pronouncement that never comes. You are released without explanation but must pay the substantial cost of your own detention.

  2. Option 2: Love magic.

    1. Heads: You have a relationship with a man who promises to marry you, but several days later, you hear that he has gotten involved with another woman. This other woman, you hear, had given the man a powerful rock found only in an eagle’s nest to persuade him to stay committed only to her. A local witch offers you the same rock, but you refuse. Inquisitors take no interest in this story.

    2. Tails: Your parents argue constantly. They are very unhappy in their marriage but are unable to divorce. An Indigenous man learns of the problem and offers you mysterious powders and roots to mix in your parents' food to help calm them. It works, and you later accept more powders from the same man to cure your own melancholia. After hearing your testimony, the inquisitors imprison you and force you to tell all that you know about the powders and the man who supplied them on pain of torture. When you are finally released, you hear that the Indigenous man fled town as soon as you were imprisoned.

  3. Option 3: Divination.

    1. Heads: You are part of a group of women who regularly get together to chant a prayer as follows: “Saint George, knight of my Lord Jesus Christ, with a pink horse and white arms provided to you so that you may go to kill the serpent in Belmar Castle. You arrived at the castle, and you killed the serpent and liberated the damsel. And this being the truth, reveal to me in dreams and running rivers and scalding flames and in paired plateaus that which I wish to know.” You quickly realize that you have implicated yourself in an unorthodox practice and are imprisoned for several months.

    2. Tails: You plead ignorance. After being called to testify the next day, the inquisitors offer you mercy from torture only if you tell the full truth about what you know. You are flabbergasted. The only information you can conjure is that, several months ago, you saw a group of women shuffling in the night with dark clothing and lit candles. You do not know where they were going or why they did such things. You are released.

RESIZE_04_Low_Grade_Newsprint 8.png

Fernando Norat, "Honor," 2021.

This illustration is part of a series that accompanies the full role-playing simulation I am developing from inquisition sources.

See more of Fernando's work here.

Scenario 2 (from Primary Source 2): Inquisitorial "Justice"

You have been denounced to the inquisition several months after letting an Indigenous man tattoo your arm with vague shapes that look like animals and holy figures. You kiss the figures every morning for good luck selling candles in hopes that you can make enough money to buy your way to freedom. Do you:

  1. Option 1: Confess to blasphemy and devil worship.

    1. Heads: Your confession inspires the inquisitors to look upon your deviations from faith with mercy. You are taken to the main plaza of Mexico City so that your crimes may be announced publicly. You are then whipped 200 times with the rest of the prisoners.

    2. Tails: The inquisitors offer you absolution through two years of service in a nearby monastery. They promise, though, that if you do any such thing again, the punishment will be beyond your capacity to imagine.

  2. Option 2: Insist that you believe in God more than in the tattooed images.

    1. Heads: As you debate with the inquisitors, you slowly realize that your claim has incriminated yourself. The inquisitors announce that you will be publicly shamed and forced to work in one of New Spain's notoriously brutal obrajes (textile mills) for four years.

    2. Tails: Your confessor is brought in for questioning, and he reveals that you almost never attend mass or confess your sins. Your lie incenses your interrogators, who order you whipped publicly, exiled for eight years, and impressed in the royal galleys as a rower for two years.

  3. Option 3: Claim ignorance, that you do not even know what the tattooed images are, much less what they mean.

    1. Heads: The inquisitors reject your claim. They maintain that you’re withholding information, which other witnesses brought to testify against you confirm. You are exiled for 6 years after public shaming.

           2. Tails: Your interrogators call you a shameless dog and release you after                shackling you in a cell for several weeks.

Historical Scenario Resolutions

Historical resolution to Scenario 1: The series of rumors that compose the 1584 denunciation did not proceed to a full trial until the mid-1590s, when inquisitors punished Ana de Herrera, a free mulata, for witchcraft. One inquisitor ordered that she be tortured and questioned further. Another voted for public shaming and exile for six years on pain of doubling the term of exile and a fine of 400 pesos. A third recommended perpetual exile, shaming, and 100 lashes. The last inquisitor opted for shaming, a reimbursement of 300 pesos for the cost of the trial, and 10 years of exile on pain of doubling the term of exile.


Historical resolution to Scenario 2: Francisco Hernández tried all three of these strategies, though it took 15 days for him to confess to devil worship, which was the most severe accusation behind regularly blaspheming Jesus’s name. On April 18, 1603, the inquisitors ruled that “we condemn [Francisco] to [the penitent’s] habit and irremediable, perpetual imprisonment and that he be taken to Spain to his majesty’s galleys where he may serve as an oarsman without any salary for four years and that on the water’s tongue the habit may be removed…in the customary form may he be taken on a mule with a packsaddle through the public streets of this city with a crier to announce his crime, and may he be given 200 lashes.”

Discussion Questions

  1. As "narrator" and as "player(s)," share your initial reflections on the experience of going through the scenarios and, in particular, why you made the choices you did.

  2. How do you think gender impacted the outcomes of Scenario 1?

  3. In what ways did or didn’t your choices influence the outcomes of Scenario 2?

  4. Where and why do you think racialized descriptors appear where they do?

  5. Do the simulation and the elements of choice/consequence alter your perception of the excerpts in any way? If so, explain.

  6. Compare your results with those of the historical resolutions of these cases. Is there any correlation between accusation and punishment?

Suggested Reading

  • Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Medicina y magia: el proceso de aculturación en la estructura colonial, (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1963).

  • Solange Alberro, Inquisición y sociedad en México, 1571-1700, (Mexico City: México Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988).

  • Joan C. Bristol, Christians, Blasphers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2007).

  • John F. Chuchiak, ed. and trans., The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536-1820: A Documentary History, (Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

  • Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

  • Nora E. Jaffary, False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, (Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, 4th ed., (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

  • Laura A. Lewis, Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

  • Stuart B. Schwartz, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

  • James H. Sweet, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

  • David Tavarez, The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

  • Javier Villa-Flores, Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico, (Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2006).

Thank you to all who worked on transcribing the two inquisition cases held at the Benson Library: Marco Ambrosi de la Cadena, Abel Marcelo Aravena Zamora, María Elena Arias-Zelidón, Ronny Adelcrin Azuaje Capielo, German Campos-Muñoz, Bethzabeth Colon Pizzini, Eduardo Dawson, Ann de León, Tiarna Doherty, Caroline Egan, Jorge Pável Elías Lequernaque, Mariana Favila Vázquez, Bryan Green, Henry A. Ibáñez, Natalia Kolpakova Pérez, Diego Felipe López Aguirre, Rahma Leila Maccarone, María Victoria Márquez, Michelle McKinley, Yole Mónica Medelius Olcese, Mary Katherine Newman, Diomelca Rivas, Mercy Eugenia Sandoval Martiñón, Yamile Silva, Brian A. Stauffer, Cristian Miguel Torres-Gutiérrez, Luis Tadeo Valverde Molina, Carlos Benjamín Zegarra Moretti.

The two digitized and transcribed cases can be found here (1584) and here (1602).

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