Catarina de San Juan

Catarina de San Juan


DJ Name: Catarina Ballerina

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and though that means los Americanos are hitting up their favorite local Mexican restaurant in search of tacos and margaritas, it doesn’t actually mean a ton to people in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo doesn’t commemorate Mexican independence – that’s dieciséis de Septiembre – but instead marks the day in 1862 when the Mexican army successfully pushed Napoleon III’s French forces out of their territory. 

Mexican-Americans began to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the States as a form of resistance to the Mexican-American War, according to Mario García, a historian at UC Santa Barbara. Over time, businesses began to capitalize on the date and now you can find beer deals and sombreros for sale all over the place. In Mexico, Independence Day is a much bigger day of celebration and on Cinco de Mayo, celebrations are typically limited to Puebla – the city that marked the battle when the French were officially booted out – where it’s an official day of rest and there are parades, mariachi bands, enchiladas, and many ladies donned in china poblana dresses which leads us to…

A woman named Catarina de San Juan. Instead of featuring someone pertaining to Cinco de Mayo, we’re gonna focus on a woman who lived in Mexico well before the Battle of Puebla but still left her mark on Mexican history. Catarina de San Juan is credited with creating the China Poblana dress, a traditional style of dress for Mexican women, particularly those who lived in urban centers such as Puebla. More than a dress, “China Poblana” was the name given to Indigenous women who were servants in Mexico for wealthy households. 

Of course, Catarina did not go through life without a playlist of her favorite tunes, which you can queue up right now while we take it back to the early 1600s where our story begins.

Catarina de San Juan was illiterate, so everything we know about her life was documented on Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia by her fans and subscribers in the 17th century. Just kidding, but what we do know about her life is from what people documented about her in their own texts, so we don’t have any words from Catarina the Ballerina herself.

Catarina was born around 1607, perhaps in India. Her birth name was allegedly Mirra, and she was born a slave and belonged to a noble family, but was eventually brought to New Spain, which is what Spain creatively titled its colony of Mexico, through the Spanish East Indies (aka the Philippines). But along the way, she was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and taken to Neverland – whoops, that’s not factually correct, we meant Cochin, which is located in the south of India. Through her wily ways, Catarina escaped the pirates and took refuge in a Jesuit mission where she could not escape Catholicism. Mirra was baptized, sang “My God is an Awesome God,” and changed her name to Catarina de San Juan. 

Baptism didn’t save Catarina from not being seen as a viable human being though, because she was then taken to Manila where a merchant purchased her to be his slave and then took her all across the wavy sea of the Pacific to land in New Spain. Once there, she was sold yet again to a man in Puebla named Miguel de Sosa who paid ten times the amount for her than the viceroy there had offered. Miguel and his esposa, Margarita (fun name!), didn’t have niños so they treated Catarina as if she was their own daughter. 

While in New Spain, Catarina was referred to as “china” (chee-nuh) because of her Asian descent. She was apparently the first in the town of Puebla to be from a diff ethnicity. She wore clothing traditional to that of her birth country of India. This sari-esque dress featured bold colors and beautiful embroideries of flowers, birds and butterflies. Catarina’s style inspired many ladies in Puebla to say yes to the dress and make their China Poblana dresses. And thus came to be the now popular short-sleeved China Poblana dress with bright sequins paired with silky slippers. 

Upon Miguel de Sosa’s passing, Margarita freed Catarina from their ownership. This newly free, single lady was taken in by a convent where she started to have visions of the future! She said the fifth of May would be an important day in Puebla because the French tried to capture the town, but failed and thus everyone in the world will get to have free margaritas in honor of our victory. OK, maybe not. But she did have visions, of some sort, of Jesus and Mama Mary. Like most of her story, the history is a little sketch of any details but she did have visions, OK?? One popular legend is that through these visions, Catarina learned to give spiritual or healing aid to those who needed it. And also some style tips because her dress was a hit in Puebla.

Catarina was respected by the people of Puebla later in her life, and when she passed in January of 1688 (again, allegedly) she was buried in the town’s church of La Compania de Jesus. Today this church is known as La Tumbla de la China Poblana because in it lies Catarina de San Juan formerly known as the China Poblana. So on this Cinco de Mayo, as you watch parades and baila to the bar for your cheap Modelo, raise your glasses to Catarina de San Juan, the lady whose original and colorful dress started trending in Puebla, inspired ladies of Mexico City, and then the rest of the country by the late 17th century thus leaving her mark on Mexican history.

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