In the Shadow of Santa Rosa by Sara Wright

Last night I had a nightmare.

I am dressed in a white cloak that obscures all but my face. The robe is splattered with paint and blood. I am awash in every color of the rainbow and dripping paint. I have been raped by strangers and no one is accountable.

This morning I could not get this frightful image out of mind but I had the strong sense that it had an impersonal aspect that had nothing to do with me.

This weekend at the Pueblo of Abiquiu the community celebrates the feast day of the first official saint of the Americas, Santa Rosa, and I planned to attend…

The people of Abiquiu call themselves Genizaros. Representing Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, Ute and Wichita, detribalized Native peoples from the Plains that were captured and traded during the Indian wars of 18-19th centuries, and sold to New Mexicans as slaves and servants where they were stripped of their identity, instructed in Hispanic ways, and baptized as Christians. The People survived by incorporating Hispanic and Christian cultural practices into a distinct Genizaro consciousness, one that is distinct from the Indigenous Tewa speaking peoples (descendants of the Anasazi) who also live here in six pueblos along the Rio Grande.

The Genizaros are devout Catholics and every year a pilgrimage is made on foot from the ruins of Santa Rosa, a mile away, to the site of the present day Abiquiu Pueblo church. I was surprised that the procession was such a small one led by a man and two young women on horseback who appeared in the plaza under light rain followed by other men one of whom held up a wooden cross, a second man wore a cape of roses, another carried an image of the saint and all the men chanted. The group disappeared into the church to pray and to deposit the Santa… presumably at the altar.

Across the plaza women were busy preparing for the book sale. Unfortunately this year the new priest had decreed that there would be no booths for the people to sell food or their arts or crafts, and no afternoon dancing on the plaza. For me these activities were the heart and soul of these fiestas, and I am sure I was not alone in this perspective. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed and wondered why the Genizaros of Abiquiu had accepted these changes without protest as I left the Pueblo for the day.

I wish no disrespect but it seemed to me that the people were overshadowed by a religion that might not have the best interests of the Genizaros at heart. It was ironic that this priest’s behavior mirrored what happened to these detribalized people in the first place when they were stripped of their identity during the Spanish Colonial Conquest.

Because I am not Catholic I had no idea who Santa Rosa was until I did some research on this saint.

Santa Rosa de Lima is the patroness of Lima, Peru. She was born into poverty in 1586, one of 13 children. Her father was Spanish and her mother was Indian. As a child she spent her time in a small mining town along the Arahuay River in Peru.

Rosa was supposedly possessed by every aspect of religion and spent hours staring at an image of the Madonna and Child as a little girl. She was also apparently quite beautiful and her parents hoped that Rosa would marry ‘well’. But Rosa had other ideas – she chose the religious life, taking a vow of virginity, something her parents couldn’t accept. She devoted herself to a life of abnegation and self-mortification. Despite her family’s objections Rosa practiced extreme forms of asceticism. She fasted, became a vegetarian, mortified her flesh with hard work and went as far as to cut her hair, and rub lye, lime and pepper into her hands and face. She also wore a crown of thorns.

In 1605 Rosa wanted to join the monastery ‘Santa Clara’, but was too poor to pay the necessary dowry. She moved out of her family’s house into a small cottage built by herself on their property and filled her days with praying, hard work, bodily-torture and helping sick and poor people in her community. She sold her fine needlework and grew beautiful flowers that she offered at the market. With her exquisite lace and embroidery she supported her family and charity works.

Finally at the age of 20 she attracted the attention of the Dominican Order and was allowed to enter the ‘Third Order’ without payment. Thereafter she redoubled the severity and variety of her penances. She continued in her religious practices, gave up eating normal food and survived on bread and water, which she combined with herbs, grown in her herb garden, and juices made of natural plants. Rosa continued to wear a metal spiked crown, concealed with roses. She also wore an iron chain around her waist.

After more than fourteen years of martyrdom she died on the 24th of August 1617, at the age of 31. Her funeral couldn’t take place for two days because so many people queued to see her body. Rosa was worshiped at that time to such an extent that the Viceroy, the archbishop, representatives of all religious fraternities and many public authorities of Lima attended her funeral.

Pope Clement X canonized Rosa as the first Saint of the Americas designating August 30th as her Feast day.

How could such a woman deified?

Suddenly I remembered my nightmare. Had I dreamed an image of Santa Rosa?

Surely, this woman had endured the worst form of psychic/physical rape through her own heinous acts of self-hatred, while being supported by a culture that elevated women who engaged in this total splitting of female mind from body through daily acts of cruelty and martyrdom. For any woman, this splitting of mind from body leaves us vulnerable to an inner/outer takeover by Patriarchy, and without the defenses we need for our own survival. Our bodies carry our feelings, our instincts, and our truths.

The feminist in me was frankly horrified by the story of Santa Rosa’s life. It occurred to me that it might be a good practice to phase this festival out permanently since it modeled such self -destructive behavior for women. Maybe the priest was on the right track after all without realizing it!

Contrast this with Guadalupe who for more than 300 years has been celebrated and revered in Mexico as the Mother of Mexican and Indian peoples, although she has never been officially canonized by the Catholic Church (who still did its best to turn her into another version of the Virgin Mary when they realized the people wouldn’t give her up).

She stands on home altars, lends her name to men and women alike, and finds herself at rest under their skin in tattoos. Guadalupe’s image proliferates on candles, decals, tiles, murals, and old and new sacred art. Churches and religious orders carry her name, as do place names and streets. Far from vulgarizing her image, these items personalize her and maintain her presence in daily life. She is prayed to in times of sickness and war and for protection against all evils.

Her story begins in 1531 when Guadalupe, a dark-skinned Indian woman appeared to a young Indian (Aztec) peasant on a hill outside Mexico City in December. Many songbirds surrounded her. A healing spring of clear water rose up at her feet and flowers abounded. She requested that a shrine be built in her honor on Tepeyac, the hill outside Mexico City upon which she was standing. Scholars know is that this particular rise has been identified as the site where the earlier Aztec Earth Goddess Tonantzin once had a temple and was worshiped, especially at the winter solstice.

To make a long story short Guadalupe’s request was finally granted when she presented the peasant whose name was Don Juan with “proof” of her divinity – a tilma full of Castilian roses. Don Juan took the cloak of red roses and presented it to the Bishop who was finally convinced the apparition was that of the Virgin Mary!

Today, Guadalupe is heralded as the Indigenous Mother Goddess of the Americas and she is associated with Nature and the powers of Earth and Water. Unlike her unfortunate Spanish sister who was so saintly and died a victim and a martyr, Guadalupe’s power and strength live on.


Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.

Author: Sara Wright

I am a writer and naturalist who lives in a little log cabin by a brook with my two dogs and a ring necked dove named Lily B. I write a naturalist column for a local paper and also publish essays, poems and prose in a number of other publications.

9 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Santa Rosa by Sara Wright”

  1. “Surely, this woman had endured the worst form of psychic/physical rape through her own heinous acts of self-hatred, while being supported by a culture that elevated women who engaged in this total splitting of female mind from body through daily acts of cruelty and martyrdom.”

    Christian feminist historians often focus on the power women of other eras gained through these kinds of self-harmful behaviors. I agree with you that it is high time to name them as “heinous acts of self-hatred” “supported by a culture” that was sick.

    Rubbed lye into her hands and face? Do male ascetics go this far or are we talking about the acts of one who has not only been taught that the flesh is evil but also that her female flesh is the source of all the evil in the world?

    “How can anyone ever tell you that you are anything less than beautiful?” How indeed?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great question Carol about male ascetics… I am not knowledgable enough to know what male ascetics were up to but this horrifying behavior on the part of a “saintly” woman speaks volumes to me, at least, about how female flesh is the source of all evil.


  2. I can respect Tonantzin, the Mother Goddess, but as for official virgins and saints who mortify (nearly kill) their bodies to attain purity and/or holiness? Beauty? In whose eyes? Well, we know that answer to that last question–in the eyes of gods and men who have nothing but scorn for women and in the eyes of a church that had (maybe still has) nothing but scorn for the customs and traditions of Native American peoples. Yes, women have been forced to commit “heinous acts of self-hatred” by sick cultures.

    I hope you banished that nightmare. Bright blessings to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed reading this interesting work. I am in agreement that positive spiritual energy should be the path for women and their religious visions of themselves. Woman as evil in flesh and deed (the apple) is bible-held misogyny in the teachings of Christians and Catholics and is so harmful to young female minds. That is probably why so many women have moved towards Goddess Spirituality. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Unfortunately the “big three” are equally culpable when it comes to women hating. Women who do see are forced to make radical changes in their lives in terms of religion don’t you think?


  5. Ah! The “good old days” when one could “get to heaven” through athletic acts of self discipline through pain. If I remember correctly, it really got going with vigor with the Greeks, and body vs spirit philosophy. Male and female ascetics both practiced what we know today to be unhealthy. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius, and many male “saints” also beat themselves bloody and wore hairshirts, spiked chains, and the like. I think most of the suffering must have been on the part of their companions who had to live with a sweaty hairshirt and unbathed body through the summer heat. That was the “body inferior to spirit” thinking.

    Then there was/is the “Jesus came to die for me” theme. The world is evil and death is the door to heaven for the “saved”. Devout people abused themselves to “be like Jesus” and suffer. Suffering is “good”, pleasure is “bad” school of thinking. “Love is proved by suffering and being one with the suffering Jesus”.

    Many still have a “flat earth” mentality. “God sits on a throne above the clouds and judges our good and bad points”. The “Santa Claus God” keeping a list of good and bad behaviour. This “God” is still around to scare people, especially little children.

    Thankfully, things are changing. The influence of the institutional part of Church is decreasing. After all, now a lot of people can read, and books are readily available. Then there is the “net”. Discipline these days is in being discerning in what we believe.
    We have healthier attitudes toward ourselves as we understand nature better.
    Our image and understanding of Divine Mystery, the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, relationships, etc., is changing. Probably too slowly for some of us.

    I think the best illustration of change for women in the RC Church today is the contrast between Catherine of Siena who said some pretty strong things to the Bishops of her time and didn’t get burned at the stake, and the Sisters who recently said “No” to the Vatican’s attempt to control their lives. Catherine stood strong because of her reputation for holiness as shown by her “discipline”, fasting and prayer. The LCWR stayed strong because they know themselves, respect themselves, and are not afraid to be true to themselves. And they too, are prayerful women.


  6. What a wonderful reminder of the unstoppable power of Guadalupe and all she expresses. We all need her now more than ever. For some reason, your post made me think of the “Nuns on the Bus” who are, even now as we speak, on their way to Mar-a-Lago to protest. Perhaps because they, too, are strong women who aren’t afraid to speak up, to be compassionate and care for those who need them. Thank you for this amazing post!


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