Senryu: Ode to Catarina de San Juan

Mirra / Catarina de San Juan / China Poblana

enslaved by pirates
sold and shipped to Mexico
folk called her a saint

senryu by M. Nakazato LaFreniere

Note: “Catarina de San Juan died 5 January 1688 at the age of 82 years. In Puebla de los Ángeles she was venerated as a popular saint until 1691, when the Holy Inquisition prohibited open devotion to her.” Wikipedia

Mirra was kidnapped as a child around age 9 by Portuguese pirates and sold into slavery in Cochin (South India, a Portuguese Protectorate at the time) and then again later to the Philipines.  There is some dispute about where she was originally from: some say the western coast of India but it could be as far up as Vietnam or China.  While in Cochin, Mirra converted to Catholicism and became Catarina de San Juan.

Several years after being in Manila, she was sold again to a couple in Mexico and shipped over. Slave deeds don’t show where they were originally taken but only the last place they were bought which was usually Manila.

She is said to have been the origin of what would become Mexico’s folk costume of the white blouse with a colorful embroidered skirt.  The costume is called “China Poblana”.  In the 1600s, all residents in Mexico from Asia were commonly called “China” or “Chinos”.  She lived in the city of Puebla, whose residents were called “Poblana”.

She became known in Puebla for her visions and piety.  When her Puebla owners died, they freed her in their will.  Having no money, she went to work for a local cleric who pushed her into marriage with his Chinese slave despite her vows of celibacy which she held to during the marriage despite physical abuse (based on her confessions to her priest in the hagiography he wrote after her death).   After the cleric’s and her husband’s death, she was lucky enough to be given a room by a wealthy neighbor where she could live a life of prayer, penance and visions.  She gave prophecies about Jesuits, important political people and events in the Spanish empire. The Jesuits protected her the last four decades of her life.  The locals revered her has a saint. She died January 5, 1688.

“Hoping to catch a glimpse of her and to participate to some degree in her holiness, crowds descended on the house where Catarina de San Juan’s body was displayed.  Over the next two days, the line of people waiting to enter the house grew to be four blocks long…. most of the city’s ranking ecclesiastical and civil officials attended an elaborate funeral mass, and she was buried in the Jesuit Church of the Colegio del Espiritu Santo.” (Kathleen Myers, p. 270)

The local priests tried to get the church to recognize her as a saint and published her biography based on what she had told them over the years.  Her story as an Asian kidnapped into slavery was common in Mexico although some Asians who came to Mexico were free persons, usually sailors, or traveling traders.  They had more mobility than the slaves but many Spanish Mexicans confused them with the enslaved Asians.  Many free Asians were from the Phillipines and were known as “Filipinos” but also “Chinos” as well. The first two parts of her biography starting in 1689 by the Jesuit Alonso Ramo met with success but the Inquisition’s attitude towards the New World underwent a change and they began banning books.  In 1692, her first biography and soon after any images of her were banned.

Over time her legend morphed, and she became known as the China Poblana, even having a film by the same name in 1943 starring Maria Felix.  China Poblana became a flirty young woman folk figure, very different from the original Catarina de San Juan.


Photograph:  Anna Pavlova dressed in the Mexican costume known as the “China Poblana” doing the Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican hat dance). The dance was banned by religious and colonial authorities in 1790 but people continued to dance it illegally, making it a symbol of the rebellion. After visiting Mexico in 1919, Anna Pavlova added it to her dance repertoire, making the dance internationally famous.’


Senryu written in response to the following challenge:
Odes, Poems of Praise
dVerse Pub

“Testimony for Canonization or Proof of Blasphemy?  The New Spanish Inquisition and the Hagiographic Biography of Catarina de San Juan” by Kathleen Myers in Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World edited by Mary E. Giles, pages 270-295

Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians by Tatiana Seijas

Catarina de San Juan, Wikipedia

Anna Pavlova (Pavlovna), Wikipedia

Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican hat dance), Wikipedia


Women in the Inquisition
ed. by Mary E. Giles
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998

Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians by Tatiana Seijas
Cambridge University Press, 2015

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