Academic Minute Podcast

Diego Luis, Tufts University – Catarina de San Juan

The story of Asian peoples in the Americas goes back longer than expected.

Diego Luis, assistant professor of Latin American history at Tufts University, examines this history through one individual.

Diego Javier Luis is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Tufts University. He is the author of The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History, published by Harvard University Press.

Catarina de San Juan

In 1688, a local hero passed away in the city of Puebla in Mexico. Her name was Catarina de San Juan. She was born not in Mexico but in South Asia as Mirra. Then one day, she was standing on a beach when Portuguese sailors captured her. They took her to Malabar in southern India where they baptized her as Catarina. Then, they sold her in Manila to Spanish colonists.

These Spaniards put her on a galleon headed to Mexico, and after many months at sea, she eventually arrived in Puebla. There, she became free when her enslaver died and devoted to a holy life of isolation and poverty.

The sight of a free, devout South Asian woman in seventeenth century Puebla was an unusual one. She became famous as a symbol of the global reach of Catholic faith.

Catarina was not the only person of Asian origin to arrive in colonial Mexico. In fact, the Spanish transpacific slave trade brought thousands of Asians to the Americas during this period. Many Asians made the Pacific crossing willingly too, as sailors, soldiers, and artisans of various kinds.

Their many lives and their struggles to survive in Spanish American colonial society are the subject of my research, which demonstrates that Asians have been in the Americas for centuries longer than the earliest dates of most Asian American history books.

Catarina was one of the few whose names have been remembered over the centuries. Her life is a window into the thousands of others about whom only brief snapshots can be recovered. Even though Catarina left this world 336 year ago, I believe that hers should be a household name for anyone with an interest in Asian American history or the history of slavery.

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