La China Poblana
A Slave from India
Who Brought Color to Mexico

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Indian Girls from Chiapas in Veracruz
On the Malecon in Veracruz
The other day, I was down on the Malecón drinking dark Mexican coffee with some friends from out of town and noticed some of the colorful Indian girls from Chiapas who sell cloth dolls to tourists.

One of my friends remarked how beautiful the colors of the dresses were.

It was then that I remembered the legend I´d heard many years before in Puebla de los Angeles about a little slave girl from the coast of India who brought the colors of the Orient to Mexico.

They asked if I knew anything about where they came from. Then I remembered when I used to visit Puebla and listened to the stories my girlfriend used to tell.

The Cathedral
The Legends of Long Ago
The churches in Puebla are very old structures with the customs of Spain that go back to the origins of Puebla in the 16th century.

The downtown area is especially beautiful for strolling or sitting on a quiet park bench, especially on Sunday evenings.

It was a number of years ago, when I was going with a girl from Puebla.

We were "novios" as the custom is called, and it was a beautiful time in my life.

She knew a lot about her city and showed me some of the best parts that most tourists never see.
The Peaceful Alameda
Sunday Evenings on the Alameda
As it was her tradition, on Sunday evenings we would go to mass in the Cathedral or to listen the rosary at the Church of Santo Domingo as they had done for centuries in Puebla.

After the evening church service, we would sometimes take walks through the centuries old Alameda Park past the fountain and the children playing with balloons.

Later we would sit on a bench and she would tell me some of the old legends of her beautiful colonial Spanish city.
La Catedral
The Story of the Bells
She told me that when the Cathedral of Puebla was built in 1623, it is said that at the same time the Cathedral in Mexico City was being built, and the architectural plans got switched.

The "poblanos" (as the people of Puebla are called), say their cathedral is actually bigger and more beautiful than the National Cathedral in Mexico City.

When the cathedral was finished and the huge bells arrived to be hung in the towers, it was found that they were too heavy for the workmen to lift.

They struggled over the problem for several days, until finally one evening they just gave up. The task was just too much.
The Bells Hung by Angels
Hung by the Angels
Then the following morning when the reported for work, they found the heavy bells had been lifted and installed during the night.

Nobody could explain how it happened.Some say the angels had lifted the bells because there was no technology available in those days to perform such a task.

So, the people began to call the city "Puebla de los Angeles". In 2001, the name was officially changed.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695)
How Color Came to Mexico
She told me another story, about how color came to Mexico.

Back in the early days, when we were a province of the wealthiest empire in history, there wasn´t much color.

As we saw in the churches we just visited, the colors were grey and dark.

It is said the bright colors of silk that the women wear, came from India.
Las Chinas Poblanas
Mirra the Slave
The story of the China Poblana begins around 1621 at the time just before the cathedral in Puebla was finished.

By that time Spain had extended its provinces to the Orient with its base in Manila.

Each year the Spanish ships called naos, would bring the treasures of the Far East to Acapulco where they were transferred for shipment by oxcart over the Camino Real to Mexico City.

Then the precious load went to the port Veracruz for storage to await the next Annual Gold Fleet for shipment to Spain. The process must have taken many months.

The Marqués de Gélves, Viceroy of New Spain, which was the name of Mexico in those days, on a whim, asked for a young exotic oriental slave to be at his service in his palace, like a beautiful papagayo parrot in his garden.
Colonial Window
A merchant sea captain who traded between Manila and Acapulco, heard about the Viceroy´s request and bought a young Hindu princess at the slave market in Manila.

She was only a niña of about 12 or 14 years of age.

A Gift to a Childless Couple in Puebla
Instead of selling the little slave girl to the Viceroy, he presented her as a gift to his good friend and fellow sea captain, Miguel de Sosa who lived with his wife Doña Margarita de Chávez in the city of Puebla. The couple was childless.

Some say she was sold to the Sosa family for 10 times more than the Viceroy offered, but I tend to believe the slave girl was given as a gift to his old friend in Puebla.

The girl would be good company for Doña Margarita while don Miguel was away on his long voyages.
Colonial Doorway
Mirra´s Remarkable Past
Over the weeks and months, Doña Margarita patiently taught Mirra Spanish, and when she began to speak, a remarkable story unfolded.

She related that she had been born a princess of a family of the Mughal kingdom in Hindustan, now called India.

The origins of the empire was in Mongolia, and the Mongols, or Mughals, eventually conquered much of the Indian subcontinent during the centuries before.

Her father´s army was defeated in war perhaps when the throne was fought over by brothers Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb.

Dara Shikoh was Hindu and who was championed by nobles and officers committed to the diverse policies of previous rulers.

Aurangzeb, who was favored by powerful men more inclined to turn the Mughal Empire into an Islamic state.
Puebla Courtyard
The Safety of the Indian Coast
When Aurangzeb and his men eventually took over her father´s kingdom, the family was forced to move to the Indian coastal town of Cochin which is located on the western coast of the Indian Ocean.

Shortly afterwards, she was taken prisoner when Portuguese pirates attacked the town.

She later escaped and found refuge in the mission founded by Jesuit father Francisco Javier.

It is said that she was baptized in the Christian faith and received the name Catarina de San Juan.

Later the pirates returned, when they recognized her, took her captive again, and eventually sold her at the slave market in Manila to the Spanish sea captain.
Puebla Courtyard
A Princess is Discovered
Don Miguel and Doña Margarita remained childless and eventually adopted Catarina who grew up to be a stunningly beautiful girl.

She learned to speak Spanish well, yet it is said that she refused to learn to read or write. She learned needlepoint, as well as cooking, and other household chores.

"La Chinita"
Young Catarina became well known because of her beauty and especially her peculiar Hindu formal way of dress.

When she walked in the streets, she covered her face, folding the 6 meter long sari in many ways, in the manner of the the upper class women of India.

She began to be known affectionately as "La Chinita", or "the little Chinese girl".

It was because of the colorful silk sari of Cochin worn as she went about the daily marketing chores, or attended mass with Doña Margarita.
Colonial Stairs
The Visions of Catarina
She was respected for her religious beliefs and was close to the Company of Jesus, or the Jesuit religious order in Puebla.

Awhile later in December of 1624, her beloved adoptive father, Don Miguel Sosa passed away, and in his will she was given her freedom, but no money.

At about the same time, it is said that marriage was arranged for her with Domingo Suárez, a servant of Chinese origin who worked for a priest. It is said they never lived together as man and wife.

Later she was approached Fr. Pedro Suárez who invited her to live in the convent at the Company of Jesus.

From that time on, she lived an ascetic life always dressed in her exotic sari.

At this time her new way of life became apparent, and she began to have mystical visions and said she often played "hide and go seek" with the baby Jesus.
La Virgen del Rosario
Visions of Angels and the Virgen
She saw angels and the Virgen, and would talk to the sculpture of Jesus the Nazarene at length and the demons that harassed her.

If at the beginning she was considered "unbalanced" but in time she became respected and venerated.

Thousands of people saw her as a prophetess. Even the Bishop of Puebla talked to her as well as the different clergy of the Company of Jesus. She was widely respected by all.

Close to Sainthood
Catarina was 82 years old when she died on January 5, 1688.

The crowd that attended her wake kissed her, and tore little pieces of her funeral shroud to keep them as religious relics.

The veneration was such that in 1691, the Santa Inquisition had to prohibit the reproduction of her portraits so that she wouldn´t be adored as a saint.
The Colors of Mexico
The Tomb of Catarina de San Juan
The tomb of Catarina de San Juan, the "China Poblana", can be found in the sacristy of the Company of Jesus in Puebla under a gravestone of blue Talavera tiles.

The address is: 4 Sur corner with Avenida Maximino Avila Camacho, next to the Colegio Carolino in Puebla. One day I would like to visit her grave.

Later the indigenous women in the area began wearing long silk dresses using the same colors as the "China Poblana".

Later in the 20th century, the patriotic symbols of the eagle on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, were elaborately embroidered on the front of the dress.

You can still see this style dress brought out on special occasions and folk dances in many parts of Mexico, especially in Puebla.
In the Shadows of the Past
Every time I see an "India María" movie I remember Mirra, the Hindu princess who made the dress popular so long ago.

The next time you see the Indian women of Mexico dressed in bright silk colors, you will know that the origin was Catarina de San Juan, "La China Poblana".

The Next Time in Puebla
On my next trip to Puebla, I want to visit the sacristy of the Company of Jesus and see the final resting place of Catarina de San Juan.

Mexico is a very old country with many legends that are now forgotten even by many of the local people.

When I think of the "China Poblana", I remember some of the other legends of early Mexico I heard while sitting on the park benches in the Alameda after the evening service at the Cathedral in Puebla.
Tomando un Café
Perhaps Some New Legends
Afterwards, we would drink dark Mexican coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes nearby and talk about other legends in Mexico.

I miss those days and want to go back to Puebla to do some more exploring. Maybe I´ll hear some new legends about this old and interesting city.

Each time I see the colorful Indian girls from Chiapas on the Malecón in Veracruz, I remember the stories my girlfriend used to tell me about early Mexico.

Old Manuscripts
In Mexico, when you have a regular place to have mid morning coffee with the same group of friends, sometimes new people show up.I had told my friends I was interested in the legend of "la China Poblana".

In July, a lot of people come to Veracruz on vacation, and there was a new face at the table. Then the conversation changed to Puebla, where the new man was from. He was the cousin of one of the "regulars".He listened to my story with unusual interest.

When I finished, he told me he was a civil engineer. Awhile back, he had completed the demolition of an old building in a small town near Puebla to make way for a large construction project. It used to be an old hacienda that was now engulfed by urban Puebla.

During the project, they found an old trunk with a lot of old papers. Nobody wanted them and they were about to throw them in the trash. He told me he had saved them from the dump truck and took them home.

He said he thought he had seen one of the portraits of the "China Poblana" outlawed by the Santa Inquisition amongst the papers. He said it looked very old, as if it had been saved in a secret place for a long time. If I had another trip planned to Puebla, he would save the papers for me to look at.

I think I may be going back to Puebla sooner than I had expected. Maybe I will come across the loose ends of some other forgotten legends. This part of Mexico is a very old, and you never know what you are going to find.

The Old Portrait
The Mysterious Portrait
For several years, I had been looking for the old portrait of Catarina de San Juan that had been prohibited by the Inquisition.

I mentioned my search to my friend Carmen Boone Canovas. She is an independent historian who has knows where to find a lot of information.

"Give me a little time. I think I've seen what you are looking for."

The other day she sent me an email with this portrait attached. It is an old engraving from 1690 that looks authentic.At the same time, I am wondering if this is the forbidden portrait of La China Poblana.

Now, my next step is to go up to Puebla and look for the Colegio de la Compañía de Jesús, and find her burial place.Perhaps there will be some people there who can tell me more about the fascinating story of the little girl from India who was known as the China Poblana.

In the meantime, if you go to Puebla you might go to the museum, and ask for more information about it.

Mexico still has many mysteries to explore, and I will always wonder if this is the forbidden portrait.

La Diosa Kali
La Diosa Kali
Another Mystery
Walking past one of the small stores in Plaza Crystal the other day, I noticed a selection of ceramics from the Orient.

In the middle was a god with 8 hands.

I was thinking about the China Poblana and stopped in the store and asked the lady what she knew about the statue.

"That´s the Goddess Kali, Señor."

Later, over coffee, a friend who knows a "curandero" told me she is the goddess of the sea that recovers the souls lost at sea.

Hmm... I thought to myself. I wondered where she came from and who she was. Maybe she was brought from India to Mexico by the China Poblana.

Does anybody recognize this statue?

If you do, please send me an email to john.toddjr@gmail.com and tell me more about it.

The Church of the Company of Jesus
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
An Unexpected Letter
I will be going to Puebla in mid February and planning to visit museums and places that might have information on La China Poblana.

I am originally from India and never heard of the princess in any history books and it is a fascinating story.

This is my trip to Mexico and do not speak much Spanish.

I am hoping there would be convenient transportation to visit various places.


Rajesh Galivanche

My Answer Asking a Favor
Glad to hear that you are planning a trip to Puebla. You will find that it is a wonderful city with lots of interesting things to see and do. The people are friendly and you´ll find a lot of people who speak English.
The Church of the Company of Jesus
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
I´d like to ask you a favor. When you go to Puebla be sure to visit the grave of the China Poblana at the Church of the Compañía de Jesus. Everybody knows where it is in the downtown area.

Can you take some pictures of the tomb to send to me for my web site? I will give you the photo credits.

Thank you again for writing. Please let me know how your trip to Puebla goes.


The Church of the Company of Jesus
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
Back from the Trip
I just came back from Puebla. I went there with my family to attend a conference and spent a couple of days for sightseeing.

This was our first trip to Mexico and we had a wonderful time in both Puebla and Mexico City.

Thanks for the information in your article – it was helpful.

We rented a car with a bilingual chauffeur and did not have problems communicating with people.
The House where Catarina Lived
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
A Visit to the China Poblana´s House
Yes, I went La China Poblana’s grave site.

It is in the wall of a backroom in the church that you mentioned. Here are the photos that I took and can explain to you the pictures if needed.

I also took some pictures in her house which is now converted to a boutique hotel but has her statue in the courtyard of the restaurant.

The House where Catarina Lived
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
Thank You!
I want to thank you for sending me the photos!

At the same time, it is interesting to see that the original China Poblana existed and that her remains are interred in the wall of one of the side rooms next to the church.

It is also good to see that Catarina de San Juan´s home has been restored and is now a restaurant.
The Image of the China Poblana Now
In Puebla de los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Mr. Anoop Galivanche
A Note of Clarification
Actually, the credit for the photos goes to my son Anoop who has asked me to write to you and insisted on taking him to that place. All the pictures were taken by him.

It would be only fair to have his name instead of mine. Hope you don’t mind.

You are right! I made the changes. Thanks Anoop!

The New Image of the China Poblana
It should be noted that during the first part of the 20th Century, when the regional "charreadas" became more organized, the daughters of the owners of the haciendas who participated in these rodeo type events began to embroider colorful dresses which began to be called "Chinas Poblanas".(More about Charreadas here)

This is image of the China Poblana today, and not that of the religious nun from India from the 17th Century.

The next time I go to Puebla I need to see this for myself.

Thanks again Rajesh!

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