San Martín de Porras

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San MartÍn de Porras

November/December 1579
November 3, 1639

In 1962 Pope John XXIII canonized Martín de Porras Velásquez, thereby making an illegitimate son of a Spanish noble and a free African from colonial Peru into a saint of a new Catholic era. As the patron of racial justice, San Martín de Porras inspired progressive and disenfranchised Catholics who embraced his image as a symbol of a reformed church dedicated to social justice in the twentieth century. However, Martín de Porras asserted spiritual authority through humble service to simultaneously challenge and reinforce the colonial order of a slavery society. Exemplifying the complicated hegemonic location of a free man of color considered holy in his time, he accepted the curse of "mulato dog," an epithet normally directed to slaves, out of his deep humility to God and, perhaps, as a strategy to further his good works.

Born to a free woman of African descent, Martín de Porras was maintained by, and later publicly recognized by, his Spanish noble father. The pious youth was raised near the public slave market and indigenous fishing communities in the plebeian neighborhood of San Lázaro in Lima, the Spanish viceregal capital of Peru. Apprenticed first to an apothecary and then to a surgeon, he learned to cure common ailments, extract teeth, set bones, and lance boils. Trained as a healer and able to read and write, Martín chose to enter the Dominican monastery of Nuestra Señora del Rosario in 1594. As a mulato (a child of a Spanish-African union in colonial Latin America) and an illegitimate son, the aspirant could not obtain the positions of friar or priest. He therefore agreed to serve as a simple "donated" brother. At age twenty-nine he swore obedience, poverty, and chastity to the order and became Brother (Hermano) Martín de Porras. For the rest of his life, he was entrusted with the order's dispensary and served as an assistant nurse whose main duties included washing, feeding, and comforting the ill.

With medicinal plants from the monastery's gardens, as well as clothing and food from its stores, Martín de Porras attended to the poor of Lima, including Africans, Indians, and Spaniards. His gentle attentions included herbal baths, regular prayer, and bloodletting. Like other devout men and women of the seventeenth century, he engaged in self-flagellation, wore a hair shirt, fasted regularly (always refusing meat), and slept on a stone pillow. In the testimony supplied for his posthumous case for sainthood, both elite persons and commoners claimed that Brother Martín had the gift of prophecy, could transport himself from one place to another, and levitated during prayer. In 1660, and again from 1679 to 1685, Lima's populace recounted that Brother Martín de Porras performed humble miracles such as inviting a rat, a cat, and a dog to eat from the same bowl and affecting a quick cure on an injured, lowly slave. Welcomed throughout the city, Brother Martín provided counsel to Lima's archbishops and solicited funds to sustain his charitable acts only to succumb to an epidemic in 1639. After a lengthy funeral procession, the Dominicans buried the illegitimate mulato in their exclusive crypt, where his uncorrupted body would be exhumed in 1664 to begin the process of making him a black saint of the Americas.

See also Catholicism in the Americas


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Tardieu, J. P. "Genio y semblanza del santo varón limeño de origen africano (Fray Martín de Porras)." Hispania Sacra 45 (1993): 555574.

rachel sarah o'toole (2005)

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