Villegas, Micaela (1748–1819)
Villegas, Micaela (1748–1819)
Actress and singer who as "La Perricholi" was the mistress of Peruvian viceroy Manuel de Amat, and became to later generations the most famous Peruvian woman of her age and the subject of plays, operas, and novels . Name variations: La Périchole, La Perricholi, or La Pirricholi; (nickname) Miquita. Born in Lima, Peru, on September 28, 1748; died on May 16, 1819, in Lima; daughter of José Villegas and Teresa Hurtado de Mendoza; married Vicente Fermín Echarri y Gorózabal, on August 4, 1795; children: (with Manuel de Amat) Manuel (b. 1769); and a daughter (name unknown).
Became comic actress (c. 1763); met Viceroy Manuel de Amat (1766); banned from the stage by Amat (1773); reconciled with Amat and returned to stage (1775); withdrew from public life when Amat was replaced as viceroy and returned to Spain (1776); with Vicente Echarri y Gorózabal, became theatrical entrepreneur (1780s).
The most celebrated Peruvian woman of her age, Micaela Villegas lived a life that was filled with controversy and, following her death, clouded by legend. Popular opinion held for many years that she was born in the town of Huánuco, high in the Andes to the east of Lima. Others argued that Lima, the City of the Kings, was her birthplace. Some claimed she was born in 1739, others in 1748. The date of her death varied from 1812 to 1819. To many Peruvians, the historical facts of her life were less important than the legends which had sprung up to make Micaela Villegas into a national icon.
Nonetheless, the discovery of a parish document recording her birth and baptism established that Micaela was born in Lima on September 28, 1748. She was the first child of José Villegas, a native of Arequipa in southern Peru, and Teresa Hurtado de Mendoza , who could trace her genealogy back through many generations to one of the colony's early viceroys. Micaela's parents later had five other children: José Félix (b. 1750), María Josefa (b. 1752), José Antonio (b. 1755), José Humberto (b. 1760), and María Lugarda (b. 1761). That Micaela became an actress and singer probably indicates that her family was lower class, of modest means. That she was not baptized until December 1, over two months after her birth, may reflect her family's modest circumstances and perhaps her parents' lack of religious fervor. The great Lima earthquake of 1746, which devastated large parts of the capital and the nearby port of Callao, must have made her early years difficult.
As a child, Micaela showed a vivacity and extroversion ideal for the stage. "Miquita," as she was known, loved to perform for family and friends. Her memory for songs was precocious, and she learned to play the guitar and harp, with which she accompanied herself. She also performed popular dances. In 1761, her parents reportedly took her to the Coliseo de Comedias, Lima's popular theater. Though the 1746 earthquake had destroyed it, the city's love for theater was so great that within less than two years the Coliseo had been rebuilt and was staging Hispanic and Peruvian plays. Villegas left the Coliseo enthralled with the performance of Bartolomé Massa, a famous actor, and with the applause and finery. Although the costumes were roughly sewn, they must have seemed luxurious to the young girl.
One can ask everything of men when one has rendered them ridiculous.
—Ventura García Calderón
At home, Miquita spent hours practicing her singing and dancing, her mind filled with dreams of starring on the stage of the Coliseo herself. With her parents' permission, she began to give public performances at age 15, and she quickly attracted the attention of impresarios from the Coliseo. Massa, who was also the theater's director, opened a career to her. She became his mistress, although her ability as a comic actress and her skill as a dancer and singer were more important to her success. With her fiery personality and natural talent, she soon rose from the chorus to more important roles. By age 20, she had become one of the capital's favorite actresses, especially famed for her zest and her songs between acts. The male audience received her with great enthusiasm and on more than one occasion carried her in triumph from the theater.
Meanwhile, the other chief actor in Villegas' story had taken the stage. He was Manuel de Amat, a Catalan who arrived in Lima in 1761 to rule as viceroy. A soldier by temperament, the 57-year-old bachelor soon developed Lima's love for the theater. The Coliseo had a sumptuously decorated box reserved for the viceroy, and Amat began to use it. He became a fixture at the spectacles, and in 1771 promulgated a special set of ordinances to regulate the Coliseo. Although the theater was subject to censorship, the viceroy proved remarkably tolerant. Mild indulgence seemed the order of the day.
Enamored as he was of the theater, it was perhaps inevitable that Amat became enamored also of its actresses. At some point, perhaps in 1766, he took notice of Villegas and became completely infatuated: "She was better than beautiful, she was charming. Small and on the plump side, she was pretty." Her pale brown skin, long black hair, tiny feet and hands, and beauty mark above the upper lip exuded a liveliness that entranced the elderly ruler. From then on, Amat's attendance at the Coliseo was constant. As a viceroy, he had a reputation for harshness, but watching Villegas he shouted, applauded, beat time with his cane, and generally behaved outlandishly.
Rumor reported that Amat eventually invited her to the palace, insisting she keep the visit secret. But such was his enthusiasm that he trumpeted his liaison with the actress. Popular attention focused more intensely on her. In a hierarchical society dominated by patronage and personal connections, ambitious Peruvians found it wise to flatter the viceroy: what better way than to show their public approval of the young actress. Of course, the social elite faced a dilemma: the Lima aristocracy despised Villegas as a social inferior, but could not publicly challenge Amat's liaison. Due to her relationship with the viceroy, people approached Micaela hoping to obtain favors from Amat.
Playing her part shrewdly, the young actress became a primary beneficiary of the viceroy's largesse. One of her biographers noted, "Micaela thought only of applause, and even more of doubloons." He provided Villegas with a sumptuous house, complete with stage and vast gardens. According to rumor, an underground passage linked it to the gardens of the viceregal palace. She loved jewels, and he covered her with them. On the weekends, the two stayed at Miraflores outside Lima at the estate of Amat's nephew. When they traveled there, protocol prevented anyone from riding beside the viceroy in his carriage, and consequently Villegas followed behind on horseback in public view. "She dressed like a man, or else wore a long sky-blue skirt embroidered with gold fringes and a toque of feathers." Tongues wagged, both admiring and censorious.
In 1769, Villegas gave birth to a son, whom she called Manuel de Amat, after his father. She dressed him in finery, and the couple's sycophants fawned over the young boy. The Spaniard did not officially recognize the child as his son, but Villegas hoped he would. In the meantime, she continued to star at the Coliseo, refusing to give up the stage. The theater was for Villegas "a form of expression and liberation, to show off her charms, to win admirers, to keep herself 'in shape' for elegance and love." Amat loved her both as a woman and an actress. He often attended "rehearsals and gave the actors advice." The viceroy even mediated disputes within the company. Villegas was the first lady of the Peruvian stage, although the aristocrats never would have considered her a real lady.
Then, in 1773, her hot temper caused a conflagration on the stage of the Coliseo. Perhaps she had spent too little time rehearsing, given the demands of her semi-public private life. Perhaps Massa, the director and chief actor, resented the fact that the public often attended to see the viceroy's mistress rather than the plays. On stage with Massa, a distracted Villegas stumbled over her part. Massa told her to put more spirit into the role and in a loud whisper said that Inesilla could do better. Inesilla, or Inés Mayorga , was her great rival, and Villegas flew into a rage. With the light cane already in her hand, she slashed the actor's cheek. The curtain fell, interrupting the play, while the audience called for her arrest. (According to some reports, the crisis occurred during a rehearsal of Fuego del Dios en el querer bien, by Calderón de la Barca; other versions hold that it was during a public performance of the play.) At any rate, scandalized by her behavior, Amat angrily broke off their relationship.
Villegas was not worried, because Amat had always reconciled with her after other tantrums. This time, however, the old man was adamant. He prohibited her from acting, allegedly declaring: "She'll never return to the
theater, and if she makes me angry, I'll make her go out on the stage on her knees and ask the public's pardon and after that an executioner will kick her out forever." For over a year, the viceroy refused to see her.
Some also claim that it was during this crisis that he first referred to her as la Perricholi, the term by which Villegas became most famous. According to that version of her story, the word represented the Catalan Amat's angry attempt to pronoun perra chola (half-breed bitch). Another version holds that the word derived from the Catalan petritxol, a term of gallantry meaning "my joy" or "my delight." In this case, Amat shouted the term to Villegas while she was on stage, and the public soon used it to refer to her also. Perhaps neither is correct. Peruvian historian Guillermo Lohmann Villena discovered the existence of persons with the surname Perricholi living in Lima around 1750. Thus, neither the origin nor the precise meaning of the term is clear. Nonetheless, it is certain that Micaela Villegas became la Perricholi to the Hispanic world.
Stubborn as they might be, the two succumbed to a reconciliation by September 1775. Villegas prevailed upon Amat to let her return to the stage. Her first appearance was on November 4, with the viceroy shouting encouragement from his box. He also insisted that Massa ask her pardon and raise her monthly salary from 100 to 150 pesos. "Wilder than ever, with burning eyes and a smile of triumph on her lips, she reconquered her public, who acclaimed her like a long-lost queen." Inesilla, who had replaced Villegas as the star of the Coliseo, found herself arbitrarily banished to Chile.
In 1775 and 1776, la Perricholi was at the height of her influence. She dressed little Manuel in silk with a wide, red ribbon, imitating the Order of St. Januarius of which his father was a member. Some talked of her as though she were the viceroy's wife; rumor held that Amat had proposed marriage. One night she feigned thirst until Amat, clad in his nightshirt, went out into the street and fetched her water from the fountain. La Perricholi split her time between the stage and a Peruvian imitation of Versailles.
One of Villegas' greatest triumphs occurred in mid-1776, when Lima celebrated the feast day of Portiuncula. It was customary for the viceroy in his coach to head a procession to the Alameda. Villegas had pleaded with Amat for permission to ride with him. When he refused, she asked him to provide her with a coach of her own. Amat knew that only the high aristocracy enjoyed such a privilege, but he succumbed to her entreaties. Perhaps this was his way of humiliating the elite who had resisted his rule. As her blue and gold coach made its way through the streets, to the scandal of the aristocrats, it met two candle bearers and a priest going to administer the last rites to a dying parishioner. Remorse, or grand theater, overwhelmed Villegas. She descended from the coach, asked the priest to get in, and tearfully followed on foot in her ball gown as he went about his sacred duty. In a further dramatic gesture, she donated the carriage to the parish.
Amat turned over power to his successor in July 1776, and the aged lover left for Spain a few months later. Recriminations and lawsuits proliferated against the former viceroy. These included a theatrical lampoon, El drama de los palanganas, which accused Amat and Villegas of all sorts of corruption and debauchery. Perhaps la Perricholi had hoped Amat would take her with him, or send for her; perhaps not. He did neither but, in 1779, married a young woman whom his nephew had jilted. Amat died on February 14, 1782, without recognizing his paternity of Villegas' son.
Meanwhile, in Lima, she withdrew from public life, benefiting from property left her by Amat. Eventually she teamed with Vicente Fermín Echarri y Gorózabal to manage the Coliseo de Comedias, with Villegas providing most of the capital. As entrepreneurs, they prospered and wielded enough influence in 1788 to prevent competitors from building a new, rival theater. On August 4, 1795, she married Echarri and seemed delighted when people called her Echarri's señora. Echarri died in 1807.
In her final years, la Perricholi showed determination to make a way for herself into respectable middle-class society. She sent her son Manuel to Europe for polishing. He returned embittered after finding that being the illegitimate son of a viceroy conferred no advantages in Spain. When Manuel tried to marry a beautiful seamstress, his mother had him jailed for several months until he agreed to what she considered a more suitable union. Villegas reportedly passed her final years dressed in a nun's habit. She stipulated in her will that her heirs give her a simple funeral and use the money saved to give alms to the poor. When she died on May 16, 1819, her estate amounted to more than 60,000 pesos. She also left a number of books, evidence of her literacy.
After her death, Villegas became symbolically even more important. From humble origins, she had conquered the affections of a viceroy. She had challenged the prejudices of the Peruvian aristocracy, and her later popularity perhaps reflects the people's admiration of her social defiance. Idolized in popular legend, Villegas became the subject of Jacques Offenbach's opera La Périchole, and the romantic drama by M. Théaulon, La Périchole. She also figured prominently in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
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Sánchez, Luis Alberto. La Perricholi. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1963.
León y León D., Gustavo. La Perricholi: apuntes histórico-genealógicos de Micaela Villegas. Lima: CONCYTEC, 1990.
Ruiz Cano y Saenz Galiano, Francisco Antonio, marquis of Soto Florido. Un tríptico del Perú virreinal; el Virrey Amat, el marqués de Soto Florido y la Perricholi: el drama de dos palaganas y su circunstancia. Edition and preliminary study by Guillermo Lohmann Villena. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.
Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah