Today anyone who wants to see Santa Clara has to get up early in the
morning. Situated in the heart of Cuzco's market district, the oldest
cloistered convent in South America is definitely not a tourist attrac-
tion. Thousands of tourists a year trundle by on their way to catch
the predawn train to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu without giving
the convent's old stone walls so much as a sleepy glance. The church
of Santa Clara opens for mass only briefly as day breaks and vendors
begin stirring the market to life. After the small group of worship-
pers departs, the front gates are locked, leaving only an inconspicu-
ous side door to admit the occasional visitor or deliveryman. Mean-
while the streets outside fill with lively exchanges: bargaining, buying,
the comings and goings of maids and stoop-backed porters. By mid-
morning vendors have completely outfitted the perimeter of Santa
Clara with the multicolored canvas of their market stalls, and from
the vantage point of the street outside, the old convent practically dis-
It is hard
imagine that the nuns were once at the center of city life.
Now that the market and the convents turn their backs to each other,
and commerce and spirituality seem to go separate ways, it is easy
to think this was always the case and that cloistered nuns in general
were always withdrawn, "in this world but not of it." The historiog-
raphy of the colonial and postcolonial Andes does little to contradict
these impressions. Convents are marginalized mostly by omission.! To
the extent that nuns and convents have been written about, the point
has often been more hagiographical than historiographical: to praise
the monjitas for their edifying example.2 The fascinating involvement
of cloistered women in everything from conquest to the making of
postcolonial nations has in the process been set aside, and the axis of
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