By the time I arrived
Cuzco to do research on the city's cloistered
convents, just over a century had elapsed since the Clares and the
Dominicans had decided to adopt vida comun, the common life many
people now assume the nuns always lived. In 1989 the communities
of Santa Clara, Santa Catalina, and Santa Teresa still held around two
dozen professed women apiece-roughly the same number they had
reached a century earlier after many decades of decline. The way to
speak to the nuns at any length in 1989 was still the same as it was a
century (or more) earlier: to sit before the grilles of their locutorios.1
And the nuns were still wary of outsiders, especially those attempt-
ing to gain access to their cloisters or detailed knowledge of their
The Clares' attitude toward outsiders had hardened into an almost
insuperable defensiveness. The nineteenth-century reform movement
that had led the nuns to stop up even their highest windows with
adobes had also reinforced their reserve with anyone unfamiliar to
them, anyone not related by kinship, long proximity, or ecclesiasti-
cal connections. A 1945 petition I came across in the diocesan archive
showed me clearly enough that at midcentury Cuzco's municipal
spectors were still faring poorly in their approaches to the nuns. Ab-
bess Maria Jesus de la Cruz Urquizo, convinced that a Communist
mayor wanted to spy on her community, asked her prelate to deceive
the mayor on her behalf. In Urquizo's prose the verb "to inspect"-
inspeccionarse- became almost an epithet, and the mayor a threatening
Cold Warrior intent on deceitful penetration:
[TJhe Mayor desires to enter our cloisters for the purpose of
inspecting whether we are really doing construction in the
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