Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche was born around 1623. Her father was a famous Spanish soldier, and her mother an Irish noblewoman sent to Spain to protect her from English Protestants. As a child, Teresa moved every time her father received a new political appointment. She lived in Alessandria and Milan in Italy, and Fuenterrabía and Granada in Spain, all before the age of 14. In 1638, she moved with her family to the New World, where her father took up the position of governor of Cartagena de Indias in Nueva Granada (present day Colombia). Throughout her travels, Teresa received the very best education—by the time she reached marriageable age, she could read and write Spanish, English, French, and Latin, and she was an impeccably devout Catholic.
When she was about 20 years old, Teresa married Don Bernardo López de Mendizábal, and moved with him to Mexico City. Bernardo was a military hero and a rising star in New Spain. In 1658, he was appointed the governor of the Spanish colony of New Mexico, a territory that covered much of modern-day New Mexico and Arizona. As the governor’s wife, Teresa was responsible for moving her entire household to the governor’s palace in the colony’s capital city of Santa Fe. After much hurry and preparation, they departed Mexico City in late 1658.
The journey from Mexico City to Santa Fe took seven months, and every day brought new challenges for Teresa. The colder climate inflamed severe arthritis in her hands and feet. She suffered a miscarriage, which sent her into a deep depression. Arriving in Santa Fe probably did little to lift her spirits. The capital was a tiny settlement of about 800 people, only 100 of whom identified as Spanish. It was surrounded by countryside dotted with missions and haciendas, and was supplied by merchant caravans only three times a year. There was not much to appeal to a woman of Teresa’s stature and education.
Life in Santa Fe turned out to be a living nightmare. Bernardo made many enemies who constantly worked to bring him down. He also had very public affairs with any woman who caught his eye. Even the servants and slaves who served Teresa were not safe from his advances. Teresa was humiliated, but could do nothing to stop his behavior. Instead, she took her frustrations out on the servants and enslaved women who served her, whipping and beating them to discourage them from sleeping with her husband. Teresa did not seem to care whether the women were willing participants in their relations with Bernardo, she just needed an outlet for her fury. Her behavior drove her maids and slaves to work with her husband’s enemies.
In August 1662, Teresa and Bernardo were arrested by officers of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, a religious court that had absolute authority to try any citizen of Spain for crimes against the Church. Bernardo’s political enemies, with the help of Teresa’s servants and slaves, had convinced the Inquisition officers that Teresa and Bernardo were heretics. The Inquisition could hold suspects indefinitely, and torture, maim, and brutally execute people. Once Teresa was taken into custody, her property was confiscated, and she was not allowed to communicate with anyone who might help her, including her husband. But Teresa proved to be more than up to the challenge.
She was accused of forty-seven crimes against the Catholic Church, including skipping mass, mocking religious traditions, practicing occult rituals, and secretly being Jewish.
Teresa’s trial began on May 2, 1663. She was not told what charges had been made against her. Instead, the court demanded that she confess to any and all crimes she may have committed. Teresa stood her ground, insisting that she was an upstanding Catholic woman and that any charges against her and her husband were lies told by their enemies. The court tried two more times to force a confession out of Teresa, but she stayed firm. After her third appearance on May 12, the court left her in her cell for six months. She repeatedly requested that her case be concluded, or that she be allowed to live with her husband, who had become very sick during the journey to Mexico City, but all of these requests were ignored—her social status could only get her so far.
On October 26, 1663, Teresa was brought before the court to hear the charges against her. She was accused of forty-seven crimes against the Catholic Church, including skipping mass, mocking religious traditions, practicing occult rituals, and secretly being Jewish. Over the next month, Teresa responded to every accusation. She explained that she missed mass only when her arthritis was so bad she couldn’t move. Her “occult rituals” were nothing more than herbal remedies for her many illnesses, which she was forced to use because no better medical treatment was available in Santa Fe. As for the charges of mocking religious traditions or practicing Judaism, they were lies fabricated by her enemies. She insisted that anyone who knew her would attest that she was a devout Catholic and had been since childhood. Teresa wrote a twenty-eight-page document identifying all of her enemies by name and laying out exactly why their testimony was biased. Without ever being told who was speaking against her, she was able to discredit nearly every witness the court had.
Teresa’s case was suspended and she was released from prison in December 1664, twenty-eight months after her initial arrest, but her life was essentially ruined by her ordeal. Her husband had died while in prison, and she spent the rest of her days fighting to get all of her possessions back from the courts. Even so, Teresa was lucky to escape with her life. Today her trial testimony stands as one of the only female-authored accounts of life in colonial New Mexico.