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The play was unveiled at an event in Mexico City. The play was unveiled at an event in Mexico City.

Facebook message led to recovery of 18th-century play about the conquest

Author of the 'technically complex' play remains unknown

An 18th century play about the conquest of Mexico has been published seven years after an academic received a message from a collector in possession of an intriguing manuscript: he believed it might have been written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun and poet who is an iconic figure in Mexico.

José Herrera Alcalá, a Catholic priest, wrote to Alberto Pérez-Amador, a viceregal literature researcher and Sor Juana expert, on the social media network to ask him to offer an opinion on the text.

“Although it sounds incredible, a collector who thought he had a Sor Juana manuscript in his private collection contacted me on Facebook,” Pérez-Amador told the newspaper El Universal.

“That, of course, provoked my immediate surprise and curiosity. He sent me some photographs of the manuscript and after reviewing it it was clear to me that it couldn’t be by Sor Juana because the style is very different, much later, but it was clear that it was of particular value because the manuscript is complete, that’s unusual,” he said, explaining that most old texts are missing pages, damaged by water or have been eaten by insects.

“In this case we have a manuscript that is complete in all parts of the text, the only thing we’re missing is the author, it doesn’t say anywhere who the author is,” Pérez-Amador said.

He explained that Herrera thought the 68-page manuscript – a play about the Spanish conquistadores’ defeat of the Aztec empire that relates such events as the arrival of the Spanish in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and the capture of Moctezuma II  – might have been written by Sor Juana because it was previously held in the library of Mexico City’s San Jerónimo Convent, where the 17th century nun and poet lived for much of her life.

“It’s the only play from the viceregal period we’ve found with this theme,” added Pérez-Amador, who described the work as a “very important” find.

“Of course we have a lot of theater pieces from the Viceroyalty [of New Spain] but this is the only one with this theme … and that’s something valuable.”

The play has 18 characters and is technically complex, the Metropolitan Autonomous University academic said.

“It’s not by a beginner or a [theater] enthusiast who wrote something but rather by someone who really knew the rules of versification and the tradition of Novohispanic and Spanish theater, and knew how to manage characters on a stage and how to … surprise the audience with unexpected situations, [how to construct] plot twists to maintain the audience’s attention,” he said.

“It’s by an 18th century Spaniard, the handwriting is irregular, the grammar and spelling is of a Spaniard of that period,” Pérez-Amador said.

He said Herrera agreed to lend the manuscript to him so that it could be digitized, which allowed the writing to be magnified and more easily understood. The digitized version was subsequently edited by the researcher and submitted to the federal government-affiliated, non-profit publishing group Fondo de Cultura Ecónomica, which published the play as part of its prestigious Biblioteca Americana Collection.

“All the works of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Bartolomé de las Casas, Sor Juana – let’s say the classics – are in that collection,” Pérez-Amador said.

Published under the title La Conquista de México por Carlos Quinto. Una comedia anónima novohispana desconocida (The Conquest of Mexico by Charles V. An Unknown Anonymous Comedy from New Spain), the publication was officially launched during a virtual event on Thursday.

With reports from El Universal 

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