Phantasmagoria: Colonial Era Ghosts
Phantasmagoria: Colonial Era Ghosts
By Scott Corrales
Mexico City’s history of phantasmagoria is known all over the world, going as far back as the terror inspired by the manifestations of Ciuhcoatl (“La Llorona”) during the fading years of the Aztec Empire to the seductive manifestations of Xtabay among the gum trees of the Yucatan Peninsula. But no period was more active – or better remembered – south of the border than the ghostly activity of the Colonial Era. This period, spanning three centuries, centered around the young capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, its palaces and monasteries, great lords and ladies, built on the ashes and bones of fallen Tenochtitlan. Shades of the conquest still haunted the streets and alleyways, and the spirits summoned by the Aztec emperor’s sorcerers in their temples of dark tezontle stone were now on the loose.
Some of the stories were romanticized beyond recognition, many of them are spurious and best left to the historias de aparecidos category, which even included some ghastly comic-book format offerings in sepia ink. But a few of them, such as the ones collected by Artemio del Valle Arizpe in his historical works, have stood the test of time.
It is interesting to note that many of these ghost stories occurred in convents, which played a considerable role in Viceregal Mexico’s cultural and economic structure, aside from the obvious spiritual one. Monasteries such as San Francisco and Santo Domigo were impressive structures with their own churches and chapels. Much as they had in Medieval Spain, convents played the additional role of being a place where conquistadors could leave their wives and daughters before setting off on their exploits. Any tourist can visit the place where the events we are about to describe occurred: the Convento de la Concepción, a baroque nunnery built in the 16th century which today houses one of the Mexican government’s ministries.
The records of this institution, carefully preserved over the centuries, state that the cloistered nuns had been tormented for decades by a white figure – wearing the garb of a novice – that would appear dangling from one of the trees on the convent’s premises. The descriptions offered by terrified novices was always the same: a figure with bulging eyes and protruding tongue, twisting slowly in the breeze blowing down from the encircling mountains. In true horror story tradition, by the time the lady abbess and her assistants reported to site, there was nothing to be seen.
Neither masses nor collective penance appeared to make the apparition fade away. It is not known, however, if the Archbishop of Mexico offered any prescriptions or if the Inquisition stepped in to investigate the affair. These grim ecclesiastical figures would have been surprised to learn of the near-Shakespearean tragedy that was at the core of these events.
A young noblewoman – María de Avila – had fallen in love with a mestizo whose surname, Arrutia, is all that is left for posterity. The iron-clad caste system of Colonial Mexico frowned on such a relationship, and María’s brothers – Gil and Alfonso – confronted Arrutia, who scorned them and challenged them to a duel. The brothers, however, felt that accepting such a challenge was beneath them, and decided instead to buy off the upstart half-breed. A considerable sum of money was presented to Arrutia, asking him to leave the city immediately and never return. He did exactly that.
A disconsolate María de Avila was urged to enter the novitiate to seek pardon for her improper relationship and sublimate her feelings in prayer. But the rigors of the convent did not sit well with her. But, as the chronicles tell, what drove her to suicide was learning that her lover had returned to Mexico City to demand more silver from her brothers.
Aside from becoming a terrifying vision to the cloistered nuns, her death caused the downfall of her family: the Avila brothers were implicated in a conspiracy to oust the viceroy and were beheaded; the stately family home was demolished.
From Convents to Libraries
In 1984, a group of high-school students who had embarked upon a photographic tour of the Morelia's colonial past made a startling discovery: a photo taken in the City Library's stacks revealed--upon developing--an eerie silhouette projected on the neat rows of books. At first the students thought it was a trick of the light, or a prank played by a member of their group. But when Library employees were shown the image, they were able to identify it all too well as the outline of a "nun in blue" which has haunted the repository of knowledge for untold generations. Many of the City Library's holdings, it is said, once belonged to one of Morelia's convents.
Nor is identifying the deceased religious woman an easy task: Morelia's library is housed in an ancient stone building that dates back to the 16th century. Burials took place in the structure's floors and walls, and even the librarian's desk is located on top a slab covering an early 20th century burial.
"When I leave the building," stated library director Rigoberto Cornejo in an interview to the El Norte newspaper, "I feel the sensation of someone following me. In fact, I can even hear the footsteps." Although this sober-minded professional refuses to believe in the supernatural, he is hard pressed to find logical explanations for his experiences, or for those of his subordinates.
In 1996, library worker Socorro Ledezma requested a transfer from her work area in the colonial structure after an uncanny experience. "The time must have been seven o'clock in the evening," she told reporters from El Norte, "and it was getting dark outside...that's when I suddenly felt the presence of someone standing behind me, blowing in my ear. I was unable to turn around, and my body was gripped by a chill."
Spain: Trade Unions and Ghosts
The haunted Mexican convent has a counterpart across the Atlantic: the ancient convent of the Arrecogidas in Madrid, located at 86-88 Calle Hortaleza, has steadily gained the reputation of being a haunted location ever since the labor union known as U.G.T. (Union General de Trabajadores) established its headquarters at said location. A number of union leaders who remained into the wee hours of the night hammering out collective bargaining agreements claim felt cold chills upon hearing strange voices, murmurs and the sounds of doors opening and closing all by themselves.
One of the more remarkable agreements involved the office of Antón Saracibar, one of the labor union's former directors. Every morning, his staff would arrive at work to find hand prints on the leather sofas and sunken areas suggesting someone had been sitting in them overnight--despite the fact that the executive office was carefully locked every evening. The incidents caused no-nonsense labor officials to request the aid of prominent parapsychologists.
Historical background checks soon attested to the building's tormented past. Centuries ago, the nuns had turned their fortress-like building into a home for "wayward girls and fallen women," toward whom they behaved more like jailers than helpers. The building's popularity as a place of torment was such that the renown filmmaker Pedro Almodovar used it as the scene for one of his projects, Entre Sombras ("Among Shadows").
The hauntings appear to be circumscribed to the former convent's lower floor, where the cemetery used to bury deceased nuns was located. When the U.G.T took over the building as its main office, the convent's chapel was turned into the main room in which press conferences were to be held, and the choir area became the office of another union executive. Serious consideration was given to the removal of mortal remains from niches in the crypt to make way for computer servers, but wiser heads prevailed and a door was built to bar access to the old convent's lower levels.
Have efforts been made to contact the deceased occupants of these old structures, ridden with memories? The answer to this question is apparently affirmative. In 1995, Father José María Pilón of the Society of Jesus delivered "The Ata Report" on the subject to the board of governors of the Reina Sofía Museum of Art in Madrid, which had formerly been the San Carlos Hospital. The controversial aspect of Father Pilón's effort was that contact had allegedly been made through a Ouija board.
According to Sebastián Rodríguez Galindo's report on the subject in April 1996 issue of Mundo Paranormal, a team of paranormal experts composed of Sol Blanco Soler, Paloma Navarrete, Jose Luis Ramos, Piedad Acevedo, Lorenzo Plaza an Jaime de Alvear, looked into the "psychic presences" in the former hospital, which were allegedly responsible for activating elevators that had been shut down, opening locked doors, and perhaps more chillingly, "processions of entities wearing religious garb moving down the hallways." The majority of the witnesses in these cases were members of the buildings custodial and security staff.
Among the entities contacted by means of the Ouija board were "Malé", a Jewish woman who had lived at the site in 1594; "Aldonza de los Angeles", who claimed having been the prioress of the building's religious community in 1750, and last but not least "Ataulfo" or "Ata" (who gave the report its name): a dangerous, psychopathic patient of the hospital who confessed to having committed five murders while alive.
Bogota’s Liévano Palace
On July 24, 2004, Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper ran a feature on a ghost in an unlikely place: the city of Bogota’s busy town hall, hardly the Gothic structure one would associate with ghostly apparitions. Yet bureaucrats and watchmen have reported strange goings-on during the late hours as “something” makes its way at a quickened pace across the deserted second and third floors of Palacio Liévano, an 18th century structure that survived the devastating 1827 earthquake and was remodeled in 1902. Speculation about the unearthly intruder’s identity has range from a former workaholic employee to a disgruntled citizen tired of bureaucratic wrangling, but no one knows for sure.
The fact remains that the Palacio Liévano “haunt” has a fondness for turning light switches on and off, for closing and opening doors, and an absolute delight over typewriters, whether electric or manual (nothing has been said about its computer proficiency, however). On occasions it has been heard to flush the employee toilet on the first floor of the building. Whenever office workers or the building’s night watchmen – always alert in security-conscious Bogotá – report to check on the source of the disturbance, they are greeted by an empty stillness.
The Liévano phantom appears to have intensified its activity this year with the election of a new mayor. Augusto Cubides, press secretary to Mayor Luis Garzón, reported to work on January 1st at 9:00 a.m. when he had his first run-in with the phantom. “I left the office for a moment,” he told reporters from El Tiempo, “and upon my return, I found the lights in my office were on. So I turned them off. I had to leave my office again about an hour later, and I found my lights on again and a boom box playing at full volume. I asked around to see if some journalist had come in to see me, but there was no one. Little did I know that town hall was haunted.”
Press secretary Cubides would have benefited, perhaps, from a long chat with a former watchman who actually saw the ghost years earlier: Libardo Bravo was making his rounds of the colonial building around 11:00 p.m. one night during Easter Week. When he reached the offices of the Secretary General on the second floor, he saw something moving around—a white bundle with an estimated height of 1.60 meters, floating above the ground. “I couldn’t see its feet or head,” relates the security guard, “and the bundle suddenly vanished into those offices and I heard it typing rapidly on one of the machines. Tell you the truth, I was really scared. I ran down to the first floor.”
During his twelve years of service at town hall, Libardo says that he finally got used to living with the phantom.
The odd comings and goings of the typing-obsessed entity are now being picked up by the motion sensors on the first and second floors of the building. Police officers responding to the scene say that the movement detected by the sensitive equipment is similar to that of footsteps.
Even weirder things have been going on: workers have reported a strange “bird” in the vicinity. One woman, Marcela Cadena, told El Tiempo that she has seen an “enormous owl” flying over the town hall parking between 10:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.. “I’ve seen it. It is truly immense.”
The logical counterpoint to these claims is that there are no ghosts in Palacio Liévano and that there are perfectly reasonable explanations for the incidents. Former mayor Paul Bromberg blames it all on “strong mountain winds” blowing off the Andean heights and which cause similar effects “in all old buildings.”