The top and bottom edges of Sutro’s copy of Jose Sigüenza’s biography of Saint Jerome (La vida de S. Geronimo dotor de la santa iglesia. Madrid: Tomás Junta, 1595) carry a legible firebrand: “S.Jacto.O.P.” The Catalogo Colectivo de Marcas de Fuego identifies it with the Dominican convent of San Jacinto in Mexico City.[1] Founded in the early 17th century, the convent was a stop on the long route connecting Spain to Asia.

Tatiana Seijas notes in Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico that “San Jacinto stands apart from other religious institutions for its large number of chino slaves and for the way they were employed.” Seijas continues that their roles were not only “as servants to attend to the traveling men and also to upkeep the rest home,” but also “cultural intermediaries” used for “introducing friars to foreign traditions” (126). Transiting the western-most fringes of the Spanish empire, missionaries studied both books in libraries and the people whose forced labor maintained the facilities. This book, flung through history, remains with us as evidence of these encounters and an embodiment of the workings of empire.

Let’s consider just the book’s covers which are made of vellum, animal skin specially treated to be tough and smooth but still very flexible, perfect for a library whose contents would be at the disposal of many studious but weary travelers. Look closely and just beneath the vellum cover is what appears to be text. Sheets of printed waste—recycled pages from another printed book—have been used as endpapers to protect the main text and attach it to the covers. Whatever text visible on the waste sheets was not meant to be read but only provide support for the physical structure of the book.

If the firebrand tells us that this book was once lodged, literally and figuratively, into colonial Mexican society in a place where European and East Asian cultures mixed, what might we learn about the time and place in which this book circulated by examining the printed waste end papers?

Only fragments of the recycled text are visible. Among vellum’s qualities is its naturally off-white translucence. Shining a light through the rear cover I could see what was pasted down on the other side of the illustration of Saint Augustine. Though barely legible, the page layout told me that it was the title page. The main giveaway was the imprint statement at the bottom, which reads in part:

Viuda de Miguel de Ortega en los Portales de las Flores, 1727

From consulting Jose T. Medina’s Imprenta en Puebla de Los Angeles, 1640-1821, I learned this printer was active in Puebla, Mexico, in the 18th century. The “viuda’s” (widow) name was Manuela Cerezo and she belonged to a prominent family of printers. It was common in Europe and the Americas at this time for widows to carry on the business after her husband’s death. Interestingly, the details of this book, such as place of publication, year, printer, or content—it’s presumably a novena, a sort of guide to devotional practice which became popular in eighteenth century Mexico, dedicated to Saint Augustine—do not match any entries in Medina’s bibliography, nor does any library report holding a complete edition in OCLC’s Worldcat database. These eight pages (of which only 6 can be read unaided) appear to be all that remains of what would have once been a commonplace text.

There are many ways to approach a book. The very legible firebrand contrasts with the novena fragment, which was not meant to be read and whose survival seems almost to be complete chance. By focusing on these two aspects (which are literally on the periphery of the book) we broaden our understanding of the materials, institutions, and practices that supported the circulation of texts in colonial Mexico.

Jose Guerrero, Cataloging & Metadata Librarian, Sutro Library.


[1] The brand is an abbreviation of “San Jacinto Ordinis Praedicatorum [Order of Preachers],” the Latin being the official name of the Dominican Order.

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