Mateo Rosas de Oquendo



Not much is known of one of Viceregal Peru's earliest satirical poets, Mateo Rosas de Oquendo.  Probably born around 1559, in Spain, he seems to have traveled to the New World as a member of Viceroy García Hurtado de Mendoza's court, later becoming his secretary.  In 1591 we find him engaged in the conquest of Tucumán and in the founding of the city of La Rioja, where he is named Accountant for Royal Finances.   Subsequently, after being encomendero in two settlements referred to in legal documents as "Canchanga" and "Camiquín," he appears to have returned to Lima's viceregal court.  Apparently not having realized his economic and social aspirations, he finally leaves Peru, most likely for Mexico, in search of further possibilities for improving his lot.   Rosas de Oquendo's presence in America can be thought of as that of a minor conquistador whose livelihood, at times precarious, was dependent on the Viceroy's court.  His most important work, from which the passages examined here are taken, is his 2020-verse ballad entitled Satire of Events Taken Place in Pirú in 1598.   This is a complex text that although repeatedly mentioned in handbooks of literature has not yet received sufficient attention, especially with regard to the work's appropriation of carnivalesque discourse. 

For example, the poem's multifaceted narrator is able to relativize the supposedly moralizing purpose of traditional satire.  He presents himself as eyewitness to the goings-on that surround an apparent illness that has afflicted one of Lima's female inhabitants.  The reader is offered a fast-paced, cumulative set of events: 

The young woman falls ill,

Lies idle in bed for a month;

They say it is melancholy

And that she should amuse herself.

Fasting only makes her worse

And so does flagellation.


The narrator tells us that some are of the opinion that the lady's illness stems "from being shut in."  He, however, seems to know better.  He quickly concludes that her malady has nothing to do with being shut in and sees it, rather, as a result of "her rambles."  The reader recognizes the reference to a well-known condition of the times, that of "melancholy," and to its most common cure; in the words of Robert Burton, "a cup of strong drink, mirth, musik, and merry company."  As such, we read:

Then the doors fly open,

The fools come and go.

One brings her sweets,

Another offers her roast fowl,

Another, wine from Castile,

Another, bread, another, meat.

Those of slender means

Strum their guitars.


It is interesting to note, however, that in the Spanish of the seventeenth century "melancholy" was also a euphemism for lasciviousness or licentious sexual behavior.  Earlier we had read that "Fasting only makes her worse / And so does flagellation."  It is well known that these two activities, fasting and flagellation, were precisely cures for lust (as explained, for example, among others, by the Spanish physician Huarte de San Juan in his Examen de Ingenios para las ciencias).   Rosas's poem brings together both meanings implicit in "melancholy," the emotional and the corporal, but favoring the latter one.  The lady's illness serves as an excuse for the visits of many suitors who offer her cures for emotional melancholy, but also a quick fix for her lust.   Merriment is accompanied by concealed references to sexual activity.  We read, for example, that "the doctor takes out his tools /. . .  / He tosses her clothes in her eyes--/  . . ./ He finishes his surgery / And recommends . . .  That she sleep on the cure."  Here the practice of surgery has jocose sexual connotations since in Spanish the word cura  ("cure") was synonymous with the doctor or caretaker. "To sleep on the cura" is, therefore, not just an advice on giving the illness a night's rest, but also to engage in sexual activities with the doctor. 

Although these are well-trodden uses of burlesque satire, Rosas's text recontextualizes stock characters and events within Peru's colonial ideology.  During the poet's time viceregal society was torn by alliances and confrontations among a number of groups that competed for positions of political and economic power.  Much was written both in defense and denigration of New World territories.  For some, mainly Creoles, Lima enjoyed an eternal spring; for others, however, its climate caused negative effects on newly arrived Spanish immigrants.  As the historian Bernard Lavallé has shown, it was thought that repeated contact with America's nature would have ill effects on Spanish residents of the New World. One common belief was, and I translate from a scientist and historian of the period, Dr. Juan de Cárdenas (1591), "exposure to the New World's excessively humid climate resulted in the many venereal acts to which they fall pray in the Indies."  Such enhancement of sexual appetite was a commonplace denigration of the New World, which undoubtedly informs the humorous references to the lascivious nature of Lima's inhabitants as presented in Rosas's poem. 

We should now turn our attention to a passage in which boisterous courtiers are criticized, courtiers who, in order to ingratiate themselves with the ladies, or the lady, make exaggerated references to their self-importance.  We read, for example:

The Viceroy himself looked at this one

And there told him to wait

And the other was commissioned

                on Saturday afternoon,

But cannot say to where

Because it is important this

                not be known:

The matter is so secret,

That even the Marquis knows

                nothing of it.

Still another knows for certain

He will be granted the province

                of the Pacaxes.

And the other goes to the mines

                at Potosí

On a very important matter.

All of them will be famous

On their return.


Commonplace satire of courtly life is at work, but again there is a colonial context that underlies stock references.   On the one hand, as I have already mentioned, political strife was an important impasse for colonial policy, and the poem is written precisely at a time in which local conquistadores and encomenderos were resentful of a new class of opportunistic Lima courtiers.  The poem, although not unequivocally, seems to identify itself with the criticism of such early conquerors and soldiers.  The poem, true to its carnivalesque spirit, however, undermines a serious critical stance.  The poem's narrator denounces the pretentiousness of the courtiers as foolishness:

How I enjoy hearing their nonsense

And seeing a confused map

In the hands of these lunatics.


The passage, however, is relativized by carnivalesque discourse.  According to literary tradition, to achieve credibility, the poem's narrator should offer the reader a positive moral persona, but his preference for breaching the barrier between spectator and spectacle serves to undermine such credibility, albeit in a somewhat concealed fashion. The supposedly high moral standard required of the badger is compromised by a veiled confession of his practice of forbidden acquisition of knowledge.  His ability to see a "confused map / in the hands of these lunatics" can be read as a reference to quiromancy, or the reading of palms, a practice much condemned by the Inquisition.  In sum, these are but two brief examples of Rosas's ability to offer his reader a humorous and carnivalesque view of the social and political complexities of early colonial Lima.


                                                                                                                Pedro Lasarte

                                                                                                                Boston University