|June 12, 2000
Mario André Chandler
You must have heard me talk about my colleague, Professor Baltasar Fra Molinero, who is a specialist in Renaissance Spanish literature. Like myself, he treats the subject of blacks in the Hispanic literary and cultural tradition. His research is at the cutting edge of Afro-Hispanic studies, and his writings formed an integral part of my nourishment as a graduate student of Spanish.
It was not until after I completed graduate school that I had the honor of meeting him face-to-face at a conference that we both attended. While fortune would place us in Spain doing research at the same time, a noble spirit of generosity and sincere collegiality on the part of my colleague would move Professor Fra Molinero to invite me to Salamanca to follow his work. I, until now, the teacher, would become the student on this journey. So I thought.
I was prepared to step back and watch a master scholar at work, but Professor Fra Molinero insisted on pulling me in and allowing me to share in each exciting step of his investigation. His work in Salamanca is no less than prophetic and will have an appeal that will not only include the Black Diaspora, the common experiences of blacks around the world, but will extend far out into the reaches of spiritual expression. I am indebted to him for his mentorship.
An African-American Dominican Friar
Within five minutes of our arrival to Salamanca last Saturday, my colleague had set up a meeting with a captivating person whose story cries out to be told,
Jeffrey Ott, an African-American Friar with the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church. A native of New Orleans, he has been in Salamanca since July of 1999 studying theology and preparing for the priesthood. Friar Ott agreed to meet us beneath the big clock at the main wing of Salamanca’s famous Plaza Mayor.
Though I tried to envision what he would be like before I meeting him, nothing prepared for what I would see. A few minutes after the meeting time, I saw approaching us a young, handsome black man wearing well-ironed street clothes. His hair was neatly cut and his demeanor was one of total tranquility.
Friar Ott invited us to the Sotomayor Convent, where approximately 20 Dominican friars live and receive their theological training. As he gave us the grand tour of Sotomayor, he spoke with us about his Catholic upbringing in New Orleans and his ultimate decision to dedicate his life to the Church. Despite having a Bachelor’s degree from Xavier University and a Master’s from Columbia University, Friar Ott told us that he felt compelled to heed to a higher calling. He said he came to Salamanca because of the historical and intellectual tradition of the Dominican Order in this city. He also said that learning Spanish would increase his outreach potential and help him, as he said: “To be a communal priest, a visible priest where I can best be a sacramental part of someone’s life.”
After talking with Friar Ott, I realized that whereas I have penetrated to a degree the body of modern Spain, Friar Ott has penetrated the spiritual soul of contemporary Spanish society. He sees what it is impossible for me see.
Since I am not Catholic, this is one area of the Spanish reality that will remain somewhat inaccessible to me. Our meeting was an enriching experience. I would have never imagined finding an African-American friar in one of the world’s most renowned bastions of Dominican culture -- Salamanca, Spain.
Friar Ott’s story is metaphoric of the black experience in Spanish society. Black presence is here, as it always has been. It’s just overlooked and little known.
Sister Theresa Tshikaba: From African Princess to Catholic Saint
Friar Ott’s story is also a convenient segue to another fascinating story concerning a black figure of the Dominican Order. Salamanca is home of the remains of Sister Theresa Tshikaba, an African princess from the Mina Baxa region of West Africa (near present-day Benin and Togo).
In spite of her royal lineage, Tshikaba was captured by Spanish slavers at the age of 10 in 1686 and brought to Spain. In Madrid, she was raised in the household of the Marquis of Mancera and educated as an upright Catholic. Her Christian name, Theresa, was given to her upon her baptism.
In her early twenties, Tshikaba decided that she wanted to enter the convent and dedicate her life to the Roman Catholic Church. Because she was black, she was refused entrance by all of the convents that she wished to enter in Madrid. Eventually, she was admitted into the Convent of the Penance, a poorer convent located far away from Madrid in the university town of Salamanca. In the beginning, her admittance was conditional and biased as she was ordered to serve in the capacity of maid of the convent. In 1704, her patience and perseverance earned her the habit and the full name, Sister Theresa Juliana of Santo Domingo. She served for more than forty years until her death on December 6, 1748.
It is reported that during her devotional life in Salamanca, she was well known for her sympathy toward others, her spiritual advice and her gifts of healing and prophecy. In recent years, the beatification process has been set in motion in order canonize her as the first black woman saint. The Dominican Sisters of Salamanca believe that Sister Theresa Tshikaba’s canonization will have a positive impact on Spanish society’s view of black people within and outside of the Church. More importantly, the Sisters believe that the impact of Sister Theresa Tshikaba’s sainthood upon Africa will be tremendous as it can potentially strengthen African Catholics’ faith and their view of their place in the body of Roman Catholicism.
I was deeply touched by Sister Tshikaba’s story. As I walked the streets of Salamanca, I could not help but reflect upon the fact that this black woman walked these same streets and witnessed this city much as I witness it today. She struggled to make her place in a social and religious context that did not want to embrace her contribution. I was surprised as I listened to the Dominican Sisters speak about Sister Tshikaba “affectionately.” Their most frequently used term of “endearment” is “La Negrita” or “Little Negro.” It is both sad and ironic that even in death the African princess’ memory edifies a society that still harbors its share of racial demons.