Catarina de San Juan: Mughal Princess or Mexican Saint?

Historians and Catholics alike have venerated the enslaved woman from India since the 1600s, yet few know her true story — until now.

Portrait of a Mughal lady and calligraphy by Muhammad al-Hasani. c.1600-1700 (Royal Collection Trust)

Ayesha Le Breton


February 22, 2024


13 min

Legend has it that Mexico’s national costume, the china poblana — the lace-trimmed, embroidered skirt with a white, off-the-shoulder blouse and woven shawl — isn’t Mexican at all. Rather, Catarina de San Juan, an Indian woman who arrived in Mexico in the 1600s, created the dress. Visitors to Puebla, a city in central Mexico, can even find a fountain and a 10-foot statue of the woman donning waist-length braids and holding folds of her skirt in each hand. 

“I was born there, and I grew up going by that fountain every day. And I asked myself… ‘Who is this person?’” recalled historian Tatiana Seijas. “I heard the stories…she’s a person who was enslaved, who came to Puebla, and it was she who made this national costume. As a historian, it didn’t make sense.” While getting her Ph.D. at Yale, Seijas dug into the contradiction, debunking much more than just the fabricated origins of the china poblana. 

Catarina’s existence is well documented, but her initial biographers shrouded her life in Catholic legend. In recent decades, however, historians have parsed through fiction to find that Catarina and her life offer a window into the little-known trans-Pacific slave trade and expand our definition of the South Asian immigrant experience. 

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