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The Secret Lives of Mexican Nuns

Cloistered in Catholic monasteries, these sisters embrace tradition, devotion—and rock-and-roll.

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At a Catholic convent in Puebla, Mexico, 23-year-old Sister Reina Maria, a novice in the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, plays volleyball. Recreation gives the nuns a chance to recharge during a long day of work and devotion.
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When I began this project, I thought of nuns as always dour and serious. But they love to laugh and be festive too. Here, Mother Maria del Carmen (at left) and Sister Virginia stand by a dessert table at a meeting of nuns from nine monasteries of the Conceptionist Order.
This story appears in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I always want to know what goes on backstage. Whether I’m photographing baseball or ballet, I like to peek behind the curtain and see what people’s lives are really like. So when I got a grant to spend three years documenting Roman Catholic nuns cloistered in Mexican monasteries, I jumped at the chance.

In Puebla, Mexico, where I grew up, some Catholic churches are more than 400 years old. The first sisters here helped the Spanish spread Catholicism in Mexico. But many of the nuns stay secluded in their convents, forbidden to engage with the world. When I was a kid they seemed like legends to me.

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Sister Elísea Sánchez, a nun for 27 years, finishes her meditation after a prayer service for the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. When she recently became ill, she asked—and was granted—permission to leave the Dominican Monastery of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano for two years.
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I made this image of Sister Emma, wearing a crown and holding a staff, when the nuns told me that no current portraits of them exist.

Gaining access to their world wasn’t easy. When I’d knock on a convent door, they’d tell me to go away—then slam the door in my face. But I was stubborn and persistent, and eventually they let me in.

When I asked the nuns why they’d taken their vows, some told me they’d received a calling. Others said they wanted to avoid marriage. And then there were two sisters who used to play in a rock band—they became nuns to find spiritual meaning.

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A procession of nuns—permitted to leave their convent for a day and visit a Franciscan monastery—walk past a sunny wall in Cholula, Mexico. Cloistered nuns may also go out for a doctor’s or dentist’s appointment, but must always travel in pairs.
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Clara Eugenia Lavarte Cabrera, 76, rides a stationary bike during her afternoon workout. “Exercise is important in all stages of life,” she told me. “It’s a way to keep your body and mind healthy. When I was young, I swam and rode horses.” Today she can use the bike, a treadmill, or a stair-climber.

Each morning I’d start my day when they did—at 4:30. Their devotional singing was my alarm clock. Then I’d shadow them as they did their daily prayers and chores, washing and cleaning and cooking.

I soon learned that they have fun. They laugh and dance, play cards and games. They listen to rock-and-roll. One nun I met is a big soccer fan. She’d watch TV and follow the teams she liked, praying for the players and jumping for joy when they won.

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I took this shot of Sister Teresa, 83, when I was waiting to interview the monastery’s abbess. Two novitiates had held her arms and helped her into a wooden chair. She has lupus. When I approached her, she couldn’t raise her head. But when I knelt down to speak with her, she spoke very clearly.

My aim with this series is to show the daily lives of people whose seclusion makes them invisible. I want everyone to see how alive they are, how human and feminine. Maybe one day their centuries-old way of life will be extinct. But it’s not yet.



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