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A virus? Bacteria? Drugs? Nun of the above

6 April 2007

Mexican school girls seem to take to military formations much better than the boys.  At least that was my impression from my short stint teaching in a Junior High, and from living across from a grade school (and from watching a few small town parades).  The girls were always in step, and the ones carrying the flags and beating the drums with some precision.  The boys… well, they just didn’t seem to be into the discipline thing.  This photo is from a Swedish manufacuter’s website, detailing their social contributions… in this case to La Villa de las Niñas in Chalco, Estado de Mexico.  Where something very strange has been going on.

La Villa is one of several boarding school run by Korean missionary nuns, las Hermanas de María.  Who’d have thought there were missionary nuns (from Korea, yet) in Mexico… but then, it’s not as Catholic a Catholic country as we think.  These school are for poor kids, and generally had a very good reputation.  They were a favorite of Martha Fox (she praised the nuns in a 2002 International Women’s Day speech at the Chalco school as “a model of civic committment” and commended their contributions to the betterment of poor Mexican’s lives).  In 2004, during celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of mass Korean immigration to Mexico, the schools received positive press, as an example of Korean contributions to Mexican society. 

They are apparently good schools, though there’s something a little retrograde about a poor girls’ boarding school specializing in teaching sewing, stenography and word processing (though it is practical — my own Catholic high school, also founded for working class kids, made us learn typing and bookkeeping).  And Mexican girls seem to do ok with a semi-military regime.  Maybe. 

The news that 600 of the 3000 girls at the Chalco school came down with a mystery illness — headaches, joint pains, nausea and vomiting — suggested something was going on.  Worried parents and guardians wanted to see their kids.  No way.  These very strict schools only allow the girls to see their families twice a year. 

600 sick girls, locked in a convent, cut off from the world…  Edmundo Velázquez, of  La Quinta Columna (Puebla), was met at the gate by a nun in a golf cart, assuring him everything was fine, and there was nothing to worry about.  Velázquez reported that parents finally had to go to DIF (the state agency responsible for the welfare of children and dependent persons) and a state prosecutor before they gained entry. 

There are some weird things going on.  Nuevo Excelsior reported that a girl said she was forced to run barefoot around the campus, and sleep with a flock of sheep.  Others reported they were made parts of “families” within the school, and forced to rat each other out for minor offenses.  All media are reporting on Mother Superior Margie Cheong’s press conference yesterday, where she said that the school had made some mistakes, but that it had done nothing wrong. 

And the mystery illness?  Maybe not such a mystery at all:

The Mexican health authorities on Thursday ruled out the spread of any bacteria or viruses at a girl’s boarding school that has witnessed a spate of serious illnesses.


But a report published by health authorities showed that no bacteria or virus had been found, said Cheong.

The report also called for a psychological evaluation for the school’s students. On hearing the news, about 130 students who felt sick immediately recovered.

Cheong said the nuns pressure their students to study hard but ruled out any abuse at the school.

Victor Manuel Torres, assistant director of epidemiology at the Mexico State Health Institute, told the media that the teenage girls appear to have suffered from “psychosomatic symptoms… probably from being in a state of isolation.”

The girls were just sick of the nuns. I can see that.  But what’s weirder is that this has happened before. While looking up this story, I ran across a listing for Margaret Chowning’s  Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752-1863 (Oxford University Press, 2005)

La Purisma convent in San Miguel was split into two factions over the question of religious austerity:

Would the community adopt as austere a lifestyle as they could endure, doing manual labor, suffering hunger and physical discomfort, deprived of the society of family and friends? Or would these women be allowed to lead comfortable and private lives when not at prayer? Accusations and counteraccusations flew. First one side and then the other seemed to have the upper hand. For a time, a mysterious and dramatic illness broke out among the rebellious nuns, capturing the limelight. Were they faking? Were they unconsciously influenced by their ringleader, the charismatic and manipulative young women who first experienced the “mal”?

Sound familiar?

I’m sick of begging… but if I got really sick, it wouldn’t be psychosomatic… and without insurance, it could get dicey:

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