Colonial Santiago’s most sensational figure was Doña Catalina de los Ríos Lisperguer, better known locally as La Quintrala. Her life was one of sex, money, murder, sleaze and religion, intermingled to create one of the most fascinating legends in the city’s popular tradition. La Quintrala was born around 1604 into a family of rich landowners of Spanish and German origins. She is described by authors as being a fiery and beautiful redhead – her nickname derives from the Quintral, a Patagonian red-flowered mistletoe – and a woman of a lusty and sacrilegious nature. Her family’s fortune comprised several properties in the capital, including the land beside the church and convent of San Agustín, and a estate in the countryside near Santiago, all of which were ran by a massive contingent of slaves and serfs under their command.
Her beauty and wealth were only as legendary as her cruelty. She is said to have taken a personal hobby in slashing slaves, and indeed, it is recorded that the recurrent death of serfs under her care led to frequent fines issued by the authorities at the time. But her killer instincts were not limited to her subordinates. She was most notorious for having murdered her own father, Don Gonzalo de los Ríos by feeding him a poisoned chicken. She also ordered the assassination of a priest, attempted to stab another who had visited her to redeem her soul, and even tortured a lover to death in the cellar of her Santiago home.
Expectedly, justice did a lousy job on la Quintrala’s case. Largely because of her fortune and connections – she was the sister in law of an illustrious judge – she escaped trial on all 15 documented murder charges made against her. Traditional storytelling, however, have placed the number of la Quintrala’s victims well in the hundreds, considering in particular the number of slave deaths not accounted for by the colonial judiciary.
La Quintrala’s is nonetheless a story of last minute redemption, a theme much-loved by Catholic tradition. She was a central figure in the iconic myth of the Cristo de Mayo, an image with which she was particularly fond of and even kept in her home after the earthquake of 1647. But her relationship with the crucifix was just as tempestuous as with the other men of her life. It is said that once she became furious because the crucified Jesus appeared to be staring accusingly at her provocative cleavage. She ordered the removal of the image claiming that no men in her house had the right to give her “funny looks”. At her death in 1665, though, she donated a large portion of her will to the conservation of the Cristo de Mayo and to the yearly procession of 13 May. Her final request was for the Agustinians to hold 20,000 annual masses in her memory at the church beside her home, an authoritarian command that is still observed today.