Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America: Asunción Lavrin

Asunción Lavrin’s edited volume, Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, presents a series of perspectives on what Lavrin calls the “conquest of the mind,” the means through which the Spanish state and Catholic Church sought to maintain control over colonial society. The authors challenge received understandings of the region’s early history by showing the gray tones and flexible practices of religious and sexual life, which are often discussed in rigid, black-and-white terms.

Lavrin begins by discussing the structural roles of the Church and State in personal and domestic relations. The author shows that even though both sought reproductive control over American populations, the multicultural nature of the colonies meant that European standards had to be relaxed. One of the important insights of this work is the discussion of the ubiquity of premarital sex and the creative ways colonial societies dealt with “guilty” couples, the children born from these unions, and social repercussions for the individuals and their families. By going beyond the ideal depictions of colonial sexual practices and gender relations and instead looking at the reality of colonial life, Lavrin shows that social morals were much looser than previously thought.

Ann Twinam focuses on the role of honor and patriarchy, showing its essential ties to socioeconomic status and control, while also showing the importance of gracias al sacar in the remediation of moral blemishes. Twinam’s explorations private pregnancies and extended engagements shows both how women who engaged in premarital sex were able to occupy an “in-between” status between as nhighlights how class differences mattered in the pursuit of honor and status, with the upper classes more concerned about their prestige as well as the few with enough wealth to worry about the proper division of inheritances.

Ruth Behar’s chapter on female empowerment and sexual witchraft is intriguing, but raises questions. She argues that women most often exercised their power in the personal sphere of domestic and sexual life, especially through food. Even though the role of women was circumscribed in the public sphere, her examination of inquisition documents related to witchcraft from colonial Mexican reveals a wide scale of female networks that cut across social and ethnic lines. Behar’s work challenges assumptions, especially about women of elite status, of their living cloistered lives, disconnected from lower classes. Instead she demonstrates how upper class women reached out to indigenous or enslaved women of African descent to access what they thought was pagan witchraft. She also shows how witchcraft was effectively used by slaves against their masters as a means of resistance. Perhaps much of its potency was due to the widespread belief, held by lay people and clergy, in the efficacy of this magic.

While Behar plays up “female supernatural power” and the different potions administered to their victims, it would have been interesting to also consider the physical effects of this magic. Behar portrays many victims as paranoid or hysterical, but given what is known about medicinal plants and animals endemic to the Americas, it is likely that many of these magic potions contained powerful drugs. Even if victims attributed the effects to witchcraft, understanding that potent biopharmaceuticals were likely inducing real medical reactions would enrich her analysis.

Other chapters deal with marriage choice, compliance, conflict, and divorce. This last topic, discussed by María Beatriz Nizza da Silva from the perspective of colonial Brazil, highlights social norms in Portuguese America, where the Church was willing to bend to social custom over time, granting relatively more divorces in the later colonial period, frequently over cases of mistreatment or adultery. This chapter is important for highlighting both the role of women as protagonists of legal proceedings as well as the extent that society went to help women conceal dishonor, whether out of fear of violence or social repercussions.

Asunción Lavrin, ed. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. 1. paperback print. Latin American Studies Series. Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1992.

By N. H. Gill
Quito, 2018

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