Short Teaching Module: Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America

Nora Jaffary, Concordia University


When I teach a survey of the colonial history of Latin America, I often focus on the era’s cultural history, and specifically on the issue of hegemony and resistance. Students examine the various mechanisms (in particular, ways of thinking about gender, race, and religion) that the Spanish monarch, the church, and the colony’s ruling elites employed to control the much larger non-elite and non-European populations whose labor and resources they extracted. Students also discuss the extent to which such mechanisms were effective: Did the population of Latin America seem to absorb these ideologies, or did they maintain different views of themselves and their positions in society?


To help students answer this question, I use three transcripts of 18th-century legal cases from a collection of primary sources entitled Colonial Lives: Documents in Latin American History, 1550-1850.1 These cases all involve instances when non-elite people came into conflict with people of higher social status. I use them in the latter third of the course when dealing with the cultural history of the mature colonies. All present engaging case studies students can use to examine the functioning and interrelatedness of gender and racial ideologies in colonial Latin America.

I either assign Colonial Lives in its entirety as one of the course texts or include a selection of its documents in a primary and secondary source course pack. Each chapter in Colonial Lives opens with an introductory essay, but I also provide students with additional background information about race and gender prior to their reading of these sources to enable their interpretation of the documents. I outline the framework of the sistema de castas, the caste system employed in 17th- and 18th-century Latin America to delineate the extent of Spanish, Indian, and African blood present in all individuals, and to track the mixing of races through a baroque nomenclature that privileged the reproduction of whiteness.2

I also link the issue of race to students’ knowledge about gender ideologies by discussing colonial concepts of male and female honor. Even though a high proportion of race mixing in colonial Latin America occurred as the result of sexual unions between European men and indigenous, African, or mixed race women, this society viewed European women as the vessels through which racial purity had to be transmitted. The most significant element of women’s honor, therefore, became the demonstration of their virginity, or, after marriage, their chastity. Men’s honor, on the other hand, was rooted in the successful public defense of the sexual honor of their female relations.3

One way I have used these sources is by having their analysis form the basis for class discussions of race and gender. In this case, I provide students with questions which form a framework for our class discussions to consider when they first read the sources before class on their own. Examples of the kinds of questions I ask include:

—What types of associations with masculinity and femininity and with people of different ethnicities are expressed in these documents? Do different people appear to have different associations?

—In what ways can you detect that ideas about gender were connected to ideas about race in colonial Latin American society?

—What types of power and what types of restrictions do men, women, and plebeian, and/or indigenous, African, or mixed-race people demonstrate in these documents?

—Do these sources demonstrate that plebeians in colonial Latin America accepted or contested the ideologies of race and gender that elite groups advanced?

Where class size permits, I break students into groups of four to five people and instruct them to discuss these questions with their classmates for 10-15 minutes. Each group discusses all questions but is responsible for presenting their conclusions on one issue to the entire class, which other students can then challenge or comment on. In such a scenario, I tend to take a back seat to the group presenting their conclusions, and only occasionally actively participate. If the conversation lags, I sometimes point to a contradiction or ask a further question. If I thought a conclusion the class had reached was particularly apt (or particularly off course), I sometimes comment on this in a subsequent lecture. When class size or room structure does not permit this approach, I proceed immediately to a large group discussion of the answers students had prepared on their own, in which I act as the leader, asking for voluntary (or sometimes mandatory) input from class members. This latter approach is less effective, but has sometimes still yielded some lively in-class debates.

One of the things students learn from this exercise is that contemporary primary sources can accurately reveal contradictory results. I attempt to guide them to this observation by asking for answers to the questions above and then ascertaining with followup questions whether all the documents substantiate the same view, or whether different individuals featured in them articulate different perspectives.

The first document, “Scandal at the Church”, features a plebeian man and his wife, Josefa Cadena, who have seemingly accepted the ideology of the caste system because they are anxious to demonstrate that Cadena is not “a black whore,” as women of higher status have labeled her, but rather a castiza, a person of three Spanish and one Indian grandparents, who would have assumed a position of greater prestige in the sistema de castas. The couple does not challenge the validity of the system as a whole, but seek to show their more elevated position within it. The third document, “The Most Vile Atrocities”, on the other hand, illustrates how a free black woman rejects the notion of the racial hierarchy, declaring to a white woman of higher social standing, “I am free and I am as worthy as you are!”

The second document, “Don Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión Protests the marriage of His Daughter”, details a father’s objections to his daughter’s marital choice, a man he considers to be of lesser social status, in economic and racial terms, than his daughter.4 This trial contains a great deal of information about how various members of society defined honor differently. For some witnesses, tracing the blood lineage of the prospective groom, Don Teodoro Jaramillo, was essential. Others focused on the occupations in which the Jaramillo had engaged. Still others detailed the clothing that his mother wore—whether it was the attire of “plebeians” or, alternatively, was “quite decent.”

Rather than pointing to one conclusive interpretation of the population’s acceptance of race and gender ideologies, I encourage students to consider, in their future analysis of these and similar sources, the conditions and contextual factors that provoked these differing responses.

One of the other larger themes that I often encourage students to observe in these documents is their illustration of the enormous gap that colonial Latin American society tolerated between the discourse and the reality of both gender and race. “Scandal at the Church” features a group of supposedly delicate women, reliant on their men’s protection for the defense of their honor. When they perceived it besmirched, however, as one witness recounts, one woman “threw [her attacker] onto the ground,” beating and shouting at her, while her male protector stood by, passively observing. Many of the witnesses in “Don Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión Protests the Marriage” demonstrate that to them, the public performance of honor, rather than its private actuality, was the crucial factor in determining its presence.

These documents effectively engage students in this, and in the other questions highlighted above, because they present interesting characters in provocative scenarios that help enliven the realities of colonial experiences.

1Boyer, Richard and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents in Latin American History, 1550-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

— “Scandal at the Church: José de Alfaro Accuses Doña Theresa Bravo and Others of Insulting and Beating His Castiza Wife, Josefa Cadena (Mexico, 1782),” Sonya Lipsett Rivera, pp. 216-223,”

—“Don Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión Protests the marriage of His Daughter to Don Teodoro Jaramillo, a Person of Lower Social Standing (Quito, 1784-85),” Christian Büschges, pp. 224-235

—“‘The Most Vile Atrocities’: Accusations of Slander Against María Cofignie, Parda Libre (Louisiana, 1795),” Kimberly S. Hanger, pp. 269-278

2Instructors wishing more information about the sistema de castas could refer to Magnus Mörner’s classic, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967); Ilona Katzew’s study of the artwork (pinturas de castas) depicting the system, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); or María Elena Martínez’s recent article, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” William and Mary Quarterly 61:3, (July 2004), 479-520.

3Teachers who wish to refer to further works on this might consult Patrica Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice, 1574-1871, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); Asuncion Lavrin, ed., Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989); and Ann Twinam, Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality, and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999).

4The relevant context for this document was the Spanish crown’s 1776 decree, the Real Pragmática, which mandated that children up to age 25 who did not secure their father’s approval of their marital choices would suffer disinheritance.

Primary Sources

Scandal at the Church: José de Alfaro Accuses Doña Theresa Bravo and Others of Insulting and Beating His Castiza Wife, Joséfa Cadena (Mexico, 1782)

Systems of honor in colonial Mexico meant that insults were more than just Swords. Utterances that defamed men and women of good reputation had to be answered or the slight to their personal status within the community would be permanent. Gossip underscored these taints, and although usually not as open, it could serve the same purpose as insults. Local elites believed that systems of honor applied only to them because only they could possess the high status that derived from their superior birth and lineage. From their vantage point at the apex of society, they looked down upon an undistinguished mass of commoners whose lack of virtue was patently clear and whose status could only be dishonorable. Yet, from the other end of the social spectrum plebeians also conceived themselves as possessors of honor. They might not compare themselves to a duke or a count, but within their local society they derived honor from proper conduct, legitimate birth, and sexual propriety. This honor was important in their every day dealings, since they often needed credit and aid from neighbors and friends and thus depended upon relationships of trust. Moreover, plebeians distinguish between various hues of racial categories, which they associated with greater lesser honor. While their perceptions varied from those of the dominant elite, plebeian self-identities were nevertheless important. Although insults to an individual’s honor had to be answered, reactions differed according to the circumstances. Could a social inferior attack and beat a social superior who had insulted him or her? Was a petition to the courts really a satisfactory rebuttal? In the document that follows, you will read how Theresa Bravo, an elite woman, reacted to inferences about her marital fidelity and how José de Alfaro, a plebeian husband, responded when doña Theresa beat and insulted his wife. Their individual perceptions of the incident in question differed considerably, not only because they were opponents in a lawsuit, but also because of their distinct social standing. There is much left unsaid in this document. For example, José de Alfaro, the plaintiff, seems to believe that he can advance his cause by harnessing ill feeling toward don Diego Fernandez, doña Theresa’s husband and a colonial official. It is also clear that José de Alfaro holds don Diego Fernandez directly responsible for the conduct of his wife, though doña Theresa’s precipitous actions and don Diego’s lackluster control over her brought dishonor onto his name. Yet, this was a plebeian perspective—part of the confusion of differing points-of-view found in this criminal complaint. Documents such as this one are tantalizing because they allow us a glimpse of the tensions within a small town. But many criminal records are fragmentary and, just like this one, do not provide the whole file. In this document we see José de Alfaro and his witnesses argue his case, but we do not have the other side represented. We have to guess at how don Diego would defend himself and how this incident was resolved. No verdict is recorded, and so this case, like so many fliers, is instructive without providing a definitive resolution. It shows us the incisions in a small Mexican town and how women and men dealt with assaults against their name and body. It hints at larger issues, such as don Diego’s status within the town, but these are left hanging. The setting of the document, the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, in the valley of Mexico, also warrants some consideration. Although a major town of the region, and near the famous pyramids of the same name, the town, by the late eighteenth century, had become part of the intendancy of Mexico City. Thus, although a cabecera, it was within the orbit of the largest city of the colony. It was, however, not large. In 1791 a census recorded 895 people of Spanish descent, 388 mestizos, and 266 mulattos. Another count, done in 1804, noted 1,814 Indian tributaries.1 Clearly San Juan Teotihuacán was large enough to have a varied, racially mixed population, but small enough that people knew each other and personal nor was vital to plebeians and elites equally. This source is a part of the Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America teaching module.

Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America: “Don Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión Protests the marriage of His Daughter to Don Teodoro Jaramillo, a Person of Lower Social Standing (Quito, 1784-85)”

INTRODUCTION Until the mid-eighteenth century, the church regulated the institution of marriage in Spanish America, emphasizing the freedom of individuals to marry according to their will and, if necessary, independently of their parents' consent. However, on March 23, 1776, the Spanish Crown introduced its own legislation, the Royal Pragmatic (Real Pragmática), to assert control over this important social institution. By 1778 the Crown had applied the Pragmatic to all of its colonies, and in subsequent years it issued a series of explanatory guidelines and supplementary decrees) The Royal Pragmatic sought to protect families from socially "unequal" marries a thus to preserve the traditional hierarchical social order. It required that children now obtain permission to marry from their father or, in his absence, from their mother, grandparents, or nearest adult relative or guardian. In cases where they married without parental authorization, the law allowed for their disinheritance. The Royal Pragmatic resulted in a groundswell of lawsuits that contested its new regulations on legally acceptable marriages. The records of these lawsuits constitute a rich documentary source, one that offers important insights into contemporary views of inequality and the hierarchical ordering of regional social structures. Concepts of honor and nobility primarily determined the most important social distinctions, though they were in turn affected (and defined) by a number of other factors, including ethnicity and occupation. The following document excerpts are part of a lawsuit tried before the Audiencia of Quito in 1784 and 1785, just six years after the Royal Pragmatic was promulgated in the Americas. The suit was initiated by Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión, a vecino (citizen) of Loja, a city located in the southern highlands of the audiencia district. In April 1784, Valdivieso wrote a letter to the audiencia president asking him to intervene in a dispute he had with Juan Teodoro Jaramillo; Valdivieso argued that Jaramillo, also a vecino of Loja, was of low social standing and had seduced his daughter Baltasara into marriage. For Valdivieso, such a marriage was clearly an offense under the Royal Pragmatica and would greatly dishonor his family; it had to be prevented at all costs. As the audiencia superior court could only accept the case as an appeal from a lower provincial court, the president passed the suit down to the corregidor of Loja. At this point, Jaramillo formally challenged the legal basis of Valdivieso's case, arguing against the notion that he and his elected bride were socially unequal. He insisted that the marriage take place. After completing his investigation, but apparently without pronouncing a sentence, the corregidor sent the accumulated court records back to the audiencia in Quito. The case ultimately generated extensive documentation; the court records fill 268 manuscript pages (134 folios). The case file includes copies or summaries of the documents presented to the court in Quito and the corregidor in Loja, the closing statements made by the lawyers representing the two parties in the suit, and finally the argument of the fiscal (crown attorney). While the litigation contains the arguments made in support of both Valdivieso and Jaramillo, the transcripts provide only slight evidence of Baltasara's point of view. Within the document summaries prepared by the Loja corregidor, there does appear Baltasara’s statement that she had left her father's house after he had withdrawn his earlier consent to the marriage. While we lack the final decision of the audiencia and therefore do not know how the dispute turned out, we do know the fiscal’s recommendations. In October 1785, drawing extensively on the points made by Jaramillo's attorney, the fiscal argued that the court should rule against Valdivieso's opposition to the marriage of his daughter with Jaramillo. He refuted the position that there was a considerable social distance between the two parties, and he stressed as well the consent Valdivieso had given to the marriage before his change of mind led to the dispute. In the following excerpts the two parties present their opposing points of view. The first section contains a summary of previously recorded testimony prepared for the court on behalf of Valdivieso y Carrión. The summary condenses the depositions of ten witnesses who had responded to a lengthy set of questions designed to elicit testimony that would prove Jaramillo's social inferiority.2 The court summary is followed by the detailed statements of the two opposing attorneys in the case, each laying out the legal basis of their client's claim. The Cast of Characters The following list of the main characters in the lawsuit and their kinship ties should help in negotiating the complex familial relationships referred to in the case: Manuel Valdivieso y Carrión: the plaintiff in the suit. Teodoro Jaramillo: the defendant in the suit. Baltasara Valdivieso: Manuel's daughter and Teodoro's betrothed. Juan Jaramillo and María Regalado y Lopez: Teodoro's parents. Bartolo Galvez: María Regalado's second husband. José and Francisca: two of María's children who she had with other men (one of whom was named Tomás Aguirre). Francisco Jaramillo: Teodoro's paternal uncle. Juan Jaramillo and Margarita González: Teodoro's paternal grandparents. Francisco Jaramillo: Teodoro's paternal great-uncle. Pedro Regalado y Greta: Teodoro's maternal grandfather. Esteban (Regalado y?) Ureña: Teodoro's maternal uncle. Joséfa Córdova: Teodoro's former wife. José de Herique: Teodoro's close friend. This source is a part of the Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America teaching module.

Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America: “‘The Most Vile Atrocities’: Accusations of Slander Against María Cofignie, Parda Libre (Louisiana, 1795)”

INTRODUCTION Spain obtained the province of Louisiana from France according to provisions of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, and effectively ruled it from 1769 until 1803. Louisiana had been part of the French colonial system since 1699, and with its acquisition the Spanish Crown found itself in a situation to which it was not accustomed: taking over, rather than giving up, American territory from another European power. For both the French and Spanish, Louisiana's value was mainly strategic. The Bourbon monarchs viewed the colony as useful primarily within the context of larger geopolitical considerations: neither wanted Britain to seize it. Although Spain, like France, considered Louisiana an economic burden, the Spanish Crown hoped to use it as a protective barrier between mineral-rich New Spain and England's increasingly aggressive North American colonies. Founded in 1718 on the site of a long-established Native American portage point where the Mississippi River comes closest to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans was colonial Louisiana's principal urban center and port. The furs, hides, timber, and agricultural products of the Mississippi Valley region flowed through the city en route to the West Indies, the North American colonies, New Spain, and occasionally Europe. New Orleans also served as the entrepot for slaves and various goods such as flour and cloth that colonials could not supply or manufacture themselves. By the late eighteenth century "the city that care forgot"1 was a vibrant port, with people moving in and out, establishing relationships across racial and class boundaries, and generally challenging any kind of stable social order. The only nucleus to boast the title of ciudad (city) in all of northern New Spain, New Orleans had a resident population that grew from about three thousand to more than eight thousand during the era of Spanish rule, with a large transient population adding to this number. The percentage of libres (free blacks)2 rose from 10 to 20 percent of New Orleanians over the same period; the rest of the population was about evenly divided between whites and slaves, with varying numbers of indios (Indians) and mestizos (persons of mixed Indian and white ancestry) residing in and around the city.3 When Spain assumed control of Louisiana, it installed its own officials, legal codes, and governing system.4 The top administrator in the province was the governor general, and he, along with two alcaldes (judges) from the cabildo (city council), headed tribunals that heard civil and criminal cases originating in New Orleans or appealed from outlying posts. Decisions in these cases could in turn be appealed to the cabildo as a whole, and then on to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo, for litigants who were ordinary citizens, or to the governor of Cuba for those who held special privileges (fueros), such as members of the military or clergy. 5 An escribano (clerk or scribe) recorded all court proceedings. Most of the cases the governor and alcaldes heard make up a collection known as the "Spanish Judicial Records," which along with the "French Judicial Records" (those of the French Superior Council), are housed at the Louisiana State Museum Historical Center in New Orleans.6 . The case of "Criminal Proceedings Pursued by don Pedro Favrot against Maria Cofignie, Free Parda, Concerning Slander,"7 most of which is translated in the following pages,8 came before the governor general, Francisco Luis Hector, el Baron de Carondelet, in June 1795. The governor usually adjudicated criminal cases, especially those in which one of the parties was favored with the fuero military (judicial privileges granted to military personnel); the plaintiff Favrot was a captain in the fixed or permanent infantry regiment of Louisiana. When Cofignie allegedly insulted and harangued his daughter and indirectly his wife, Favrot petitioned the governor's court for redress. His original petition was written in French, the language of most New Orleanians, and translated into Spanish by Public Interpreter don Juan Josef Duforest. Favrot presented the testimony of two witnesses, and based on this evidence Carondelet placed Cofignie under house arrest because there was no women's prison at the time. Cofignie in turn provided her version of the events and played on the sympathies of the court as a poor single working mother with several children to support. Eventually Favrot settled for an apology to his wife and daughter, which Cofignie reluctantly made. The Spanish judicial system thus successfully mediated between competing interests to reach an acceptable compromise, while taking into account the race, status, and gender of each party. As in the Favrot-Cofignie case, the courts typically encouraged plaintiffs and defendants to reconcile their differences and admonished them to act according to acceptable rules of conduct. Cofignie, however, did not give up fighting for what she believed to be just causes. The same month that Favrot brought charges against her, she petitioned a tribunal for the freedom of her brother, Antonio Cofignie. Antonio was a slave of Maria's former mistress, the widow of Maria and Antonio's white father, don Claudio Cofignie. It appears that don Claudio had verbally promised to give each of his three illegitimate children (Maria, Feliciana, and Antonio), born to his slave Luison, 400 pesos to purchase their freedom. The girls had done so before don Claudio Cofignie's death in 1786, but Antonio had not, and now the widow refused to free him for that amount, demanding instead what Maria claimed to be an exorbitant sum. While Maria was in the process of seeking retribution, Antonio took matters into his own hands and ran away. His mistress then accused Maria of assisting Antonio and hiding him; ironically, Maria, who obviously placed much faith in the legal system, was thrown in jail once more, where she again called on the mercy of the court as a pobre mujer to release her so that she could support her family. Finally, a white planter in Opelousas, Louisiana, whose ties to the Cofignies are not clear, paid 1,100 pesos for the fugitive, with the promise that Maria would reimburse him that sum if her brother ever reappeared.9 As a single mother, Maria also struggled to care for her children. During the era of Spanish rule in New Orleans, Cofignie bore eight babies, the first in 1785 and the last in 1801; of these, three died in their youth. She had another daughter in 1806. The father of only one of Cofignie’s children was identified in existing documents. Her son Josef Urra, a cuarterón libre born November 1797, was described in his baptismal record as the illegitimate son of Manuel Urra and the parda libre Maria Cofignie.10 Although Cofignie repeatedly appealed for mercy based on the fact that she had to work to support these numerous children, court records and censuses do not indicate her occupation. The most common jobs for free black women in New Orleans in the 1790s were laundress, seamstress, and seller; Cofignie most likely earned her living in one of these ways. Many of those individuals who tested the boundaries of elite-defined acceptable behavior were free blacks like Maria Cofignie. Their position within New Orleans's hierarchy was not well defined, and, in fact, most libres did not choose to be demarcated as a separate group, preferring instead to be admitted to, and accepted by, white society. Although radicalized by the possibilities for equality with whites seemingly offered in the philosophies of the French and Haitian Revolutions, free blacks in New Orleans generally wanted to reform, not overthrow, the hierarchical Spanish social system that condemned them outright for being nonwhites and that failed to recognize their worth except as measured by skin color. Their challenges escalated in the revolutionary decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.11 The case that follows reveals many of these tensions. In their recorded statements, the litigants raise the issue of racial discrimination and comment, often implicitly, on distinct notions of personal honor, patriarchy, family, gender roles, and the meaning of freedom. Like all libres living in slave societies, New Orleans free women of color operated from an undefined, anomalous position, the middle section of a three-tiered hierarchy in which they were not truly free or slave, often not pure black or white. Libre women were also trapped in a patriarchal so that valued males more than females but that did not afford them the paternal protection due the weaker sex because ostensibly they did not possess honor and virtue, attributes only accorded whites. But as we will see in the following testimony, Maria Cofignie and other libre women did not suffer in silence. This source is a part of the Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America teaching module.


Nora E. Jaffary is Assistant Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She is author of False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico. This teaching module was originally developed for the Women in World History project.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-gender-and-race-colonial-latin-america [accessed December 9, 2022]