Short Teaching Module: Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America

Nora Jaffary


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


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.

How to Cite This Source
Nora Jaffary Short Teaching Module: Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America in World History Commons,