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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 231-232

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Book Review

Women in Latin America and the Caribbean

Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. By MARYSA NAVARRO and VIRGINIA SANCHEZ KORROL, with KECIA ALI. Restoring Women to History Series, ed. CHERYL JOHNSON-ODIM and MARGARET STROBEL. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. lxvii + 144. $29.95 (cloth); $11.95 (paper).

Women in Latin America and the Caribbean by Marysa Navarro and Virginia Sánchez Korrol is a book for students and new scholars interested in the history of women in Latin America. Because the text is clearly written and avoids excesses of jargon and scholarly apparatus, it is remarkably successful in achieving its objectives, especially in its readability for students.

Marysa Navarro is author of the text on women in the pre-Columbian and colonial eras while the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are examined by Virginia Sánchez Korrol. Both integrate material on women in the Caribbean into the larger body of material on women in Spanish and Portuguese America. Their writing styles and perspectives are so similar that the transition from one part to the other is almost seamless. While avoiding narrative detail, the authors write chronologically and incorporate just enough mainstream background to make the book fit well with a traditional survey course on Latin American history. Alternatively, it would serve as the central text in a course on women in Latin America if supplemented by other reading.

The central theme of the text is that women have been agents of historical change in spite of gender, class, and racial hierarchies that denied them privileges and rights. For example, according to Navarro, small numbers of white women who immigrated to colonial Latin America formed "the axis that permitted the articulation of all other hierarchies" (p. 42), because the Spanish and Portuguese colonial aristocracy placed a very high value on limpieza de sangre (purity of the blood line) which only these women could assure. Indigenous Indian women and women of African descent, on the other hand, were crucial to the preservation and transmission of native cultures. They were able to perform this role because the dominant culture assigned them the role of rearing children. Religion, as both authors note, served both to subordinate women to men, but also to open spaces in which women found opportunities for activity. Women served as priests (coyas) under the Inkas and still serve as priests (mães de santos) in syncretic religions such as condomble in Brazil.

The book, for all its brevity, avoids excessive generalization. Both authors point out that women often acted in the context of their class [End Page 231] or race. Navarro argues, for example, that exclusive focus on women of the white elites "only provides a partial picture and fails to reveal the complete articulation of race, class and gender hierarchies in colonial society" (p. 40). Sánchez Korrol notes that in struggling to obtain rights in the context of their own class, middle-class women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often failed to connect with women of the working classes.

The book includes accounts of individual women like Malinche and Eva Perón who are well known. The stories of less familiar women are also told: Inés Suárez who participated actively in the conquest of Chile, and Doña Isabel who was the wife of three Aztec emperors before marrying into the conquistador elite and acquiring her own encomienda are examples of figures students and many teachers are not likely to know about.

There are inevitable limitations in a book that attempts to cover so much so briefly. Discussion of the twentieth century seems particularly thin, especially considering the achievements of Latin American women in the last several generations. There are some minor errors of fact. The glossary of key terms is incomplete, omitting terms such as patria potesta (the civil authority of the male head of family) that are used in the text. Most of the twelve maps at the beginning of the book have no relevance to the text...


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