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Journal of Women's History 17.2 (2005) 177-183
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Dangerous Women of Colonial Latin America
Stephanie J. Smith
Over the past few years, scholars have contributed important studies to the field of Latin American history by positioning gender as central to their analyses. Crucial to this work is the understanding of the ways in which women were able to wield influence from within relatively constrained cultural positions. In their newly published books, Martha Few, in Women Who Live Evil Lives: Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Power in Colonial Guatemala, and Nancy E. van Deusen, in Between the Sacred and the Wordly: The Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima, add to this ongoing research with their interpretations on the importance of women's roles during the colonial era in Guatemala and Lima, Peru.
Viewing colonialism as a contested process, Few and van Deusen examine how women negotiated the terms of colonial power. For instance, Few argues that even while women's prominent participation in religious cultures made them vulnerable to being labeled as witches, their "use of ritual practices to intervene in community conflicts and earn money despite the dangers reveals the crucial but often overlooked gender dynamics of power within the broader framework of ethnic and cultural contestation of colonial rule" (3). Van Deusen also looks at how women reinterpreted cultural codes in her examination of women's petitions for divorce or annulments before the ecclesiastical court. Here, van Deusen argues that women were able to effectively appropriate cultural ideals to "conceive of themselves as distinct from the conjugal (male-dominated) domain" (99). Moreover, van Deusen analyzes patterns of transculturation, in which certain practices from Europe were mirrored in Peru, but not without "significant semantic modifications" as they "adapted to local social, economic, [End Page 177] and cultural contingencies" (167).
In Women Who Live Evil Lives Martha Few uncovers the lives of the women to which her title refers, the mujeres de mal vivir in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala, the capital of colonial Central America. Through her examination of Inquisition records, among other sources, she focuses her study on accounts of the lives and practices of "female sorcerers, magical healers, midwives, or clandestine religious leaders" (2). Few highlights three broad historical themes. First, she analyzes the roles of religion and the influences of Spanish, African, and Maya ideas in the contested process of colonialism. During the colonial era in Santiago de Guatemala, women challenged authority and colonial rule within local communities by appropriating ideas of religion and the supernatural. Second, Few explores women's social and cultural roles within community social relations. Women seen as sorcerers were active in forging cultural relations in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala, especially in life events that involved the body, like birth, death, sickness, and food preparation. Third, Few's study seeks to illuminate the social connections and movement between cities and rural villages. This context allows Few to uncover women's complex social connections, especially those that transgress and blur racial, ethnic, and geographic boundaries.
Few begins her study with an examination of colonial Santiago de Guatemala. Named the capital city of colonial Central America in 1570, the city was structured around the concept of a two-republic system—one for the subject Indian populations and one for the Spanish. Here Few states that the "division of society into two republics reflected official Spanish racial and social hierarchies of power and reinforced the political realities of daily life under colonial rule" (17). By the 1650s, however, Santiago de Guatemala saw the emergence...