- Gender, Ethnicity, and Agency in Latin American History
Ranging across huge swaths of time and place in Latin America, these works share a commitment to revealing the historical agency of subalterns, whether women or colonized ethnic groups. They also highlight the cultural complexity of a region where identities and gender roles have evolved in a constant tension with ethnicity. The books, all by historians or ethnohistorians, vary in nature, intent, and theoretical underpinnings.
Susan Kellogg’s excellent comprehensive synthesis of the history of indigenous women covers the pre-Hispanic, colonial, and modern periods in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin America (including the Caribbean and South American lowlands) although the emphasis is on Mesoamerican (Nahua, Ñudzahui, Maya) and Andean areas. I begin with her book not only because of its range, but also because it provides a template to accommodate comparisons with the other works under review here. The broad sweep she has undertaken defies synthesis in its complexity (making the reading require close attention to details and exceptions), but the author meets the challenge of producing well-founded general conclusions without homogenizing indigenous cultures. Drawing on a massive database of archaeology, history, ethnohistory, and ethnography (as well as primary resources in her own fields of precontact and colonial Mesoamerica), Kellogg paints a panorama that centers gender in a history of tradition and change [End Page 195] and highlights Indian women’s transformative agency (for which she uses weaving as a metaphor) and decisively rejects the convention that they have been predominantly house-bound. Her definition of agency includes both political action (often defensive in nature) and carrying out economic, political, religious, and familial projects necessary for survival.
Through the book she develops several major themes and trends: (1) indigenous women’s labor contributions and amount of work have increased over time; (2) a long history of images of women as actively linked to key cultural beliefs characterizes many indigenous societies and has been underemphasized in the literature; (3) although the extent of women’s political activism has varied, both in the past and present, they have been active in community politics and religion, often as advocates for change; (4) in linking her analysis of women to family, household, and kinship, Kellogg demonstrates that while these structures offer support for females, they also harbor tensions, even violence, in female-male relations; (5) as to the debate over whether modernization and globalization have enhanced or undermined women’s agency, Kellogg comes down more forcefully on the side of the latter in asserting that while new forms of political organization and access to aid through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have helped, they have not yet counterbalanced the long-term trends of the intensification of female labor and the undermining of complementarity in many indigenous cultures. Nonetheless, in the long process through which women have become more willing to question traditional community gender roles, she sees encouraging signs in their new demands for representation, education, and legal rights.
This summary of Kellogg’s major findings cannot do justice to the care she has taken to define the key terms of her analysis (gender, women, agency, status, complementarity, parallelism, indigenous, globalization), to trace themes historically (often through specific cases and stories), and to illustrate an array of differences in women’s roles, status, and religiosity within and across regions. Kellogg recognizes class and status differences within Indian groups, but her overall conclusions pertain to the majority of native women who have been...