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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 753-754
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Women Who Live Evil Lives: Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Power in Colonial Guatemala . By Martha Few. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. xii, 188 pp. Cloth, $49.95. Paper, $19.95.
New Spain's Inquisition in Santiago de Guatemala (present-day Antigua) designated women under investigation for sorcery, healing, and spiritual leadership as "mujeres de mal vivir" (women who live evil lives). These women, most of them mulatas, enacted physical and spiritual cures, settled disputes, and performed "love magic." Martha Few's concise presentation of their history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, based primarily on inquisitorial documentation, brims with fascinating details about the clandestine activities of these "evil living women." Her chapter on illness is especially rich in its presentation of healers' and midwives' herbal and supernatural remedies.
Few makes a significant contribution to the discussion about the relationship between marginal groups and institutional power that has engaged historians of Latin America for three decades. Her goal is to analyze "the gender and ethnic dimensions of cultural authority and power within the process of colonial rule in Latin America" (p. 2). Scholars have done little work on this question as it pertains to gender and religion in colonial Guatemala, so her research is a welcome addition. She provides compelling evidence that control over women and their behavior was instrumental to the maintenance of Spanish authority in this peripheral region of New Spain.
Few organizes her study around three issues. First, she examines marginalized groups' contestations of colonialism, arguing that castas, Indians, and women resisted domination through participation in Spanish, African, and indigenous religious traditions. Second, she examines how spiritual leaders deployed authority at the community level, asserting that such figures based their legitimacy on their knowledge of the natural world and of the human body. Women, in particular, drew expertise from their experiences with birth, lactation, food preparation, and readying corpses for burial. Finally, Few examines the local networks formed among these women, their clients, and those who witnessed their cures. These multiethnic and cross-class associations threatened Spanish colonial power at the local level. She concludes that colonized groups challenged the power of the colonial state, ideologies of patriarchy, and "the honor/shame complex." Unlike in New Spain's political core, these ideologies "were not yet fixed" in Guatemala during the late colonial period (p. 130).
The book opens with the story of a Spanish priest who charged a mulata and a mestiza with bewitching him. Few returns to his tale to discuss how the priest's account of these women's attacks—forcing his body into the shape of a cross, beating him, and sucking blood from his wounds—"suggested a symbolic inversion of male sexual violence used against women" (p. 48). In other passages, she describes [End Page 753] the use of foods infused with women's own body fluids as a means to "free men of anger" or attract sexual partners (including priests). She tells of others who cured or cursed people by causing them to vomit foreign objects such as hair, charcoal, or bits of cloth; still others "shape-changed" into alien creatures. Few concludes that that the locus of these women's powers lay in "the female body and physical manifestations of female sexuality," which "became a ritual weapon" (p. 52) used to contest colonial authority. Her argument parallels the conclusions made by Jean Franco, Ruth Behar, and Irene Silverblatt in the contexts of colonial Mexico and the Andes.
Few acknowledges the daunting task of reconstructing the spiritual and social practices of a group of prosecuted women from the historical documentation of their prosecutors. Her evidence certainly supports the conclusion that some disgruntled victims, the officers of the Inquisition, and perhaps even the abstract entity of Spanish colonial authority feared the power inversions implied by the spiritual activities of these "evil living women." However, her interpretations of the perpetrators' intentions are based on more ambiguous grounds (assuming...