- The Woman Who Turned into a Jaguar and Other Narratives of Native Women in Archives of Colonial Mexico by Lisa Sousa
Prior to the arrival of Spaniards in Mexico in 1519, the principle of gender complementarity shaped the lives and experiences of the region’s Indigenous residents. In particular, the labor of men—warriors and farmers—was considered to be most productive and effective when complemented by the [End Page 503] labor of women—weavers and cooks. Lisa Sousa begins with this central, pervasive belief in the necessity and compatibility of both male and female roles and goes on to explore how understandings of gender emerge from discussions of the body, marriage, sex, and household and community relations in a wide variety of historical documents. She draws from and weaves together a rich array of sources written in Indigenous languages and in Spanish produced by four different ethnic groups of highland Mexico (Nahua, Ñudzahui [Mixtec], Bènizàa [Zapotec], and Ayuuk [Mixe]) in the first two centuries after the Spanish conquest. The result is a wide-ranging examination of women’s history, gender identity, and gender relations in precontact and colonial Mexico.
Sousa identifies five interrelated goals for her work. These include (1) representing the history of diverse Indigenous women of the Mexican highlands; (2) exploring gender formation and expression in the region; (3) placing social relations at the household level at the center of analysis; (4) examining the impact of Spanish institutions, social customs, and cultural attitudes on gender relations and women’s status; and (5) showing how Indigenous women’s history is vital to understanding the history of the early modern Atlantic World. Formal speeches, confessional manuals produced by non-Natives, and pictorial writings are used to cobble together a portrait of gender and sexuality standards—influenced by Native and European norms—for colonial Mexico. Then, testaments, land documents, and criminal records allow Sousa to enter into Native households to contrast expressions of gender and sexuality with those standards. The household, as a basic unit of Indigenous social organization, is indeed at the center of this story. Sousa argues that Indigenous beliefs and practices persisted despite Spanish colonization, a circumstance due in large part to the survival of the traditional household. Although gender and sexuality were influenced by the colonial setting, this work emphasizes continuities with the Indigenous past.
The book’s thematically organized chapters address the following themes: body, gender performativity, and dress; marriage; sexuality and sexual crimes; gendered divisions of labor; household relations; and women’s participation in protests and civil disobedience. Chapter 2 finds that gender in highland central Mexico was acquired and learned through ceremony, the development of labor skills, and the adoption of specific modes of dress and adornment. Cross-gendering was, in turn, possible in this society through dress, labor, and speech, according to Sousa. Chapters 3 and 4, on marriage, highlight the practice of serial monogamy among Indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans to highland Mexico. Divorce and remarriage were permissible when a husband and wife faced irreconcilable differences. Infertility, adultery, and laziness, or refusal to perform work, were grounds for separation/divorce. Moreover, a small segment of society practiced [End Page 504] polygyny prior to contact with Europeans. Catholicism’s strict monogamy and prohibition of divorce directly conflicted with these traditions and led some couples to practice parallel rituals or to encounter reprimand from religious officials.
Chapters 5 and 6 focus on attitudes toward sex. In Indigenous society, sex was seen as one of the principal pleasures on earth, but it could also sow discord and disease and thus be viewed as in need of regulation. Female sexual desire was acknowledged and normalized, regardless of age. Native groups also believed that men had a fixed amount of semen and thus needed to pace their sexual activity. Sources address heterosexual relationships and, according to Sousa, rarely mention homosexuality in any way, leading her to posit that this category cannot be...