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  • Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670–1870 by Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara
  • Julia McClure
Alone at the Altar: Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670–1870. By Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. Pp. 297. $65.00 cloth.

This book gives new insights into the lives and agency of non-elite women in Guatemala from the colonial to the post-Independence period. It demonstrates how women used [End Page 486] devotional networks to build alliances and create a place for themselves in society, and how they continually had to adapt their strategies amid socioeconomic transformations. Many of the women in this study were not only poor but unmarried, yet they managed to affiliate themselves with the Catholic Church with the help of confraternities and the mendicant orders, and to establish themselves as holy women. As Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara explains, many of these women, such as Anna Guerra de Jesús, experienced poverty and had children and “generally defied the normative gendered model for holy women in the early modern period” (21). These women helped to establish a model of female religious piety in colonial Guatemala that resisted the trends established by the Council of Trent to enclose women. This highlights how global institutions, the Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church, did not erase local differences: women in Guatemala were sufficiently far removed from colonial centers such as Mexico City to develop their place in society.

Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara integrates local and global history, demonstrating how individual lives are shaped by, and help shape, transnational institutions (the Catholic Church), national politics, and changes in the local and global economy. It achieves this methodologically by entwining focused research of individual biographies with macroanalysis of changes in the national and global contexts. This book will be of interest to specialists on women in Latin America, historians of religion and society in the Spanish Empire, historians of Guatemala and its transformations during the colonial and Independence periods, and historians interested in the place of Latin America in global history.

Leavitt-Alcántara acknowledges her debt to established specialists of the history of gender in Latin America, including Asunción Lavrin, whose work has long shaped our understanding of women and female piety in colonial and contemporary Latin America. She also recognizes Kathryn Burns who has offered new insights into the role of female religious institutions in the spiritual economy of colonial Peru. Yet, Leavitt-Alcántara’s book makes its own significant contribution to the field of the history of women in Latin America as it continues to expand and to demonstrate the important roles women played in colonial and postcolonial societies. Leavitt-Alcántara also acknowledges her debt to William B. Taylor, who has shaped the history of local religion in Latin America, but in her own book Leavitt-Alcántara shifts the focus from rural to urban areas, shedding new light on the challenges and opportunities created by migration in the processes. She shows how the urban economy offered new opportunities for women to survive outside of marriage and without enforced enclosure.

New forms of female religious piety were created by the strategic and mutual alliances between non-elite women and the Church. In the colonial period, affiliation with the Franciscan order and membership in confraternities helped women to create a place for themselves within society, even as leaders, in a way that was seen as morally permissible. [End Page 487] Charitable giving strengthened these alliances and created an investment structure for social assistance for poor women. While the patriarchal authoritarianism of Independence-era Guatemala tried to oppress female independence, women continued to adapt and negotiate. The epilogue observes that today Guatemalan working-class women are global missionaries.

Leavitt-Alcántara’s focus on poor women is a historiographical triumph which required intensive social history. The book is based on extensive original primary research, offering analysis of 550 wills from between 1700 and 1870, biographies, religious chronicles, school foundation records, and Inquisition files. The insights gained through this focus are clear. Leavitt-Alcántara demonstrates how the lives of poor women undermined the binary model of colonial hierarchy as poor...


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pp. 486-488
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