- Passing to América: Antonio (Née María) Yta's Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire by Thomas A. Abercrombie
How can we think of the body beyond the conventional norms of gender? Can the body be performed in a manner similar to the way gender is instituted through the stylization of the body? In broad terms, how might we understand the body in connection with complex forms of social performance beyond, if any, functional materiality and shifting temporal contexts? The above questions tend to defy simplistic responses when we consider changing discourses and practices of bodily sex in situated and varying heteronormative institutional-historical contexts. They also tend to hinge on the now-accepted categorical distinction between gender, as performative experience, and sex/body. Since second-wave feminism and the emergence of queer studies as an academic discipline in the 1970s, categories such as "gay" and "transgender," both first appearing in the twentieth century, have attained residual currency in what Michel Foucault described as categorical distinctions in a world of discourse. Similar to terms such as "society," "religion," or "race," analytic categories have temporal lives, and their conceptual limitations underline their constructed reality with material implications tied to institutional practices and everyday lives of historical subjects, sexed, intersexed, or otherwise.
Passing to América: Antonio (Née María) Yta's Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire by Thomas A. Abercrombie is one of the most theoretically sophisticated works known to me that successfully troubles the contemporary naturalized distinction between sex and gender. It is exemplary of a historical study that rethinks passing or blending in reference to transgender self-representations in complex heteronormative contexts. [End Page 299] In theoretical terms, Abercrombie breaks new ground by bringing to light the intricacies of the body in terms of the materiality of clothing or social skin as forms of action that help individuated bodies negotiate alternative identities that are inextricable from gender as a performative practice. The case of Don Antonio Yta, whose birth and assigned female name, María Yta, was exposed by his wife after years of marriage is an intriguing tale of transgender identity in the era of colonial America. It is also a tale that defies our contemporary understanding based on sex/gender complex that would assign the category of lesbianism on a historical subject defined by a presumed deceptive motivation to hide the experience of an inner self marked by same-sex desires in heteronormative strictures. The notion of "passing" that Abercrombie advances in this study is not only explained in terms of Don Antonio Yta's attempt to be taken for an identity that previously he was not perceived to be—as a woman in her youth residing at her familial home and later in convents, and as a traveler in southern Europe; "passing" is also the very experience of travel from Spain to Bolivia that enabled him to leave behind, to pass along a bodily sexed and gendered past within multiple and changing social circumstances from the colonial to Enlightenment revolutionary eras. Similarly, Don Antonio Yta's success in attaining the status of a colonial administrator in the city of La Plata was not limited to social class but was also the embodiment of a male persona through masculine performativity. The truth about "passing," Abercrombie argues, is the transformative ability to enact gender and to transform the body in its habituated and more importantly situated ways. Similar to gender, the body is a social construct with historical-material implications.
In the case of Don Antonio Yta, in his self-conception and through the ways others viewed him who also shared the same social world, he becomes the male person he attempts to be in both body and gender. Here, self-narrative plays a key role. Don Antonio Yta's unfolding story, primarily described through the "confession" narrative...