Elena McGrath

Five years after the 1952 revolution gave all Bolivians the right to vote, removed forced labor requirements for indigenous communities, and nationalized Bolivia’s mineral wealth, a mechanic in Bolivia’s state-owned mining company, the Bolivian Mining Corporation (Corporación Minera de Bolivia, or COMIBOL) wrote to the municipal courts. He complained that his 13 year old domestic servant, Victoria, had been kidnapped or seduced [“he sufrido el rapto o seducción de mi domestica”]. He asked that the accused, a female market woman named Betty, be charged with violating articles 426 and 557 of the Bolivian penal code—essentially, with kidnapping and corrupting a minor.

Bolivian Miners
The Monument to the Miners in Oruro, Oruro, Bolivia. (Author’s photo)

It is easy to read this case as a straightforward kidnapping, which in the Bolivian penal code, like in much of Latin America, involved the removal of a dependent from the properly designated authority of the household, usually the patriarch. Yet what interests me is the charge of seduction. According to the articles cited, the mechanic could have charged Betty with violating Penal Code 557 (kidnapping) without specifying seduction. Article 426, on the other hand, concerns inciting a child of either gender towards prostitution or immoral acts; it notes that seduction, along with bribery, might be a means to achieve this.

In Bolivian law, the charge of kidnapping would have legal standing without the accuser specifying seduction. The second charge, corruption of a minor, implied some kind of improper or immoral sexual behavior on the part of the child in the eyes of the courts, but did not itself suppose a sexual relationship between the woman and the girl. So was the charge of seduction necessarily sexual? Since we have no further documents in the case, the exact nature of the relationship between Betty and Victoria is lost to us. For this reason, I argue that seduction, in this case, was about power and desire, but not necessarily about sex.

William French found that, in early 20th century Mexico, seduction tended to appear in court cases where sexual contact resulted from a promise of marriage later revoked. For example, the case of a single man who courted a single woman with promises of marriage and later disappeared would be labeled seduction. A parent’s disapproval of the relationship could also result in a seduction charge. But seduction did not in and of itself imply rape. In cases of rape, either by physical or verbal coercion, the words violación or estupro tended to be included in the record (see recommended readings for further discussions). Most fundamentally, then, seduction referred to the improper departure of a female dependent from her recognized guardian and into the “care” of another would-be guardian (husband, boyfriend, etc). The common crime was a violation of patria potestad, the right of a patriarch to determine the whereabouts and life choices of his wife, children, and domestic servants.

The second issue is that of the supposed victim, Victoria. We have very little knowledge about her in these documents, and she was legally too young to have given consent to a sexual relationship with Betty the market vendor. She was likely from a poor rural family because her father and grandfather legally put her into the care of police, and then transferred her to the mechanic’s house. Is it conceivable that the “seduction or kidnapping” involved another adult offering this child a better financial or living situation? Possibly. Was the child a willing participant, if not in seduction, then in wanting to leave the house? Or was she, in fact, kidnapped against her will? Reading the case alongside more common legal uses of seduction suggests that the crime committed here was the exercise of Victoria’s improper desire to leave the house of her employer.

Sueann Caulfield notes that in 1930s Brazil, seduction was defined as “the employment of methods with a tendency to influence the minor’s will, disposing her to give in solely to serve and be pleasing to her seducer” in cases where marriage was at stake. Here too, the law was less about sex, and more about desire and power. A minor, legally incapable of exerting will contrary to that of her parents, nonetheless does so—and this exercise becomes the crime. The legal definition of seduction in Brazil highlights how concerned the state was to prove that young women could not exercise their own will.

The unnecessary addition of “seduction” to the market vendor trial, combined with the extra charge of corrupting a minor, similarly indicates agency: the mechanic believed Victoria had gone willingly, though possibly under false pretenses or some duress. More specifically, he was worried she would not come back. Just as in a courtship contested by the parents, the legal framework surrounding seduction was designed to reassert control in a situation where a young woman was leveraging two conflicting sources of authority to gain some room for her own choice and agency. To say a child had been seduced was to say the child’s will was impaired or not legally admissible, but it fundamentally concerned a child whose will had been asserted nonetheless.

Another striking detail in this case is that once the market vendor was in custody, the mechanic requested that the courts dock her wages until the girl was returned to his household. This request is fundamentally a financial transaction in favor of the legal guardian, not an attempt to punish the accused or restitute something taken from the child. But it also hints at a lack of confidence that neither this relatively wealthy citizen nor the local law enforcement would otherwise be able to return the child.

The request here is similar to a common demand made by wives abandoned by their husbands in this era in Bolivia: asking the state and the mining company to guarantee a pension that the husband failed to provide. In some of these cases, neither party wanted the marriage to continue, but the wife needed to make sure she could support their children. Families in mining towns after the 1952 revolution could receive subsidized food from company stores if a parent worked for the company. After the 1956 passage of a social insurance law by the revolutionary government, women could receive child support and family subsidies directly from the company if the father of their children had abandoned them. Both these reforms changed the nature of power within and among families. Most histories of the revolution overlook the social changes implied by these laws, particularly the changing opportunities for women as financially independent workers in this period. Betty, the market vendor, was just such a worker, but she was also employed directly by the mining company itself, and thus subject to docked wages.

The evidence in this case gives no clear sense of whether the woman and the child had a sexual relationship, or whether the market vendor was inciting the minor to prostitution. Nonetheless, the case is profoundly concerned with improper desire and the proper exercise of power. In the context of revolutionary Bolivia, this case also helps us understand how the very framework of power was changing on a local level. The mechanic, who was relatively well-off within the community and had connections in local government, saw Betty as a threat to his authority over the labor and body of his domestic servant. The accused was a woman, but also a worker and breadwinner, financially independent from her accuser but beholden to the company. In certain circumstances, bringing domestic disputes to the courts was a power play that could reign in an abuser who exceeded the boundaries of what was socially acceptable marital violence. The combination of a nationalized industry and the “company town” model meant that civilians could use both the state and the company to enforce or buck social norms. In this case, a wealthy citizen saw the company as a means to leverage greater coercive force against a woman who exceeded the bounds of the socially acceptable, both in her (alleged) relationship with the child and in the removal of the child from his household. In so doing, however, the mechanic affirmed the status of this woman as an independent actor with power in the local community.

As in any revolution, women and children wielded a surprising amount of power, even at societal margins. Reading for sexuality and potential queerness opens up new avenues of analysis about power and transgression, even in cases like this one where, as I have suggested, the transgression may not have been about sex. While a number of scholars have remarked on the relationship between accusations of seduction, marriage, and honor, this case helps expose the regulatory framework that linked domestic labor to family and the regulation of desire and will.

Further reading:

Sueann Caulfield, Sarah C. Chambers, and Lara Putnam, Honor, Status, and Law in Modern Latin America (Duke University Press, 2005).

Tanja Christiansen, Disobedience, Slander, Seduction, and Assault: Women and Men in Cajamarca, Peru, 1862-1900 (University of Texas Press, 2010).

Eileen Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Duke University Press, 1999).

William E. French,  The Heart in the Glass Jar: Love Letters, Bodies, and the Law in Mexico (University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

Pablo Mitchell, Coyote Nation: Sexuality, Race, and Conquest in Modernizing New Mexico, 1880 – 1920 (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Nayan Shah,  Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (University of California Press, 2011).


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Elena McGrath is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She works on gender, race, and revolution in 20th century Bolivia, exploring the tensions between order and disorder and between belonging and exclusion that drive utopian projects for social change in the Andes. She is finishing her dissertation, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in a Bolivian Mining Town, 1900-1992” and imagining a new project that traces histories of violence and scarcity at the margins of the state.

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