A mere sixty years after the infamous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the southeastern coast of Mexico, a colonial administrator named Francisco de Villacastín traversed the same land for a very different purpose. Cortés had engaged in battle and bloodshed in order to claim Mexico for the Spanish Empire. Villacastín, on the other hand, sought to collaborate with rather than oppose local Otomi and Nahua speaking residents. By 1579, the Spanish Crown still knew little about the great swaths of land and the diverse inhabitants at the peripheries of the empire. Villacastín was one of many colonial administrators tasked with remedying this problem by compiling responses to a lengthy questionnaire distributed among the Spanish imperial holdings. Therefore, on November 16 1579, Villacastín sat down with indigenous elders in the town of Coatepec and penned their responses to the Spanish Crown’s many inquiries about the Mexican people and land, authoring a Relación geográfica.
Image 1. A map of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala depicts the type of landscape that Villacastín and other colonial scribes encountered in post-conquest Mesoamerica. This illustration accompanied the town’s relación also authored by Villacastín later in 1585 to send to Spain. The map contains a mixture of indigenous and Spanish symbols, characteristic of maps composed during the early colonial period depicting Mesoamerican localities. (University of Texas Libraries LLILAS/Benson Latin American Collection Exhibitions)
Most of the information Villacastín recorded was not unlike other relaciones, except for one question: his response to Question 26, which inquired after local medicines, notably diverged from the norm. This one colonial scribe shed light on a facet of indigenous life that no other Mesoamerican Relaciones scribe acknowledged—female sexuality and abortion.
Scholars such as Londa Schiebinger, Martha Few and Nora Jaffary have contributed to the discussion of women’s reproductive agency alongside the politics and practices of birth in the colonial Atlantic world and late colonial Mesoamerica; yet, Villacastín provides an invaluable perspective regarding female sexuality and reproduction in New Spain less than one hundred years after the arrival of the Spanish. He recorded that:
There are other herbs that, in the past, pregnant women who were secretly impregnated took to abort their fetuses; these harmful herbs have been prohibited, because they are wrong.
In his report, Villacastín imagined a pre-conquest woman of Coatepec who unscrupulously had sex and induced her own abortions, claiming to depict a reality which had since been “prohibited.” Such women engaged in secret sexual relations and did not want children to result, yet, some became pregnant anyways. Rather than carrying the pregnancy to term, these women instead turned to the natural world around them, relying on the herbs native to their environment. This natural knowledge could not simply have been gained experientially, but was likely passed down by the previous generations of women onto the next.
By ingesting these anonymous herbs, indigenous women actively aborted their fetuses (criaturas) — not simply their pregnancies. From Villacastín’s perspective, the woman experienced the state of being “pregnant” following impregnation, but another actor also entered the picture, a “little creature” (literal translation of criatura, commonly used in early colonial Spanish sources to signify a fetus). Villacastín awarded the fetus some semblance of personhood, depicted as a being unrightfully harmed by women secretly manipulating their bodies. Thus, the pre-conquest indigenous woman of Coatepec engaged in sexual relations, realized she was pregnant, decided not to inform anyone of her pregnancy, and then aborted the fetus, all under the powerful guise of secrecy. Implicit undertones of sexual deviancy abound in Villacastín’s narrative. He notably framed the local government’s attempt to control indigenous women’s sexual deceit and wrongful reproductive choices around the natural landscape of Coatepec. Rather than the Spanish administration prohibiting abortion, Villacastín noted that the herbs themselves were deemed illicit due to the harm they caused.
Just a few weeks later, on December 3 1579, Villacastín penned his second Mexican relación in the nearby town of Chicoloapan. One particular phrase in response to Question 26 is strikingly familiar:
And there are other herbs that the women who were secretly impregnated drank to abort and expel the fetus that they were pregnant with.
Here again, Villacastín framed the sexual and reproductive lives of local indigenous women around their propensity for secrecy and their knowledge of the local landscape. Likewise, Villacastín emphasized the act of impregnation that led to the subsequent state of pregnancy. Pregnancy then signified the presence of the ill-fated fetus who was to be ultimately expelled from the female body.
This particular scribe was unusually concerned with recording matters of sexuality and reproductive agency among indigenous women. Villacastín was the only scribe in the New Spain Relaciones corpus to use the verbs “to impregnate” (empreñar) and “to abort” (abortar), as well as the simple term “pregnant” (preñada). Four of the seven relaciones attributed to Villacastín referenced reproduction, and only one other relación from colonial New Spain discussed a matter even tangentially related to sex and pregnancy: a relación from the town of Meztitlán described indigenous birthing ritual.
A roughly contemporaneous author, Spanish physician and surgeon Alonso López de Hinojosos, published the second edition of his Summary and compilation of surgery in Mexico in 1595, one of the first medical treatises originally published in New Spain. López dedicated multiple chapters to matters of pregnancy, fetal health, and birth. Unlike Villacastín, López did not emphasize the physicality of sex, but rather the physicality of pregnancy itself. He rendered the female body as a set of parts that carried and eventually birthed a fetus. The physician only used the term “pregnant” (preñada), making no references to matters of impregnation or abortion. López’s medical discourse left no traces of women’s sexuality or autonomy. Conversely, Villacastín’s New Spanish woman was not simply pregnant, but notably impregnated. She then singularly aborted her fetus, determining the direction that her life would take.
Image 2 and 3. Indigenous rendings of a young woman found in the Codex Mendoza, which was compiled in the early sixteenth century and depicted different facets of indigenous Mexica life. The woman on the left is identified by a Spanish annotation as a “woman that gave birth,” or muger parida, who later on the same page is simply identified as the mother of the baby, or la madre dela criatura. Similar to López, the Spanish scribe emphasized the physical reality of birth by identifying the woman as parida, which stressed the identity of the woman linked to having just birthed a child, and she was only later named as a mother.
Far from a passive actor, Villacastín constructed a woman that made active choices, a woman in control– at least before the local colonial administration attempted to retract the means of her control by prohibiting the plants. This control posed a danger, but to whom? Were the herbs only harmful to the fetuses, rendered children never-to-be? Harmful to the woman herself? Perhaps the secrecy of feminine sexuality posed the greater danger, embodied the greatest wrong. If the administration prohibited the women’s abortifacients, then, in theory, they could no longer resort to easily catalyzing their own abortions, thus curbing immoral sexual relations- and subjecting women to the moral and demographic control of the Spanish Empire.
Kate Biedermann is an undergraduate student and history of science researcher at Hamilton College, New York. Her scholarship has been supported by the Digital Humanities Initiative where she collaborates with Mackenzie Cooley’s New World Nature project. Her current project concerns the colonial realities of sex and reproduction in the overseas peripheries of the Spanish Empire during the 16th-17th centuries. You can follow the New World Nature project on Twitter @NewWorldNature1
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