Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America

Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America

by Zeb Tortorici (Editor)

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Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America brings together a broad community of scholars to explore the history of illicit and alternative sexualities in Latin America’s colonial and early national periods. Together the essays examine how "the unnatural” came to inscribe certain sexual acts and desires as criminal and sinful, including acts officially deemed to be “against nature”—sodomy, bestiality, and masturbation—along with others that approximated the unnatural—hermaphroditism, incest, sex with the devil, solicitation in the confessional, erotic religious visions, and the desecration of holy images. In doing so, this anthology makes important and necessary contributions to the historiography of gender and sexuality. Amid the growing politicized interest in broader LGBTQ movements in Latin America, the essays also show how these legal codes endured to make their way into post-independence Latin America. 

Editorial Reviews

H-Histsex (H-Net)

"This volume greatly expands the range of non-normative—although not necessarily rare—behaviors that shaped the sexual landscape of Spanish and Portuguese America. Bookended by contributions from Lavrin and Pete Sigal, this is a self-aware contribution to the historiography of sexuality. ... With its collection of sharp essays based on truly exceptional archival sources, this collection will be a must-read for scholars interested in the history of sexuality in the Iberian American colonies."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The volume is an absolute success. . . . Tortoricci has brought together an excellent array of scholars and scholarship, making Sexuality and the Unnatural a welcome addition to the literature about colonial Latin America."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288157
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America

By Zeb Tortorici


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96318-4


Archival Narratives of Clerical Sodomy and Suicide from Eighteenth-Century Cartagena


Close to midnight on November 14, 1779, a "tempestuous and dark night," a secret procession rapidly strode through the streets of Cartagena de Indias. The swift and silent group included several officials of the Holy Office of the Cartagena Inquisition tribunal — the lone local official inquisitor, don Felix Villegas, as well as lower-ranking tribunal functionaries — accompanied by two black male servants. The menials were carrying a sheet-wrapped corpse from the secret prison cells of the tribunal to a separate building that housed penitents with longer sentences, known as the casa de la penitencia (penitence house). The servants rapidly dug a hole in the corral of this lugar profano (profane place), trying not to wake up the family of the warden who lived there. But a crying baby disturbed the residents, and women, children, and servants quietly eavesdropped on the secret midnight burial — terrifying Villegas, who desperately wanted to conceal the tragic result of his botched inquisitorial investigation of the life of a cleric accused of sodomy and solicitation in the confessional. What most concerned Inquisitor Villegas was the public exposure of the events that led to this procession at such an untimely hour of the night (what Villegas called the "deshoras de la noche"). Villegas wanted to suppress the identity of the buried corpse to avoid scandal and spreading rumors of moral and structural weakness among the local clergy, whose status had declined dramatically since the seventeenth century. However, a few clerics and locals knew of the shameful profane burial, brought about by the multilayered unnatural acts of one fray Esteban Sobrino, a Mercedarian friar who committed suicide in his cell in the Holy Office prison. Sobrino acted out his fatal plan shortly after the inquisitor had announced his penitential sentence for the crime of solicitation in the confessional, among "many other enormous crimes."

This chapter explores the competing and contradictory archival narratives created by Sobrino and his inquisitor. In particular, it includes a careful analysis of how both the accused and the accuser constructed the surviving documentation, as well as how they themselves were constructed within the documentation. Their motivations for telling their own particular stories are revealed in Villegas's manipulation of Sobrino to protect the local church's reputation and Sobrino's creation of a persona and rhetoric that made his desires and sexuality seem "natural," even though they spanned a broad panorama from heterosexual lust to possible "perfect" sodomy. This methodological approach, with its emphasis on the specifics of archival narratives, draws from both Natalie Zemon Davis's classic acknowledgment of the "fiction in the archives" and Kathryn Burns's more recent model of foregrounding the notaries who created documents. Although Sobrino ended his story with his own death, therefore granting Villegas the last word as the survivor and chronicler of Sobrino's biography, as historians we do not need to accept how Villegas shaped his version of the friar's life and untimely end. As Zeb Tortorici writes, "Officials that record and investigate suicide play an important role in the construction of its social meanings." This case demands an untangling of Villegas's constructed meanings, textual emphases that derive from his own need to justify his actions and protect the local church from further scandal, as well as a close look at Sobrino's own narrative. Only close textual analysis and a microhistorical approach can expose what each man said in order to achieve diverging ends. Sobrino tried desperately to present himself as a forgivable, redeemable, even appealing sinner, who operated well within "natural" excusable male sexual desires. In contrast, Villegas wanted to show, through repetitive epitaphs of disgust, that the suicide was lost in a mire of willful, conscious vice and had disgracefully earned a secret, profane burial to protect the honor of the Church. These contradictory angles demonstrate the flexibility and expansiveness of interpretation possible for the spectrum of natural to "against nature" (contra natura) in the framing and understanding of sexual acts.

Although Villegas's efforts to shape the file involved more general aspects of colonial life, Tortorici rightly recommends that historians should not always try to link suicide to the broader effects of colonialism. My analysis of Sobrino will focus closely on this unique individual and his life circumstances as revealed in the documents generated by Villegas's inquisitorial investigations. However, Villegas certainly understood the role of local slaves as symbols to call on to define the unnatural, especially the practice of suicide. Throughout the colonial era, African slaves and their descendants, both free and enslaved, and often racially mixed, numerically dominated this region. In 1684, 7,341 free people lived in Cartagena, with slaves adding at least another 25 percent to that number. In the wake of the destructive 1697 French invasion, Cartagena was virtually depopulated, but the city gradually recovered to 4,556 inhabitants by 1708. The city's population increased dramatically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: a detailed census calculated 13,690 residents in 1777, and 17,600 by 1809. Racially mixed and enslaved women outnumbered other groups in the population. In 1777, nearly 20 percent of local residents were unmarried free women of color in charge of a small family group or renting out rooms in their houses, often to traveling men or male slaves. These women and their children make up all of the witnesses in this case who alleged that Sobrino either attempted to or succeeded in seducing them. Within the surviving documents, neither Sobrino nor Villegas offered any revealing commentary on the inherently colonial fact that all the targets of Sobrino's natural and unnatural sexual desires were nonwhite colonized subjects. The friar did frame all of his erotic and affectionate leanings as natural, thus implying that he viewed male and female slaves and free people of color as attractive potential sexual partners.

The first tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition came to New Spain in 1572, less than a century after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel founded this court in their Spanish dominions in an effort to stamp out what they viewed as heretical backsliding, most particularly the continued secret practice of Judaism by recent converts. Inquisitors over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries investigated what Martin Nesvig has called "sin-crimes": bigamy, heretical statements, blasphemy, solicitation in the confessional, various clerical sins, sorcery, and witchcraft. Thanks to their investigations, historians can find thousands of pages of tribunal records in the Spanish national archives in Madrid documenting dozens of criminal, financial, clerical, and jurisdictional disputes. In the absence of notarial records or more complete criminal files, the documents drawn up in Inquisition trials, according to Richard Greenleaf, "provide an overview of colonial life not available from other sources. The way in which social institutions react to the rebel, the nonconformist ... yields all manner of data." Although Greenleaf made these comments decades ago, they remain relevant to this particular case, which offers complex and competing narratives of natural and unnatural acts.

Zeb Tortorici has shown that in colonial New Spain, especially in the eighteenth century, there was a "degree of tolerance for members of the clergy accused of sodomy or sexual acts with other males." Inquisitors took an interest in Sobrino's sexual misconduct only after decades of hearing rumors of him soliciting women in the confessional and engaging in other generally unsuitable behaviors. In fact, according to Tortorici, the Cartagena and other American tribunals had "no official power over charges of sodomy or improper intercourse, unless they involved heresy," despite the fact that "the concepts of unnatural sexuality, heresy, sin, and criminality were often intermixed and overlapped in the minds of the inquisitors, secular authorities, and laypersons." In general, Tortorici's evidence shows that the Holy Office hoped to conceal reported acts of clerical sodomy, even if they were well documented, numerous, and enduring. Priests received discreet private penances or just moved to another parish. Often, inquisitors did not even bother to investigate the allegations. Late-eighteenth-century convicted sodomites, even laymen, rarely endured execution, though public punishment was more frequent.

As a friar, Sobrino would have enjoyed this discretion and lenient, protective attitude if he had not chosen to kill himself. Villegas wished to protect the honor and reputation of the local church by hiding or deescalating the gossip about Sobrino's acts to the degree possible. But Sobrino's choice to commit suicide could have become very public and in turn led to questioning about why the friar was imprisoned, thus revealing clerical secrets that Villegas hoped to remove from public circulation. For this reason, Villegas, panicked about Sobrino's burial, had to act quickly in a way that he thought would protect the Church's reputation from further criticism. In the moment, he decided that a secret nighttime secular burial would best serve the Cartagena Church's needs. He shaped the file to justify his decision, especially through repeated diatribes regarding Sobrino's irredeemable sinfulness, supported of course by the act of suicide and the testimonies of others who had experienced the friar's sexual talk and physical contact. Villegas constructed Sobrino as the ultimate sinner, one unlikely to feel true repentance and reform.

Before returning to the documents' narratives, it is worth noting that the Cartagena tribunal of the Holy Office had long suffered from local dissatisfaction and criticisms, and indeed had virtually disappeared after two foreign invasions since the late seventeenth century. The inquisitors arrived in 1610 and immediately began to investigate love magic and shamanistic practices. From the beginning, however, other crown institutions frequently challenged the inquisitors' decisions. The local elite had little difficulty in evading the inquisitors' sentences by calling on their own social status and ties to the colonial church, military, and governing authorities. This tribunal had jurisdiction over cases originating in a broad swath of the circum-Caribbean, including territories in the modern nations of Panama, Cuba, and Venezuela, but even within Cartagena itself, residents manipulated the inquisitors for their own personal and political ends. Outside the city, some colonial subjects openly mocked the tribunal and criticized it for corruption and ineffectiveness.

Cartagena had not yet recovered from a violent church/state conflict in the 1680s known as the cessatio a divinis that stopped local church services, when the French, led by baron de Pointis, sacked the city in 1697. The Inquisition judges fled the city, so the attackers looted their building and possessions. The facilities never recovered completely. In 1706, inquisitors complained that they had no funds; in their view they had been abandoned, because no ships had come from Spain in a decade. The court was moved to a private home for a time in the early 1700s, but an English naval attack led by Admiral Vernon destroyed it again in 1741; the building was not rebuilt until 1766. In the eighteenth century, the Cartagena tribunal concentrated on censorship of Enlightenment ideas. The tribunal's decline is most obviously manifested in this case by the lone presence of one inquisitorial presiding judge, Villegas. In contrast, in the seventeenth century a more active Cartagena Holy Office necessitated two inquisitors. Adding to a sense of weakness and decline in the local church was the fact that twelve years before Sobrino's suicide, the eight Jesuits living in the city had acted on banishment orders received directly from Spain and left from the port with little or no objection from residents. It is clear that in the eighteenth century, military and crown bureaucrats played a more vibrant role in Cartagena social, political, and economic life than did Catholic institutions.

Villegas carefully shaped the written records of his investigation into Sobrino's alleged crimes, which have survived as a 125-folio case file in Spain's national archive, the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid. The file contains two intertwined and appended investigations: one of the sexual crimes and heresies Sobrino allegedly committed during his lifetime and the other dealing with Villegas's attempt to exculpate himself and the Holy Office from any blame for the suicide and to present his decision to carry out a secret burial as an appropriate response in a crisis. This case exists because Sobrino's desires and acts were viewed in his time as unnatural, vicious, and irreligious. Therefore, throughout the written record, Villegas strove to highlight the sinful, irredeemable, impenitent nature of the subject of his investigations, "a rhetoric replete with gestures of revulsion." Villegas censured the friar's character and immoral life, and the Inquisition procedures and punishment ended in Sobrino's death, so the inquisitor created a narrative with Sobrino in the role of the antagonist. Historical analysis requires recognition that document creators mold situations for their own ends. In this case, Villegas highlighted Sobrino's sinfulness to take the blame for the suicide off himself as well as to distract his superiors within the Holy Office bureaucracy from the possible misstep of the nighttime unconsecrated burial.

Sobrino, in contrast, felt very different pressures in how he narrated his autobiography to the inquisitor and other clerical investigators. Thus, the persona he created differs from the one created by his persecutors. This fact is especially important given the controversial and unproven nature of some of the accusations against him. His confessional narrative weaves together natural and unnatural desires, but he chose to end the story by taking his own life, a choice that provided fodder for further stories of his sin and unnaturalness. Perhaps he viewed suicide as the only possible response to the unwinnable clash between his self-presentation and his prosecution and ultimate penitential sentence, although it silenced any further contributions he might provide to shape his own story.

Sobrino's biography survives only through the medium of his Holy Office case file. When he killed himself, he was around fifty-eight years old, a weak, thin, pale, wrinkled old man, according to Villegas's biased description, which certainly sought to highlight the physical toll of a vicious life. A Cartagena local of old Christian and Spanish heritage, Sobrino received his education from the Jesuits and took the habit of Nuestra Señora de la Merced at age twenty-two. He was assigned to small remote parishes in Panama shortly afterward, in response to rumors of a scandal with a Cartagena woman. Gossip about sinful sexual acts pursued Sobrino for the rest of his life. For almost four decades, fears of scandal, scribal recordings of hostile testimonies, and his own presentation of his personal archival narratives shaped his desires and sexual acts. Although Villegas and hostile witnesses tell a story of Sobrino's sinfulness and unnatural sexuality, the friar maintained for much of the investigation that he did not commit any serious sexual improprieties nor did he envision his desires as unnatural. He felt sexual attraction to — or as he viewed it, affection for — both males and females, and his sexual identity moved across the broad spectrum of natural to unnatural, defying eighteenth-century attempts to categorize sexuality and gender.


Excerpted from Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America by Zeb Tortorici. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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