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Women Who Live Evil Lives

Women Who Live Evil Lives
Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Power in Colonial Guatemala, 1650-1750

The lives and practices of mixed-race, Black, Spanish, and Maya women sorcerers, spell-casters, magical healers, and midwives in the capital of colonial Central America.

November 2002
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202 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 b&w illus., 3 maps |

Women Who Live Evil Lives documents the lives and practices of mixed-race, Black, Spanish, and Maya women sorcerers, spell-casters, magical healers, and midwives in the social relations of power in Santiago de Guatemala, the capital of colonial Central America. Men and women from all sectors of society consulted them to intervene in sexual and familial relations and disputes between neighbors and rival shop owners; to counter abusive colonial officials, employers, or husbands; and in cases of inexplicable illness.

Applying historical, anthropological, and gender studies analysis, Martha Few argues that women's local practices of magic, curing, and religion revealed opportunities for women's cultural authority and power in colonial Guatemala. Few draws on archival research conducted in Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain to shed new light on women's critical public roles in Santiago, the cultural and social connections between the capital city and the countryside, and the gender dynamics of power in the ethnic and cultural contestation of Spanish colonial rule in daily life.

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Contested Powers: Gender, Culture, and the Process of Colonial Rule
  • Chapter 2. Society and Colonial Authority in Santiago de Guatemala
  • Chapter 3. Magical Violence and the Body
  • Chapter 4. Illness, Healing, and the Supernatural World
  • Chapter 5. Female Sorcery, Material Life, and Urban Community Formation
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Martha Few is Assistant Professor of Colonial Latin American History at the University of Miami.


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Illustrious Sir: The roots of this evil are great, and have shamelessly spread throughout this city between mujersillas de mal vivir [worthless women who live evil lives].
—Letter from José de Baños y Sotomayor, comisario of Guatemala's Inquisition, to the Mexican Office of the Inquisition, 15 November 1695

In 1704 Padre José de Quevedo denounced Lorenza de Molina and her sister-in-law, María de Santa Inéz, to the Inquisition comisario (commissioner; head of Guatemala's Inquisition) in Santiago de Guatemala, capital of colonial Central America. Padre Quevedo asserted that the women entered his bedroom in the form of two bright lights, which then shape-changed into human form. One of the women ripped the rosary from the priest's neck and blindfolded him, and they both carried him to another room. There, they stripped him naked, tied him to a bench in the shape of a cross as if he were being crucified, and turned him upside down, so that his head pointed toward the floor and his feet pointed toward the ceiling. The women beat him severely over his body for the entire night and "shamefully wounded" his genitals. Padre Quevedo later claimed that in the middle of the beating, the women lit incense and made a pact with the devil, to which the priest responded with his own prayer, invoking the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael in an effort to save his life and his soul. The next morning, a neighbor found Padre Quevedo dazed and terrified, his body covered with infected wounds. Lorenza de Molina, a mestiza immigrant from Peru, fled Santiago before Inquisition officials could arrest her. Authorities arrested and imprisoned her sister-in-law, María de Santa Inéz, a mulata street peddler who had a reputation for violence. María later escaped from jail, apparently with the help of some female friends.

Read in the broader context of the process of colonial rule in Latin America, Padre Quevedo's fantastic account of his beating illustrates the connections among gender, religion, and relations of power in conflicts and confrontations in daily life in a colonial Spanish American city. This work analyzes the gender and ethnic dimensions of cultural authority and power within the process of colonial rule in Latin America. I focus on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts of the lives and practices of so-called mujeres de mal vivir—female sorcerers, magical healers and midwives, and clandestine religious leaders—in Santiago de Guatemala. Community members from all segments of colonial society consulted these women in multiethnic urban communities such as Santiago and asked them to intervene in a variety of conflicts in daily life: in sexual and familial relations, in disputes between neighbors and rival shop owners, in instances of abuse by colonial officials, employers, and husbands, and in cases of bewildering and often bizarre illnesses. Women based their community authority on their knowledge of the body and the natural world, connected to Spanish, African, and Mayan ideas and practices of religion and the supernatural. Women maintained their power through reputation, public displays of healing, violence, and devotional acts, and the creation of informal social ties, which often crossed the ethnic, status, and rural/urban boundaries of colonial society.

Women's local practices of devotional acts, curing, and magic revealed opportunities for women's cultural authority and power in daily life in Santiago de Guatemala. On the one hand, women's use of ritual practices to intervene in community conflicts and earn money despite the dangers reveals the crucial but often overlooked gender dynamics of power within the broader framework of ethnic and cultural contestation of colonial rule. On the other hand, women's public roles in local religious cultures left them vulnerable to accusations of sorcery and became opportunities for the Spanish state to reinscribe colonial rule at the community level through institutions such as the Inquisition.

This work explores three broad historical processes and their interconnections, which have been central to the study of colonial Latin America. First, I analyze colonialism as a contested process, an idea that has characterized the last ten years of work in Latin American history and anthropology, spurred on by the Columbus quincentenary. Analyses of daily life, as well as local and regional studies that address colonialism by considering the material and cultural history of the area under study, have shown that colonial rule was always mediated by precolonial indigenous practices as well as postconquest contestation by ethnic groups who challenged and reshaped colonial rule in Latin America. Rethinking colonial rule as a contested process invites the integration of the actions of ethnically and economically marginalized groups into the analysis of state formation in colonial Guatemala. Through the manipulation of institutions and the re-creation of cultural practices based on lived experiences in Spanish America, colonial peoples contested the terms of rule.

This study highlights the role of religion and the integration of Spanish, African, and Mayan ideas and practices in this process. Religious practices and beliefs became important not only through the formal, institutional practice of Catholicism but also through popular expressions of Catholic piety in daily life. The Catholic church and its representatives in the New World played an integral role in the violent process of Spanish conquest and the establishment of colonialism. Through institutional mechanisms such as confession and the Inquisition and through the vigilance of parish priests as well as members of Guatemala's religious orders—the Franciscans, the Mercedarians, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits—the Catholic church attempted to define and monitor the social and cultural behavior of colonial peoples and outline normative gender roles for men and women. Inquisition sources such as those that recorded the violence used against Padre Quevedo show how church officials became immediately concerned about such shocking acts as an attack on a priest.

In Guatemala and elsewhere in colonial Latin America, however, informal religious practices, in which ethnically and economically marginalized peoples drew on Spanish, African, and indigenous religious traditions, held the potential for symbolic and cultural contestation of colonial rule. There are numerous examples of nonelites using religious symbols and rituals to resist serious changes such as structural and political transformations of state power and outright rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Men and women also used religious symbols and rituals to legitimate their authority and power not just in larger revolts and rebellions but also in everyday social relations. Making this link between women and religion to analyze cultural authority and power under colonial rule reveals how women drew on ideas and practices of religion and the supernatural and reformulated them to assert their authority and power in the local community. Women then used this authority and power to overtly challenge gender, racial, and colonial hierarchies and intervene in conflicts and problems in daily life. As a result, the practices of female sorcerers, healers, and clandestine cult leaders informally linked women and men of different ethnic and social groups in colonial Santiago de Guatemala.

The second broad historical process that this study addresses is how women and men exercised authority and power in community social relations. I draw on the insights of social historians who integrated the lives of women, the poor, and other marginalized groups as historical actors. Historians and anthropologists who have analyzed the connections between gender and state formation have argued that gender ideology formed an integral part of colonial power in the process of Spanish colonial state building. These scholars maintained that colonial rule manipulated cultural systems of meaning and convincingly pointed to gender, along with ethnicity and status, as a site of contestation and negotiation.

All underline the importance of women's cultural roles and highlight women's use and re-creation of clandestine and illegal pre-Columbian religious practices to resist conquest and the ensuing restructuring of social relations, especially in rural settings. Scholars of colonial Latin America have recently extended this analysis to urban histories, especially ethnic relations in colonial cities. For the most part, however, women's cultural roles in social relations in urban life remain largely unexplored, despite the important although informal roles women played in political, economic, and social life. This work addresses this need and places women's social and cultural roles within the larger historical context of material bases for power and oppression in colonial Guatemala.

Feminist and women's historians have critiqued frameworks that characterize the category "women" as a monolithic whole, in terms of ignoring important ethnic and status divisions and especially through characterizations of third world women, vis-à-vis first world women, as powerless victims of particular political or economic systems, such as colonialism. To avoid this, I draw on Belinda Bozzoli's concept of a "patchwork of patriarchies" to analyze how women's lives and experiences under colonial rule differed by cultural context, ethnicity, and status. While female sorcerers in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala did not attempt to overthrow colonial rule, neither were they simply passive victims of colonial political and patriarchal power. Instead, women played key roles in cultural relations in community life in Santiago, which took place on local, intimate, and face-to-face terms.

Female sorcerers, magical healers, and popular religious leaders based their authority and power on their knowledge of the human body and the natural world, derived from biological and social experiences of daily life: giving birth, lactation, preparing and distributing food, caring for the sick, and preparing the dead for burial. Furthermore, the human body became a site of power contestation in women's use of magical practices in daily life. For example, women seen as sorcerers used doctored food and drink that contained female body parts and fluids, supplemented with herbs, flowers, insects, and other ritual items, in attempts to control men's behavior. In the case of Padre Quevedo, the two women were said to have attacked the priest with the help of the devil and marked his body, inlcuding his genitals, with scars and wounds.

Michel Foucault and others have argued that the body is a site of power contestation and that the punishment of the body by the state is a political act. This top-down view, however, focused on institutional power and ignored the gendered aspects of the body as a site of contestation. As early as 1941, Lois Paul noted in her ethnographic work on Zutuhil-Maya speakers on the shore of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala: "Ideas about the body are an important component of self-concept and can provide important clues to not only the individual but the social order as well." By examining women's practices of magical authority and power in the community, based on knowledge of the body and the natural world and connected to religious beliefs and practices, this study places women's cultural roles within the larger historical context of unequal yet contested relations of power under colonial rule in Guatemala.

The third major process that this study addresses is community formation. The construction of racial and ethnic identity has long been a focus of Latin American history and anthropology. Ethnohistorical studies of colonial Latin America, especially of Mesoamerica, have focused primarily on rural indigenous communities. Recent ethnographic work by John Monaghan and John Watanabe, for example, has argued for a less structural view of communities and redefined them as "meaningfully bounded social places rather than institutionally delimited structures." A dynamic view of community, wherein alliances and identities continuously re-form, can illuminate how and why women created multiethnic social networks given the conditions of their daily lives in colonial Guatemala.

Furthermore, by focusing mainly on indigenous rural communities, Latin Americanists have tended to overstate the dichotomy between city and countryside in colonial life and to gloss over the cultural, family, religious, and economic links between inhabitants of cities and the surrounding rural towns. Daily life in colonial cities entailed links to rural peoples in villages in the countryside, and this is certainly true in Santiago de Guatemala. This study seeks to illuminate the linkages between the two spheres rather than their separation. Historical records show the movement of people between city and countryside through religious pilgrimages, family ties, the activities of market vendors and traveling salespeople, sexual relationships, and the exchange of ritual items such as flowers, plants, and herbs. Women's popular religious practices, beliefs, and knowledge were continually reinforced by this movement of people, ideas, and ritual goods between the capital city and the countryside. This geographic mobility in daily life, in addition to migration in and out of the capital and the ease of flight from colonial authorities, made policies of social control difficult to enforce. The social connections described in Padre Quevedo's testimony between Lorenza de Molina, a mestiza immigrant from Peru who became a resident of Santiago, with her sister-in-law María de Santa Inéz, a mulata from a primarily indigenous town close to the capital, is one example of ties between women that spanned urban-rural divisions.

I base my analysis on archival sources—Inquisition records, civil and ecclesiastical proceedings and correspondence, city council records—gathered in Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain. I supplement these sources with colonial Guatemalan and Mexican religious tracts, doctrinal manuals, relations of pious lives, and contemporary histories. Inquisition records typically contain information regarding living conditions, foods eaten and meals prepared, family life, ties to neighbors, personal conflicts, and the importance of religion and religious beliefs. They also contain detailed accounts of rituals and ritual objects used by women, as well as their ideas about the connections between religion and power. Accounts in Inquisition records show daily interactions between community members across gender, ethnic, and status lines, between people of different barrios (neighborhoods), and between urban and rural dwellers. These sources also offer evidence about how women claimed authority and power in multiethnic urban communities.

Accounts of women's roles in daily life contained in Inquisition sources, however, were structured through the bureaucratic procedures and practices of the Holy Office. These are historical sources from a Spanish institution, and the testimonies found there were shaped to some degree by the Inquisition. For example, many of the accounts are of seemingly fantastic occurrences, as in the case of Padre Quevedo, including pacts with the devil, strange illnesses, or miraculous healings, in which priests, colonial officials, neighbors, and family members attributed certain kinds of power and certain kinds of deviance to women. This included a knowledge of magical plants and herbs, the ability to communicate with the devil and other supernatural beings, and the ability to use sorcery to heal as well as to inflict harm and even death. Moreover, historians must take into account that Inquisition authorities used prescribed vocabularies during questioning and in the descriptions of testimonies in correspondence. These prescribed vocabularies, in turn, limited the possibilities and shaped the stories that emerged in the record.

Nevertheless, Inquisition sources capture firsthand accounts of women and the poor in colonial Guatemala at a time when most inhabitants could not sign their names to their Inquisition testimonies and left little in the way of written documents. What makes Guatemalan Inquisition sources particularly rich is that they were mostly unstructured and did not follow rigid lines of questioning. In addition, Inquisition officials themselves did not always follow the rules and sometimes took action that ignored or circumvented official procedures. As a result, historians can begin to uncover the lives of multiethnic populations to understand the issues that confronted women and men in colonial Latin America and the larger implications of these histories for the process of rule in colonial Latin America. These sources reveal what people thought women could do, how they did it, and the reasons they did it, as well provide evidence regarding women's broader survival norms in Santiago de Guatemala. And, importantly for this study, these sources contain descriptions of religious rituals and beliefs that were both powerful and attractive to Black, indigenous, Spanish, and casta women and to their communities.

The Inquisition, as an institution, has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years in both Europe and the Americas. Some scholars have characterized supernatural manifestations, witch-hunts, and the role of the Inquisition as a conflict between the institutional church and popular religion, played out during the transition from a premodern to a modern era. Others have analyzed the Inquisition as an institution exercising top-down social control and so characterized it as a colonial phenomenon in Spanish America.

Sorcery and supernatural manifestations, however, can also be read as evidence of conflict within a culture, and that is where I focus my analysis. As a result, this is not an institutional study of the Inquisition in Guatemala. Instead, I use Inquisition records along with other historical sources as evidence regarding social relations of power within communities: the power of female sorcerers to intervene in community conflicts and difficulties and the power of the colonial state in general, and the Inquisition in particular, as an agent of colonial oppression or domination, to curb the activities of female sorcerers. Accounts of supernatural interventions described by women and men of all social groups provide evidence of how to understand and analyze the politics of power within communities under colonial rule.

These conflicting agencies—the agency of women in alliance with other women and men in local communities and the agency of the Inquisition in pursuit of illegal religious practices—enter the historical record through Inquisition documents. Within this field of power relations, men and women in Santiago de Guatemala at times chose to consult female sorcerers to resolve their conflicts and problems and at other times chose to cooperate with colonial officials and denounce the women. In many cases, however, the Inquisition and other colonial authorities were not brought into these kinds of conflicts until an extraordinary amount of agency was shown on the part of female sorcerers and their clients.

In the case of Padre Quevedo, the escalating conflict between the priest and the two women continued over a number of months. The women reportedly used intimidation, and the priest found suspicious leaves, herbs, and human bones in and around his home, evidence that he took to be ritual items associated with sorcery. At one point, fed up with the women's public disrespect toward him, Padre Quevedo beat Lorenza on the front doorstep of his home in full view of neighbors and passersby. Neither the women nor the priest called for the assistance of political or religious authorities until after the two women kidnapped the priest, beat him, and left him for dead.

The papal bulls of 1521 and 1522 initially established the Inquisition in New Spain. It was first directed by the regular orders and then by Mexican bishops, who were also sometimes friars. In 1571 King Philip II formally established the Inquisition tribunal in Peru and Mexico. The Mexican Inquisition was centered in Mexico City and had jurisdiction over all of New Spain, an area that covered the southwestern United States, Mexico, the Philippines, and Central America. In 1571 Indians, deemed new converts, were exempted from the Inquisition, and a parallel institution, called the Proviserato, was established.

During the initial years of Inquisition activity in Spain and Spanish America, authorities focused on pursuing crimes of heresy, first against conversos (baptized Jews and their descendants) and later against suspected Protestants. In the New World, the focus on heresy extended to prosecuting crimes of idolatry among Indian populations. The early years of the Inquisition in Spain and colonial Spanish America were characterized by brutality and violence, including autos-da-fé in Spain and colonial Mexico. The Mexican Inquisition's suppression of conversos peaked in the 1590s and again in the 1640s.

The trials and punishments for heresy, especially in the early years of colonial rule, were among the most dramatic and severe examples of Inquisitional power. Nonetheless, the Mexican tribunal primarily policed less dramatic crimes of "superstitions," "sorcery," and "witchcraft." According to Solange Alberro, heresy prosecutions made up only 11 percent of the procesos (lawsuits, proceedings) in colonial Mexico, while figures from peninsular tribunals indicate that approximately 40 percent of procesos dealt with heresy. Thus much of the Inquisition's activity in New Spain, which included colonial Guatemala, targeted crimes other than heresy.

Multiethnic networks of mainly poor Spanish, indigenous, Black, and casta women, described in Inquisition documents and discussed in civil and ecclesiastical correspondence, fed elite fears of the corruption of the larger society via maestras, female "masters" or "teachers" believed to have taught others practices of sorcery. Colonial officials did not express a similar concern for men's sorcery networks, nor were men's networks as such defined as deviant. In 1694, for example, the comisario of the Guatemalan Inquisition wrote to his superiors in Mexico City:

I believe [this Indian woman] to be one of the evil roots of the tricks and curses that are being introduced among mujersillas de mal vivir in this city . . . and I am denouncing the women to cut short the cancer that has spread through the gente ordinaria [common people]

Beneath this was the more general fear and repression of African, indigenous, and mixed-race populations under Spanish colonial rule in the Americas in the context of demographic and economic changes in Guatemala. These changes created an ambiguity of colonial authority within the specific historical context of the late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century transformation of Santiago de Guatemala into a multiethnic city. This change, along with the revival of regional and local economies, opened up opportunities for women, in both economic and cultural life. I argue that an analysis of gender, ethnicity, and women's roles in supernatural activities in late-seventeenth-century Guatemala reveals how women became specifically vulnerable to sorcery accusations and at the same time had a wide range of opportunities opened to them.

Chapter 2 places the study in the historical and cultural context of the revival of the local economy and the emergence of Santiago de Guatemala as a multiethnic city. I argue that this period of flux created expanded opportunities for women's cultural authority and power in daily life, explored through rumors that a female mixed-race sorcerer bewitched the president of the Audiencia and other political and religious officials in the capital.

Chapter 3 analyzes the role that the physical body played in local social relations, as female sorcerers refashioned the body as site of magical violence and women's power. Furthermore, female sorcerers and their clients used their own female body parts and fluids as magical weapons in practices of sexual witchcraft. Inhabitants of Santiago portrayed those female sorcerers as powerful and dangerous shape-changers, who used their ability to transform their bodies and the bodies of their enemies to enact magical violence.

Chapter 4 outlines women's authority and power in daily life through practices of magical healing and midwifery, an extension and re-creation of female domestic roles, connected to Mayan, African, and Spanish practices and beliefs about religion. I argue that men's and women's explanations for illness not only reflect intracommunity conflicts but also reveal opportunities for women's power, viewed through supernatural illness accusations against female healers and midwives.

Chapter 5 explores how women's sorcery practices intertwined with material concerns of daily life through economic witchcraft and highlights the formation of multiethnic social networks around supernatural strategies of community conflict resolution. Women reinforced their authority through public displays of power, spread through reputation and gossip, which, at the same time, attracted the attention of colonial officials and created opportunities for state intervention in community relations.


“This is a significant intellectual contribution that has the additional merit of being thoroughly readable and appealing to a broad [audience].... The case studies are riveting, detailed with intensely personal, often sexually and socially charged examples, and clearly integrated with Few's overarching theoretical and conceptual framework. This is wonderful historical ethnographic material.”
Grant D. Jones, author of The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom


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