What is in a body? Hermaphrodites and Late Colonial Order in Nueva Granada
Renée Soulodre-La France, King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario
“…[Q]ue reconosca[n] a la Parra y que decierna[n] lo que hay en ella” was the challenge tossed to the learned men in more sophisticated centers than the small town of Zipaquira by the corregidor as he sought to avoid the troublesome and troubling case of Martina Parra’s sexuality and gender in early 19th century Colombia (AGN 220r). The question of how to “examine her and discern what there is in her” seemed a complex one in the face of accusations of physical anomaly, ambiguous sexuality, possible lesbianism, and moral and sexual deceit. The subject in question was Martina Parra, sent to the corregidor of Zipaquira by the alcalde of Suesca in 1803, suspected of being a hermaphrodite and of having lived an impure life with Juana Maria Martines. In fact, the original charge by the alcalde was that of having engaged in unisexual relations with another woman and, subsequently and rather contradictorily, for being considered a hermaphrodite. The corregidor decided that Parra should be sent to Santa Fe de Bogotá because in Zipaquira he simply did not have the faculties to examine her and to discover conclusively “what there was in her.” Martina Parra’s body would be the stage upon which the celebrated modern doctors of Bogotá could perform their enlightened examinations dispelling the fearful anomalies presented by an ambiguous body and an irregular or baroque sexuality.
Attitudes towards hermaphroditism and intersexuality would follow the typical contours that shaped notions of natural and morally acceptable sexuality in Europe and its colonial settings. These would see interpretations of hermaphrodites based upon ancient ideas about sexuality, through a religious, Christian view, through notions of ambiguity or anomaly as monstrosity, linked typically to moral and social transgression, through scientific inquiry that helped to define physical non-conformity out of existence and which has prevailed into the 20th century, tragically in some cases.(1) In the Spanish colonies, through the shifts of the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially with the influence of the Bourbon Reforms upon questions of reason and order, as well as their impact on attitudes towards the physical and mystical or spiritual, we can trace a shift in the way physical or sexual anomalies in the case of hermaphrodites were considered and addressed by various layers of colonial authorities. As the medical profession established ever firmer parameters for its field of operations, popular ideas about the human body and sexuality were subjected to the test of that medical gaze and interpretive shifts were imposed upon cases like that of Martina Parra. Within this modern application of reasoned medical interpretation though, there was still room for fear of the unusual, different, or monstrous, of the anomaly, and thus popular understandings of that fear could stimulate the colonial legal system into action, striking quickly to remove or mitigate the effects of such nonconformity upon the body social. Explanatory paradigms were at times reconfigured more readily among elite groups in the colonies, as evidenced by the growing gap between what the common folk- often characterized by racial distance as well as socio-economic difference-believed, and the attitudes manifested by the experts called upon to testify about those unusual possibilities. However, humble people still understood very well that accusations of dangerous differences would be dealt with seriously even if they defied the understandings of colonial authorities. (2)
Cases like that of Martina Parra provide us an opportunity to explore layers of attitudes and thoughts, mentalitées and practices, as different subaltern and dominant groups became involved. By putting the concerns raised by Martina’s sexual and gender ambiguity into the context of late colonial society we can trace some of the processes that were occurring in the early modern period, from the baroque counter-reformation of religious and social anxiety to the enlightened curiosity of the modern elite wherein a growing codification of boundaries were being ‘reasonably’ established. We can also discover more about the ways in which the body became the defining configuration for the experts, the medical men, to map out the sexuality and the gender of individuals, with ever increasing claim to legitimacy, and how this affected the possibility of individual identity formation. Instances of physical or anatomical doubt also show us much about fear of irregularities and the ever increasing impulse towards order so as to ascertain control, in physical, sexual, and moral realms, and how these came to be explained in the didactic terms of enlightened reason, while allowing us to re-examine how sexuality is or was socially constructed or biologically ordained (see Laqueur 134-142). Conformity was a highly valued standard and was insured by persecution at the outset of the colonial period, but eventually could be achieved by the dismissal and ridiculing of unacceptable behavior and being. In some ways then, we can trace how the gatekeepers of morality and Christianity were transformed from the priests who sought to enforce Christian monogamous marriage as the only purview for sexuality, to the doctors who would determine who was fit for that marriage. Within this, there is also evidence of a growing gap between popular world views, and understandings of the physical and its relationship to the metaphysical, or supernatural, and the lettered elite that viewed such cultural scripts as naïve, ill-informed, and deplorable.
Intriguingly Juana Maria Martines’ accusation against Martina Parra also raised some interesting phantoms of sexual danger for the alcalde and corregidor and thus focus our inquiry not only upon Martina’s body and other sexualized colonial bodies, but also upon the sexual outlaws whom authorities feared were manifest in these anomalies, whether because of their anatomical ambiguity as in the case of hermaphrodites or their gender transgressions in the case of lesbians and homosexuals. This work will explore some of the common themes highlighted by the case of Martina Parra and other suspected hermaphrodites in the Hispanic world in order to reflect upon how the dominant cultural mores infused these anomalous situations with sexual danger. As we will see, one of the ways in which they were diffused though, was by relegating them to the realm of folk tales and unsophisticated popular and local culture.
On October 18 1803 the alcalde of Suesca, Bernardo Ecurra, wrote to the corregidor of Zipaquira that Juana Maria Martines had appeared before him with a confession about Martina Parra, saying that she was perturbed because she had been living in a bad state (mala vida) for over a year. The judge seemed nonplussed. Why was she worried? Since both of them were women what could be the problem? It was then that Martines told him that Parra was a hermaphrodite, that she had the generative parts of both men and women. This led him immediately to send both Parra and Martines to Zipaquira, so that someone in a better position to determine the case might deal with it (AGN 218r).
There was a long history of anxiety, fear, recrimination, suspicion, and ultimately denial in Europe and the Americas where hermaphrodites were considered. The hermaphrodite’s body, gender and sexual ambiguity were the focus of much study and preoccupation for reasons that ranged from moral categorization, titillation and speculation, through to the need for control of those wayward bodies. The example of hermaphrodites was also useful in the learned discussions of the one-sex or two-sex models of Western medicine. In their discussion of the Aristotelian and Galenic models of sexuality, Nederman and True argue that for medieval Europeans hermaphrodites made natural and biological sense (Nederman and True 499-500). The most persuasive model argued for Galen’s spectrum of sexuality, where the one true sex was the male, and the female at the other end of the spectrum could aspire to become male. In that case hermaphrodites simply occupied the middle of the spectrum.
In the hermaphrodite historical literature, analysis of sexual difference versus gender differentiation usually begins with Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the story of the Fountain of Salmacis and the creation of the first hermaphrodite. For 12th century Europe there is much medical, philosophical, legal and literary evidence that suggests a widespread belief in the hermaphrodite as a unique nature (Nederman and True 500). Within that context a three sex model was a possibility. While medieval authors wrote of the hermaphrodite as a natural phenomenon, even though an anomaly, it was expected that the hermaphrodite should conform to one or another gender role (Nederman and True 502). Meanwhile those who followed Aristotelian logic wrote that the hermaphrodite was really either male or female, depending on the predominance of the male or female sexual organs (Nederman and True 499-500; see also Daston and Park 1995, 421). In early medieval philosophy there was a tremendous interest in the hermaphrodite as a third and biologically sound sex, though later in the 13th and 14th centuries hermaphroditism tended to be confused with homosexuality. While authors in this period accepted the possibility of the hermaphrodite as a third sex, some did so in nonchalant terms that indicated an ontological truth, while others wrote of the hermaphrodite within the trope of ‘monstrosity’ (Nederman and True 503-06).
The possibility or problematic of the hermaphrodite was inextricably linked to both science and religion among Christian commentators. In medieval European mentality, for example, it was viable to make a direct link between understandings of hermaphrodites and alchemical processes in which the comparison between the properties of the philosopher’s stone, a medium that embodied direct opposites, was symbolically equated to the hermaphrodite. This was a comparison that would eventually lead to a formulation of a parallel between the Philosopher’s stone and Jesus Christ that would “claim Christ him/herself as a hermaphrodite, the perfect combination of contraries-masculine and feminine, human and divine-in one body” (209). This notion of Christ as hermaphrodite as discussed by Leah DeVun derived from the idea that Christ perfectly reconciled opposites within a being that was both corporeal and incorporeal, of nature and yet divine. Through the claims of authors such as those who wrote the Book of the Holy Trinity, the notion that Christ incorporated into his being his mother, the Virgin Mary to represent his feminine principle and the principle of humanity became viable. Such ideas were reinforced by beliefs about the hermaphroditic iconography representing some Catholic saints such as Wilgefortis, depicted as a bearded woman crucified on a cross in imitation of Christ (Daston and Park 1995, 204). In some ways then, as the figure of the hermaphrodite provided a metaphor for understanding alchemy and its possible transmutation of materials into gold and silver, it also provided a vehicle for understanding the God made human in Jesus Christ who would provide for the transmutation of human sin into salvation (DeVun 218).
The period moving into the 17th century however also saw the rise of an association between hermaphroditism and monstrosity, and of ‘monstrous’ births that were sometimes linked to sexual inequity on the mother’s part, and the retribution of a judgmental God. Interpretations based on monstrosity sought to attribute causal influence to what had moved the mother during her pregnancy, resulting in these birth anomalies (Gorbach 41-3). At times these births were seen as portents of bad things to come. However, with the rise of natural sciences it became more common to associate the hermaphrodite with a medical pathology rather than a sign of “God’s wonder or abstract signs of political, social, or religious corruption” (Mann 69). Park and Daston argue that Francis Bacon’s philosophy sought to include monsters, and with them, hermaphrodites, in his perception of nature and natural history, trying to determine practical questions such as whether or not a hermaphrodite could marry (1981, 22). By the beginning of the 18th century though, these authors argue that scientists were abandoning Bacon’s notions of the ‘new rare and unusual’ in nature and considered that nature had a uniformity and order (Park and Daston 1981, 24).
With a different twist, Lisa Leibacher’s examination of L’Isle des Hermaphrodites by Artus Thomas (1605) provides us with some analysis of 17th century France’s fears of hermaphroditism and its redefinition as excessive libertinism. In the context of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, the term Hermaphrodite had become synonymous with “corruption, degradation and contempt” (Leibacher-Ouvard 126). In this interpretation the hermaphrodite becomes “a transgressive blend of epicurean sensualism which ends up turning natural freedom and pleasure seeking into artful and constraining social rituals” (Leibacher-Ouvard 126). This was a scathing comment upon late 16th century mores or perhaps a critique of baroque mannerism.
In his examination of 17th century Spanish masculinity, Edward Behrend-Martinez argues that ever increasingly the state and its institutions played a role in determining who was and who was not a man. These were cases that depended upon anatomy and how manliness was defined through that anatomy, so that judicial institutions were used to examine doubtful men, “hermaphrodites, castrates and impotent men” (Behrend-Martínez 1073). In his interpretation, the church and state sought to order society through anatomy by identifying manhood through medical examinations instead of depending upon masculine behavior (Behrend-Martínez 1073). In 17th century Spain the Galenic theory of humors still predominated and according to this a man’s body made him a man, “practical, reasonable, and emotionally stable” (Behrend-Martínez 1076). By the 18th century physical examinations of sexual organs to determine gender were not unusual as demonstrated in a case from 1711 when Juan/a’s sexual ambiguity was resolved. The court physician denied Juan/a any claim to gender at all. This individual was considered a sexual monster and thus denied the rights of being either a man or a woman, the same verdict that was reached by the doctor in Guatemala in 1803 in the case of Juana la Larga which Martha Few has written about (Few 159-176; see also Behrend-Martinez 1078). This trend to classify gender according to the body was evident through the 17th and 18th centuries in Spain and linked to notions of observable physical attributes rather than behavior as defining gender (Behrend-Martinez 1085).
Ironically, the very visibility of the body could sometimes lead to unusual challenges by colonial authorities. In the 1670s the Jesuit Diego Ximenez was caught in the snares of the Inquisition tribunal as the distance between the nascent medical establishment, the common man and other religious colonial authorities, were brought to the fore.(3) These intriguing events also challenge our perceptions of personal boundaries and the bodies of colonial subjects. Briefly, the witness against the priest testified that one morning he was walking through the city behind his mules, wearing only a shirt.(4) The Jesuit called him over and began to discuss his genitals with him, explaining that there was something wrong with his penis and he could fix it by cutting off a small piece of skin. When the witness agreed to this procedure, without giving the details of how or when it was performed, his friend interpreted it as a circumcision, and gossip began spreading that the Jesuit had circumcised the fellow. Ximenes’s enemies in the convent seized upon this to accuse him of crypto-Judaism before the tribunal. In his confession the Jesuit indicated that he had been trained as a surgeon. When the fellow walked by he had noticed a defect in the man’s genitals and explained to him that he would never be able to have normal sexual relations unless he agreed to have a part of the prepuce removed, which he did. So, rather than a nefarious religious subterfuge, this was a question of sexual health. The sardonic suggestion from the Suprema in Spain when the case came to its attention was that perhaps the colonial tribunal should have examined the Jesuit himself to see if he was circumcised, before they went to the trouble and expense of a long process. Since Ximenes was eventually examined and the fiscal stated there was no sign of circumcision, the case was immediately dropped. The body of the witness was a public document in this series of events, the source of the accusation, while the Jesuit’s own body was the source of his innocence and proof of his Christianity.
Reading the body as proof of gender could sometimes have a happy outcome. Lisa Vollendor cites the case of Magdalena Munoz, a nun who after spending 12 years in a Spanish convent, in 1612 experienced the emergence of his male genitalia after having strained mightily to carry a heavy load. He consulted with the local priest, his confessor, who with the concurrence of another priest physically examined him, pronounced him a man, perfectly formed, and sent him home to his father who was overjoyed to discover he had son (Vollendor 11-12). Eleno/a de Cespedes would not have such luck. In 1587, a few decades before Magdalena’s case arose, the Inquisition struck down his claim to being a hermaphrodite, the decision based upon a physical examination that failed to reveal a penis and testicles, though he said he had suffered a type of cancer that had caused his member to atrophy and he had snipped it off bit by bit. So in the 16th and early 17th century, physical exams came to play an important part in categorizing sex. Anatomy was a determining factor, Magdalena was a man because she had a penis, Eleno was a woman because he did not.
Thomasina/Thomas Hall, who found himself dragged before the Virginia general court in the mid-17th century was also charged with transvestism, but the court in this case used the ambiguity of Thomas’s anatomy to impose a strange and putative sentence that reflected the uncertainty about his sexuality and his gender. He was condemned to wear men’s clothing, so as to save women from his deceitful desires, but he also had to wear a woman’s headscarf and an apron (Reis 418-19). In this case, as in Eleno’s there was no way the court would allow the individual to self-identify. There were profound social reasons that mandated these intersex individuals be defined as either male or female, and yet, that identity would be imposed upon them. Israel Burshatin argues that in Eleno’s case this was because by the time he came to trial, he no longer had the penis and testicles that he claimed he had had. Given the phallocentric nature of the gender hierarchy in Spain in the 17th century, this author argues that the penis made the man, thus Elano could not be a man (Burshatin 1999, 446-47; Vollandor 19).(5) Thomas Hall had a confusing body, according to the testimony and thus was relegated to a strange gender limbo, prominently portrayed through his dress. In the case of Juana, another intersexed individual who confounded the protomedico in the early 19th century in Guatemala, Martha Few suggests that the ambiguity of her/his body led to a complete denial of identity. Within the context of Atlantic world science, the doctor suggested that Juana la Larga as she was commonly known, was neither male nor female, and he did not accept that she/he might be a hermaphrodite, or a third sex. She/he was relegated to a strange non-existence that belied the excess of her/his physical make-up (Few 165).(6)
Regarding Martina Parra, however, the corregidor viewed the case in early 19th century Nueva Granada as worthy of the attention of the audiencia and subsequently sent Parra to the viceregal capital to be dealt with by the more sophisticated judicial and medical apparatus than that which was available in his rustic community. There is an underlying current of collusion in the statement the corregidor sent to the chancellor of the audiencia, a willingness to become part of an exclusive club of modern, learned men, by offering this token of study. Thus, the baroque or irregular, the unfit, if we are speaking of an ordered world, the unusual, these were considered worthy of curiosity and study. However, they would be considered for their scientific merit, and not with the gawking awe of the common public. It was within this same spirit that in 1795 the governor of Panama, Antonio Narvaez y de la Torre wrote to the duke of Alcudia about Ana Maria Franco, a woman in Veragua who was reported to be 140 years old. Narvaez wrote that he thought this might be of interest to the court, and sent along a detailed pseudo-scientific report about her state of health and activities. She apparently had a 90 year old daughter, walked several leagues daily to attend mass, and had the teeth of a 15 year old (AGI). In the margins it was suggested that this news be placed in the gazette. Thus in the same way as Lucena’s Colombian giant displayed in the gabinete was the focus of much public attention, cases of curiosities like Franco’s longevity and Martina as hermaphrodite were viewed as worthy of the interest of scientific men. However, they would approach these anomalies with the method needed to categorize and classify, and told themselves and each other that they would avoid the vulgar, gullible and credulous gaze of the common folk. Part and parcel of this new gaze was the natural inclination to debunking, or challenging these apparently ‘unnatural’ occurrences.
Before sending Martina off though, the corregidor did interrogate Juana Maria Martines to formulate some understanding of the complaint. When he took Martines’s testimony she relayed a story that delved into the intimate details of her life over the last year. She explained that in August or September her husband had died, and a few days later Martina Parra had come to live in her house as her companion. One day they had gone to Nemocon to sell a load of firewood, and in the afternoon, returning to the house in Suesca, Martines had gotten sleepy, since they had drunk some chicha. So, telling Parra that they should rest, they went off the road a bit and laid down to have a siesta. She then awakened to find that Martina had uncovered her buttocks and while she scolded her for this act, they subsequently began to live together in mal estado, in a bad way.(7) This was possible she explained because Martina had the sexual parts of a woman, but when they sinned, or had sex, a member emerged from her, just like that of a man, and they cohabited as man and woman. But, she stated, Parra also menstruated. She claimed that this was the truth, and all that she had to say, that she was over 40 years old and could not sign her name (AGI 219r).(8) The corregidor thus wrote to the audiencia on December 10th, explaining the case and that he was sending Martina Parra, “con titulo de mafrodita,” who was charged with having lived an impure life with Juana Martines. In this letter though, the corregidor also explained that he was suspicious that perhaps this Martina Parra was one and the same as Ygnacia, a woman who had come to his parish before he was corregidor, and who “usaba de las mugeres con un artificio que havia hecho y trahia puesto de varon” (AGI 219r; for same-sex desire and masturbation in the colonial setting see Tortorici). In order to verify his suspicions he called various witnesses who had known Ygnacia so that they would have a look at Martina Parra to see if it was the same person. However they all testified that it was not her, and some, including Martina, stated that Ygnacia had left Zipaquira and made her way to Bogotá. Thus, it appears that while Ygnacia made quite an impression upon the community she maintained her freedom although people gossiped about her. She was able to escape retribution, even when suspected of what amounted to female sodomy, but her notoriety remained.
There were some insidious ideas and attitudes that arose almost automatically in discussions of hermaphrodites, and these seem to transcend time and space. Some of these same issues arise from Martina’s case as well. One of the most prevalent notions, closely linked to the denial of ‘true’ hermaphroditism, was the suspicion of fraud, and the fear of mistaken sexuality because of the sexual danger that it represented. Thus the alcalde sent Martina off to the corregidor and so on, because while they appeared uncertain about how to deal with this case, their intuition told them that there was a potential danger inherent to the charges against her. Furthermore, while she was imprisoned in Bogotá she was to be kept separate from the other women in the Carcel de Divorcio, to avoid any danger that they might suffer from her illicit desires and actions. It is evident from the history of cases of hermaphrodites in Spain and elsewhere that part of the challenge for accepting the possibility of intersex was the fear of deceit, of engaño, and the masking of true sexuality which helped foster the notion that the hermaphrodite was deceitful, or was a transvestite, or homosexual. Thus the leap from doubtful sexuality to transgressive sexuality was a short one, and appears to have been almost automatic (Mann 88-89; Reis 427; Vollandor 19).
In a breathtaking teleology, hermaphrodites were painted as deceitful by nature, since their very existence was disputed by many-their physical ambiguity had to be linked to fraud, because their gender was so unclear. It was reasonable and convenient to conclude than that the hermaphrodite was simply a woman using some sort of prosthetic, or instrument to simulate the male member, as Ygnacia had allegedly done in Zipaquira. As the corregidor suggested in his informe, it was easier to believe that a deceitful woman was using susceptible women with a dildo rather than to acknowledge the existence of hermaphroditism or same-sex desire between women as a possibility. In the celebrated case of Eleno/Elena de Cespedes in 16th century Spain it was more convenient to conclude that a deceitful woman had used a pact with the devil to fool all of the women he had had as lovers, including his wife, as well as the highest medical establishment in the Empire (see Rutter-Jenson 91; Burshatin 1998; 1999).
This most renown case of a Spanish hermaphrodite, of Eleno/a de Cespedes has been the subject of much analysis, most recently by Israel Burshatin (1998; 1999) and Lisa Vollendor. This fascinating tale of ingenuity and ambition takes on epic proportions when we consider that Elena, identified as a female at birth, married a man, gave birth to a son, subsequently changed his sex and gender, experiencing the emergence of his male genitalia in the travails of child birth, and lived for over twenty years as a man, finally marrying a woman, Maria Cano.
Most of the analysis of cases such as this one revolves around the performance of gender against the standard expectations of anatomy as a map for sexuality and gender. Eleno’s case is redolent of transformation as his gender and sexual orientation changed; or if we believe the inquisition judges that he was never a man, but a woman disguising himself as a man, the audacity of her same sex desire remains equally breathtaking. Not only did he shift from female to male, woman to man, but he was able to transcend his earlier life as a slave even though it was inscribed on his body, in the colour of his skin, as he was mulatto, as well as the slave mark, branded upon his face. Eventually, it is argued, it was his caste and race that would lead the inquisition judges to deny his claims to manhood, even if they had to dispute the findings of many respected doctors who had previously examined him and un-categorically pronounced him to be male. In point of fact, Eleno’s slave birth, his race, his social mobility as he rose from working in the textile trade to becoming a surgeon, all of these boundaries he crossed would mark him as a potential danger to the norms in which authorities like the Inquisition judges were heavily invested. Thus, we can understand that in spite of his eloquent self-defense and learned claims to the identity of a hermaphrodite who had chosen the male gender; and in spite of his very masculine performance as a soldier, a surgeon, a lover of women, and a married man, he would receive no quarter. In the end he was found guilty of the charge of mocking marriage, (since the Inquisition in Toledo had no jurisdiction to try cases of sodomy which was a necessary corollary of his fraud) he was stripped of his manhood, flogged 200 lashes in public, condemned to 10 years imprisonment as free female labour in a hospital, and denounced as a woman who was a burladora, a trickster who used her pact with the devil to trick other women into succumbing to her wiles (Vollendor 91; Burshatin 1998, 14; Leibacher-Ouvard 128).
The other well-known case of Spanish cross-dressing and trans-sexuality was the case of Catalina Erauso, la monja, alferez, the lieutenant nun. In a compelling juxtaposition of the lives of Eleno and Catalina, Chloe Rutter-Jenson argues that the critical difference between the two cases is that Catalina effected her sexual transformation through a narrative operation, while she remained essentially a non-sexual being, having maintained her virginity. She essentially talked herself into being male, but of course, the narrative derived from her performance as a male soldier and conquistador in the New World (Rutter-Jenson 87). Catalina who escaped from a convent, disguised herself as a man and made her way through life performing an aggressive masculinity until she faced a death sentence for murder, and only unmasked her gender sleight of hand to save her life. And sure enough her strategy worked. She denounced her transvestism to the archbishop of Mexico who had her examined by trustworthy matrons who discovered that not only was Antonio Erauso a woman, but a virgin at that. For Rutter-Jenson the fact of her virginity rendered Erauso’s behavior acceptable. She subsequently went to Spain and petitioned the king for a pension, which she was granted as a former soldier, then she went to Rome and received permission from the pope to dress as a man, to return to Mexico City and live her life out as a transvestite but with the ambiguous la monja alferez attached to her name. For Burshatin, this success was a function of her whiteness, her good birth, and her family’s wealth, while Rutter-Jenson argues that her virginity turned her into an a-sexual, non-threatening being, and thus her service to the crown and church could be rewarded by granting entry into manhood (Burshatin 1998, 13; Rutter-Jenson 92). In this instance the pen went hand in hand with the sword. In writing the narrative of her exploits as a man, she provided the vehicle to transform her body into that of a man, if only metaphorically, but with tangible concrete effects. Meanwhile Elano, who had actually used his skills and knowledge as a surgeon to physically change his body into an acceptable male form, would not be allowed the same possibility.
A concomitant of this attitude was that suspected hermaphrodites, or transvestites, or lesbians, all grouped together with a persistent common stain of inequity and wrongdoing, were not to be taken at their word. Their bodies had to be examined and interpreted by the authorities, and by the time we get to the 19th century, the midwives and surgeons who previously might have undertaken those exams had been replaced by bona fide doctors such as the two who examined Martina in Bogotá, Miguel de Isla and Honorato Vila. Thus, in her own declaration Martina stated that she was a woman, however nobody bothered to ask her until she had been examined by the learned doctors. It was only after the medical men had affirmed that she was unambiguously a woman that she could be trusted to answer this question truthfully, and her self-identification as a woman could be trusted.
On 20 of December the escribano receptor of the audiencia went to the Carcel de Divorcio, where Martina was being kept in isolation, to protect the other women from her potential desires. He was accompanied by the two medical experts who subjected her to a physical examination. These two were the maestro don Miguel Ysla and don Honorato Vila, both doctors and they undertook the examination after taking the accustomed oaths. Their report indicated that they had carefully examined Martina Parra, who was suspected of having the sexual organs of the male sex as well as the female sex and they both concluded that she only had the characteristics that belonged to a woman, with all of their natural perfection, and location as far as they could tell from their observation and tactile examination. They claimed that she had no sign whatsoever of the sexual organs of a male although they did mention that the clitoris could acquire length and become harder depending on age and concupiscence, as described by surgeons and authors of books of anatomy. However, they suggested, there was no evidence of this type of ‘abuse’ on Martina’s body, although they could not state this absolutely since her clitoris was naturally hidden and only showed when engaged in the carnal act. One of the shifts in authority that is made evident in this case is that the suspected hermaphrodite had to be sent to the doctors in the capital to be examined. Though the professionalization of medicine in Nueva Granada was a slow process, impeded by the lack of a public university with a faculty of medicine, according to some critics, still there was the possibility of studying medicine in the Colegio del Rosario, the Thomistic University (Frías Nune 117-18). Notwithstanding this, by the end of the 18th century, the two doctors who examined Parra were well known and recognized for their expertise in the vice-regal capital. They were often called upon by crown authorities to present their theories and ideas about how best to deal with particular challenges to public health, including the perpetual question of the threat of leprosy, as well as at times of more immediate danger, such as during epidemics like that of viruelas in 1782 and early 19th century (Frías Nune 118; Alzate Echeverri 169). However, they were also useful in dealing with aberrant bodies, such as Martina’s as she seemingly defied social sexual norms or others such as that of Antonio Narino who confronted the political body with irreconcilable challenges during the early independence period (Gardeta Sabater 40).
The temporal context for this case is rendered more intelligible given the influence of the enlightenment and the twin objectives of colonial authorities to reform society by civilizing the population while simultaneously solidifying its Christian morality. These improvements were necessary because of the multiracial colonial population’s unruliness, and would be achieved through the exercise of control over colonized bodies (Gardeta Sabater 13-14; Borja Gómez 186-194). Naturally, issues regarding the body were directly relevant to religion and to proper Christian behaviour, which in turn had a major impact upon medicinal practices as performed by traditional and ethnically diverse practitioners (Maya 45). Thus the strategy to subject the population while simultaneously uplifting it focused upon the body, its behaviour, its contours, and its regulation in a form of bio-politics as has been suggested by Foucault (Alzate Echeverri 26). The irony in this of course was that through the 18th century and long into the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority of the masses had no access to the medical expertise that was called upon to judge them (Alzate Echeverri 169).
Enlightened understandings of medicine and health, whether physical, political, or spiritual and moral, led many of the elite to associate good health with order, in both the individual body and the body politic. Therefore, experts were consulted about the best way to make the cities more secure for citizens including protecting them from epidemics, even in spite of themselves. Thus the surgeon barbers, the midwives, the curanderos, the witches, were denounced as charlatans that preyed upon the common ignorance of the plebe, and their practices were decried as superstitious and anti-Christian. Public hygiene and public safety were the concerns of the state, especially in places where the civilized European ideal was challenged by indigenous and African beliefs and practices, thus the colonial bodies of 18th and early 19th century Nueva Granada had to be brought into some sort of order so that they might be controlled, and thereby, preserved.
That preservation included safeguarding hapless women from the depredations of an unacceptable un-gendered body. As much of the historiography on the hermaphrodite suggests, and as intimated by the medical experts Vila and de Isla, there was a growing tendency through the centuries in various parts of the Western world (though we understand the dangers of such generalizations) that leaned more and more to a skepticism about the existence of the hermaphrodite as this phenomenon was associated with popular religious beliefs and superstitions. This led to attempts to determine whether or not individuals with ambiguous or doubtful sexuality to use Domurat Dreger’s term, were ‘spurious’ or ‘true’ hermaphrodites (Domurat Dreger 341). Emily Donoghue argues that in England, “people who considered themselves modern dismissed the true hermaphrodite” (201). This trend continued until according to Alice Domurat Dreger, medical men essentially re-defined the hermaphrodite out of existence in their attempts to ascertain and control sexuality even in the face of its uncertainty (Domurat Dreger 335).
However, the doctors in Bogotá were conclusive. Martina Parra was a woman, in every way. Given this development in the case, the fiscal ordered that she be set free, and conveyed that order to the director of the prison on 23 December. However, he also ordered that Martina Parra be interrogated to try to get to the bottom of this case. When she was asked if she was a man or a woman, she responded un-categorically that she was a woman. Questioned about her activities with Juana Maria Martines, she denied having any sexual relationship with her, and claimed that contrary to what Martines had testified, she had never shared a room, much less a bed with her. She stated that she slept out in the stables, and had never been alone with her or had any opportunity to engage in any illicit type of relationship with her. Puzzled, the judges asked what might have been the motivation for Martines’ charges. As to that Martina Parra could not say, except that she had gone to the alcalde to instigate a process against Martines to claim a debt of 5 pesos that she was owed. Immediately after that, she was arrested on the charges of unisexual relations. The case was terminated on 22 of January when Parra was exonerated, the fiscal stating that given the results of the physical examination, there was no reason to pursue the principle charge. However the judges were not willing to simply let this go. Juana Maria Martines had taken up the court’s valuable time and had to be punished for her frivolous behavior. They charged her with false testimony and to discourage the bad example she presented they sentenced her to two months imprisonment.
The test of sexuality and gender had changed venue. While earlier cases of sexual ambiguity had been the purview of the Inquisition, in early 19th century Nueva Granada this was a question for the criminal courts, and for the medical experts. Among humble people such as Juana Maria though, there was a knowledge and fundamental basis of acceptance of things that seemed fantastical or superstitious to the elite. She sought to neutralize Martina Parra by attacking on a most intimate and personal level, and she knew that her charge would not be ignored. Willing to implicate herself by admitting collusion in such ‘unnatural’ activities, she tried to manipulate the courts to her advantage. The self-consciously modern judicial and medical elite in the colony was willing to examine the charges, but on its own terms, without the heavy overlay of religious connotation, and demonstrated its distance from traditional popular culture, even while recognizing the dangers inherent to such beliefs. We have to trust that they reported truthfully, although we must know that they may very well have seen what they expected to see, or what they wanted to see. There are many historical instances in other places when medical men simply dismissed what their senses told them because of their beliefs. Maria Juana thought that everyone would believe that Martina was a hermaphrodite, but for reasonable men, the evidence would need to be unambiguous and the likelihood of such a body was minimal.
Local elite men moved from challenging popular traditions and beliefs through violence and coercion such as the use of the inquisition, to the more ready destruction of such beliefs through examination and dismissal. The ways in which hermaphrodites were defined out of existence by either denial of the possibility of their existence, or their equation with transvestism, lesbianism or other forms of trickery demonstrates that the methods of religious, moral, social and sexual control might have changed, but their effectiveness in maintaining conformity were nonetheless secure and as oppressive as ever.
1. For contemporary issues regarding hermaphrodites see: http://www.isna.org/library/hwa, Hermaphrodites with Attitude, a journal of the Intersex Society of North America.
2. As Lisa Vollendor suggests, gradually in pre-Renaissance Europe ,” hermaphroditism moved from the arena of unusual physiology into that of unnatural or transgressive behavior” (19).
3. See Archivo Historico Nacional, Espana, Inquisiciones, Libro 1023 Relaciones de Causas Criminales de fe, Fls. 285r-288. 1680. Though the case was dismissed in 1680, the accusation had been made in 1676, so the Ximenes was transported to the Inquisition cells in Cartagena from Santa Fe de Bogotá.
4. Nudity or partial nudity was one of the marks of barbarism that the conquistadors associated with indigenous and African populations and was railed against throughout the colonial period. So we can deduce the social level to which this witness belonged. For civility and barbarism and clothing see Adrana Maria Alzate Echeverri (132).
5. Behrend-Martinez would concur that manhood was written upon the body, according to the early modern evidence he uncovered in a number of court cases dealing with hermaphrodites, castrati, and impotent men. They measured masculinity against these non-masculine bodies, by subjecting them to examinations and feminizing them even more through this process (Behrend-Martinez 1076).
6. The fact that a hermaphrodite would be a ‘monster of nature’ in the doctor’s opinion led to his refusal to accept its possibility (Few 160).
7. It is of note that this transgression of sexual norms would occur in the countryside, outside the traditional boundaries of the town, as also usually occurred when people were accosted by devils for example.
8. Testimony taken in Zipaquira on 12 November 1803.
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