Latin-American Women Writers: Class, Race, and Gender

By Myriam Yvonne Jehenson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 1 Latin American Women/ Women in Latin America

Women were essential to the development of the new culture in the centuries that witnessed the conquest of Latin America. Emigration to the "New World," however, was tightly controlled by the Spanish Crown and few Spanish women, particularly the unmarried, were granted permission to depart. 1 Isabel de Guevara's 1556 letter to the Spanish queen, referring to an attempt to establish a settlement in the Rio de la Plata area of Argentina in 1536-7, describes the arduous nature such a journey required of women who emigrated to the New World:

So great was the famine that at the end of three months a thousand [men] perished.... The men became so weak that the poor women had to do all their work; they had to wash their clothes, and care for them when sick, cook the little food they had; stand sentinel, care for the watch-fires and prepare the cross-bows when the Indians attacked, and even fire the petronels; to give the alarm, crying out for all our strength, to drill and put the soldiers in good order, for at that time we women, as we did not require so much food, had not fallen into the same state of weakness as the men. Your Highness will understand that had it not been for the care and the solicitude that we had for them they would have all died. 2

Since most of the settlers did not have their wives available either as sexual partners or as helpers in daily domestic chores, they began to mate with Indian women and to place them in their homes as concubines or unpaid servants. 3 Though nominally free and under royal protection, Indians generally enjoyed a status not much different from slavery. Women, in particular, suffered the indignities of being bought and sold like property, even rented to sailors making journeys to and from Peru. They were sexually assaulted by blacks and whites, and abducted by government officials and priests. 4 Used for heavy labor, Indian women were sepa


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