Academic journal article Ethnology

Sexual Magic and Money: Miskitu Women's Strategies in Northern Honduras

Academic journal article Ethnology

Sexual Magic and Money: Miskitu Women's Strategies in Northern Honduras

Article excerpt

This article highlights Afro-indigenous Miskitu women's position and agency on the increasingly cash-oriented Miskitu Coast (northeastern Honduras). While Miskitu men (the main breadwinners) work as deep-water lobster divers, women live in matrilocal groups and use sexual magic to beguile men into giving them their earnings. The women's discourse of sexual magic contests, but does not subvert, the male-dominant gender ideology of the lobster-diving economy. Nevertheless, Miskitu women have refashioned their gender identities, and their views of money, into empowering and strategic practices for domestic security. (Gender, magic, money, women's strategies)


Afro-indigenous Miskitu men along the Honduran Caribbean coast work as deepwater lobster divers and provide the principal means of support to matrilocal households, where Miskitu women utilize sexual magic (plant-based, supernatural potions) in an attempt to control men and their money. Ethnohistorians Conzemius (1932:145) and Helms (1971:86) have reported the historic use of sexual magic among Miskitu women and men to win the affection of someone they desired. This article reports for the first time the Miskitu women's strategic use of sexual magic to gain access to men's wages.

The research draws primarily from a feminist perspective, focusing on Miskitu women's position in society and the strategies they use to garner resources and power (Lamphere, et al. 1997). Field research (1997-98, 2001) in the village of Kuri, in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), an environmentally protected area that was established UNESCO's Man and Biosphere (MAB) program in 1980, combined participant-observation and household interviews with the collection of supernatural potions.

Men's participation in migrant wage-labor in the lobster diving industry has given them access to cash resources that are not, for the most part, available to women. The fact that men alone earn wages establishes men's power and a male-dominant gender ideology in Miskitu society, and women must use their own resources (particularly with magic potions) to survive in a progressively monetized economy. This analysis asks whether Platano Miskitu women's use of sexual magic is a form of resistance to patriarchal ideologies fostered by the lobster-diving economy. While overstating the trivial as forms of resistance is problematic in anthropology (Brown 1996; Goldstein 2003), viewing sexual magic within this paradigm should not be ignored when resistance appears to be a useful way to understand Miskitu women's voices. Indeed, research on indigenous and Afro-Caribbean religions in Middle America, such as hechiceria (witchcraft) in Latin America (Behar 1987, 1989; Romanucci-Ross 1993; Rosenbaum 1996; Quezada 1984, 1989) and obeah, Santeria, and voodou in the Caribbean (Bush 1990), has viewed magic as resistance to colonial society's racist, class, and sexist structures.


Male Breadwinners

During the colonial era, Afro-indigenous Miskitu society developed along with foreign economies. For the last two hundred years, Miskitu peoples participated in agricultural and migrant wage-labor economies. International companies have used Miskitu men as wage laborers to extract local resources, including gold, bananas, sea turtles, and most recently, shrimp, conch, and lobsters, in a series of boom and bust economic periods (Helms 1971; Herlihy 2005:36).

Platano Miskitu men have worked for the last 40 years as deep-water lobster divers on boats owned by businessmen from the Honduran Bay Islands (Roattan, Guanaja, and Utila). The lobsters they extract from Caribbean reefs are exported to the United States. Research has documented the health hazards that lobster divers (buzos) experience. Boats lack decompression chambers and safe diving equipment, and divers have poor training and living conditions (Herlihy 2002a, 2005; Dodds 1998; Nietschmann 1997; Meltzoff, et al. …

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