Taking Possession of the New World: Powerful Female Agency of Early-Colonial Accounts of Peru

Article excerpt

As we know today, there is an ample and largely unknown textual production by wealthy and not-so-wealthy women from various ethnic groups lying in colonial Spanish American archives, apart from those written only by religious women.1 The women I refer to in this article did not choose the convent and usually became spouses, homemakers, and, many times, mothers. Because of expected women's roles in early modern Spain, scholars from various fields, such as historian Luis Martin, have regarded the first generation of non-religious Spanish, Indian, and Mestizo women in South America mainly as homemakers who facilitated daily life for their conquistador spouses and children. Proofs of service or merits, proofs of nobility, dowries, wills, and contracts for services, among other fiduciary transactions, and accounts of Indies (personal narrations of services in the colonization of the New World) showcase Spanish and Indigenous women of this period as carriers of knowledge who textualized their active presence in the process of conquest of the Americas and its subsequent colonization. This article specifically reflects on early colonial Spanish women's use of accounts of Indies addressed to the Spanish crown.

According to a number of documents found in the archives of Peru and Spain, there were at least 102 encomenderas in Peru between 1534 and 1620. Sixteenth-century encomenderas were women who had received a labor grant from the Spanish king that could include hundreds or even thousands of Indian laborers as a reward for their services, or that of their husbands, to Spain's wars of conquest. In most cases these women acted as political subjects of their time, in agreement with or in opposition to the men of their families. When faced with the large production of legal texts by encomenderas of sixteenth-century Peru, we encounter women who had access to great wealth and power in a time and space of intercultural and transcultural transitions that characterized early colonial Peru. In this new incipient colonial society in distant and oftentimes incomprehensible lands, early modern Europeans' notions of gender differences relaxed enough to allow women's agency in spheres other than domesticity. It is in the exercise of this agency--traceable in their textual production--that one can understand how these women used the means available to them not only to survive but also to build and keep a wealthy and powerful position that could be inherited by their descendants. In order to study the encomendera's agency through her texts, I follow Margarita Zamora's definition of textual agency. In Zamora's words, "agency" appears when an individual makes her or his voice heard through a text with the intention of provoking a reaction from her or his addressee (191). Women's agency is traceable also in their performance in colonial spaces constituted as "contact zones." (2) In the case of the Spanish and Inca elite women I refer to here, the encomienda and the legal documents in which they inscribed their intentions constituted sociopolitical and textual contact zones in which these women performed power and authority. In analyzing an account of Indies produced by Ines Munoz de Ribera, one of the earliest female conquistadores and encomenderas of Peru, I propose to examine women's textual agency through the use of what I call dual gendered voices, which can be understood as the application of discourses of power and local knowledge usually attributed to men but, in these cases, intermingled with discourses usually associated with female consciousness.

The last forty years of gender studies of the writings of colonial Spanish American women have focused interdisciplinary and comparative attention on texts produced on the margins of the canon of Spanish letters and not included in national histories. In the first stage of this revision, as Nancy E. van Deusen has described, scholars studied women's presence in colonial Spanish American societies by observing the separation of gender roles, however complementary, and by studying their parallelism and the ways in which features associated with masculine and feminine social behaviors were assigned to men and women, respectively ("Recent Studies on Gender Relations" 144-45). …