Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800

By Daniela Bleichmar; Paula De Vos et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Medical Mestizaje and the Politics
of Pregnancy in Colonial Guatemala,
1660–1730

MARTHA FEW

Pregnancy and childbirth were significant events in the lives of families and communities in colonial Latin America. To have a notably difficult pregnancy at a critical moment—one that resulted in a deformed birth for example, or that led to a postpartum illness in the mother—would be seen as especially significant.1 This essay considers a series of community conflicts over difficult pregnancies between 1660 and 1730 in Santiago de Guatemala, capital city of colonial Central America, and the primarily indigenous surrounding towns.2 In each instance, a difficult pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, stillbirth, or deformed birth or led to long-term illness, insanity, or the death of the mother. Family members, husbands, neighbors, employers, community elders, priests, and the pregnant women themselves contested the causes and meanings of problem pregnancies and their outcomes in gendered and racial terms. Participants made claims that a female midwife / ritual specialist, usually an indigenous or casta (mixed-race) woman described in the sources as “witch” and “sorcerer,” cast an illness in order to intervene in a pregnancy and subvert it.

Debates surrounding difficult pregnancies and their interpretations form a central but often overlooked part of the larger history of reproduction and women’s health in colonial Latin America.3 This is in spite of the fact that from the mid-seventeenth century on, key institutions of

The History Department at the University of Arizona provided funding to help support
this research.

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