The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Percussive Impacts of Colonialism: Womens' Struggles in Spanish America

Colonial Spanish America was a harsh, competitive, abject environment where wealth, class, and race played prominent roles in the structures of power. In a place where marriage was often political and economic, love and honest social relationships, especially among the elite, were hard to come by. Indigenous and Mestiza women, however, faced tumultuous social and economic struggles, internal mental and emotional conflicts, and a lack of control over their own destiny. Though often portrayed through a “victim/whore” paradigm, the barrage of hardships and contradictions which plagued these women was far more complex and diverse in nature (Powers 69). The psychological trauma of indigenous noblewomen, the separation of children from “wayward” native mothers, the lack of economic and social support from Spanish fathers, the purposeful failure of “legitimizing” mestizo children, and the inability of women to rise up through the social ladder were all fundamental challenges which native and mestizo women faced. Karen Powers, in Women in the Crucible of Conquest, succinctly outlines the multifaceted social and economic roles women of different race and class played, as well as the countless inequalities they faced in a world where love and affection was replaced with subservience and daily struggle.

In the highly stratified native societies, such as within the Inca Empire, women were often forced to marry friendly tribal leaders in order to secure political loyalty. This tradition was also attempted by many indigenous nobles to pacify the Spanish and establish political links with them through fixed marriages (Powers 72). The early conquistadors, however, often simply viewed this as “an opportunity to receive sexual services without a marital commitment” or to “accumulate…enough material resources to move up the social ladder” since these were generally native heiresses who would receive a significant portion of their noble relatives estate. Using these women, with or without regard to their feelings, granted early Spanish settlers enough capital (both material resources and sometimes labor, as well) to establish themselves in some “lucrative trade,” such as mining or textile production (Powers 73). These forced marriages within native societies must have been hard enough on noblewomen whose relationships with men were predetermined, regardless of whether or not they felt affection for them; yet, as Powers notes, the psychological costs for these women, “who found themselves in intimate relationships, at times against their will, with…men who had brutally killed their fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles,” must have been extreme (Powers 75). “World straddling,” as Powers calls it, must have caused prodigious internal dilemmas and onerous identity crises for indigenous women (Powers 76).

As sexual encounters increased between the Spanish men and native females, they gave birth to mixed children known as Mestizos. One of the vilest and despicable acts committed against native women must have been the forced separation from their Mestizo children. This common, often permanent, separation was often a result of the Spanish father’s desire to properly indoctrinate their children into social conformity with Iberian culture; the children were often raised by “proper” Spanish women, with whom the father would marry after leaving the native mother. The separation, Powers argues, most likely stemmed from the “Iberian practice of dispossessing ‘wayward’ women of their children.” These odious severances undoubtedly had pernicious mental and emotional impacts of both the women and the children. Indigenous women were stripped, in a sort of “double jeopardy,” of their right to raise the very children they gave birth to by the dominant Spanish view of inferiority directed against both their race and gender (Powers 78).

Due to the general paucity of Spanish-born women in the colonies, males often resorted to marrying mestiza women and raising them to accept and embrace Spanish culture. Until the increased migration of Spanish women in the 1550’s until the late sixteenth century into Colonial Spanish America, Mestiza women acted as substitutes for cultured Spanish women so that Iberian society could “reproduce…both biologically and culturally (Powers 82). In order to raise mestizas in the proper way, however, they had to be raised “to believe that their own mothers and their mothers’ culture were not worthy models for their formation” (Powers 80). Sometimes these children were stripped away from their mothers and sent to Iberia, but more often than not they were simply kept away from their mothers and raised in the New World (Powers 81).

These “accepted” children, however, were generally the experiences of only the first Mestizas. After the increase of Spanish and Creole women in the colonies, mestizos of both genders were quickly degraded in status. Fathers often had sexual relationships with mestiza women but refused to legitimate the offspring, male or female. This process was common in urban areas, where males had informal relationships with mestizas, but it ossified into an almost universal rule in rural areas (Powers 84). Spanish men, viewing mestiza and native women as inferior, felt no need to provide care, socially or financially, for their illegitimate children. The upside, however, was that women were no longer separated from their children and could raise them with some semblance of their true culture and identity; however, without any sort of financial aid or support, women often found themselves in seemingly inauspicious positions. The brutal reality of the cut-throat, gender prejudiced colonial society was all too real for mothers who were undoubtedly placed against nearly impossible odds.

During the onset of the seventeenth century the crown began to pass “a barrage of legislation intended to limit the privileges of the racially mixed population” (Powers 89). The crown passed segregation laws which proscribed different races from mingling and attempted to force a rigid racial structure along class lines. Doctrines of racial purity became prominent and, despite not having a prodigious impact on the amount of sexual encounters between Spanish men and women of color, it, along with forbidding the inheritance of encomiendas to mestizo children, drastically increased the amount of “illegitimate” children (Powers 89). Legal segregation helped create a racist, sexist, and class-based atmosphere where “Spaniards married other Spaniards more than 90 percent of the time”; neither mestiza nor indigenous women were considered “desirable” as marriage partners, despite high rates of informal relationships (Powers 90). Thus, mestiza women were often left to languish in a state of vacillation between extramarital relations with Spanish men, which offered only an extremely slight chance at upward social mobility, and the potential for serious relationships to develop with mestiza men. They faced a heart-wrenching quandary of hopelessly trying to move up the social ladder or augmenting a loving, caring relationship with men of their own race and class. Either path they chose, they were often condemned to a life of hardship and struggle.

Thus, white men, born with the privilege of both a higher class and racial position in the social ladder, were able to skillfully manipulate their power; “servants, slaves, encomienda Indians, or employees of their Spanish consorts” were often targets of powerful Spanish men who wished to engage in extramarital relationships. Often, “these women were raped,…consented out of fear or desire…[or] sought out relationships with Spaniards to improve their own and their children’s status” (Powers 91). It is true that in some cases love and passion may have impinged on the social institutions and produced an equitable, reciprocal relationship; however, these were anomalies in an otherwise highly stratified, racist society. As Powers delineates, “Indian and casta women became prey to Spanish male desires without reciprocal obligations of marriage” (Powers 92). Early indigenous women were forced to “straddle worlds” and sleep with men who were responsible for the destruction of their culture and world, first generation mestizas were separated from their native mothers and assimilated into the Spanish world for demographic reasons, and later mestizas declined drastically in social status and were forced to raise their children on their own, without the help of the Spanish fathers. Both native and mestiza women faced immense challenges throughout the colonial world, and it would be credulous to believe that Spanish colonialism was anything other than baneful for the overwhelming majority of Indian women.

Karen Viera Powers, Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500-1600, Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

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