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Colonial Mexican Women in Bigamy Cases: A New Way to Examine Women in Past Societies

Rebeca Martínez-Tibbles | University of California, Los Angeles



“El amor todas las cosas vence. / Love conquers all things.”

 

Fernando de Rojas, La Celestina  (1499)


What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a colonial Mexican woman? Perhaps an indigenous woman or a Spanish woman. If you are well-read on the topic, maybe a mestiza (a woman of mixed indigenous and European descent) or a mulata (a woman of mixed European and African descent). Perhaps a nun. It is unlikely you would think of a bigamist, an individual married multiple times. Despite the rarity of multiple marriages in our modern world, bigamy occurred frequently in Spanish America in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Historical records of bigamists can be found in abundance in archives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico and Spain.

 

The sources referenced in this article are from bigamy Inquisition cases that I retrieved and read during archival trips to the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City and the Archivo Histórico Nacional (AHN) in Madrid, Spain, between 2022 and 2023. In total, I retrieved 16 female bigamy cases from the sixteenth century, 66 cases from the seventeenth century, and 169 cases from the eighteenth century, resulting in a grand total of 251 female bigamy cases. The majority of bigamy Inquisition cases held by these institutions prosecute men (a couple thousand, as a rough estimate), yet plenty of cases can be found against women too. My numbers reflect only a sample; more female bigamy Inquisition cases remain at the AGN and AHN. However, historians have chosen not to focus on female bigamists in colonial Mexico and have missed critical details from these rich sources. Bigamy cases involving women who married two or more times provide invaluable information on how a diverse population of women asserted control over their marital and romantic lives.



In 1521, Hernán Cortés and a troop of Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City), the Aztec capital. The conquistadors quickly forced the native peoples to accept Catholicism. Soon after, Dominican and Franciscan friars traveled to New Spain (the viceroyalty, now modern Mexico) to try and convert the local population. Then, in 1571, the Spanish established a Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City. This institution traced its origins to medieval Spain and operated independently and separately from other secular legal institutions of Spanish America, such as the Audiencia and the Cabildo, the high court of justice and administration, and the local governing body in towns and cities. The Inquisition of Mexico City focused on abolishing heresy as its primary objective, but it also spent much of its time punishing people for smaller crimes against the faith as a form of social control.


The crimes considered most heretical by the Holy Office of the Inquisition included the practice of Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, false mysticism, and heretical propositions. Individuals accused of these crimes could face the most severe punishments designated by the institution, such as torture and execution, although these occurred far less in the colonies compared to in Spain. However, bigamy was considered a minor offense in the eyes of the Holy Office, along with blasphemy, superstitions, and nefarious sins. These lesser crimes resulted in punishments such as fines, banishment, and lashes. It is important to note that the Inquisition did make exceptions to these punishments, as we will see later.



In the seventeenth century, the demography of the viceroyalty reflected a racially mixed society. Indigenous people still made up the majority of the population, yet by 1650, many Spaniards and people of African descent had settled in the region. Miscegenation, or racial mixing, occurred as a result. In order to understand and control mixing between ethnic groups, the Spaniards devised a hierarchical system called the sistema de castas (the caste system), which was based on how much Spanish ‘blood’ an individual had. The system placed Spaniards at the top, followed by people of mixed descent, indigenous people, and people of African descent. The more Spanish a person was, the more advantages they had in Spanish American society. Thus, Spanish women became the gold standard for femininity. As such, gender standards from Iberia and Catholicism, such as chastity, devotion, submission to men, and respect for parental authority, became expected of all women. Unsurprisingly, Spanish officials stereotyped women of indigenous and African descent as more susceptible to delinquency, superstition, and promiscuousness.


Despite these standards, women from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds committed bigamy in colonial Mexico. Spanish women traveled to colonial Mexico to start new lives, abandoning their families and marriages in Spain. In this new territory, Spanish women would be favoured and opportunities could be abundant. Many women of mixed descent chose not to tolerate abuse and left abusive husbands to find new companions with some having several affairs with other men before marrying a second time. Women of African descent re-married men in the upper echelons of society out of love and social movement. These cases offer fascinating, and at times very detailed, glimpses into the sexual lives of everyday colonial Mexican women that have rarely been discussed. It is time to stop thinking about the majority of women from past societies as submissive to the powers that governed.



Let us turn to two Inquisition bigamy cases retrieved from the AGN in Mexico City. In 1780, a young Spanish woman named María Guadalupe Delgadillo from Tepexpan, a town right outside of Mexico City, committed bigamy at the age of 20. In her case, she revealed that she married too young for her liking (age 15) and did not like the marital selection made by her parents. Her father, husband, and brothers repeatedly gave her unwanted advice about her marriage and encouraged her to obey every demand made by her spouse. After 10 months of presumably unhappy matrimony, Delgadillo fled and relocated to Mexico City. Her first husband later found her, brought her back to Tepexpan where she resided with him for two years and then fled again! This time she got away for four years until her aunts found her in the city and returned her to her husband once more. After a final flee, Delgadillo escaped and remarried. She claimed that the controlling men in her life caused her such grave distress; she had no other option than to abandon her first husband and the life they had. She received no formal punishments for her crime.


The Inquisition bigamy case of a woman of mixed African descent offers a different perspective. In 1781, the Inquisition called forth María Filomena Tabares (this period had many Marías; bear with me!), a thirty-one-year-old mulata who faced the crime of bigamy in the small town of Villa de los Lagos, Jalisco (a western state of now contemporary Mexico). She fled her first marriage because her husband would violently reprimand her, a common occurrence in Spanish American unions. She eventually remarried a man who never raised a hand to her (the case did not mention it, at least). However, one striking difference between Tabares’ case and that of Delgadillo’s was the torture the Inquisitors used against Tabares in their investigation. Rarely does torture appear in cases of bigamy as stated above, yet María Filomena Tabares endured this archaic and painful punishment for a non-severe crime. Although the reasons for this measure are not explicitly stated in the case, there is a high likelihood that this harsher practice occurred because of Tabares’ mixed African ancestry. No Spanish woman to date in my research of bigamy cases has received torture. From my investigations, women of African descent appear to have endured harsher trials in comparison to mixed indigenous women and Spanish women.


 

These case studies are only a sample of the hundreds of female bigamy cases that exist from colonial Mexico. Bigamy inquisitorial records offer so much insight into women’s lives.

Examining female bigamy records from colonial Mexico offers critical perspectives that serve to contextualize and challenge our existing knowledge about women and multiple marriages. The topic has historically exhibited a bias towards male-centric narratives. This historical approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of women and marriage, shedding light on the experiences of women that may have been marginalized or overlooked in conventional historical analyses. It is true that colonial Mexican women experienced life under a heavily Catholic and patriarchal society, yet they resisted and defied societal norms and gender expectations. Bigamy cases are an excellent resource that allows us to observe how women took control of their romantic lives. We can also observe how colonial institutions treated women of varying social and ethnic status quite differently. I encourage others to consider using similar sources to research women from other societies across time and space. A myriad of discoveries and insights remain to be uncovered on women in colonial Mexico and elsewhere.

 

Further Reading:


  • Richard Boyer, Lives of the Bigamists: Marriage, Family, and Community in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995).

  • Cook and Cook, Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

  • Julia Tuñón Pablos, Women in Mexico a Past Unveiled (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).


Rebeca Martínez-Tibbles is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Los Angeles specializing in women in colonial Mexico. Her current research and dissertation project focuses on women and bigamy in colonial Mexico from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

 

LinkedIn: Rebeca Martinez

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