Susan Socolow’s The Women of Colonial Latin America (2000) takes a look at the lives of Creole, Indigenous, African, and multiracial women in colonial Spanish and Portuguese America. It highlights the role intersectionality played on determining some of the possible life outcomes of women, with special focus on race, class, location, and of course, gender. While reading this book, I focused on the different expectations and backgrounds of women based on their racial classification. Below I highlight some of the main points.

The arrival of Creole women to the Americas was believed to allow for the transformation of the Indies into permanent colonies and introduce Iberian cultural values. Though they were seen as of high social status, they often had no power of their own. The men controlled the businesses and income and they were often seen as the responsibilities of their husband or father. However, they were able to command power over Indigenous and African women. Having more female slaves accompany you was seen as a marker of high social status.

The indigenous population most likely had the most dramatic change due to colonization; “The Indian world was conquered, dismantled, and restricted according to the conqueror’s vision.” Some became slaves and others integrated themselves into European society. The latter didn’t do so without facing resistance from both sides. Malintzin (or Malinche). the Mayan mistress of Cortes, is still widely known as a traitor today, and she was not deemed fit enough to marry Cortes himself (although he did provide a Spanish husband for her). The stabilization of colonies, the arrival of more Iberian women, and an intensified importance of race, it became more difficult for Indian women to marry Spanish men. They were usually kept as concubines and mistresses at best, or were sexually assaulted or abused both by Spaniards and Africans.

For black Americans, slavery erased the ethnic and cultural ties that those born in Africa had, as when they were captured, they were often brought over with others from various regions that didn’t share their culture or language. It was even more unlikely that they would meet someone from their hometown in the New World that they could keep up their traditions with. This may be one of the reasons why they were relatively quick to adapt to the American culture; it provided a way for them to connect with others again. Moreover, unlike indigenous women, those of African descent were more likely to have closer daily contact with creoles. They usually worked in the domestic sphere in urban settings and thus were privy to the private lives of their masters.

These different experiences and the way in which women adopted culture, were predominantly shaped by the color of their skin. Such differences during the colonial period have left a noticeable racial disparity today.

Socolow, S. (2000). The Women of Colonial Latin America (New Approaches to the Americas). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840074