Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body? Part I

Mid-nineteenth century map of Nueva Granada. Source:; public domain.

Renée Soulodre-La France has kindly agreed to have her article ‘What is in a body?’ republished via this blog. It originally appeared online in La Habana Elegante – Revista de literatura y cultura cubana, caribeña, latinoamericana, y de estética ( and is republished here in full as a series of five posts, with minor additions and corrections. For a short notice on other findings on ‘hermaphrodites’ in Nueva Granada, also have a look at an earlier post on this blog:

What is in a body? Hermaphrodites and Late Colonial Order in Nueva Granada

by Renée Soulodre-La France

King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario

“…[Q]ue reconosca[n] a la Parra y que decierna[n] lo que hay en ella” was the challenge tossed to the learned men in more sophisticated centers than the small town of Zipaquira by the corregidor as he sought to avoid the troublesome and troubling case of Martina Parra’s sexuality and gender in early 19th century Colombia.[1] The question of how to “examine her and discern what there is in her” seemed a complex one in the face of accusations of physical anomaly, ambiguous sexuality, possible lesbianism, and moral and sexual deceit. The subject in question was Martina Parra, sent to the corregidor of Zipaquira by the alcalde of Suesca in 1803, suspected of being a hermaphrodite and of having lived an impure life with Juana Maria Martines. In fact, the original charge by the alcalde was that of having engaged in unisexual relations with another woman and, subsequently and rather contradictorily, for being considered a hermaphrodite. The corregidor decided that Parra should be sent to Santa Fé de Bogotá because in Zipaquira he simply did not have the faculties to examine her and to discover conclusively “what there was in her”. Martina Parra’s body would be the stage upon which the celebrated modern doctors of Bogotá could perform their enlightened examinations dispelling the fearful anomalies presented by an ambiguous body and an irregular or baroque sexuality.

Attitudes towards hermaphroditism and intersexuality would follow the typical contours that shaped notions of natural and morally acceptable sexuality in Europe and its colonial settings. These would see interpretations of hermaphrodites based upon ancient ideas about sexuality, through a religious, Christian view, through notions of ambiguity or anomaly as monstrosity, linked typically to moral and social transgression, and through scientific inquiry that helped to define physical non-conformity out of existence and which has prevailed, in some cases tragically, into the 20th century. [2] In the Spanish colonies, through the shifts of the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially with the influence of the Bourbon Reforms upon questions of reason and order, as well as their impact on attitudes towards the physical, mystical and/or spiritual, we can trace a shift in the way physical or sexual anomalies such as in the case of hermaphrodites, were considered and addressed by various layers of colonial authorities. As the medical profession established ever firmer parameters for its field of operations, popular ideas about the human body and sexuality were subjected to the test of that medical gaze and interpretive realignments were imposed upon cases like that of Martina Parra. Even within this modern application of reasoned medical interpretation though, there was still room for fear of the unusual, the different, or monstrous, the anomaly, and thus popular understandings of that fear could stimulate the colonial legal system into action, striking quickly to remove or mitigate the effects of such nonconformity upon the body social. Explanatory paradigms were at times reconfigured more readily among elite groups in the colonies, as evidenced by the growing gap between what the common folk- often characterized by racial distance as well as socio-economic difference-believed, and the attitudes manifested by the experts called upon to testify about those unusual possibilities. However, humble people still understood very well that accusations of dangerous differences would be dealt with seriously even if they defied the understandings of colonial authorities.[3]


This is the first of five blog-posts going back to an article which originally appeared online in La Habana Elegante – Revista de literatura y cultura cubana, caribeña, latinoamericana, y de estética (

Part I (this post)

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V



[1] Archivo General de la Nación, (hereafter AGN) Colombia, Colonia, Criminales, Tomo 96, fl. 220r. This quotation is from the case Causa Criminal contra Martina Parra por hermafrodita y haver estado amancebada con Juana Maria Martinez-Suesca-Secretario don Tavera Ano de 1803, fls. 217-226.

[2] For contemporary issues regarding hermaphrodites see:, Hermaphrodites with Attitude, a journal of the Intersex Society of North America.

[3] As Lisa Vollendor suggests, gradually in pre-Renaissance Europe “, hermaphroditism moved from the arena of unusual physiology into that of unnatural or transgressive behavior.” The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitional Spain, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2005 p. 19.



Suggested citation: Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body?, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 19/02/2018,

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reneesoulodrelafrance (2018, 19. Februar). Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body? Part I. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

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