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

This is the fourth 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 IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V

There were some insidious ideas and attitudes that arose almost automatically in discussions of hermaphrodites, and these seem to transcend time and space. Some of these same issues arose from Martina’s case as well. One of the most prevalent notions, closely linked to the denial of ‘true’ hermaphroditism, was the suspicion of fraud, and the fear of mistaken sexuality because of the sexual danger that it represented. Thus, the alcalde sent Martina off to the corregidor and so on, because while they appeared uncertain about how to deal with this case, their intuition told them that there was a potential danger inherent to the charges against her. Furthermore, while she was imprisoned in Bogotá she was to be kept separate from the other women in the Carcel de Divorcio, to avoid any danger that they might suffer from her illicit desires and actions. It is evident from the history of cases of hermaphrodites in Spain and elsewhere that part of the challenge for accepting the possibility of intersex was the fear of deceit, of engano, and the masking of true sexuality which helped foster the notion that the hermaphrodite was deceitful, or was a transvestite, or homosexual. The leap from doubtful sexuality to transgressive sexuality was a short one and appears to have been almost automatic. [1]

In a striking teleology, hermaphrodites were painted as deceitful by nature. Since their very existence was disputed by many, their physical ambiguity had to be linked to fraud, because their gender was so unclear. It was reasonable and convenient to conclude that the hermaphrodite was simply a woman using some sort of prosthetic, or instrument to simulate the male member, as Ygnacia had allegedly done in Zipaquira. As the Corregidor essentially suggested in his informe, it was easier to believe that a deceitful woman was servicing susceptible women with a dildo rather than to acknowledge the existence of hermaphroditism or same-sex desire between women as a possibility. In much the same way, in the celebrated case of Eleno/Elena de Cespedes in 16th century Spain it was more convenient to conclude that a deceitful woman had used a pact with the devil to fool all of the women he had had as lovers, including his wife, as well as the highest medical establishment in the Empire.[2]

This most renown case of a Spanish hermaphrodite, of Eleno/a de Cespedes has been the subject of much analysis, most recently by Israel Burshatin and Lisa Vollendor.[3] This fascinating tale of ingenuity and ambition takes on epic proportions when we consider that Elena, identified as a female at birth, married a man, gave birth to a son, subsequently changed his sex and gender, experiencing the emergence of his male genitalia in the travails of child birth, and lived for over twenty years as a man, finally marrying a woman, Maria Cano.

Most of the analysis of cases such as this one revolves around the performance of gender against the standard expectations of anatomy as a map for both sexuality and gender. Eleno’s case is redolent of transformation as his gender and sexual orientation changed. Even if we agree with the inquisition judges that he was never a man, but a woman disguising himself as a man, the audacity of her same sex desire remains equally breathtaking. Not only did he shift from female to male, woman to man, but he was able to transcend his earlier life as a slave even though it was inscribed on his body, in the colour of his skin, as he was mulatto, as well as in the slave mark branded upon his face. Eventually, it is argued, it was his caste and race that would lead the inquisition judges to deny his claims to manhood, even if they had to dispute the findings of many respected doctors who had previously examined him and had pronounced him to be male. In point of fact, Eleno’s slave birth, his race, his social mobility as he rose within the textile trade and became a surgeon, all of these boundaries he crossed would mark him as a potential danger to the norms in which authorities like the Inquisition judges were heavily invested. Thus, we can understand that in spite of his eloquent self-defense and learned claims to the identity of a hermaphrodite who had chosen the male gender; and in spite of his very masculine performance as a soldier, a surgeon, a lover of women, and a married man, he would receive no quarter. In the end he was found guilty of the charge of mocking marriage, (since the Inquisition in Toledo had no jurisdiction to try cases of sodomy which was a necessary corollary of his fraud) he was stripped of his manhood, flogged 200 lashes in public, condemned to 10 years imprisonment as free female labour in a hospital, and denounced as a woman who was a burladora, a trickster who used her pact with the devil to trick other women into succumbing to her wiles.[4]

Another well-known case of Spanish cross-dressing and trans-sexuality was the case of Catalina Erauso, la monja, alferez, the lieutenant nun. In a compelling juxtaposition of the lives of Eleno and Catalina, Chloe Rutter-Jenson argues that the critical difference between the two cases is that Catalina effected her sexual transformation through a narrative operation, while she remained essentially a non-sexual being, having maintained her virginity. She essentially talked herself into being male, but of course, the narrative derived from her performance as a male soldier and conquistador in the New World.[5] Catalina escaped from a convent, disguised herself as a man and made her way through life performing an aggressive masculinity until she faced a death sentence for murder. She only unmasked her gender sleight of hand to save her life. And, sure enough her strategy worked. She denounced her transvestism to the archbishop of Mexico who had her examined by trustworthy matrons who discovered that not only was Antonio Erauso a woman, but a virgin at that. For Rutter-Jenson the fact of her virginity rendered Erauso’s behavior acceptable. She subsequently went to Spain and petitioned the king for a pension, which she was granted as a former soldier, then she went to Rome and received permission from the pope to dress as a man, to return to Mexico City and live her life out as a transvestite but with the ambiguous la monja alferez attached to her name. For Burshatin, this success was a function of her whiteness, her good birth, and her family’s wealth, while Rutter-Jenson argues that her virginity turned her into an a-sexual, non-threatening being, and thus her service to the crown and church could be rewarded by granting entry into manhood. [6] In this instance the pen went hand in hand with the sword. In writing the narrative of her exploits as a man, she provided the vehicle to transform her body into that of a man, if only metaphorically, but with tangible concrete effects. Meanwhile Elano, who had actually used his skills and knowledge as a surgeon to physically change his body into an acceptable male form, would not be allowed the same possibility.

A concomitant of this attitude was that suspected hermaphrodites, or transvestites, or lesbians, all grouped together with a persistent common stain of inequity and wrongdoing, were not to be taken at their word. Their bodies had to be examined and interpreted by the authorities, and by the time we get to the 19th century, the midwives and surgeons who previously might have undertaken those exams had been replaced by bona fide doctors such as the two who examined Martina in Bogotá, Miguel de Isla and Honorato Vila. Thus, in her own declaration Martina stated that she was a woman, however nobody bothered to ask her until she had been examined by the learned doctors. It was only after the medical men had affirmed that she was unambiguously a woman that she could be trusted to answer this question truthfully, and her self-identification as a woman could be trusted.

On 20 of December the escrivano receptor of the audiencia went to the Carcel de Divorcio, where Martina was being kept in isolation, to protect the other women from her potential desires. He was accompanied by the two medical experts who subjected her to a physical examination. These two were the maestro don Miguel Ysla and don Honorato Vila, both doctors and they undertook the examination after taking the accustomed oaths. Their report indicated that they had carefully examined Martina Parra, who was suspected of having the sexual organs of the male sex as well as the female sex and they both concluded that she only had the characteristics that belonged to a woman, with all of their natural perfection, and location as far as they could tell from their observation and tactile examination. They claimed that she had no sign whatsoever of the sexual organs of a male although they did mention that the clitoris could acquire length and become harder depending on age and concupiscence, as described by surgeons and authors of books of anatomy. However, they suggested, there was no evidence of this type of ‘abuse’ on Martina’s body, although they could not state this absolutely since her clitoris was naturally hidden and only showed when engaged in the carnal act.[7] One of the shifts in authority that is made evident in this case is that the suspected hermaphrodite had to be sent to the doctors in the capital to be examined. Though the professionalization of medicine in Nueva Granada was a slow process, impeded by the lack of a public university with a faculty of medicine, according to some critics, still there was the possibility of studying medicine in the Colegio del Rosario, the Thomistic University.[8] Notwithstanding this, by the end of the 18th century, the two doctors who examined Parra were well known and recognized for their expertise in the vice-regal capital. They were often called upon by crown authorities to present their theories and ideas about how best to deal with particular challenges to public health, including the perpetual question of the threat of leprosy, as well as at times of more immediate danger, such as during epidemics like that of viruelas in 1782 and early 19th century.[9] However, they were also useful in dealing with aberrant bodies, such as Martina’s as she seemingly defied social sexual norms.[10]


[1] Mann, pp. 88-89, Reis, p. 427, Vollandor, p. 19.

[2] See Israel Burshatin, “Interrogating Hermaphroditism in 16th century Spain, in Robert McKee Irwin and Silvia Mollow eds. Hispanisms and Homosexualities, 1998, 3-18, and Israel Burshatin “Written on the Body Slave or Hermaphrodite in 16th century Spain” in Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson eds. Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, 1999, 420-456, and Chloe Rutter-Jenson, “La transformación transatlantica de la monja alferez,” Revista de Estudios Sociales, No. 28, dic. 2007, p. 91.

[3] Ibid, and Vollandor, op.cit.

[4] See Vollendor, p. 91, Burshatin, Interrogating Hermaphroditism, p. 14, and Leibacher-Ouvard, p. 128.

[5] Rutter-Jenson, p.87.

[6] Burshatin, Interrogating Hermaphroditism, p. 13 and Rutter-Jenson, p. 92.

[7] AGN, Colonia, Criminales, Tomo 96. fl. 222r.

[8] Marcelo Frías Núñez, Enfermedad y suciedad en la crisis colonial del Antiguo Régimen, Consejo superior de investigaciones Cientificas, Madrid: 1992, pp. 117-118. For the case of Lima, see also José Ramon Jouve Martín, The black doctors of colonial Lima: science, race, and writing in colonial and early Republican Peru. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal : 2014.

[9] Ibid, p. 118 and Alzate Echeverri, p. 169.

[10] Pilar Gardeta Sabater, Sebastian Jose Lopez Ruiz (1741-1832)- Sus escritos medicos y el ejercicio de la medicina en el Virreinato de Nueva Granada durante la segunda mitad del siglo XVIII, Textos minimos, Universidad de Malaga, 1996, p. 40.

Suggested citation: Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body?, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 02/03/2018,

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