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

This is the last 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

The temporal context for this case is rendered more intelligible given the influence of the enlightenment and the twin objectives of colonial authorities to reform society by civilizing the population while simultaneously solidifying its Christian morality. These improvements were necessary because of the multiracial and multiethnic colonial population’s unruliness, and would be achieved through the exercise of control over colonized bodies.[1] Issues regarding the body were directly relevant to religion and to proper Christian behaviour, which in turn had a major impact upon medicinal practices as performed by traditional and ethnically diverse practitioners.[2] The strategy to subject the population while simultaneously uplifting it focused upon the body, its behaviour, its contours, and its regulation in a form of bio-politics as has been suggested by Foucault.[3] The irony in this of course was that through the 18th century and long into the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority of the masses had no access to the medical expertise that was called upon to judge them.[4]

Enlightened understandings of medicine and health, whether physical, political, or spiritual and moral, led many of the elite to associate good health with order, in both the individual body and the body politic. Therefore, experts were consulted about the best way to make the cities more secure for citizens including protecting them from epidemics, even in spite of themselves. Thus, the surgeon barbers, the midwives, the curanderos, the witches, were denounced as charlatans that preyed upon the common ignorance of the plebe, and their practices were decried as superstitious and anti-Christian. Public hygiene and public safety were the concerns of the state, especially in places where the civilized European ideal was challenged by indigenous and African beliefs and practices, thus the colonial bodies of 18th and early 19th century Nueva Granada had to be brought into some sort of order so that they might be controlled, and thereby, preserved.

That preservation included safeguarding hapless women from the depredations of an unacceptable (un)gendered body. As much of the historiography on the hermaphrodite suggests, and as intimated by the medical experts Vila and de Isla, there was a growing tendency through the centuries in various parts of the Western world (though we understand the dangers of such generalizations) that leaned more and more to a skepticism about the existence of the hermaphrodite as this phenomenon became ever more associated with popular religious beliefs and superstitions. This led to attempts to determine whether or not individuals with ambiguous or doubtful sexuality, to use Domurat Dreger’s term, were ‘spurious’ or ‘true’ hermaphrodites.[5] Emily Donoghue argues that in England, “people who considered themselves modern dismissed the true hermaphrodite.”[6] This trend continued until according to Alice Domurat Dreger, medical men essentially re-defined the hermaphrodite out of existence in their attempts to ascertain and control sexuality even in the face of its uncertainty.[7]

However, the doctors in Bogotá were conclusive. Martina Parra was a woman, in every way. Given this development in the case, the fiscal ordered that she be set free, and conveyed that order to the director of the prison on 23 December. However, he also ordered that Martina Parra be interrogated to try to get to the bottom of this case. When she was asked if she was a man or a woman, she responded firmly that she was a woman. Questioned about her activities with Juana Maria Martines, she denied having any sexual relationship with her and claimed that contrary to what Martines had testified, she had never shared a room, much less a bed with her. She stated that she slept in the stable and had never been alone with her or had any opportunity to engage in any illicit type of relationship with her. Puzzled, the judges asked what might have been the motivation for Martines’ charges. To that query Martina Parra responded she could not say. But, she added, she had gone to the alcalde to instigate a process against Martines to claim a debt of 5 pesos that she was owed. Immediately after having made the claim, she was arrested on the charges of unisexual relations. The case was terminated on 22 of January 1804 when Parra was exonerated, the fiscal stating that given the results of the physical examination, there was no reason to pursue the principle charge. However, the judges were not willing to simply let this go. Juana Maria Martines had taken up the court’s valuable time and had to be punished for her frivolous behavior. They charged her with false testimony and to discourage her bad example she presented they sentenced her to two months imprisonment.

The test of sexuality and gender had changed venue. While earlier cases of sexual ambiguity had been the purview of the Inquisition, in early 19th century Nueva Granada this was a question for the criminal courts, and for the medical experts. Among humble people such as Juana Maria though, there was a knowledge and fundamental basis of acceptance of things that were becoming fantastical or superstitious to the elite. She sought to neutralize Martina Parra by attacking on a most intimate and personal level, and she knew that her charge would not be ignored. Willing to implicate herself by admitting collusion in such ‘unnatural’ activities, she apparently tried to manipulate the courts to her advantage. The self-consciously modern judicial and medical elite in the colony was willing to examine the charges, but on its own terms, without the heavy overlay of religious connotation, and so as to demonstrate its distance from traditional popular culture, even while recognizing the dangers inherent to such beliefs. We have to trust that they reported truthfully, although we must know that they may very well have seen what they expected to see, or what they wanted to see. There are many historical instances in other places when medical men simply dismissed what their senses told them because of their beliefs. Maria Juana thought that everyone would believe that Martina was a hermaphrodite, but for reasonable men, the evidence would need to be unambiguous and the likelihood of such a body was minimal.

Local elite men moved from challenging popular traditions and beliefs through violence and coercion such as the use of the inquisition, to the more insidious and effective destruction of such beliefs through examination and dismissal. The ways in which hermaphrodites were defined out of existence by either denial of the possibility of their existence, or their equation with transvestism, lesbianism or other forms of trickery demonstrates that the methods of religious, moral, social and sexual control might have changed, but their effectiveness in maintaining conformity were nonetheless secure and as oppressive as ever.


[1] Ibid., pp. 13-14. See also Jaime Humberto Borja Gomez, ed. Inquisicion, muerte y sexualidad en la Nueva Granada, Ariel-CEJA, Bogota: 1996., p. 186 and 194.

[2] See Adriana Maya “Botanica y medecina africanas en la Nueva Granada, siglo XVII,” Historia Critica, 19, 1999, p, 45

[3] Cited in Alzate Echeverri, p. 26.

[4] Ibid, p. 169.

[5] Alice Domurat Dreger, “Doubtful Sex: The fate of the Hermaphrodite in Victorian Medicine,” Victorian Studies, Spring 1995, vol. 38, Issue 3, p. 341.

[6] Emma Donoghue, “Imagined more than women: lesbians as hermaphrodites, 1671-1755.” Women’s History Review, Vol. 2., no. 2. 1993, p. 201.

[7] Domurat Dreger, “Doubtful Sex”, p. 335.

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Suggested citation: Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body?, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 07/03/2018,

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