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Today, we’re taking a look at pre-colonial Latin American indigenous cultures with Professor Pete Sigal, a Professor of History at Duke University.
Sigal began studying queer Latin American history in college, approaching it with a “firm kind of anti-racist, anti-colonial agenda,” from the Puerto Rican independence movement to the Cuban revolution. He soon realized, though, that he was missing something from his courses: how did colonialism and race impact the ways in which sexuality developed? Sigal has spent his career untangling that question.
We started our conversation discussing gender nonconformity as a part of spirituality and ritual, with a focus on the Nahuas and the Maya, two important civilizations in Central America. “The Nahuas and the Maya had figures that were in between genders for ritual purposes, really, for ritual purposes only,” he explained. Male priests might wear women’s clothing “in order to harness the powers of both masculinity and femininity.”
“It’s not really that there's that much gender fluidity, per se, at least in daily life,” said Sigal, “but that there's a way in which they're using gender to access particular kinds of powers that they see in the ritual world, in the political world.”
Similar to the indigenous North American Two-Spirit identity, the idea of gendered roles “was much more about spirituality than it was about gender. And so the way in which they understood gender is so much more complicated than the way in which we often understand it.” While they had ideas about biology, “they didn't consider it as important in some ways as we do.”
Finding indigenous records of that spirituality was one thing, but when it came to keeping track of same-sex activity, the records of the Nahuas and the Maya were rather slim. “The kind of records that they tended to keep were not about daily activities,” he explained, “much more about gods and records of kings and that sort of thing. So you don't see really anything about day-to-day sexual activity; you do see sexual activity of the gods. That, of course, can tell you something. But it doesn't necessarily tell you what's going on for the people themselves.”
The colonial records, on the other hand, held many more clues. Not all of them were helpful. The infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés, for instance, mentioned “sodomites” precisely once in his letters back to Spain. “So many of the conquerors write about it, or they have a line or two about sodomites,” he said. “That doesn't really tell you anything about the indigenous people. It only tells you about the minds of the conquerors.”
More informative were the priests who, in attempting to convert the indigenous population to Christianity, wrote studies on Nahua and Mayan cultures, with varying levels of success. “Some of them are in Spanish, some of them are in Nahuatl or Yucatec, but they do discuss sexual activity, among many other things,” he said. “At least it's more than Cortés just saying, you know, there's sodomites.”
During those attempts at conversion, the priests, like many colonizers, tried to stifle the ways in which indigenous people expressed their sexuality, with mixed results. For instance, the Nahuas didn’t have the concept of “sin” at all. “As Ethnohistorian Louise Burkhart has written, the clerics use a Nahuatl term, tlatlacolli, and tlatlacolli actually meant some kind of disturbance, disruption,” explained Sigal. “It becomes translated from the Catholic perspective as sin, but the Nahuas understand it as something else, as this kind of cosmic disturbance. And so sexual colonization becomes a series of confused interactions that take place.”
Indigenous Latin Americans contested this idea of “sin” in the same way that they contested the idea of the “monogamous heterosexual family” that Spaniards, and Europeans in general, pushed onto the people they colonized. “These weren't concepts that the indigenous people of anywhere in the Americas had,” said Sigal. “It causes confusion, causes anger, but eventually, that becomes much more of a norm. And that's something that's a very disruptive norm to indigenous societies, and indigenous societies are resisting it to this day.”
Ideas like “sin” and the “monogamous heterosexual family” are central to the way that we, as Westerners, understand sexuality. So, I asked, how do we begin to understand these sexualities, based on totally different concepts from our own?
Sigal suggested that we start by “giving up our categories, or at least giving up our categories as universal.” What’s important to understand, he says, is that, in many indigenous cultures, spirituality, sexuality, and gender are all intertwined and inseparable. “On a much bigger level, it's what I consider to be a spiritual-erotic relationship between two individuals. So I think it's important to think about it in those terms.”
“It becomes, then, the question of, Did they have a category of homosexuality or heterosexuality? No, they didn't. Did men have sex with other men? Yes, of course. But they also categorized even that in different ways,” said Sigal. “So it's just a matter of trying to accept their way of viewing the world. And then in order for us to understand it, we need to place it back into our categories in some way; perhaps it becomes queer.”
Ultimately, according to Sigal, we need to “be open to understanding a different way of imagining the world.” And that’s important for understanding not just the Nahua and the Maya, but also queer history as a whole. After all, reimagining the world through different, strange, queer points of view is what queer history is all about!
For more of Sigal's fascinating work, check out:
Ethnopornography, with Neil Whitehead, Erika Robb Larkins, and Zeb Tortorici, University Press of Colorado, 2010.
Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire, University of Texas Press, 2000.