People often ask me why and how I chose my research topic: midwifery practices in colonial Mexico. This question has forced me to reflect on my research and on my own life. My story begins in Los Angeles, California, where I was born. My family emigrated to the United States of America from El Salvador and we lived in a community that was predominantly Mexican and Mexican American. Before I started pre-school, my grandmother would watch me while my parents were at work. My abuela (grandmother) was very religious and she acquainted me with her Catholic traditions, which shaped the way I view religion and society. For the purposes of this article, I will limit my discussion to my abuela’s condemnation of pagan practices and witchcraft, and how that inspired my research.
Witchcraft, or brujeria as it is known in Spanish, was marginalized and forbidden in my home. I have various childhood memories of adults making negative comments about people that practiced brujeria. For example, the home in which we lived was allegedly haunted and my grandmother attributed the phenomena to the previous residents who were brujos (sorcerers). However, my abuela’s stories were all based on chisme (gossip) which she heard from women in our neighborhood. According to my elderly neighbors, the brujos who had lived in my home had a shrine for their deceased father in the downstairs closet. The lonely brujos summoned their father’s spirit and he never left. This story terrified me and intrigued me at the same time.
Although I have never been interested in becoming a sorcerer myself, I have always wanted to know more about the brujos that once lived in my childhood home, and their mysterious father that haunted my house. As a child my quest for knowledge was always quashed by adults. Every time I asked an adult for more details about the ghost and the closet, most would reply, “Cállate niño que eso es brujería, y no te interesa a vos. Eso le pertenece al diablo” (“Be quite child, that is witchcraft and is of no interest to you. That belongs to the devil”). As one would expect, this only made me want to know more about the occult. Although I moved away from that house when I was twelve years old and I never learned what had really happened in my childhood home, many of the stories and memories from that place have stayed with me.
As a graduate student at University of California, Riverside, I took a course titled “Materials in Colonial Latin American History: Indian Religions.” This course allowed me to explore my interests in brujeria academically. I focused my study on Mesoamerica (the cultural area that encompasses modern day Mexico and Central America) and I began looking at secondary sources. I found that various studies had been done on curanderos (folk healers), brujos and the ideologies and concepts of Native American groups. While reading Alfredo López Austin’s El Cuerpo Humano e Ideologia: Las Concepciones de los Antiguos Nahuas, I encountered concepts of birth and death among the Nahua (Aztecs), and I was instantly fascinated by the world of the Nahuas. I soon found much had been written about male ritual specialists among the Nahua and other indigenous groups, but very little was known about female ritual specialists. In fact, some books did not even acknowledge that certain women were ritual specialists and religious leaders—like midwives.
Historically, Nahua healers that practiced midwifery have been referred to as parteras (“midwives”); I argue that this alone is a misconception that started with the Spanish. Sixteenth century parteras in Spain essentially only helped women give birth. Conversely, In Mesoamerica the tepalehuiani (Nahuatl for “someone who customarily helps people”) not only assisted women in child labor, but they also concocted remedies, lead religious rituals, baptized infants, and executed various other religious roles and duties. Unlike parteras, tepalehuiani played a very important role in the religion of their society. Therefore, it is important to understand that by referring to a tepalehuiani as a partera her religious and healing aspects are belittled. My work highlights the fact that a tepalehuiani was a ticitl (healer and ritual specialist), not just a partera, and like her male counterparts she was very important in Nahua religion and society.
In Mesoamerica, healing was a subset of religion and people would visit healers in order to obtain help for problems and issues that were not just physical—a tradition that continues among contemporary Nahua people. Among the Nahua, healers were known as titicith (ticitl singular). Titicith had the knowledge and ability to diagnose by divination and appease deities by conducting rituals in order to relieve physical, emotional, and financial afflictions. So for example, a person that lost a turkey would visit a ticitl in hopes of recuperating it. A person with a high-fever or stomach pains would also seek the help of a ticitl. My work focuses on female titicith, and the important role they played in Mexico before and after the arrival of the Spanish.
Studying Mesoamerican midwives has allowed me to focus on a group that was marginalized by the medical and religious institutions of the colonial period; like the brujos of my childhood were demonized by the adults around me. I am also contributing to the knowledge of Mexico’s history by shedding light on a group of women that have previously been overlooked, misunderstood, and misrepresented. The tepalehuiani and other titicith were not sorcerers; they were healers and religious leaders that existed and functioned in a legitimate framework. The Catholic Church identified titicith as brujos and brujas (witches) because they did not worship the Christian god and more importantly because they competed with the Catholic Church’s religious roles and functions. Presumably this was also the case with the brujos that lived in my childhood home. My research has helped me explore spirituality and religion, and attempt to understand how others perceive the world around them. Rarely do we choose our research, our research chooses us.
E. A. Polanco
This essay can also be found in the University of California, Riverside’s Nuestra Cosa News Paper.