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Histories of Women’s Reproduction in Latin America and the Caribbean: Expósitos (Abandoned Infants)

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien

Expósitos (Abandoned Infants)

Infant abandonment, a widespread and pervasive practice across colonial Latin America, has caught the attention of a broad range of scholars, from those focused on religion and charity to those interested in law and criminalization. However, due to the diffuse and fragmentary primary sources on this topic, there are few book-length studies of infant abandonment. One of the only English-language books broaching this topic is Teresita Martínez-Vergne’s 1999 Shaping the Discourse on Space, which examines how colonial officials defined who was worthy of assistance from charitable institutions, including those serving impoverished women and children. Parallel discussions of charity as a vehicle for colonial social hierarchy in Cuba can be found in Sarah L. Franklin’s Women and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Cuba. Spanish-language books, such as Los expósitos y la sociedad colonial, by José M. Torres Pico, and Leyma Hidalgo Valdés’s Real Casa de Beneficencia de La Habana, offer more focused studies of Havana’s charitable institutions specifically serving unwanted infants and orphans, respectively. Although these titles may be more difficult to obtain, they are essential for comprehensive collections on this topic.

Two edited volumes on children in colonial Latin America contain valuable contributions on infant abandonment and unwanted children. The first is Raising an Empire. Of particular note from this collection are the chapters by Ann Twinam and Ondina E. González, which explore the histories of Havana’s Casa de Expósitos, a charitable institution created in the early eighteenth century to collect and care for abandoned and unwanted infants. The second collection, entitled Minor Omissions, has several chapters on marginalized children outside the bounds of charitable institutions, including another chapter by González. Another noteworthy contribution is Bianca Premo’s chapter analyzing criminalized youth in eighteenth-century Lima.

Any library collection on reproduction during colonial times should also include a solid base of texts concerning women, gender, and sexuality—topics necessary to fully understand the social and cultural context surrounding infant abandonment. For instance, women from honorable families who became pregnant out of wedlock faced immense social pressure to hide the physical marker of this sexual indiscretion, often leading them to terminate or hide their pregnancies, or else abandon, surrender, or murder their infants. Of particular relevance in this regard is the work of Ann Twinam, whose 1999 Public Lives, Private Secrets explores how elite families across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Latin America handled illegitimate children. Twinam’s more recent Purchasing Whiteness focuses on the ways mixed-race people negotiated for social mobility. Related to Twinam’s research, classic texts like Marriage, Class and Colour by Verena Martínez-Alier (sometimes also referred to as Verena Stolcke), as well as more recent books like Patricia Seed’s To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico, reveal how social status, especially race and class, prompted conflicts over the selection of marriage partners. Also focused on Mexico, Kathryn Sloan’s Runaway Daughters interrogates the interplay between state and parental authority regarding the marriage rights of young people and how this impacted understandings of marriage and sexuality in the nineteenth century.

Although usually implicit, concerns about pregnancy and childbearing underlay these disputes. In that regard, María Elena Martínez’s Genealogical Fictions provides additional context for understanding the connections between racial anxieties and family formation. More generally, pioneering collections, such as The Faces of Honor and Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, and books like Nicole von Germeten’s Violent Delights, Violent Ends are an important foundation for understanding how concerns over honor and status shaped intimacy, family, and community.