Teaching Sex, Power, and Conquest with Primary Sources

Using primary sources in the classroom is a great way to show students how to make historical arguments based on evidence. In my colonial Latin American history course, I translated a Spanish-language eighteenth-century sodomy case for students to use throughout the semester. With the case in front of them, students noted how formal language could obscure meaning. Testimony such as “on the said day, month, and year, I, the said lieutenant” enabled undergraduates to see the meditation that took place between illiterate defendants and the court-appointed attorneys. My class came to realize that documents housed in archives, which historians continue to use, had been preserved by European colonizers who spoke for their indigenous subjects.

I translated this case into English so that students could see how this source related to key concepts such as sex, power, and conquest. In Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1731, a Spanish colonizer named Manuel Trujillo accused two Pueblo men—Asencio Povía and Antonio Yuba—of committing sodomy.[1] Povía and Yuba were thrown in jail and, ultimately, sentenced with exile for a period of four months. Using this document helped students to debate the legality of sodomy and justice within the colonial legal system.

Together, we discussed the insights that could be gained by using legal dossiers and what continued to remain occluded. Students noted that the “nefarious sin” (pecado nefando in Spanish), sometimes used interchangeably with sodomy, was more capacious than they had previously thought. This new insight made it possible for the class to see how the concept of sodomy had changed over time and that allegations of sodomy depended on the subjectivity of the observer.

This close textual analysis facilitated discussions regarding the insights that historians could glean from other types of documents. Students remarked that personal letters, while seemingly less structured, contained their own set of problems because of the subjectivity of the author. One student observed that an unfaithful spouse might not be entirely forthcoming when s/he wrote home. Another student mentioned that in times of war a soldier on the frontlines might have used code so effectively that modern-day historians would not be able to fully understand the context. The class began to realize that finding the “truth” was nigh on impossible because of the gaps in all historical records.

As the semester progressed, we returned to this primary source several times so that students could think about how they would employ theory in their written assignments. To help them along, I divided the class into three groups: race, gender, and power. I instructed everyone to read the document again, but this time, each group had a specific lens with which to use. Afterwards, students noted that they saw a power imbalance between the Spanish accuser and the Pueblo defendants. They commented that the presiding judge seemed to readily believe that Asencio Povía and Antonio Yuba had committed sodomy despite the fact that there was only one accuser—Manuel Trujillo. The class also noticed that women were entirely absent in this case, which facilitated a discussion about the role of women in agrarian societies. Finally, the sentencing in the case, which stipulated that 200 lashes would be given to Asencio Povía and Antonio Yuba should they neglect to comply with their imposed exile, led to a debate surrounding justice when historical cases do not conform to modern-day sensibilities.

Throughout the semester, students saw how historians approached this specific case from different angles. For instance, Tracy Brown argues that this case reveals that “Spanish civil and Church authorities sought to police Pueblo peoples” sexuality and behavior.[2] Students noted that Zeb Tortorici highlighted voyeurism within eyewitness testimony, which also implicated accusers such as Manuel Trujillo.[3] Finally, placing this case alongside my article, Archival Epistemology: Honor, Sodomy, and Indians in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico, enabled students to see how negative stereotypes about Native Americans endured over time so as to influence the minds of Spanish colonizers. Denouncers like Manuel Trujillo saw what they expected to see, i.e. Indians sinning in the countryside. By the end of the semester, the class realized that historical documents cannot provide transparent windows into the past but that they do offer partial insights.

As teachers, it is paramount to show students how to make historical arguments because doing so increases critical thinking. By interrogating the same document throughout the semester, students learned that primary sources have their own limits but that they can also provide a wealth of information. As I reflect and devise subsequent courses, I will continue to integrate primary sources that will, hopefully, spark students’ interest in history.

[1] There is a microfilmed version at the University of Texas at El Paso. The description is as follows: June 25 – August 8, 1731 – Criminal proceedings against Antonio Yuba, Tesquque Indian and Ascencio Povía, Nambe Indian, heard before Antonio Pérez Velarde. Santa Fe. Frame 830; Twitchell No. 360

[2] Tracy Brown, “‘Abominable Sin’ in Colonial New Mexico: Spanish and Pueblo Perceptions of Same-Sex Sexuality,” in Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 52.

[3] Zeb Tortorici, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 89–90.

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