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Peninsular Women, Migration, and the Creation of the Spanish Empire. (Special Section: The World from Latin America).

The traditional account of the Spanish conquest and settlement of the Americas, and especially the racial mixing that accompanied it, has been predicated on the idea that peninsular women failed to emigrate in significant numbers during the first century of Spanish contact. According to that narrative, heady with their victory and without the tempering presence of wives and mothers, Spanish men expressed both their uncontrolled sexual urges and their lust for political domination by engaging in sex first with indigenous women and later enslaved African women. However, women's historians have clearly demonstrated that from 1493 on, peninsular women of all races and statuses made the transatlantic journey both alone and accompanied by men. Indeed, over the past few decades, scholars have dedicated considerable time and energy to the study of these emigrant women and their impact on early Spanish settlement, both as individuals and in groups. Yet, that scholarship has not altered the basic narrative of the Spanish conquest and settlement, and in most Latin American and World history textbooks, the Spanish introduction of dogs plays a larger role than the participation of Spanish women. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that in their role as cultural transmitters, peninsular women were central to the creation of the Spanish empire.

One reason that peninsular women have been excluded from the traditional narrative is that despite the fact that women regularly made the Atlantic crossing, the Spanish Crown constantly reasserted the need for peninsular women in new settlements, mostly through royal decrees that prohibited married men from remaining in the Americas without their wives. (1) These decrees had multiple purposes. On the peninsular side, authorities attempted to ensure that untrustworthy men did not use emigration as a mechanism to abandon families and legal responsibilities, while in the Americas those same decrees promoted the idea that the establishment of successful settlements required the presence of growing numbers of peninsular women. Crown efforts seem to have had the desired effect. The numbers of women emigrating from Spain to the Americas began small but grew consistently over the course of the sixteenth century. In the first decades after Columbus's first contact (1493-1519), women made up a meager 5.6 percent of those travelling to the Caribbean, yet, by 1514, Spanish women lived in all but one of Hispaniola's fledgling settlements. (2) After the conquest of Tierra Firma (Mexico) in 1519, that number rose to 6.3 percent and by the middle of the century, the proportion of female migrants jumped to 16 percent. During the next two decades, women made up 28.5 percent of migrants, and almost all of that increase came in single women. Women made up about one quarter of the emigrants during the last quarter of the sixteenth century (15791600), and in the period 1598-1621, the last for which extensive data is available, women and girls made up at least one third of transatlantic migrants. (3) Although their numbers never reached 50 percent, the proportion of peninsular women emigrating to the Americas during that first century was never insignificant.

Although the Crown reiterated the requirement that men bring their wives to the Americas, in the first two decades of Spanish settlement, the majority of women who emigrated were already wives and mothers, either of men who had already settled in the Caribbean, or of new migrants with whom they made the journey. By 1514 married women made up at least 15.5 percent of the Spanish population of Santo Domingo and by 1528, the majority of Spanish men in Santo Domingo headed households complete with wives and children. (4) The same was true in other early Spanish settlements. By 1530, half of Spanish men in San Juan, Puerto Rico lived with Spanish wives, (5) as did half the Spanish men in Puebla, Mexico in 1534. (6) Although some women, like Ana Garcia, the wife of the tradesman Juan Garcia, brought children with them to Santo Domingo from Spain in 1513, babies came quickly in the new settlements. (7) A fine model of maternity, the first Viceroy's wife, Maria de Toledo, bore four daughters during her first five years in Santo Domingo. The importance of these women and their daughters cannot be underestimated. They were the primary transmitters of Spanish culture to both the next generation of Spaniards, as well as to the indigenous and enslaved populations. To the extent possible, they set up Spanish households, outfitting their homes with Spanish furniture, wearing Spanish clothing, and cooking local products in a style reminiscent of their local foodways. (8) Establishing households and having babies may not be as sexy as the stories of swashbuckling conquistadors, but these were the foundations for the success of the Spanish empire.

Unmarried peninsular women also emigrated to the Americas in substantial numbers during the first century of contact. When Elvira Garcia came to Santo Domingo with her brother and sister-in-law in 1511, she was not the first nor the only single woman to make a new life in the Americas. (9) Many, like Mari Jimenez, travelled with family members, (10) but other single women came to the Americas to work as servants in the entourages of wealthier men and women or in later decades left their homes on the peninsula hoping to find employment in the homes of wealthy colonial families. Some of these adventurous women made the journey alone quite early. Among others, Catalina de Guadalcanal emigrated to Santo Domingo in 1511 to be a servant and one woman known only as Francisca, came to Santo Domingo as the servant of Hernando Alonso in 1517. (11) This dribble of single women crossing the ocean soon became a wave. Indeed, even at the point at which family migration became the norm, during the single women "boom" of 1560 to 1579, there were hundreds of women like Marina de los Angeles who asked permission to go to New Spain, or Ines del Nuno who went to Honduras, both to work as servants. (12) These emigrant women were formative in the establishment of colonial sexual norms. Generally, the narrative of the early conquest and settlement features white men engaging in both coerced and consensual sex with indigenous women; however, although single women from the peninsula may have preferred white sexual and marital partners, at least from time to time (and probably much more often than we know) they had relationships with non-white men. The most famous early cases involved Spanish women who married Indian men, usually from the highest levels of native society, including a son and a grandson of Moctezuma and three generations of the rulers of Michoacan. (13) These Spanish women may have been the exceptions in terms of the wealth and status of their Indian husbands, but not in terms of their willingness to have relationships with non-white men. To give just one example, over the course of five years (1576-1581) in one Mexico City parish, Rob Schwaller found six marriages between Spanish women and non-white men (four mestizos, one indio, and one mulato). (14) These women could have married white men, but did not. Moreover, this handful of mixed marriages only hints at the number of peninsular women who engaged in other types of relationships with non-white men, many of whom bore mixed-race children. Thus, peninsular women were not just the cause of, but active participants in, the creation of Spanish America's mixed-race society.

The racial diversity of women who emigrated from Spain also alters our understanding of the role of women in colonial conquest and settlement. Although the majority of the women coming from the Iberian peninsula were white, some were not and these women of color influenced both the racial hierarchy and the sexual dynamic of the new settlements. By the sixteenth century, the south of Spain was already home to a racially diverse population, and although Christianity was a requirement for emigration, whiteness was not, and, a number of non-white women also boarded ships for the Americas. A black woman known only as Ines travelled to Santo Domingo in 1527 with her daughter Beatriz to settle. (15) During the single woman "boom" of the 1570s, Constanza Sanchez, a mulata and native of Seville, asked permission to travel with her daughter from Spain to New Spain to reunite with her husband. (16) In 1577, Juana Rodriguez, a black woman, accompanied her free black husband to Veracruz where he intended to work as a diver. (17) Other Spanish women of color emigrated to the Americas as servants, like Maria Gomez, originally from Cape Verde, who in 1577 emigrated to Nicaragua as a part of the household of Crown official. An interesting case is that of Maria de Cota. Maria had been born enslaved in Santo Domingo, but had been taken to Spain by her owner, where she was later freed. By 1580, she wanted to return to the island to settle along with her daughter. (18) In addition, in the first century after contact, many mestizas were taken to Spain by their peninsular fathers and some of those women later returned to their places of birth. Having lived much, if not all, of their lives on the Iberian peninsula, these women of color were culturally Spanish and when they settled or resettled in Spanish America, they set up Spanish- style households and raised culturally Spanish, mixed-race children. (19) Thus, the establishment of Spanish society in the Americas was not directly correlated either with masculinity or with whiteness.

Peninsular widows played an important role in the first century of contact, both because of their strong legal and financial status, as well as the authority that they exercised in the family. In the first two decades after the conquest of Mexico (1520-1539) 6 percent of female emigrants were widows and then increased to around 11 percent. (20) During these critical years, the Spanish Crown had a strategic interest in allowing widowed women to emigrate, even though most of them would neither remarry nor have more children. First, the Crown was determined to reinforce family bonds in the Americas and there is nothing like a family matriarch to maintain the loyalties within a household. Young Spanish men had a reputation for sexual infidelity and desertion when they reached the colonies and a mother- in-law was a strong antidote to any potential misbehavior. Second, widows were an integral part of bringing Spanish ways to the new settlements. They had life experiences like bearing children, managing employees, midwifery skills, and the ability to manage in crises that would help their own families, aid in the construction of Spanish communities, and even serve as examples to indigenous women.

Some of these peninsular widows were the heads of large emigrating extended households. In 1559, Catalina Bernal, a widow from Xerez de la Frontera, emigrated with her two daughters, a son-in-law, and a granddaughter. (21) Francisca de Carrera took her two sisters, seven children, a male servant, a white female servant, and a black servant to Peru. (22) Dona Maria de Toledo, a widow from Seville, also took her two children and five servants to go live in Peru. (23) These women were comfortable leaving their homes and lives on the peninsula because they were emigrating along with their loved ones and support staff. They carried with them the skills, money, and status that they had in Spain and they used that foundation to establish strong, successful households across the Americas.

Peninsular women of all races and marital statuses used their skills and financial acumen to help establish the new colonial economy, as they immediately saw new opportunities to own property and run businesses. One of the earliest notarial records in New Spain is a legal permission for Francisca de Valdivieso to rent and cultivate an orchard and by 1527 Leonor de Sanabria was making a living by renting out a home inherited by her now deceased husband. Over the next few decades, women came across the ocean just to expand their businesses. In 1566, Francisca Diaz from Talavera de la Reina asked for permission to go to the Americas. She described herself as a midwife and noted that she had already been to Mexico, and she had been quite successful in her oficio. Now she wanted to return to Mexico and take her 15-year-old son Andres to marry him off. She also wanted to take with her some merchandise worth 500 pesos and "three persons who serve me," including a slave named Ana. (24) Francisca was clearly capitalizing on her reputation to start some new business, and based on her experience, the opportunities were better in the Americas than in Castile.

Finally, as Jacqueline Holler and others have clearly demonstrated, peninsular women were enthusiastic participants in the early evangelization of the Americas. In the first years after the conquest of Mexico, both the Crown and Cortes were eager to ensure the Christianization of the large population of the former Aztec empire. To ensure morality and provide examples for the new converts, authorities sought out peninsular women to come to the Americas and establish schools. As early as 1528, a widow, Catalina de Bustamante established a school to instruct 300 indigenous women and girls in Christianity in Mexico. Similarly, in 1531, Elena Medrano, her niece, and two other women came to Mexico from Seville to set up a school for indigenous girls. (25) In 1534, the bishop of Mexico, Zumarraga returned to Mexico from Spain along with eight women, six beatas (pious laywomen) and two married women who brought their families along, to staff a new school for Indian girls. Peninsular women expressed remarkable passion for these efforts, with many applying to the Council of the Indies for permission to emigrate in order to bring Christianity to native peoples. (26) Women were important enough to the evangelization process that Zumarraga even considered sending religious women into all the Indian villages of New Spain. (27) What makes these efforts more interesting is that these women's efforts were supported directly by the Empress Maria, Charles V's regent in Spain. (28)

Notwithstanding their absence from the historical narrative, peninsular women were central to the creation of the Spanish empire. The eagerness with which women of all races and statuses "answered the call" to come to the Americas indicates both their thirst for adventure and new opportunities, as well as their willingness to participate in the imperial project. Moreover, these women represented the diversity of early modern Spanish society, as many poor white and black women, mulatas, and mestizas also left their homes on the peninsula to act as agents of empire. Certainly, the presence of peninsular women did not stop the exploitation of non-white women across the Americas; however, the inclusion of peninsular women in the narrative moves us beyond a tale of masculinity triumphant and reminds us that conquest and domination was not solely the domain of men, but also wives, maids, and mothers-in-law.

(1) On the decrees, see Richard Konetzke, "La emigracion de mujeres espanolas a America durante la epoca colonial," Revista internacional de sociologia (1945): 123-50.

(2) Peter Boyd-Bowman, Patterns of Spanish Emigration to the New World, 1493-1580 (Buffalo: SUNY Buffalo, 1973), 25. Ida Altman, "Spanish Women in the Caribbean, 1493-1540," in Women of the Iberian Atlantic, edited by Sarah E. Owens and Jane E. Mangan (Baton Rouge Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 62.

(3) Boyd-Bowman, Patterns of Spanish Emigration, 49 and 72. Auke P. Jacobs, Los movimientos migratorios entre Castilla e Hipanoamerica durante el reinado de Felipe III, 1598-1621 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), cuadro 2.1.2, 218.

(4) Kathleen Deagan, "Cultural Transformation: Euro-American Cultural Genesis in the Early Spanish-American Colonies," Journal of Anthropological Research 52:2 (Summer 1996), 152. Roberto Cassa, "Cuantificaciones Sociodemograficas de la Ciudad de Santo Domingo en el siglo XVI," Revista de Indias vol. LVI, num. 208 (1996), 643.

(5) Altman, "Spanish Women," 65.

(6) Pedro Carrasco, "Indian-Spanish Marriages in the First Century of the Colony," in Indian Women of Early Mexico, edited by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, Robert Stephen Haskett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 88.

(7) Vilma Benzo de Ferrer, Pasajeros a La Espanola, 1492-1530 (Santo Domingo: n.p. 2000), 152.

(8) On the introduction of European material culture, see Amanda Angel, "Spanish Women in the New World: The Transmission of a Model Polity to New Spain, 1521- 1570" (Ph.D. diss., University of California Davis, 1998), chap.3. Deagan, "Colonial Transformation," esp.147-149.

(9) Benzo de Ferrer, Pasajeros a La Espanola, 155.

(10) Benzo de Ferrer, Pasajeros a La Espanola, 202.

(11) Benzo de Ferrer, Pasajeros a La Espanola, 173 and 140.

(12) Luis Romera Iruela and Maria del Carmen Galbis Diez, eds. Catalogo de pasajeros a Indias durante los siglos XVI, XVII y XVIII, vol.5 tomo II (Sevilla: Ministerio de Cultura, 1980), 610 and 736 at

(13) Carrasco, "Indian-Spanish Marriages," 90-91.

(14) Robert C. Schwaller, Generos de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 157.

(15) Benzo de Ferrer, Pasajeros a La Espanola, 195.

(16) Archivo General de Indias, Contratacion, 5225B, n.33.

(17) Iruela and Galbis Diez, Catalogo de pasajeros, vol.5 tomo II, 613 at


(19) For more on these transatlantic families, see Jane E. Mangan, Transatlantic Obligations: Creating Bonds of Family in Con quest-Era Peru and Spain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(20) Peter Boyd-Bowman, "Patterns of SpanishEmigrationto the Indies until 1600," Hispanic American Hiaterical Review 56:4 (Nov. 1976), 598 and Jacobs, Los movimientos migratorios, 87-88 and Josefina Muriel, "Las mujeres viudas en el desarrollo social y economico novohispano," en Las viudas. Congreso internacional (Mexico: Centro de Estudios sobre Historia de Mexico, 2002), 95-121.

(21) Bermudez Plata, Catalogo de los pasajeros a Indias vol. III, 329.

(22) Bermudez Plata, Catalogo de los pasajeros a Indias vol. III, 180.

(23) Bermudez Plata, Catalogo de los pasajeros a Indias vol. III, 217-8.

(24) Archivo General de Indias, Indiferente General, 2051 n.32

(25) Maria Jose Encontra y Vilalta, "Andaluzas en la capital de la Nueva Espana, en el siglo XVI," in VI Congreso virtual sobre historia de las mujeres, 15 al 31-octubre-2014 coord. Manuel Cabrera Espinosa, Juan Antonio Lopez Cordero (Jaen: Archivo Historico Diocesano de Jaen, 2012), 16.

(26) Jacqueline Holler, Escogidas Plantas: Nuns and Beatas in Mexico City, 1531-1601 Electronic book (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), chapter 2, page 10.

(27) Holler, Escogidas Plantas, ch.2, page 21.

(28) Holler, Escogidas Plantas, ch.2, page 8.

Allyson Poska, University of Mary Washington
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Author:Poska, Allyson
Publication:World History Bulletin
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Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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