Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Women, Ethnicity, and Medical Authority: Historical Perspectives on Reproductive Health in Latin America


This paper is the result of discussions at the 2003 Meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, in Dallas, Texas, March 27-29, 2003, where we organized and presented papers for a panel entitled “Women, Ethnicity, and Medical Authority: Reproductive and Children’s Health in Latin America since 1780.” While the papers focus on distinct regions and historical moments in Latin America, they all engage common themes. Each examines how “officials” representing various elite institutions—the Church, formal medicine, and the state—used cultural explanations of race and difference to construct new notions of “reproductive health” and “mothering” as measures of “civilization.” Moreover, these papers show how such constructions, which took place during moments of sweeping transformation in colonial and post-colonial Latin America, were used to justify a variety of forms of social discrimination, exclusion, and inclusion.

Adam Warren discusses ways in which Catholic priests used different types of gender ideals based on ethnic differences, notions of maternal intuition, and religious and moral sensibilities to advocate the practice of cesarean sections on indigenous Andean women in Peru. Alexandra Puerto examines the material causes of poor public health, focusing on how the organization and structure of plantation economies and labor creates high infant mortality rates in rural communities, specifically a henequen plantation in Yucatán, Mexico. Tamera Marko examines ways white upper class slave-owner parents, black slave wet nurses and black male folkhealers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, used the same ideals of motherhood and maternal instincts, as well as images of barbaric and “unfit” mothers, to negotiate their “fitness” and thus, their rights to be a mother, to be “free”, to be a citizen.

This work also contributes to broader historiographies about Catholic pastoral campaigns, rural insurrection, independence, abolition, family, childhood, labor, and rural capitalist transition. It also sheds light on the historical origins of many debates about reproductive health, race, and citizenship, which continue to shape public policy in Latin America today.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View