Johann Baptist Homann and Homann Erben. Regni Mexicani seu Novæ Hispaniæ, Ludovicianæ, N. Angliæ, Carolinæ, Virginiæ et Pensylvaniæ, necnon insvlarvm archipelagi Mexicani in America Septentrionali, 1759. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.
The popular narrative of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas is hyper-masculine.
Daring male explorers returned to Spain with tales of vast populations and wealth, and paved the way for brutal male conquistadors to invade and suppress the Native warriors who dared to oppose them. After the early years of invasion, two colonial territories were established: New Spain in North America, and Peru in South America. Spanish elite grew rich off plantations and mines that they staffed with enslaved Native people and Africans, while Franciscan friars forced thousands of Native people to convert to Catholicism through the oppressive mission system.
And yet, women were active participants in every part of the history of the Spanish colonies of the Americas. It was Queen Isabella I of Castile, who funded the Columbus voyage of 1492, and determined the shape and tone of the Spanish conquest. Conquistador Hernan Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire may have failed without the guidance and skill of his enslaved interpreter, Malitzen. And it is impossible to truly understand the horrors of the conquest without a consideration of the toll it took on Native and African women.
Women also found ways to challenge and subvert the patriarchy of Spanish colonial society. The gateras, the Native market women of Quito in Peru, exploited the legal system to earn greater financial security for their people. Zuni potters were at the forefront of the revival of traditional Native practices during the Pueblo Revolt. Women could use the marriage traditions of the dowry and arras to escape unhappy marriages. And wealthy Spanish women expertly wielded their privilege to draw attention to the hypocrisy of traditional gender roles or survive encounters with the dreaded Holy Office of the Inquisition.