Teaching and Learning Guide for: Subjectivity, Agency, and the New Latin American History of Gender and Sexuality Journal Article uri icon



  • Author's IntroductionOne of the thorniest problems confronting historians is figuring out what is at stake for historical actors: how people in the past understood their situation, what they did (or didn't do) about it, and why. The ‘stakes’ problem becomes even more complicated when it revolves around issues of gender and sexuality – issues that are often very different for historical actors than they are for present‐day historians. This essay seeks to clarify this theoretical/methodological problem for historians of gender and sexuality in Latin America by using social theorist Judith Butler's work on the links between subjectivity and agency. It argues that historical inquiry into issues of gender and sexuality should begin with a careful analysis of the ‘conditions of subjectivity’ that make it possible for historical actors to achieve and maintain culturally intelligibility (to make sense to themselves and to others), as the necessary first step to agency (which includes any attempt they might make to change the conditions of subjectivity that enabled their agency in the first place).Author Recommends:William French and Katherine Bliss (eds.), Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Latin America since Independence (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2007).This excellent collection provides historical case studies on gender, sexuality, and power in Latin America from the early nineteenth century to the present. As valuable as the essays themselves is a superb introduction which carefully defines terms like gender, discourses, sexualities, and identities; succinctly examines recent new directions in Latin American history as they relate to the study of gender and sexuality; and lucidly engages the theoreticians – Joan Scott, Michel Foucault, Ann Fausto‐Sterling, Judith Butler, among others – whose work has helped shape and deepen our understanding of the complex intersections of gender, sexuality, and power.Daniel Balderston and Donna Guy (eds.), Sex and Sexuality in Latin America (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1997).This important interdisciplinary collection of essays on sex and sexuality in Latin America (including Latino America) draws on scholars from anthropology, Spanish/Latin American literature, comparative literature, and history. The bibliography is a bit dated but still quite useful. Anthropologist Roger Lancaster's chapter, ‘Guto's Performance: Notes on the Transvestism of Everyday Life’, deals centrally (and playfully) with the everyday links between subjectivity and agency; it would make an excellent companion piece to this essay.Lyman Johnson and Sonia Lipsett‐Rivera (eds.), The Faces of Honor: Sex, Shame, and Violence in Latin America (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).This superb collection of essays on honor and shame in colonial Latin America provides early historical examples of the role of regulatory norms in shaping subjectivity and agency. The introduction and Ann Twinam's essay on the ‘Negotiation of Honor’ lay out the workings of the colonial honor/shame complex and the different ways in which honor intersected with sexuality, gender, race, and class.Sueann Caulfield, ‘The History of Gender in the Historiography of Latin America’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 81/3–4 (August–November 2001): 451–90.Caulfield's article provides a thorough and thoughtful review of the historiography on gender and sexuality in Latin America.Robert Buffington, ‘La “Dancing” Mexicana: Danzón and the Transformation of Intimacy in Post‐Revolutionary Mexico City’, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 14/1 (March 2005): 87–108.This essay looks at the danzón craze and dance hall culture in order to get at changing notions of male‐female intimacy in post‐revolutionary Mexico City – changes which included the domestication of traditional patriarchy (through partner dancing) and the public erotizing of women's bodies (and heterosexual relationships). Like Lancaster's piece (mentioned above), it would provide a useful case study for this essay.Gabriela Cano, ‘Unconcealable Realities of Desire: Amelio Robles's (Transgender) Masculinity in the Mexican Revolution’, in Joceyln Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano (eds.), Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 35–56.Gabriela Cano's essay explores the transformation of small‐town girl Amelia Robles into Zapatista Colonel Amelio Robles – a revolutionary act of self‐fashioning that ‘was not simply due to a pragmatic desire to enjoy the social advantages of men, but rather the product of a deeper, more vital desire to radically transform the female identity assigned to him at birth in order to make himself masculine in every aspect of life’. Drawing on interviews, photographs, military records, and local museum exhibits, Cano's analysis reveals the contradictory tangle of ‘truths’ about Amelio/Amelia Robles produced by military authorities (who accepted his claims to masculine identity and a veteran's pension), hometown historians (who insisted on her essential femininity), and outside observers (who sought to ‘rationalize’ his/her sexual identity according to accepted models of ‘deviant’ behavior like sexual inversion and female ambition). Cano's study would make an excellent companion piece to this essay.Online Materials: http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/region/women/ The Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC) at the University of Texas maintains a comprehensive site for women, gender, and sexuality studies. LANIC lists regional and country‐specific resources in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/d/124/wwh.html This lesson plan designed by Nora Jaffary for the Women in World History Web site provides background information and several primary sources that deal with the intersection of race and gender in colonial Latin America. http://www.clam.org.br/ The Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights maintains a Web site with links to useful publications and human‐rights organizations that deal with issues of sexuality in Latin America.Focus Questions; ; What is agency? Why is it a problem for some historians?; What is subjectivity? Why does the author argue that it is a promising area of inquiry for historians?; Why does the author insist that historians need to investigate the links between subjectivity and agency (rather than ignoring agency altogether)? Why is Judith Butler's explanation of those links useful in this regard?; How are these linkages reflected in recent work by Latin American historians of gender and sexuality? What sorts of topics does this work generally engage? Why will a better grasp of the theoretical links between subjectivity and agency improve our understanding of these topics?; ;

publication date

  • November 1, 2008

has restriction

  • bronze

Date in CU Experts

  • December 16, 2014 10:55 AM

Full Author List

  • Buffington R

author count

  • 1

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1478-0542

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1478-0542

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 1441

end page

  • 1443


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