Serendipity: Reflections on an Archival Gold Mine

Liz Elizondo, Virginia Military Institute

On August 24, 2014, I entered the grand doors of the Archivo Nacional de la Nación in Mexico City for the first time. I remember it took two metro lines and a walk past an outdoor market to get there. I also recall the surprising crispness in the August morning air and the smell of delicious street food as I made my way toward the archive as a bright-eyed graduate student. I had heard from others that the archive was housed in a former prison. As I turned the corner and walked toward the front doors, however, I felt transported to the historical period I study. To me, the archive’s façade represents a presidio bastion. Although presidios in Spanish Texas did not always look like this, this architectural motif is what came to mind when I tried to visualize the lived experiences of the historical actors I uncovered buried in the pages of old archival documents.

I went to Mexico with a vague idea about what I would find. I expected to read the “typical” documentation written between officials in Mexico City and their counterparts in the northern region of the Spanish Empire— documents like trial transcripts, memoranda, and decrees about the endless struggle to maintain control of the region or the challenge to defend the vast area from Natives and foreign powers with little resources.

Never in a million years did I expect to find love letters written between adulterous lovers preserved as evidence in a trial record. I remember audibly gasping when I flipped the page and read: “querido y gusto de mi corazón y todo mi querer” (my beloved, greatest joy of my heart, and everything I love). A letter? Could it really be a letter? A letter written by a woman? As I transcribed the scrawl-like handwriting, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It WAS a letter written by a woman. A woman who was not shy to speak her mind! The next file in the sequence detailed the investigation against Governor Manuel de Sandoval for “official misconduct.” The contents would also offer a serendipitous surprise: a second letter, dictated by another woman.

It took me many years to untangle the case and to find an appropriate way to tell these women’s stories. To be honest, I struggled with the intimacy of the information their letters revealed. I was more comfortable reading through trial transcripts. Despite the inherent power structure embedded in an interrogation, I knew that reading people’s experiences through official court documents meant that they were aware of the scribe recording their statements. Even after confirming that priests and colonial officials had read these personal letters before me, I was still uncomfortable about adding my name to this list. I felt as if I were trespassing. The missives gave me a level of familiarity about four individuals who lived in Spanish Texas in the 1730’s and engaged in romantic and highly contentious adulterous affairs. I was in the “private sphere” that Ann Twinam talks about, and I was both delighted and terrified![1]

I was torn between breaking an illusory level of trust and showcasing these women’s actions. I re-wrote the piece many, many, times from different angles and ultimately decided that the women’s letters had to take center stage. I showcase their writing in “Love, Infidelity, and Correspondence in Spanish Texas, 1734–1737,” appearing in the summer issue of the Journal of Women’s History. My analysis of their missives and life stories reveals that the women, in their own words, confirm what Nicole von Germeten argues: “women made choices when it came to their sexuality.”[2] Their complicated personal relationships help us understand women’s lived experiences within this patriarchal society. For example, they offer a new perspective of the use of the mission and presidio grounds and reveal the popular use of both dwellings for more than official business since these locales also housed adulterous revelries and many “scandalous” social gatherings.

I didn’t expect to feel so connected to the main protagonists— Rita, Manuel, and the baby, as well as the priest and the unnamed married woman. I’ve spent endless hours attempting to track down their genealogy, to find a sliver of proof about what happened to them post separation. Just as quick as these love letters opened a door into their liaisons, they also promptly shut it, leaving behind endless lingering questions. I am grateful to have been “let in” just for a bit, to have had the chance to discover their correspondence and to share their actions with the readership of the Journal to help us untangle the complicated world of colonial female denizens.

I use and share my archival finds in the classroom often. I teach at a military school where cadets are very familiar with the regimental system, military ranks, and the chain of command. In my “Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Colonial Latin America” class I challenge their misconceptions about colonial Latin America and the military system. I use trials like this one that deal with high-ranking officials (a governor and a priest) to showcase a concrete example of a cultural milieu that challenges the often-preconceived understanding of the colonial period: as a highly patriarchal society where women had little freedom. As this and other cases reveal, the system was multilayered and complicated, and women found ways to challenge the status quo. At the end of one semester, one cadet mentioned: “I used to think that people in the colonial period were so Catholic and proper, but I guess many were just like us!”

[1] Ann Twinam, Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality, and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[2] Nicole von Germeten, Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Sex, Race, and Honor in Colonial Cartagena de Indias (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), 233.