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date: 17 April 2024

The History of Emotions in Colonial Latin Americafree

The History of Emotions in Colonial Latin Americafree

  • Jacqueline HollerJacqueline HollerDepartment of History, Women's Studies and Gender Studies, University of Northern British Columbia


The history of emotion is one of the strongest currents in contemporary historiography. Historians and the public have always considered emotion important, but it has become a topic in itself only in recent decades. The history of emotion now has its own lexicon and key concepts, including emotionology (emotional standards of a community) and emotional communities (the multiple and shifting communities, each with its own standards and practices, within a society). The historiography of emotion in colonial Latin America can trace its origins to colonial works that framed Iberians as emotionally pathological. While this derogatory stereotype is clearly invalid, the notion of a distinct colonial emotional regime is worth investigating. Distinct indigenous emotional standards and understandings, the emotional performances and practices associated with colonial domination, and the relationship between emotion and honor may all be key features of a uniquely Latin American, and uniquely colonial, emotional regime. Similarly, the manifestations of more recognizably “interpersonal” emotion had a distinctively Latin American character. To a great degree, the Catholic Church exercised hegemony over the definition and regulation of emotion, though medical and humoral understandings of emotion were common both to colonial clerics and to the laity; at the same time, however, the emotions associated with sexuality—love, desire, jealousy, and hatred—are testament to the limits of the Church’s control. Moreover, 18th-century cultural and social changes further altered the balance of the colonial emotional regime; reformers criticized what they viewed as the extreme, inauthentic, or violent emotions of the Latin American population, while the authority of psychological and medical explanations of emotion grew, producing “hybridized” understandings.


  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • 1492–1824
  • Church and Religious History
  • Cultural History

Passions, Affections, Emotions, and History

“The dominion so long exercised by the Caribs over a great part of the continent, joined to the remembrance of their ancient greatness, has inspired them with a sentiment of dignity and national superiority, which is manifest in their manners and their discourse.” So wrote the Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) of his travels through Venezuela in the first months of the 19th century. Commenting on the extreme hostility and sense of superiority of Caribs toward their enemies, Humboldt mused on the “inveterate animosities” to be found among human beings, whether in the “most civilized part of Europe” or “among half-savage hordes.”1 Humboldt’s writing paints a vivid portrait of Carib distinctiveness, propelled largely by the moral and emotional content of the passages. Whether accurate or not, Humboldt’s impressions suggest what has long been assumed by historians and non-historians alike: that emotions are not only interesting but significant; that human cultures exhibit both common and distinctive emotional patterns; and that emotions drive history and the interactions among peoples.

More recently, however, historians have begun to study these commonsense assumptions more systematically. In so doing, scholars have first of all problematized the very term “emotion.” The term is used in this article for convenience, but it is an anachronism in that it entered European languages slowly and unevenly during the period under study here. While Humboldt, writing in French, used the word “emotion,” he used it in a fundamentally different way from how it is used today to describe a feeling that arises from within. Until the late 19th century, the term’s more common uses highlighted “physical movement and active demonstration,” and a stirring or arousal of an individual by an external force.2 For colonial Latin Americans, most commonly, this was an alteración (alteration) or pasión (passion). Indeed, the term “passion,” whose meaning has now altered significantly, was in the early modern world the most common term for what we now call emotion. This insight calls historians to ponder how variations in the definitions, labels, and understandings of emotions may have affected how they were experienced and regulated. For example, thinking of emotions as passions and alterations highlighted the changes that “came over” people when they experienced them. Conceiving of emotions in this manner emphasized the distance between the involuntary nature of the passions and the deliberative processes of reason. However, some emotional states were actions rather than reactions; in the hierarchy of early modern emotion, passions and alterations were different from “affections,” which were related to voluntary acts of the rational soul.3 Love, then, could be either an affection or a passion. It might be thought of as a malady, but it might also be conceived as an “inclination of the will toward good,” in the formulation of Juan Luis Vives.4 In thinking of emotions in this way, early modern people portrayed and experienced their feelings not as intrinsic or as expressions of individual psychology, but as either voluntary inclinations toward the good, or as forces that acted upon the bodies and minds of human beings, sometimes rendering them powerless to resist.5

The variability of what is meant by “emotion” is a reminder that taking the history of emotion seriously requires students of history to overcome the familiarity of apparent cognates to their own experiences. Love, hate, jealousy, desire, rage, sorrow, and delight may seem to be familiar and transhistorical states, but the contextual natures and meanings of these emotions may be utterly alien to modern understandings. Moreover, though modern readers may wish to read words such as “melancholy” as simple equivalents of what contemporary societies perceive as depression, the varying words and physical markers used to identify emotional states are significant enough to merit sustained investigation.

Beyond these key semantic interventions, scholars have created a new subfield that uses emotions as a category of analysis, cataloguing not only distinctive and changing modes of emotional expression, but also the causal or catalyzing role emotions have played in historical events and processes. This new field of study is enhancing and altering how historians understand colonial Latin American religion, ethnic relations and colonial domination, marriage and sexuality, and political and public life.

Development of and Key Concepts in the History of Emotion

Though (as Humboldt’s words suggest) emotions have always been part of history-writing, studying emotion itself is a relatively new activity for historians. Scholars disagree on the precise genealogy of the field but concur on two points. First, the development of the history of emotion is inseparable from the rise of psychology as an academic discipline and public preoccupation—despite the fact that historians have distanced themselves from psychology and its neuroscientific evolutions.6 Second, most scholars acknowledge the foundational contribution of several European works. The first of these was Johan Huizinga’s Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (The waning of the Middle Ages) (1919), which refigured the medieval period, highlighting its pervasive, uncontrolled violence and pessimism and recasting chivalry as an essentially emotional reaction to the confusion and brutality of the age. Arguably even more important as foundational works were two studies that appeared in the 1930s: George Febvre’s La Grande Peur de 1789 (The great fear of 1789) (1932) and Norbert Elias’s Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (The civilizing process) (1939). Both of these works focused on significant, large-scale emotional changes with political implications. Febvre studied the mobilization of emotion, particularly fear, as a consequence of social conditions; Elias focused on how the rise of the state produced a growing emphasis on the control of the emotions (and their bodily expression). Historians have criticized both works for binary constructions of reason versus emotion and for “hydraulic” understandings of emotions as natural impulses disciplined by society; both works nonetheless remain highly influential. Furthermore, the questions both scholars asked—about the relationship between emotions and political structures and the role of emotion in propelling significant historical events—remain germane to historical understanding, not least as applied to colonial Latin America.

In 20th-century continental Europe, Annales-influenced historians adopted emotions as a category of analysis within their study of mentalités (mentalities); within Anglo-American scholarship, in contrast, the influence of Elias and Febvre was undoubtedly limited by the late translation (1973–1982) of their foundational works into English. Thereafter, however, English-language studies of historical emotion grew steadily. Spanish- and Portuguese-language scholars were quicker to adopt the study of emotion, though primarily through the examination of daily life, the family, and mentalities rather than through scrutiny of emotion as a topic in itself. Perhaps as a result, many key concepts and theoretical interventions in the history of emotion have emerged from the work of scholars working in European and Anglo-American history.

In a 1985 essay, Peter Stearns and Carol Stearns proposed the neologism “emotionology” to “distinguish the collective emotional standards of a society from the emotional experiences of individuals and groups.”7 Stearns and Stearns argued that in the study of emotion, context is everything; emotions cannot be understood without recourse to the social structures in which they are experienced and expressed. They noted that the regulations established by a given society are often more possible to discern than the nature of an individual’s emotional experience; though interesting in themselves, collective emotional standards should not be taken as reflecting actual emotional experience. That said, emotional standards are important, and their variability—not only from society to society, but for different groups within a given society—can inform not only our understanding of licit and illicit emotion, but our broader understandings of social organization.

From this starting point, scholars developed the conversation in two discrete but complementary directions. The variability of emotional expressions and standards within societies was the starting point for medievalist Barbara Rosenwein. In her work on the early Middle Ages, Rosenwein developed the term “emotional communities” to describe the many different sets of emotional standards that govern communities (based on social status, gender, religion, or other characteristics) within a given society.8 American historian William Reddy, for his part, highlighted the regulatory nature of emotionology, exploring how societies impose and manage their emotional standards. Reddy describes how, by managing the expression of emotion (“emotives”), each society establishes control over the emotional lives of its inhabitants. In so doing, each society creates an “emotional regime,” not merely a set of standards governing emotions, but the “official rituals, emotives, and practices that express and inculcate them.”9 Though Reddy emphasized speech acts in his discussion of emotional expression, Monique Scheer pointed to the non-verbal components of feeling and expression. Emotions cannot be understood as impulses separate from the body, Scheer argues, but should be understood as practices of the body, as “bodily dispositions conditioned by a social context, which always has cultural and historical specificity.”10

The development of the history of emotions, then, emerged from an early focus on how raw emotions emerging from individual bodies were disciplined and shaped by society and the state; today, however, historians are more likely to focus on variable and culturally specific standards and on specific verbal and physical practices (for example, prayer) that not only convey but shape emotion. The history of emotion in colonial Latin America partakes of all of these historiographical currents.

A Distinctive Emotional Regime? Colonialism, Politics, and Material Conditions

While the history of emotion is a relatively new field, the portrayal of Latin American emotional distinctiveness has a long history. Indeed, the colonies of Latin America grew alongside a persistent (and decidedly not disinterested) stereotype of debased emotion that lies at the heart of the Black Legend. Bartolomé de las Casas and Thomas Gage, unintentional and conscious architects of the legend respectively, both participated in the creation of this stereotype. Both men, in their depictions of colonial history and society, painted a picture of Spanish colonizers as fundamentally driven by sinful and pathologically intense emotions: pride, ambition, hatred, and cruelty. Las Casas portrayed the Conquest as an act of violence visited upon innocent, contented, childlike indigenous people inhabiting “lands which teemed with people and should surely have been a joy and delight to any true Christian.”11 The perpetrators were Spaniards representing the worst depravity and emotional excess, who found pleasure only in torture and violence. The Dominican argued that not only were the conquerors of the Americas particularly cruel and villainous, but they became more so through the course of their residency. Rather than taking pleasure in the goodness of the land and its people, they delighted in new and innovative cruelties: “The longer they spent in the region the more ingenious were the torments, each crueler than the last, that they inflicted on their victims, as God finally abandoned them and left them to plummet headlong into a life of full-time crime and wickedness.”12

Gage echoed these arguments in his highly emotional portrayal of Spanish America, adding to Las Casas’ accusations an indictment of Catholicism. Gage portrayed Spanish America’s Creole inhabitants as ambitious, wicked, greedy, lustful, and given to trivial enjoyments. The degree to which the English adopted such views of Spanish and Spanish American character can be glimpsed in their passion for Oliver Cromwell’s attempt to seize Caribbean territory. The failure of the Western Design was experienced by the English as an inexplicable humiliation, given the self-evidently providential nature of English conquest over such evil foes.13 Despite this fiasco, however, the basic European conception of Spanish American character persisted throughout the colonial period and into the 20th century, expanding far beyond the original anti-conqueror polemic to encompass the entirety of Spanish American society. In particular, emotionalism, avarice, triviality, and above all cruelty came to form the core of the denigratory emotional stereotype of colonial Latin Americans. Such stereotypes continued to affect international relations and the treatment of Latin Americans well into the 20th century; some commentators have noted their recent resuscitation in political rhetoric. Though the content of the stereotypical emotional character of Latin Americans may be inaccurate, there is some evidence for a distinctive regional emotional regime.

The emotional content of colonization has been a subject of indirect comment for many decades. Perhaps most notably, a longstanding tradition attributed the Conquest of Mexico at least partially to the emotional collapse of the Mexica tlatoani Motecuhzoma II, whose melancholic and even despairing responses to the presence of Spaniards in his empire were recorded by Bernal Díaz and many other chroniclers of the colonial period. The “melancholic” nature of indigenous society—particularly in Mexico—became a trope.

In the aftermath of conquest, widespread despair was attributed to indigenous people so frequently as to form what Matthew Restall has called “the myth of native desolation.” According to this story of devastation, indigenous societies experienced “a sense of futility, emotional emptiness, psychological despair, and a confusion over the apparent breakdown of previous systems of value and meaning.”14 The evaluation of indigenous emotional norms continued to occupy colonizers long after the conquest. Seventeenth-century Mexican bishop, viceroy, and putative saint Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, for example, wrote of indigenous people’s natural stoicism, manifested as obedience, humility, and lack of pride or wrath.15 While such stereotypes often lack nuance, various indigenous societies obviously exhibited distinct emotional regimes. Scholars of Nahua history have noted the centrality of rites of passage, particularly death, in Mexica culture; and the distinct valuation of sorrow, particularly as an obligation of nobles, may have produced a characteristic emotional regime with strong affinities for Catholicism.16 The local and historicized emotional responses of indigenous peoples to conquest, demographic disaster, and colonization are a topic of great interest that has received limited exploration thus far despite its significance to understandings of colonialism. Indeed, as Andrew Fisher has astutely observed, the distinction between Spanish and indigenous emotional regimes and registers was fundamental to the colonial enterprise and required relatively astute and conscious emotional performances by both colonizer and colonized.17 The emotions of dominators have received only slightly more attention. Notably, not only conquest but colonial rule itself required colonizers to project confidence and control their fear.18 Indeed, the distinct emotional states and regimes generated by the experience of colonization are worthy of further consideration. For example, the brutalities of slavery generated their own emotions, including relentless and uncontrolled anger among owners and despair among slaves faced with unending maltreatment.19 Slavery also produced its own affective regime. As Bianca Premo has noted, love was foundational to the legal conception of Spanish American slavery. Not only did love permit slaves to make claims against their owners (to prevent being separated from spouses), but owners frequently cited their love for their slaves as rationale for manumitting them. Freedom and slavery, rather than standing in opposition to love, were assumed to be “part of the same system of affective relationships.”20

The system of honor, which regulated relations among and within social groups in colonial Latin American societies, was itself an emotional regime. Codes of honor prescribed sentiments, emotional expression, and bodily comportment; furthermore, attunement to a system of honor was in itself productive of emotion, most notably pride and anger. Honor, with its accompanying emotions and affects, may have been considered an attribute of the elite, but honor conditioned and produced emotion among all social groups.21

As the foregoing suggests, emotions were not only conditioned by political realities but were constitutive of what we consider political life, including the relations among the colonizer elite. As early as the 17tth century, Thomas Gage identified hatred and jealousy as the hallmarks of the Creole–Spaniard relationship:

The cause of this deadly hatred hath proceeded from a jealousie which the Spaniards have ever had of the Criolio’s, that they would fain withdraw themselves first from the Commerce with Spain, and secondly, from the Government which is laid upon them; which is such, that the Criolio’s must be always under, and a subject, always governed, but scarce any a Governour.22

While such rivalries and enmities may have divided colonial society, it was ultimately held together by emotion: that is, by the love, loyalty, and fear that were presumed to link each colonial subject to the body of the monarch. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, political writers consistently asserted that love was “the defining element in political relations of domination and subordination.”23 How much a king should love his subjects, and whether they should love him more, were topics of discussion and publication. Ultimately, a king’s emotions, and the emotions he elicited in his subjects, were of central importance to rulership. In order to be obeyed, a monarch had to be feared; but if he were only feared and not loved, the loving loyalty of his subjects would falter and might turn to hate. In a state lacking true coercive power, the emotional relationship between monarch and subject was central to the exercise of political power.24 Given the importance of the monarch’s body and presence to eliciting the required love from his subjects, colonial rule produced challenges and the requirement for proxies; thus were European practices and emotions transmuted by colonial reality. Regardless of these challenges, love was political, and the solemn and intensely sensory funeral rituals that followed the death of a king were not only performances of mourning, but profound expressions and elicitors of an emotional response that bound the colonial polity.25

To a significant degree, the political importance of emotion was echoed in colonial administration. Cities too were the objects of love. “Civic pride,” a term used today, was not used in colonial Latin America because of the negative connotations of a term identified with the Seven Deadly Sins. Instead, love, particularly the love between parent and child, was marshaled as the emotion most relevant to the right relationship between a city and its inhabitants.26

Though the emotional effects of political and caste structures seem relatively self-evident, the emotional impact of material conditions should not be overlooked. Poverty, for example, could engender not only despair but anger at God, culminating in blasphemy or sacrilege. Other material conditions may have transcended caste and political distinctions to produce a characteristically colonial Latin American emotional regime. For example, despite highly variable death rates among various social groups, death was nonetheless a great and omnipresent equalizer. Death, sorrow, and mourning were therefore constant companions to colonial Latin Americans of all castes and conditions. While some aspects of death and mourning, such as extravagant death rituals, were clearly class-specific, others united colonial Latin Americans. For example, by the late 16th century and throughout much of Spanish America, parents and clerics alike came to believe that young children who died became “little angels,” enjoying immediate and intimate access to God, with whom they acted as family intercessors. The consolatory power of this belief may have conditioned emotional responses to ubiquitous child death. By the 17th century, it had become common for deaths of young children to be registered as deaths of angelitos. This attribution was not dependent upon legitimacy, class, or race; the term was granted to children of all conditions. Interestingly, distinctive rituals developed to mark the death of a young child: angelitos went to their burials crowned with flowers and accompanied by cheerful rather than doleful bells.27 Colonial Latin Americans might thus be united not only by suffering in the face of child death, but by the consolatory assurance of their child’s happiness in Heaven.

Domains, Regimes, and Communities of Emotion in Colonial Latin America: The Catholic Church’s Role

Despite stereotypes and notions of regional or national character, it is impossible to discern one particular emotional regime in any Latin American region, let alone across regions. By deploying the concept of emotional community, however, the historian can access multiple regimes and practices in various domains of colonial Latin American society. The first and arguably most important arbiter of emotion throughout the colonial period was the Catholic Church. Because emotional states were understood as religiously significant and imbued with moral implications, the Church became the authority on what constituted appropriate emotional expression—and even on appropriate feelings themselves, since even unexpressed emotional responses could be sinful.

The definition and regulation of “right” emotion, then, was in colonial Latin America in large part the purview of the Catholic Church. This should not be confused with a general hostility toward emotion. To be sure, Christian thinkers drew from Stoicism a distrust of extreme emotional states and “emotionalism,” and a preference for relatively flat and controlled affect. On the other hand, an equally powerful stream of Christian thought saw the experience of profound emotion as one of the key mechanisms binding the individual soul to God.28 Even those who inclined to emotional control tended to see emotion as central to worship, and to the relationship between believers (particularly plebeians) and their faith. Popular cults, such as devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart, frankly cultivated deep emotional response among believers; the ceremonies, rituals and art of Catholicism also fostered such profound and passionate responses, as can be seen in extant colonial images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.29

While the Church may have sought to inculcate the appropriate expression of emotion, moreover, the emotional regime it attempted to impose was only partially accepted, even by the clergy. First, though peace, humility, and Christian love were exalted as appropriate emotions for clerics, many of them failed to govern themselves accordingly. As Gage noted with characteristic hyperbole (and yet some insight), clerics could be a fractious bunch: “no Hatred is comparable to that which is between a Jesuite and a Fryer, or any other of Rome’s religious orders … But above all is this Envy and Hatred found between Dominicans and Jesuits.”30 Other sinful emotions were also rife among clerics.

In addition to this limitation on the Church’s hegemony, the religious, moralizing view of emotion was complemented (and sometimes contested) by medical and popular beliefs that attributed emotion to natural causes. Galenic humoral theory, which enjoyed wide acceptance (including by churchmen) throughout the colonial period, lent itself to a quasi-medical approach to emotion that can be seen in many colonial documents. This point of view was prevalent among the learned, but also familiar to plebeians. When neighbors said of an 18th-century Mexican man who brutally beat his wife that he had an “excitable and choleric temperament,” they were locating emotional expression not in the realm of sin and morality, but in the realm of variable, natural humoral tendency.31

Still, the Church had the pre-eminent role in establishing a hierarchy of emotion. One effect of this hegemony may have been the valorization of sorrow above other emotions.32 Individual sorrow was not only a natural response to the fallen state of humanity but an inevitable reaction to the sufferings of the crucified Christ, the lamentations of his mother, and the daily revelations of human sinfulness and the many disastrous outcomes it was believed to produce. Mass public outpourings of grief, though less common, were appropriate for and demanded by certain occasions. For example, the autos de fé held by the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City and Lima were characterized by a mood of bereavement and grief, despite the disgust sometimes elicited by the penitents themselves.33 If autos de fé were dramatic but rare spectacles, more common were penitential processions organized in times of drought, disease, or disaster. Onlookers’ sorrow, elicited by the gravity of the processions and the bodily mortifications of their participants, was offered to God as evidence of the repentance of His people.34 At the level of individual worship, colonial Latin Americans seem to have been particularly attracted to devotions involving sadness. The cult of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast was only extended to the full Catholic Church in the 18th century, was significant in colonial Latin America much earlier. In Mexico, for example, numerous depictions of the Mater Dolorosa circulated throughout the colonial period; she was portrayed in every medium from cheap print to the most precious devotional objects. In many ways, then, the colonial Latin American emotional regime demanded and valorized sorrow; however, as Figure 1 shows, even the contemplation of sorrow could be an experience of beauty and pleasure.

Figure 1. Our Lady of Sorrows. Oil on wood. Coro, Venezuela, 18th century. The dolorous image of the Virgin, pierced by a sword and holding her son’s broken body, is nonetheless contained in an ornate and spectacular frame. The juxtaposition of frame and image creates a complex melding of beauty and horror, with the red of the frame echoing the blood dripping down the white drapery in the foreground of the painting. This private devotional object, owned by a member of the colonial elite, demonstrates the commingling of pleasure and sorrow.

Courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art. Promised Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cosneros.

While sorrow and suffering were valued and useful, however, their register was important; if excessive (melancholy), or productive of religious doubt (despair), these emotions were sinful. The boundaries between sadness and melancholy were blurred, just as those between sadness and depression are today. Persistent, excessive, and inexplicable sadness could be labeled melancholy, particularly if accompanied by certain physical symptoms. Given the belief of many early modern Europeans that they were living through an epidemic of melancholy, it is not surprising to find Fray Agustín Farfán commenting in 1592 that “It is a marvel how common this illness is among many, and how it afflicts them and torments them.”35 While sufferers of melancholy were often treated with compassion, their emotional state was understood as both natural and supernatural in origin. An individual’s humoral composition and nature might predispose him or her to melancholy, and demonic temptation might produce it; ultimately, though, sufferers were not blameless, since they ought to resist the snares of the devil. Not surprisingly, perhaps, two groups considered particularly susceptible to demonic temptation, indigenous people and women, were also judged to suffer frequently from melancholy.36

If melancholics could be held culpable for their condition, those who surrendered to despair were in a state of mortal sin. Today, despair is understood by most secular people as an emotional and psychological matter; for the colonial Latin American church, sufferers were not blameless, because despair meant doubting the might and mercy of God. Such doubts were sinful whether or not an individual actually expressed them through word or deed. Not surprisingly, both the construction and the experience of despair were intensely colored by the religious perspective, as evidenced by the number of sufferers who regarded their torments as the result of persecution by the devil. The religious perspective on despair also found its way into legal treatments of suicide. According to the Siete Partidas, despair was a crime because of its close kinship with apostasy; while the apostate overtly renounced God, the despairer did so implicitly, by denying the ability of God to save.37

While archives contain ample evidence of sorrowful states, happy ones are more elusive. Concluding that colonial Latin Americans were therefore not happy, however, would be unwarranted. Certainly, the notion of happiness as a fixed state that should be pursued as an individual good (a characteristically modern definition) was alien to colonial Latin America. Colonial Latin Americans were more likely to speak of joy, pleasure, and delight. The Church sponsored rituals of joy, for example, the “joyful masses” celebrated by 16th-century Jesuits in Brazil, which featured indigenous musical instruments, songs, and dances.38 Ceremonies honoring a royal birth or a triumph in battle were also occasions for the outpouring of public joy. In their personal lives and interactions, colonial Latin Americans were more likely to use the term “delights,” focusing on the ephemeral and external nature of pleasurable experiences rather than on a persistent state of happiness. Does this mean that colonial Latin Americans were less happy than other human beings? Such a conclusion would be premature to say the least. Indeed, the overall impression one receives from colonial Latin American culture is of delight in celebration, whether public parties, festivals, and street amusements or private parties and festivities.

Sexual Confessions: Love, Lust, Desire, Jealousy, and Hate

The Catholic Church’s role in promoting sexual morality among Christians in the aftermath of the Council of Trent is well known, as is its effort to indoctrinate Indigenous people into Christian sexual ideals. The confessional was a central tool in this effort. What is less often acknowledged is that confession was itself inevitably and by design an emotional experience. Indeed, the mechanics of confession promoted an emotional response, not least with regard to sexuality. To take one obvious example, confessional manuals promoted guilt and shame about illicit practices. Language suggested for the use of confessors inculcated these emotions. For example, Andean women were to be asked about cunnilingus in these terms: “Your shameful parts, desiring good-for-nothing-kisses, are you a prostitute?”39 One may assume that such accusatory, shaming language had emotional effects on all but the most resistant of confessants. On the other hand, confessors’ questions could themselves be a source of pleasure and a mode of instruction therein, as church fathers were uncomfortably aware. The Church’s control and surveillance of sexuality, then, was productive of emotional responses. While not all colonial Latin Americans confessed frequently, those who did were arguably part of a new colonial emotional–sexual regime in which self-scrutiny and guilt coexisted with sexual learning and interiorized sexual pleasures.40 Indeed, sexuality and religion were to a large degree interpenetrative. In Brazil, for example, practitioners of sexual magic promised that reciting “this is my body” into a lover’s mouth in a blasphemous echo of the mass would drive the lover mad with love and desire. Sometimes, the cross-fertilization of sexuality and religion would lead to sexual fantasies involving religious figures, as in the case of Agustina Ruiz, a young woman denounced to New Spain’s Holy Office in the early 17th century.41

Sexual self-examination as promoted by confessional practices concerned not just deeds but desires—indeed, sexuality in general, and sexual fantasy in particular, may be said to form a privileged theme in confessional manuals. Lust was viewed as a particularly dangerous sin precisely because of its ubiquity.42 Moreover, it was a gateway to and implicated other sins. Desiring sex with someone was akin to fornication, and desiring to participate in other sexual sins incurred those sins themselves. For example, a man who desired to have sex with a nun was guilty of sacrilege, just as he would have been had he actually fulfilled his desires. The “morose delight” available through semi-voluntary, semi-conscious entertaining of sinful thoughts was another opportunity for illicit pleasure. Even widows, married people, and engaged couples could sin by thinking about or remembering sexual acts; the “commotion of the flesh” that might result from these thoughts and memories was proof of their sinfulness. Both men and women were imperiled by illicit sexual pleasures, but men faced an additional danger, since lust was conceived as effeminizing.43 Sexual desire and pleasure, whether in thought or in deed, were thus fraught with opportunities for sin, while opportunities for licit sexual enjoyment were limited.44

That said, colonial Latin Americans succumbed to their desires with great regularity. Some upheld the idea that fornication between single people was no sin, thus conferring licitness on their desires; more commonly, others retroactively expressed regret for having “fallen,” but blamed their actions on passion or “dishonest love.” Feelings of guilt and shame coexisted with (and failed to extinguish) desire and lust.45 Visible in the many cases involving such declarations is a colonial Latin American culture distinct from yet intermeshed with that of the confessional. In this culture, love and desire were regular experiences, censured by the confessional but celebrated in popular songs and poems. Churchmen warned youth to avoid “repeating scandalous songs” or “reading lascivious books,” but both temptations were clearly abundant.46 In response to these conflicting messages, colonial Latin American men and women “acted their sentiments without much undue regard to the consequences,” perhaps because the religious view of humanity as sinful and fragile paradoxically provided rationale and logic for giving in to desire.47 Lasting throughout the colonial period, this other culture is visible as celebrated—in songs, poems, plays, a few extant love letters—and as deplored—in such documents as the record of the thirteen-year visita of Caracas bishop Mariano Martí, whose catalogue of his flock’s many misdeeds was dominated by sexual misconduct.48 Despite the sporadic (and rarely harsh) censure of the Church, however, desire was a constant undercurrent in popular culture. The illicit nature of sexual pleasures may have even increased the excitement they generated; for example, the thrill of possessing forbidden objects appears to have animated late colonial Mexican men who created or owned pornographic images.49 The “pleasure of sinning” should therefore be added to the emotional possibilities of a society ostensibly ruled by devotion.50

While the foregoing may seem to suggest that the Church was hostile to romantic love, such a conclusion is unwarranted. Churchmen were suspicious of unbridled lust and youthful desire, but the Church upheld the rights of youth to select their own marriage partners, and to this degree must be considered a proponent of romantic love. Indeed, the ideal of Christian marriage was exceptionally emotional, promoting intimacy and communication among the spouses and establishing (theoretical) sexual reciprocity.51 Clergy celebrated marriage as a potential “earthly paradise,” a “union of complementary spirits.” This message seems to have dovetailed with popular conceptions of marriage to some degree, as expressed by a man who counseled a woman whose husband was sick and old that she needed someone “to give her pleasure, to comfort her, and to make her laugh.”52 The Church’s celebration of love did not extend, however, to a celebration of romantic passion. Moralists condemned marriages based entirely upon passionate love or love at first sight, which was too close for comfort to the sin of lust and a weak foundation for a lasting marriage.53 Again, however, the undeniable authority of the Church conflicted with other messages emanating from popular culture, particularly the theater, where passionate love reigned supreme. Discourses elevating passionate love can be seen in Inquisition cases where even adulterine couples might mount a defense of love’s laws against those of society.54 And, as Ronaldo Vainfas has shown for colonial Brazil, the traces of romantic passion are seen not only in heterosexual milieux, but in the illicit same-sex relationships documented in the archives of repression. Despite the best efforts of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church and the Holy Office, romantic love was present in the relationships of heterosexual concubines—and those of men who had sex with men of vastly different social station.55

Both in the theater and in the streets, jealousy dogged the heels of love and lust. Closely related to the sin of envy, jealousy resulted from the fear of losing or the actual loss of a loved one. While humoral theory evaluated women as particularly inclined toward jealousy, both sexes could become jealous, though with different effects related to their unequal positions in society. Sonya Lipsett-Rivera has found that though late colonial Mexican men and women both experienced and acted upon their jealousy, women were overwhelmingly the targets of physical violence by male lovers, husbands, and other women.56 Here too, church teachings conflicted with the discourses of popular culture; while jealousy was portrayed in religious discourse as a sinful and unworthy emotion, it was portrayed on the stage as an inevitable and to some degree licit companion of passionate love.57 One Brazilian woman had been married for thirty years when her husband began to accuse her of adulteries with multiple men, beating her seriously and attempting to mutilate her genitals.

Even farther away from idealized forms of companionate marriage was hate. While this emotion was clearly not a licit part of conjugal relations, it nonetheless represented one end of the emotional spectrum of marriage and could result from suffering the “mala vida” with one’s partner. Seventeenth-century Mexican bigamist Mariana Monroy, for example, described her husband as “perverted” and “disturbed” and said that his ill-treatment had resulted in her detesting him.58 The same enmity was evinced by an early 19th-century Brazilian wife who described not only her husband’s violence, but her physical revulsion for him.59 Hatred for a wife could also result when a man began a relationship with another woman and came to resent the continued claims of the lawful relationship.60

Romantic and sexual emotions thus ran the gamut, from the passionate desires of early courtship to the depths of jealousy and hatred into which many colonial couples seem to have fallen. While churchmen promoted sober, companionate Christian marriages based on love, respect, and spiritual union, colonial Latin American popular culture offered more exciting stories of heightened emotions: burning desires, passionate adoration, and fierce jealousies. Both models left their mark on the emotional regimes of colonial Latin America.

Emotions and the Family

While the literature on sexuality and marriage in colonial Latin America is robust, there is less scholarship on other aspects of family life, particularly its emotional qualities. In large part, this is because sources that testify to the emotional life of the family, and particularly to familial love, are difficult to access.61 The family was presumed to “constitute an affectionate household,” and there is certainly evidence that it did so. Not only the foundation of love between the marital pair, but the affection between parents and children, were considered basic to the family by moralists. Like the love between ruler and subjects, however, the love between parents and children was presumed to differ according to the role and responsibilities of each. Children were therefore to honor and obey their parents, parents to cherish, teach, succor, and guide their children. It is difficult to know how many families replicated these ideals. Evidence of feckless and brutal parents can be found, to be sure, but many sources attest to the deep love that parents had for their children. For example, such affection is manifested (and sometimes described) in provisions made for illegitimate or “natural” children, or in mothers’ attempts to reclaim children whose births had been kept clandestine in order to avoid social disapproval.62 Sometimes, evidence shows, parents’ love for their children trumped patriarchal insistence on honor, respect for parental authority, and observance of social norms. Fatherly love was sometimes expressed in deeply affectionate terms and without regard to patriarchal obsessions such as daughters’ virginity or legitimacy.63

Reforming Emotion: 18th-Century Alterations

Over time, the power of colonial and primarily religious understandings of emotion gave way. To some degree, these changes came from the Church itself. Mental and emotional states once viewed as religious, such as hysteria, came to be medicalized by the Inquisition.64 Reformists from within the Church countered “superstitious” practices such as the attribution of angelic status to deceased children. While the 1778 extension to America of the Pragmatic Sanction on marriage was a state initiative, 18th-century churchmen had themselves begun to distrust the wisdom of permitting youth to choose their own marriage partners; from 1740 on, churchmen promoted approaches more accommodating of parental opposition.65

Emotional control was always a valued component of the colonial Latin American emotional regime, drawing on the Stoic thread within Christian and political philosophy. Lack of emotional control was also associated with lower-status individuals (women, plebeians, indigenous people, and slaves) from the 16th century forward. However, distrust of extreme emotion and its display grew in the 18th century. Reformers came to doubt the veracity of the extravagant emotional displays and the effulgent demonstrations of sorrow that characterized Spanish American funerals; Manuel Atanasio Fuentes, commenting on Liman practices, condemned “the lugubrious apparatus of a melancholy that was more or less faked, for whom they made deep sighs and shed abundant tears.” The syncretic funeral rituals of Afro-Peruvians were also singled out for disapproval, in part because of their emotional “inappropriateness”; the rituals commenced with sorrow and seriousness, but culminated in drinking, singing, and dancing. The performative character of sorrow, whether among the high-spending elite or among drunken plebeians, was singled out by modernizers as antithetical to authentic, sober, and healthful practices.66 Plebeian emotional display came in for particular comment, which could take on racial overtones, as in Humboldt’s observation that mulattos were notable for the “violence of their passions,” a view also promoted by some late colonial casta paintings.67 While the critiques of reformers (sometimes themselves marked by emotional reactions of contempt and disgust) had limited effect, attacks on longstanding emotional practices may well have broadened the divide between elite and popular emotional norms. Fear of the emotional excesses of lower-status individuals would be a recurrent leitmotif in the Independence movements.68

While control of emotional excess and creation of social order were at the heart of reformers’ critiques, some Bourbon-era changes had more paradoxical relationships to emotion. After centuries of attempting to control gambling, a practice consistently deplored by the Church, the Spanish crown implemented a Royal Lottery in the late 18th century. Denigrating illegal gambling as a “dark passion,” royal officers promoted the lottery as “honest recreation.” In so doing, they not only enriched royal coffers, but paved the way for the destigmatization of gambling. Overcoming longstanding religious scruples against the seeking of money, the Bourbon promotion of licit gambling signaled modernity and the pursuit of material happiness.69

Many of these 18th-century changes can be understood as evidence of secularization, but as Zeb Tortorici has argued, it may be more appropriate to view these changes as “hybridization,” as medical, psychological, and secular understandings came to complement but not replace religious ones.70 Indeed, many of the religio-emotional practices and beliefs criticized by reformers in the 18th and 19th centuries continued to be part of Latin American life into the 20th century.

In 2015, global polling found Latin Americans not only “more emotional” than citizens of other regions, but more given to positive affect.71 Projecting such a finding backward in time would be irresponsible, to say the least; furthermore, the attribution of an overall “Latin American” emotional regime ignores the many regional variations extant today as in the colonial period. Still, this recent finding does suggest that the colonial Latin American emotional regime merits investigation in both its local manifestations and its broadest, transregional outlines.

Discussion of the Literature

As previously discussed, much of the literature on emotion in colonial Latin America emerges from studies of daily life, sexuality and marriage, and mentalité. Despite the richness of much of this material, it can be described (using Rosenwein’s term) as “unfocussed” emotion history—that is, as work that reveals a great deal about emotion, often in a nuanced manner, though its primary focus lies elsewhere. While it would be impossible to list all of the works that fall into this category, several outstanding works may serve as exempla. The scholars involved in the Mexico City Seminar on Mentalities produced many studies relating (but not limited) to emotion, such as El placer de pecar y el afán de normar.72 Laura de Mello e Souza’s edited volume, Historia da vida privada no Brasil, again with a focus on daily life, offers insight into the emotional norms of Portuguese America.73 Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo’s Historia de la vida cotidiana, Volume 1, contains numerous insightful explorations of emotions and their relation to colonial domination, even if the focus of the work is a broader exploration of daily life in early New Spain.74 Similarly, Patricia Seed’s To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico, while primarily focused on disputes over marriage, offers significant detail on social constructions and experiences of romantic love.75 Not surprisingly, scholarship on sexuality often renders fascinating and profound details on emotions such as love, desire, and disgust. Noteworthy in this regard are the works of Luiz Mott, an anthropologist whose studies of the Brazilian Inquisition have revealed not only the pervasiveness of male same-sex desire, but the important role of sodomy in the Brazilian imaginary.76 Historian Ronaldo Vainfas, studying the same body of documentation in his Tropicos dos pecados, has highlighted the consistent identification of Brazil as a land of sinfulness, which both reflected and produced a culture of sexual laxity that celebrated pleasure while entrenching a deeply hierarchical social order.77

In the past few years, a more focused literature on emotion has emerged, though there are many more published works relating to the history of emotion in republican Latin America than there are colonial emotion histories. In addition, while republican-period works have studied all regions, with South America very well represented, the colonial literature has focused disproportionately on Mexico. Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpurú has been arguably the strongest proponent of colonial emotion history.78 Her co-edited collection Gozos y sufrimientos de la historia de México highlights the regularity of suffering as a colonial experience, both at sea and on land, but also the meaning of suffering in a Catholic context. Pleasure, in contrast, resulted in theory from the enjoyment of God’s mercy—but in practice, also from less licit romantic and sexual pleasures. Another of Gonzalbo’s co-edited collections, Una historia de los usos del miedo, gathers thirteen essays on various manifestations of fear from prehispanic times to the mid-20th century, with colonial entries on such themes as fear of indigenous insurrection, fear of earthquakes, fear in preaching, and fear of hell. Most recently, she has published another edited collection, Amor e historia: La expresión de los afectos en el mundo de ayer, a study of love organized into five parts. This encyclopedic treatment discusses not merely the medieval origins of Latin American conceptions of love, but love as experienced and expressed in its many forms. Conjugal and familial love share space with love’s mystical and divine manifestations, along with less-studied forms of love such as love of science and love of the sea. Gonzalbo’s expansion of the study of love is echoed by Roger Bartra’s work on melancholy. Bartra has not only devoted significant attention to melancholy himself, but has published a collection of essays on the topic, Transgresión y melancolía en el México colonial, which unites articles addressing a variety of forms of melancholy.79 The gendering of emotion is often only implicitly addressed by scholars of emotion, but is made explicit in María Luisa Candau Chacón’s edited collection Las mujeres y las emociones en Europa y América.80 Particularly noteworthy are the collection’s attention to embodied emotion, not least in Candau Chacón’s own contribution, and the presence within it of essays on women’s emotion in 18th- and 19th-century Chile. This bodes well for the broadening of the field’s current regional emphases. In English-language scholarship, Sonya Lipsett-Rivera and Javier Villa-Flores’ edited collection Emotions and Daily Life in Colonial Mexico studies not only the personal and intimate experiences of joy, melancholy, love, desire, and jealousy, but the institutional frameworks within which emotion was defined, prescribed, and experienced; as authors within the volume show, emotions were not merely active in personal relations, but were invoked in explicitly political contexts, for example the right relationship between monarch and subjects, or the harnessing and promotion of civic pride.81 The emotional manifestations of social and political change at the end of the period are also examined.

While recent years have seen a steady stream of works dedicated to the examination of emotion, either per se or as an important component of daily life, the field must still be regarded as nascent, and there is much to be done. Tasks for future historians of emotion in colonial Latin America include expanding the repertoire and fields of emotions, as well as the regions and periods, under study; identifying characteristically (or uniquely) American emotions, their periodization and regional manifestations, and their genesis; articulating the relationship between the senses and the emotions in the colonial context; identifying the changes that European emotions underwent in the New World and the relationship of these changes to colonial domination; devoting explicit attention to changes over the course of the colonial period; elaborating the multiple emotional communities and regimes within colonial Latin American societies; uncovering further evidence of affective relationships such as those between friends, or those between children and their parents and extended families; articulating group differences (related to gender, class, ethnicity, and indigeneity) in construction and expression of emotion; expanding the use of visual sources to consider the effects and affects of visual materials and print circulation; and finally, articulating the work of emotion with regard to human relations with the non-human world.

Primary Sources

The primary sources suited to the study of the history of emotion are circumscribed only by period or region. Emotion is in some senses to be found nowhere, in that few archives have documents or fonds explicitly dedicated to emotions. On the other hand, emotion can be found everywhere, as historians of emotion have proved in their interpretation of sources that may at first blush seem to contain very little relevant content. This introduction to primary sources is thus rudimentary. Letters are an obvious source for the history of emotion, though they have been less often used by historians of colonial Latin America than by European historians. For those working in the early colonial period, Enrique Otte’s Cartas privadas de emigrantes a Indias, 1540–1616 remains indispensable.82 Works of political philosophy and political theory published and circulated in early modern Iberia and its colonies have been turned to excellent use and, as Cañeque’s work shows, contain surprisingly rich emotional detail. Accounts of civic ceremonies and royal funeral exequies, some of which can be accessed in published form, are also excellent sources for the civic and political meanings and deployments of emotion. Chronicles of conquest and war written by both Iberian and indigenous participants permit access to attributions and performances of emotion in situations of conflict and domination. Missionary records are an obvious source of commentary on indigenous social norms and, perhaps even more clearly, Christian emotional regimes. Criminal records, particularly for the later colonial period, have been used by many to excellent effect, permitting a detailed examination not merely of particular emotions, but of individuals’ rationalizations of the links between emotions and behaviors. In a similar vein, the records of the Holy Office of the Inquisition are not only one of the most complete bodies of documentation for the early colony, but are particularly useful because of the Inquisition’s interrogation practices, which replicated sacramental confession and generated fulsome detail on thoughts and behaviors. In addition, Inquisition records often constitute one of the most productive entrees into popular culture for the period before cheap print. Unfortunately, however, Inquisition records are much more complete for Brazil and Mexico than for the areas covered by the Liman and Cartagenan tribunals. For the 17th century and beyond, the emotional content and impact of cheap print is in itself a useful topic with a ready (if fragmentary) body of sources. For Christian perspectives on emotion, psalmodies, confessional manuals, sermon collections, and devotional works are all excellent sources. Travelers’ memoirs are useful for their authors’ own emotional responses to Latin America, but also for their often keen-eyed outsider commentary on local mores and modes of expression. For the colonial period, students of the history of emotion should consider not merely the well-known works of Gage and Humboldt but the commentaries of buccaneers and other sojourners. In short, the sources for the history of emotion in colonial Latin America, though meager at first blush, are limited only by the imagination and insight of the historian.

Further Reading

  • Bartra, Roger. Transgresión y melancholia en el México colonial. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades, 2004.
  • Boddice, Rob. The History of Emotions. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2018.
  • Broomhall, Suzanne, ed. Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Earle, Rebecca. “Letters and Love in Colonial Spanish America.” The Americas 62, no. 1 (2005): 17–46.
  • Escalante Gonzalbo, Pablo. “La casa, el cuerpo, y las emociones.” In Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo, Historia de la vida cotidiana, Tomo I. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica/El Colegio de México, 2004.
  • Gonzalbo, Pilar, ed. Amor e historia. La expresión de los afectos en el mundo de ayer. Mexico: Colegio de México, 2013.
  • Gonzalbo, Pilar, Anne Staples, and Valentina Torres Septién, eds. Una historia de los usos del miedo. Mexico: Colegio de México/Universidad Iberoamericana, 2009.
  • Gonzalbo, Pilar, and Verónica Zárate Toscano. Gozos y sufrimientos en la historia de México. Mexico: Colegio de México, 2007.
  • Johnson, Lyman, and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, eds. The Faces of Honor: Sex, Shame, and Violence in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
  • Mott, Luiz. “Crypto-Sodomites in Colonial Brazil.” In Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America. Edited by Pete Sigal, 168–196. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Reddy, William. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2001.
  • Rosenwein, Barbara. Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Seminario de Historia de las Mentalidades y Religión en México Colonial. El placer de pecar y el afán de normar. Mexico: INAH, 1988.
  • Souza, Laura de Mello e., ed. Historia da vida privada no Brasil: Cotidiano e vida privada na América portuguesa. São Paulo: Editora Companhia das Letras, 1997.
  • Stearns, Carol Zisowitz, and Peter N. Stearns. Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Stearns, Peter N., and Carol Z. Stearns. “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards.” The American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (1985): 813–836.
  • Villa-Flores, Javier, and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, eds. Emotions and Daily Life in Colonial Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014.