Tracking colonial women in the Latin-American archives: challenges, lawsuits, and flavors

Just recently, I found myself delving into the many collections of sources within the Archivo General de la Nación, the National Archives of Uruguay in Montevideo seeking to find criminal lawsuits. Inside the labyrinth of records, I was able to find the documents I was looking for, with the helpful assistance of the archivists working there. It was during this exploration that I had an encounter with an elderly gentleman who, by all appearances, was a seasoned researcher in this archive. He approached me and said, “Hello, friend, what are you researching?” I promptly replied, “I am researching about women and crime in the colonial period.” Without hesitation, he responded, “Oh, what a shame, there’s hardly anything about that.” In defiance of his assumption, I confidently retorted: “Yes, there is! A lot!” This brief exchange left me pondering once more, “Why are people so sure that women are not in the archives?”

The “sabores” or flavors of the archive

Arlette Farge perfectly translates the “sabores” or flavors of the judicial archive into words. She describes it as an icy environment due to the necessary temperature control for the proper conservation of the documents, a place in which our “hands grow stiff” while we try to decipher them. Hours pass by as we diligently pore over manuscripts, some of them “barely legible to untrained eyes”, even when they have beautiful handwriting. What we might find is always unpredictable, either because of the conditions in which the documents were kept until they arrived at the conservation institution, or due to the content that we read in the cases. The number of sources is usually excessive and overwhelming, “like a spring tide, an avalanche, or a flood”, Farge observes. “When working in the archive you will often find yourself thinking of this exploration as a dive, a submersion, perhaps even a drowning . . . you feel immersed in something vast, oceanic.”(Farge (2009), 9-10, 11)

For me, the experience of delving into archives and researching historical lawsuits is akin to embarking on a profound underwater exploration, where I endeavor to unearth the overlooked details of people’s lives. Often, I find myself submerged in the vast sea of sources, captivated by the intricacies of daily existence that compel me to dive deeper and discover more. This ongoing endeavor to navigate this ocean of narratives has led me to uncover countless stories embedded within legal cases. Despite their fragmentation, they always motivate me to better understand women’s agencies in the colonial context in southern Latin America.

Habit of Spanish lady of Montevideo in South America in 1764, © Museo y Archivo Histórico del Cabildo

Women seen and unseen in the archives

When I first started researching lawsuits in 2008 as part of a project on source cataloging from the Law School of the Federal University of Paraná at the local archive in Curitiba, I was struck by the sheer frequency of women actively appearing in the cases. They were not the most frequent historical actors in quantitative terms, but it was evident that they sought recourse from the justice system at a higher rate than one might have expected, especially in the context of them being located in rural villages on the fringes of colonial Brazil. I found it truly surprising to discover the significant number of women who regarded colonial institutions as an avenue for seeking at least partial resolution in conflicts they were entangled in. What amazed me even more was their remarkable ability to manipulate normativities and to strategically share their knowledge with those – men – who they wanted to convince when accused in the courts. From that point onward, my research focus was unequivocally shaped by those initial encounters within the archive and, specifically, with the historical records from colonial Brazil. However, it was only when I embarked on the extensive task of sifting through a collection of approximately 5.000 lawsuits that I could confirm the significant presence of women in this historical context. Institutionally, gaining access to such information was (and it still is) far from straightforward. The organization of archival institutions and the descriptions of collections often relegate women, and their agencies as active constructors of historical processes, to the shadows.

As far as my experience allows me to perceive and understand, the fact that women go unseen are, in Latin America, intrinsically linked to the colonial legacy and enduring impact of the coloniality of knowledge on our cultural tapestry. Researching in Latin American archives has a distinctive flavor to researching in European archives. While there are some parallels with the descriptions provided by Farge regarding her research in a judicial archive in France, my own experiences are imbued with elements of the poetics described by Lila Caimari (2017). In her eyes, the archive is the engine room at the bottom of historical prose. The setting is a place with uneven and heterogeneous soil, made up of large rocks, miscellanies and countless materials. Only a fraction of these materials ever makes its way to the surface, into the texts, as they are originally found in this subterranean space. In this semi-underground world, the experiences of those who enter it invariably lead to a common set of factors, including institutional, normative, budgetary and cultural bounds of these conservation institutions. These deficiencies are intimately linked to instances of neglect, the absence of better conservation policies, control and access to historical patrimonies.

Coloniality of the archive

Despite these barriers against seeing women in the archives, I feel evermore encouraged, as, from my experiences of the flavors of the archive, I am able to delve into the history of remarkable yet often anonymous women hailing from diverse ethnicities, races, states, backgrounds and statutes. These women engaged with the mechanisms of justice, expertly applying their knowledge and manipulating the knowledge of their society. However, an uneasy feeling always accompanies these discoveries because many of the institutions in which their traces are maintained are politically survivors of the impacts of coloniality. Coloniality is culturally based, interwoven with the pervasive influence of European intellectual paradigms and stands as a defining feature of Latin America’s economic and social formation.

Henri S. Benoit Darondeau, Dos damas, 1836, © Museo y Archivo Histórico del Cabildo

When it comes to the conservation of documents and historical patrimonies, the colonial legacy has historically given rise to complex and paradoxical policies. In the first half of the 19th century, during the independence movements in Latin America, there was a notable lack of appreciation for documents that served as reminders of the colonial past. However, the constructions of models for historical preservation often adhered to colonial paradigms, both in terms of determining what was considered worthy of preservation and in the methods used for storage. While the prevailing mindset of the time was focused on creating new memories rather than critically reevaluating existing ones, the criteria for classifying these documents often mirrored the cultural and political paradigms of the very colonial past that were meant to be rejected. Archives established to house government documents continued to utilize categories inherited from coloniality when organizing their materials. As a result, it is not uncommon today to encounter lawsuit collections from the 18th and 16th centuries surviving fires, floods and corrosion by pests, while their classifications remain marked by the policies inherited from the colonial legacy.

Throughout the centuries, social conventions rooted in gender differences have had a notable impact on archival institutions. Many of them were established during a time when the belief in the objectivity of historical science was paramount, and they were tasked with preserving documents that were meant to impartially uphold the historical “truth”. Under this prevailing ideology, these institutions were structured in a manner that reinforced specific social norms aligned with patriarchy and colonialism. As a result, they perpetuated structural hierarchies and replicated processes of exclusion and/or objectification (Caspari (2023); Ahmed (2017)). In this context, women were seldom portrayed as builders of the past or as active developers of historical processes.

Reading silences in the sources

Although this mindset is becoming increasingly rare within Latin American archival circles, the structures devised for the organization of historical documentation still reflect this conventional approach. The social commitment to preserving a plural, multi-faceted, and unaltered memory has gradually found its place within archival policies. Nevertheless, the removal of patriarchal perspectives from the organizational framework remains a challenge, particularly in archives that house documentation spanning centuries of governance. Many institutions have developed catalogs for facilitating access to the multiplicity of subjects, but the predominant focus often revolves around themes related to slavery. It is important to acknowledge that archives are making significant efforts to shed light on this historical memory, with the aim of promoting studies on enslaved individuals while respecting the diversity within this group. Gender issues, however, still tend to occupy the periphery of these efforts. As Irene Vaquinhas aptly notes, the act of reconstructing the past invariably presents a political challenge (Vaquinhas (2021).

In the 1970s, Michelle Perrot and Mary Nash sounded the alarm regarding the “silences of the sources”, which made historians believe for a long time that women did not have a central part in historical societies. Their clarion call emphasized the imperative of rendering women visible in history (Perrot (2008); Nash (1982)). At this moment in women’s history, the primary focus was on crafting a “history of exclusion”, highlighting the presence of women in historical documents, even though they had been largely forgotten. These silences had been constructed and reiterated over centuries through depictions of women as paragons of modesty and restraint within various societal spheres. In settings such as churches, temples, political assemblies, public or domestic spaces, the ideal of “discretion” was championed as the desired behavior. These constructed silences often led to the absence of women in specific historical documents, effectively erasing many traces of their existence. However, as Perrot states, “Evidently women did not respect these injunctions” (Perrot (2008), 10). They actively participated in all aspects of social life and the connection of different fragmented sources is essential to those who desire to follow women’s paths in history. While one may not find lists of women voters before the 20th century, records documenting women’s labor, agricultural practices, healing practices, musical engagements, acts of defiance and encounters with both peers and authorities are likely to exist. In this light, Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelsen’s assertion that women are in all and, at the same time, few places in the archives is definitely true (Crawford, Mendelson (1998), 9). It is needed to take a second glance.

The quest to uncover the daily lives of women in colonial societies during the early modern period comes with its share of challenges. Notably, a significant proportion of these women, spanning the spectrum from the impoverished to the elite, were illiterate. This illiteracy renders the task of accessing their personal perspectives and experiences a formidable one. Few women, in this place and period, had the means to express their perspectives directly through their own writing. As a result, it falls upon researchers to piece together their evidence, discerning traces and hints within historical documents, each offering its unique set of challenges. In this pursuit, it becomes crucial to interpret the silences embedded within the sources. Questioning why women did not say more about some topics is an essential practice to discover where their traces could be.

Habit of an Indian of Montevideo in South America in 1764. Sauvage de Montevideo, © Museo y Archivo Histórico del Cabildo

Finding women’s traces and voices in lawsuits

In this regard, judicial records are unique documents through which the voices of female actors can be distinctly discerned and brought to the forefront of legal historical analysis. They serve as a powerful lens for adopting a gendered perspective from women’s experiences. Lawsuits offer a privileged vantage point in the pursuit of understanding women’s contributions to historical processes. Within these legal records lie narratives that offer insights into how women moved around the cities, where they used to buy supplies, where they normally washed their clothes, how they treated and were treated by their relatives and acquaintances, which friendships they maintained, which kinds of food they shared with neighbors, how they played when they were young, with whom they vented their frustrations, how they managed their households, what they thought about their peers, what they desired for their lives and how they acted when they wanted to protect or offend other people. It is important to stress, however, that lawsuits are polyphonic sources. In other words, they encompass more than just the voices of women when they were embroiled in conflicts. These documents include their narratives, but these accounts were mostly interpolated by the perspectives of prosecutors and authorities. As Farge emphasizes, it is crucial to recognize that amid the narratives of lives and individuals presented, a dual fragmentation occurs. The first is the transformation of the story into a legal format, and the second is the inclusion of statements conveyed by prosecutors and authorities (Farge (1993)). That is, a judicial record expresses the interests, loyalty, behavior, and perspectives of more than one actor concerning the prevailing social order.

Locating traces of women’s stories is a skill refined through a series of deconstructions, commencing with the dismantling of patriarchal and colonialist conventions in the act of archiving. Subsequently, it is honed through the process of training one’s eyes and becoming familiar with a diverse array of historical documents. Remarkably, even the most traditional archives teem with records pertaining to women. This compels researchers to take on the role of detectives, as described by Ginzburg, searching for clues and signs that illuminate the paths and narratives of these women. The female protagonist is an ever-present figure within the sources, yet the true challenge lies in unraveling the complex puzzle and assembling the scattered pieces to visualize and interpret the picture. It necessitates a critical reading of the sources, aimed at deconstructing the societal representations that historical actors, who authored these documents, imprinted upon them. These impressions are imbued with the prevailing ideas of the period in which the documents were authored and, furthermore, they encapsulate the lasting influence of colonial legacy on archival institutions. To varying degrees, they reflect the intricate power dynamics inherent in gender relations intertwined with social and ethnic-racial factors, both in the past and in the present.

A reflection on silences and noises

Unfortunately, the response from the elderly scholar regarding my research topic didn’t come as a shock to me. Instead, it prompted reflections that I hadn’t had for a few years, since it was the first time in eight years that I had come across the practice of deeply studying the collections of an archive to understand where the voices and traces of women might be. The practice of deciphering silences in Latin American archives is not a novelty in historical research practices, it impacts most marginalized groups. Historians who work with actors such as women, indigenous, African and mestizo populations from the colonial period develop, over years of research, a specific lens when reading the documentation. Furthermore, it is necessary not only to adopt these glasses but also to exceed the boundaries that the archives present. Nevertheless, I find it crucial for these silences to be eradicated through structural measures in documentary collections organization. Latin American societies are essentially composed by these groups relegated to the shadows, and the preservation of our collective memory necessitates a political commitment to documentary conservation. This is especially urgent because these silences do not truly exist. If they have been historically imposed, it is a consequence of the fact that, in reality, there has been a lot of noise.


Aguiar, Jórissa Danilla Nascimento (2016), Teoria pós-colonial, estudos subalternos e América Latina: uma guinada epistemológica?, in: Estudos sociológicos, vol. 21, n. 41, 273-289.

Caimari, Lila (2017), La vida en el archivo: goces, tedios y desvíos en el oficio de la historia, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores Argentina,

Caspari, Maya (2023), Forms, voices, networks: feminism and the media – contingent curation, archival activism, frictional relations, in: Women’s History Review,

Farge, Arelette (1993). Fragile lives. Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Harvard University Press

Farge, Arlette (2009), O sabor do arquivo, EdUSP.

Nash, Mary (1982), Desde la invisibilidad a la presencia de la mujer em la historia: corrientes historiográficas y marcos conceptuales de la nueva historia de la mujer, in: Pilar Folguera (ed.), Nuevas perspectivas sobre la mujer: actas de las Primeras Jornadas de Invertigación Interdisciplinaria vol. 1, 18-37.

Perrot, Michelle (2008), Minha história das mulheres, São Paulo: Contexto.

Vaquinhas, Irene (2021), Arquivos do feminino e o feminino nos arquivos: fontes, questões e metodologias (séculos XIX e XX), in: Cristina Moscatel, Sónia Sousa Feitas, Joana M. Couto (ed), O feminino nos arquivos: abordagens e problematizações, Biblioteca Pública e Arquivo Regional de Ponta Delgada , 437-445.

Cite as: Massuchetto, Vanessa: Tracking colonial women in the Latin-American archives: challenges, lawsuits, and flavors,, 20.11.2023,

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