Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law and the Making of a White Argentine Republic by Dr Erika Denise Edwards

In our latest great blog, Dr Erika Denise Edwards gives us a tantalising glimpse into one story in her new monograph.

On December 26, 1793 the ecclesiastical notary Tomas Montano informed don José Lino de León, a vicar of the Catholic Church in Córdoba, that he had caused a scandal of paramount proportions. According to the formal accusation, don José Lino had defamed his position “with little fear of God” by partaking in a scandalous relationship with his slave, Bernabela, treating “her less like a slave and more like a concubine.” The prosecutor presented four pieces of evidence to support his accusation. First, he argued, Bernabela had a child out of wedlock when don José Lino bought her. Second, while a slave of don José Lino, Bernabela had another child. The identity of the child’s father remained a mystery, but the prosecutor suspected don José Lino. Third, Bernabela wore clothes and accessories that were prohibited. Fourth, don José Lino manumitted her, and she managed the household as if she were the señora (lady of the house).

Superficially this case described a crime a passion that many priests succumbed to during the colonial period. But on closer examination, their illicit affair revealed important themes: women of African descent actively sought the privilege and status reserved for elite Spanish women by forging sexual relationships with elite Spanish men. Over the course of their relationship, Bernabela transformed into a señora, a title reserved for elite Spanish women. She no longer dressed like a slave (in functional skirts and shirts) and she frequently took pride in wearing forbidden silk clothing and gold accessories in public. Moreover, Bernabela, managed the priest’s household by giving orders to other slaves, at times demanding they feed her chocolate in bed.

Set during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, my book, Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law and the Making of a White Argentine Republic  focuses on women such as Bernabela who took matters into their own hands and sought to better their lives and the lives of their children by escaping their blackness. By examining the household as the epicenter for this transformation my book intentionally makes black women, enslaved or free, the protagonists of the whitening. Moreover, the exploration of the household activities such as domestic chores, daily interactions, and raising children created various forms of intimacy and emotional attachments that created the spaces for African descended women to maneuver and transform into Spanish women in Argentina.

Known as a “white” country today, my book examines how African descended women contributed to the making of a white Argentina (1776-1840). It focuses on the city of Córdoba, in order to expand our understanding of race relations beyond Buenos Aires.  A contrast in many ways to Buenos Aires, Córdoba served as a good case study because of its small size. I was able to cross reference various sources which detailed the lives of various African- descended women. Over the course of a lifetime I tracked how they whitened themselves. Based on censuses, marriage, baptismal, and notarial records, some women such as Teresa Sotelo were born enslaved and were able to transform into doñas. In 1765 Teresa Sotelo married Juan Bautista Ferreyra, thirteen years later in the city census she was described as a mestiza. She made her final transformation to a doña after the death of her husband. Widowed she remarried don José Antonio Garcia in 1788 and the 1811 provincial census listed her as doña in a small provincial town, Salcaste.

At is core this book is about resistance.  In general, rebellions and revolutions have encapsulated black resistance, but this book engages “everyday forms of resistance.” African descended women adapted to the choices they were given, signifying that they did not passively rely on others to secure their social advancement. Instead, while remaining hidden in plain sight, they adapted not only to the rules of the household but also forged their own experiences.

Dr Erika Edwards is Associate Professor in the Department of History at UNC Charlotte. In her new monograph, Hiding in Plain Sight, she argues that attempts by black women to escape the stigma of blackness by recategorizing themselves and their descendants as white began as early as the late eighteenth century, challenging scholars who assert that the black population drastically declined at the end of the nineteenth century because of the whitening or modernization process. She further contends that in Córdoba, Argentina, women of African descent (such as wives, mothers, daughters, and concubines) were instrumental in shaping their own racial reclassifications and destinies.