Report of Research for Senior Thesis on Midwives and Nation-State Building in Porfirian Mexico

Estella Zacharia ’23

In January of 2023, I was gifted the opportunity to travel to Mexico City and complete archival research for my thesis “Parteras y el Porfiriato: Constituting Modernity and Nation-statehood through Abjected Subjects in 19th Century Mexico” due to the generosity of the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship. Employing the analytical framework of abjection, my thesis examines the cultural and social perceptions of midwives, or parteras, during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz and the ways in which Mexican state actors and the medical profession viewed their presence as a threat to the creation of a scientific, civilized, progressive, and hygienic nation-state that would meet European standards of modernity. I traveled to Mexico City in the hopes of finding documents, records, and that demonstrated the precarious role that parteras occupied as both crucial figures in assisting the reproduction of the Mexican nation and as abjected subjects in the eyes of the Porfirian government.

I began my research in the heart of Mexico City’s historic center at two archives: the Historical Archive of the Faculty of Medicine (AHFM), housed in the old Inquisition Palace, and the Historical Archive of the Secretary of Health (AHSS). I had originally also planned to go to the Archive of the Nation, however many of their sources were not accessible without graduate level credentials. At both AHFM and AHSS, I found stacks upon stacks of documents relevant to my research on parteras. Many of the documents I found were requests for additional funds for parteras to receive wages and petitions for them to receive additional training. I found many folders containing letters written by the Director of Mexico City’s school of Medicine regarding the Maternity hospital, a note discussing a decree that allowed women to attend the school of medicine, and several lists of attendance—including the first few parteras that were accepted to attend the school. I also found documents concerning payments made to doctors, medical assistants, and parteras from the Maternity Hospital, which allowed me to see the ways that parteras still took part in Mexican state institutions despite the stigma associated with them. I continuously came upon the signatures of Eduardo Liceaga and Juan María Rodríguez, two revered Mexican obstetricians and who have been mentioned heavily in many of the secondary texts I read before traveling to Mexico. Though I had some difficulty reading the documents as they were all written in elaborate, sloping script, I was so excited to decipher these documents and incorporate them into my knowledge of Mexican obstetrics and parteras during this period that I simply powered on. I was thrilled at the opportunity to test both my Spanish comprehension and speaking skills, and even more grateful for the wonderful conversations I had with several archivists as they recommended resources to me, as well as sites and restaurants to visit around the city.

Perhaps the most valuable documents I found were housed in the AHFM. I was shocked to find two sources that were written by parteras—a rarity as the majority of parteras were illiterate during this period. Reading how these women adamantly defended their expertise and their profession in these few documents was an experience beyond comprehension; these were the only sources that gave me direct insight into the experiences of parteras in their own written words and I was overjoyed to have found them. Furthermore, I am indebted to Jorge, the lead archivist, who pointed me in the direction of several valuable documents. On my final day, he brought me a comprehensive list of all women who were registered as parteras at the National School of Medicine from 1855–1900, made by a researcher in the early 2000s who went through every document in the archive and recorded the names of parteras. I never expected to find a source that was this comprehensive and answered my questions about the number of registered parteras in Mexico City during Diáz’s reign.

Many of the archives held other surprises that I was not expecting; I found that the old Inquisition Palace housed the Museum of Medicine in addition to AHFM and was curious to see what kinds of objects and or information they might have that would add to my understanding of the development of Mexico’s modern medical institution at the end of the 19th century. The most relevant exhibition to my research, la sala de embriología or the hall of embryology, contained specimen jars tracing a fetus’ prenatal development, fetus specimens that had undergone diaphonization (bone clearing and dying), a model of an obstetricians office, and a glass case showcasing instruments for measuring the diameter of pelvis, forceps, and other tools all surrounding the skeleton of a human (presumably female) pelvis. It was simultaneously frustrating yet validating to see the lack of information on parteras and even on pregnancy itself in favor of scientific information about stages of fetal development. In fact, it almost felt like a key part of my thesis claim regarding the lack of state and medical concern about feminized bodies in favor of reproducing the modern nation-state was playing out in real time.

While working in the archives and talking with archivists was certainly the highlight of my trip, I also thoroughly enjoyed walking through the city and seeing so many of the monuments as well as the fusion of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Mexican Nationalist styles in the Porfirian-era architecture. Specifically, I visited the Palace of Beautiful Arts, or Palacio de Bellas Artes, which began construction under Diáz’s regime and contains beautiful, politically charged murals created by several famed Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among others. I also stopped by El Angel de Independencia, another significant national monument commissioned under el Porfiriato. On the weekend, when both archives were closed, I toured some of the city’s incredible museums, such as the Museum of Anthropology, the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Jumex modern art museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Women’s Museum. Mexico City contains such a rich breadth of art and culture and I was thrilled to be able to experience just a taste of it in the week I was there.

My trip to Mexico City fundamentally expanded my knowledge of my thesis topic and was an experience that I will always hold close to my heart. Handling historical documents written by parteras and seeing evidence of Diáz’s influence on Mexico City really brought my research to life in an invaluable, unforgettable way. As a woman researching the lives and experiences of other women over a century ago, there was something unbelievably special about finding their writings and walking around the city that they called home; the sources I found and the experiences I had in Mexico City seemed to bridge space and time, bringing me face to face with these women, their lives, their struggles and their enduring resilience under the continued oppression of the developing Mexican nation-state.