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Love (that dare not speak its name) among the ruins

5 November 2013
"Aztec Warrior", Lalo Ugalde

“Aztec Warrior”, Lalo Ugalde

It was a bad decision on my part, but when I was finishing up the manuscript for what became Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, I unwisely let some English teacher unknown to me, have a copy of the manuscript for what I thought was a bit of polishing and grammar checking.  Whether that foreign English teacher in Chihuahua thought his role was in all this, I have no idea, but he took it upon himself to attack my inclusion of homosexuals among the many diverse forms of humanity in what I saw as a much more culturally and ethnically diverse society than is popularly assumed.  Multiculturalism, and cultural appropriation is nothing new, and the creation of new cultural norms is nothing new.

Starting off, as I did, by noting that both Spain and indigenous Mexico were both extremely diverse cultures, I mentioned indigenous homosexuality as an example of cultural diversity… and added that some cultures did (and still do) define gender differently than others (the Zapotec’s third gender being the best known example).  Though I didn’t feel compelled to spell it out, there was — and still is — no single Mexican norm when it comes to sex… or anything else for that matter.

The Spanish … or, rather Castillian… conquerors — or at least the “one percenters” among the one percent of the population that ran Mexico after the conquest — often justified brutality with the excuse that they were fighting “sodomy”.  Although 16th and 17th century Spaniards didn’t always exactly mean what we mean today by “sodomy” (which covered a number of sexual practices), the fact that they extended so much effort in “stamping out” sodomy means it was a common enough activity to merit notice, and — to that particular class of one percenters — to be put down by any means necessary.

sod-1The one-percenters in any society, especially in colonial societies, tend to set the norms for that culture, at least as far as the outside world is concerned.  It’s something of a mistake to speak of Cortés “conquering” Mexico… what he overthrew was the Aztecs — the one percenters of the Mexica people, who were the hegemonic power in Mesoamerica — and incorporated much of the existing political and social system into the new order of things.

“Aztec” was improperly applied by 18th century writers to the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, and has, over time, been applied to all Nahautl speaking societies, when in fact, they were a minority of a minority.  What we know about how the Aztecs  lived and thought, is mostly though Spanish sources, or from post-conquest Aztec writers, most of whom had to some degree adapted themselves to Spanish social thinking.  Our knowledge of the daily lives of the Mexica, let alone the myriad other indigenous peoples (especially when it comes to intimate matters like sexuality) is largely guesswork.

Given that the upper class Castillians and the Aztecs both had taboos on same-gender sexual activity, and the ruling classes have always held a monopoly on what is, and isn’t, recorded, it’s not surprising that we are often forced to make assumptions when speaking of the past.  My “helpful” reader in Chihuahua was perhaps simply steeped in the “official story” (which generally makes no mention of sexuality. beyond the fact that somehow various historical figures sired or bore children. Or, more likely, he was reading into the past his own assumptions based on his own cultural values.

I realized why a person like that reader in Chihuahua might have a problem accepting the “normalcy” of indigenous sexual variation, after re-reading Gary Jennings’ celebrated 1980 novel  Aztec, in which the villains are very much stereotypes… artistic, bitchy and treacherous … common to Americans in the 1970s when Jennings was conducting his extensive (and admirably exhaustive) research.  Reading his 1984 novel about Marco Polo, The Journeyer, where there is another homosexual stereotyped villain (who, in addition to being unreliable, is a cross-dresser) and I began to wonder if Americans of a certain age weren’t imposing their own standards of sexuality on others.

Jennings’ research into the Aztec world (I know nothing about his preparation for writing The Journeyer) was amazingly in-depth (he claimed to have spent 17 years on research, and among other things, learned Nahuatl), and despite it’s pot-boiler “sex-violence-more sex” style his book remains justifiably popular among experts in pre-Conquest studies, and is recommended reading for students and those with a general interest in the subject.

Jennings had to make assumptions about the way people lived (as did I in writing “straight” … as in non-fiction… history), but in this instance, I wonder how accurate his assumptions were. Not that Mexica artists couldn’t be gay, but there is no evidence that gays were considered particularly artistic by the Aztecs (or by modern Mexicans for that matter[1]).  And, although the villainous artists work for the ruling class, there is no any evidence that the Aztecs … with their own strictures on sodomy, either extended those strictures to their skilled workmen, that the barbaric penalties imposed on Aztecs for anal intercourse were meted out to the lower classes, or for that matter even enforced[2].  Or that artists were ceded the right to non-conformity (or even thought of themselves in terms of non-conformity).

In short, other than knowing that sexual relations between persons of the same gender were known even to the Aztecs, we have no idea how common it was, or how accepted it was by

Xochipilli

Xochipilli

general society.  We DO know that the Mexica had a god of male homosexuality (Xochipilli) and that there were male prostitutes .  One of Jenning’s artistic villains ends up as a pathetic male prostitute but we have no evidence that male prostitutes were considered vile.  Female prostitutes were seen as performing an important public service by the Mexica, and for all we know, so were their male counterparts.

For that matter, the Aztecs … and the Mexica,  looked to the Toltecs as their cultural ancestors, much as the Castillians looked to the Romans.  While both society’s one-percenters were well aware that anal sex among men was openly acknowledged by their cultural ancestors, this may be one area — besides denial that it exists — where Aztec attitudes towards homosexuality has survived into modern times.   The Aztecs believed the Toltecs saw the penetrated partner as effeminate, or dominated in the act, where the penetrator was the masculine, dominant figure.  With some studies showing  an extremely high level of male-on-male sexual relations in Mexico, the Aztec attitude finds in echo in the belief by many men, including those who regularly have sex with other men, that if they aren’t penetrated, they aren’t taking the effeminate role, therefore are not gay.

While the Aztec… and Spanish ruling class… attitudes towards sexuality in general, and male homosexuality in particular survive, they are rapidly giving way to what we assume are a more modern understanding of sexual variation.  But, as we find so often when we make assumptions about Mexico, our assumptions are based on our own cultural biases.  The new attitudes may not be so new, but simply a rediscovery of older, existing attitudes, or a new prominence given to long-existing beliefs that were too easily overlooked when we forget that culturally there is no one Mexico — there are, and always have been, many Mexicos coexisting at any one time.


[1] Although at the time Jennings was active, in the U.S., an interest in the arts was considered somewhat effeminate and by extension, gay, Mexicans have never seen artistic interest as particularly effeminate:  quite the opposite — in post-Revolutionary Mexico — Salvador Novo and others were considered poseurs and not artists because they were effeminate, gay or both.


[2] In an era when anal intercourse was punished in Europe by burning people alive, the Aztec code called for the passive partner to be impaled, and the active partner to have his entrails pulled out through his anus.

Additional sources:  my “inspiration” for this came from a very short piece on “Homosexualidad Prehispánica” posted on Mitofago.com.mx .   Recommended by that site for more on pre-Conquest sexuality are:

Cobo, Bernabé, Historia del Nuevo Mundo.
Fernández de Oviedo, Gonzalo, Sumario de la Historia Natural de Indias
García, Gregorio, Origen de elos indios del Nuevo Mundo e Indias Occidentales

For English readers, I  would add:

Soustelle, Jacques, Daily Life of the Aztecs (Patrick O’Brian, translator)
Landa, Fray Diego de, An Account of the Things of Yucatán (David Castletine, translator)
Whitecotton, Joseph W.  The Zapotecs:  Princes, Priest, and Peasants

My information on modern male sexuality comes from personal discussions with various Mexican researchers, including Dr. Leónardo Olivera (UNAM) whose doctoral dissertation surveyed the sexual habits of Mexican soldiers.

“Aztec Warrior” by Lalo Ugalde, via “Out in the 562”  Other illustrations from mitofago.com.mx

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November 2013 8:04 am

    Glad to hear someone else discussing the homophobia in Gary Jenning’s book.

  2. DonAlbertoDoyle permalink
    7 November 2013 3:30 pm

    I spent a small time in a border jail, and despite being scared for the first few days, emerged quite intact after making friends with the boys in Tanque F. But I heard chitchat about a technique called “Spanish Style”, which evidently consists of — heh heh, can’t think of a polite euphemism — t*t-f*cking the butt cheeks. I wondered why it was called Spanish Style, but your comments on penetration being the crux of feminizing the act are illuminating. It might be for just that reason.

    Since that contretemps with the authorities, I have learned two things: 1) Colorado prescribed gout ointment attracts German Shepherds, and 2) Spanish Style works perfectly well heterosexually.

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