The Coloniality of Gender and Sexuality

Contact Zone I
The Evangelisation of Intimate Life

Still. Confessionary interrogation. © Susie Vickery, 2022

The evangelisation of intimate life happened over more than three centuries of colonialism as Catholic missionaries and colonial legislation imposed a European Christian set of morals and values on Indigenous peoples.

Still. Confessionary interrogation. © Susie Vickery, 2022

Lives were changed forever as colonisers used violence, coercion and religious doctrine to force or shame tribes and settled communities into abandoning their millenarian practices, adopting the institution of marriage and worshiping Christian gods.

For the Franciscan missionaries who visited the Sierra Madre Occidental this was a difficult task. Wixaritari held vehemently to their ways and for more than a century were largely resistant to the persuasions of missionaries. Their mountainous terrain and dispersed living arrangements helped them in this quest and protected them from constant invasion.

Arrival of the Spanish. 'Ukari Wa’utiska' animated film by Susie Vickery

Arrival of the Spanish. 'Ukari Wa’utiska' animated film by Susie Vickery​

'Confessionary in Mexican Language'
Don Bartholomé de Alva, 1634

Invasion and Ethnocide


Painting of the New Kingdom of Galicia, 1560 © España. Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. Archivo General de Indias, MP-México, 560

Timeline of colonisation and evangelisation

Cortés arrives in Veracruz
Conquest of Mexico City
Arrival of the first missionary orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustin)
The Conquest of the West of Mexico, led by Nuño de Guzmán begins
The Mixtón war

Between Indigenous tribes and the Spanish Army

Discovery of silver deposits in Zacatecas
1550 - 1592
Chichimeca War between Zacatecos/Guachichiles and Spanish Army
Fr. Alonso Ponce documents economy and general characteristics of the Huichol
Founding of Tenzompa town in the vicinity of Wixárika homelands
Founding of Huajimic by Franciscans

Tello describes the evangelisation of Huaynamota

Founding of the Chimaltitán mission and town of Nostic in vicinity of Wixárika highlands
Fr. Martín de León Confessionary

Examples: Have you willfully aborted (a pregnancy)? | How many women have you sinned with?

Bartholome de Alva Confessionary

Examples: Have you performed sodomy? | Aborted with poisonous drinks? | Have you lived with woman/man outside wedlock? | With how many women have you sinned? | |Have you sinned with a family member? | Have you performed bestiality?

Mass marriages and baptisms by Franciscan missionaries
Uprisings over land in Nostic, Santa Catarina, San Andrés, San Sebastián and Mamata
Mass marriages and baptisms by Franciscan missionaries
Conquest of the Nayar region
Joseph de Ortega Confessionary

Examples: Do you believe in an Idol and have you made offerings? | Have you drunk poison to abort (a pregnancy)? | Have you sinned with a women or a man?

Arlegui documents

Baptisms, marriage and births.

Gerónimo Thomas of Aquino Confessionary

Examples: Have you married in secret or more than once? | Do you have dirty or dishonest thoughts' | Have you penetrated a woman or a man from behind? | Do you have the woman you sin with at home?

Visit by Calleja

Evangelisation and documentation of economic activities.

Insurrection and Independence

San Andrés, Santa Catarina and San Sebastián, among other towns, adhere to the Spanish Government.

George Francis Lyon

Traveller documented: commercialisation of salt, use of bow and arrow, marriage practices and dress.


Complaints from San Sebastián and San Andrés of invasions by residents of Santa Catarina. Guadalupe Ocotán complaints of neighbours from Huajimic stealing their animals. Also, Huichols are asked to wear trousers when they go to the city to sell.

San Andrés Coamiata

Denounces (Mestizo) invasions from the Hacienda of San Juan. Residents of San Juan Peyotán denounce land invasions by San Andrés.

Santa Catarina

Land invasions from San Andrés, Tenzomopa, Nostic and San Antonio Padua. San Andrés complain of animals from San Juan Capistrano invading their land and destroying their crops.

Guadalupe Ocotán

Experiences a typhoid epidemic, maize shortage and drought. Land invasions in San Andrés, San Sebastián and Tenzompa by the Hacienda of Camotlán.

Carl Lumholtz (explorer, naturalist)

Visit to the Huichol Homelands: significant documentation of births, marital partnerships, courtship and relationships with local authorities.

Rosendo Corona

Documents Huichol political structure.

Diguet (explorer, traveller)

Documents Huichol authorities, settlements, gendered division of labour, births, baptisms (by gender) and marriage.

Francisco de P. Roble Confessionary

Examples: Have you given in to sinful desires? | Have you spoken of indecencies? | Have you consented to sodomy? | Have you obeyed your husband in all licit requests?


In Tuxpan Wixaritari denounce the attempted invasion of Americans in El Saucillo mountains.


In San Andrés: Presbyterian missionaries steal and farm and crops.

Santa Catarina

Santa Catarina request information about the supposed sale of a field to an individual, if this rumor proves to be false they request the removal of cattle who are a threat to crops.


In San Andrés requests tiles for their land as the owner of the Hacienda at San Juan Capistrano and residents of Santa Catarina pose a threat to their properties.

Robert Zingg (anthropologist)

Writes of newborns and mothers, Responsibilities of Wixárika men, Masculine and feminine in mythology, Corporal punishment and its use in cases of infidelity.

Tuxpan requests assistance

Tuxpan requests assistance from the state governor to develop agriculture and protect their lands.

Domingo Lázaro de Arregui was one of the first missionaries to write about Indigenous peoples in the region now occupied by Wixárika communities. 

And these Indians of this town [Colotlán] communicate with those of Guaximic and with another neighboring nation called Guaramota, people who when they want to, they are Christians and when they don’t, they are not, and this is understood when they go to doctrine”

Domingo Lázaro de Arregui,  Descripción de la Nueva Galicia, 1980 (1621) 156-7.

Domingo Lázaro de Arregui (1717). He wrote about Indigenous people in the region now occupied by Wixárika communities in 1621. © Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes


‘Their costume is as if they have spent time on it, in the way of the gentility, because they bring cotton of ixtle and wool, rawhide breeches, ordinary straw hat; the one used only by married people. Those who are not [married], bring their hair loose and on the neck and throats of the feet, use many chokers of shells and beads of many colours. The maiden women wear very fine cottons, and a wrap up to the knee, with most of the chest bare: On the contrary, the married ones, cover something more this, and the feet, and do not put the work into their cottons.’ 

Archivo General de la Nación

Artist’s impression of 18th Century description of a Wixárika married couple. © Tom Eglington, 2023

Marriage and birth practices were documented by Fray Joseph Arlegui

‘The women give birth in the fields to open sky, they are not harmed by the winds that run through, when they feel the first pains, for their first diligence they go alone to the banks of the river, and to the point that their children come to light [are born], they bathe with them in the fountains or rivers, and with this diligence they are preserved from all accidents, and the creatures gain robustness and strength, walking immediately, if offered, many leagues on foot, carrying their children in wicker fabrics, which here we call guacales, and with such a rude cradle, they are raised very robust.’

Fray José Arlegui chronicled birthing practices in the early 17th Century. © Digital Library AECID. CC (BY-NC-SA)

Ceremonies and Evangelisation


Records from 1667 suggest that Franciscan Friars lived intermittently among the Wixárika communities of Santa Catarina, San Andrés and San Sebastián. 

Each of these communities experienced mass baptism and mass marriage ceremonies as the Friars travelled from village to village gathering ‘indians’, teaching the commandments and maintaining churches.

Records of mass christenings in Santa Catalina Questomatitan (Santa Catarina/Tuapurie), November 1667 © Parroquial Records 1590-1979, Mezquitic, Jalisco, Mexico.

Record of mass marriages in Santa Catalina Questomatitan (Santa Catarina), 1667. © Parroquial Records, 1590-1979, Mezquitic, Jalisco, México

The confessional books used on these visits provide a window into the intimate life of Indigenous peoples, or how these were seen by missionaries. Their repeated visits and interrogations are also indicative of Indigenous resistance to the evangelising process.

Confessionaries followed the Ten Commandments, beginning with the question: Have you loved God above all things

Questions about sexuality and marriage come under the sixth commandment: You shall not commit impure acts

Some of these sins were later incorporated into law, with corporal punishment brought in for infidelity and a judge installed in Wixárika communities to police this.

Sexual and intimate life transformed

Confessionary in Spanish and Huichol, Zacatecas 1906 © Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco

Colonial laws on marriage

‘The indians (male or female) that marry two women will be punished’ (1530)


‘No cacique, nor Indian, even if they are unfaithful, can marry another woman’ (1552)

Copy of Laws of the Kingdom of Indians, Madrid, 1681.
© Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies and Official Bulletin of the State, 1998.

New Colonial Land Relations


Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish Conquistadors. Mural (1929-1945) by Diego Rivera, Mexico City - Palacio Nacional. © Juan Pérez A. 2008

Negotiations man to man: Spanish found complex and diverse societies when they arrived in the Americas. 

The semi-nomadic Indigenous peoples to the north and west of Mesoamerica who became known as ‘Chichimecas’ differed socially from the peoples of the centre and south, and were described as ‘barbarians’ and ‘uncivilised’.

Northwest Mexico was colonised after the discovery of silver mines in Zacatecas and was populated with Tlaxcaltec families, allies of the Spanish from central Mexico. The task of the Tlaxcaltecas was to keep the peace on the roads, in particular the silver route, as well as teach good customs and agricultural techniques to groups of insurrectionist ‘indians’ (Guachichiles, Caxcanes, Zacatecos, Huicholes, among others).

From this time on, relations between ‘indians’ and colonisers followed a patriarchal structure: negotiations were man to man. Indigenous groups were governed by men and all negotiations regarding land and natural resources happened between men.

Negotiations over land happened between men:


1733 communication from all-male Wixárika authorities to Captain Antonio de Escobedo requesting the restitution of their territory is a rare example of Wixárika authorities dealing with such negotiations.

© Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan José Arreola”, Archivo de la Real Audiencia de la Nueva Galicia, Ramo Civil, C-308-29-4490 Año: 1733


Who are we?

This exhibition, supported by the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research (SDCELAR) at the British Museum, showcases the findings from Gender, health and the Afterlife of Colonialism: engaging new problematisations to improve maternal and Infant Survival, a Wellcome Trust Funded research project (Project number 215001/Z/18/Z).

We have used archive searches, revision of bibliographical material and interviews as part of the Tuapurie Oral History Project to understand how gender has changed through contact between the colonial State and later independent Mexican Republic and Wixárika indigenous communities.

The research project is a collaboration between:

University College London (UCL), Institute for Global Health

CIESAS Occidente (the Centre for Research and Studies in Social Anthropology) 

Conservación Humana AC (CHAC) 

And members of the The Wixárika Community of Tuapurie, Mezquitic, Jalisco.

Project Director
Dr. Jennie Gamlin,
Associate Professor, Medical Anthropology and Global Health, UCL Institute for Global Health.
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Exhibition Curator
Humberto Fernández Borja,
Conservación Humana A.C.

Archive Research team director
Dr. María Teresa Fernández Aceves
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Archive Research team leader
Dr. Paulina Ultreras Villagrana
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Archival Research
Ileana Cristina Gómez Ortega
Tania Fernanda Aguilar Silva
Frine Castillo Badillo

Field work director
Totupica Candelario Robles

Field work assistant
Claudia de la Torre Carrillo

Susie Vickery

Curatorial, image research and production assistants
Ana Laura Mejía Ruiz Esparza
Daniela Guraieb Elizalde
Lorena Silva Lordméndez
Daniela Altamirano Visoso
Anaïs Oropeza Jochum
Maika Vera Martínez

Jennie Gamlin:
Institute for Global Health,
30 Guilford St., London, WC1N 1EH.

We would like to thank The Wellcome Trust for funding this project as part of a Research Enrichment-Public Engagement award.

Digital exhibition

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research (SDCELAR) at the British Museum and the generosity of Alejandro & Charlotte Santo Domingo, and Mrs Julio Mario Santo Domingo with Andrés & Lauren Santo Domingo.

Digital Curator
Magdalena Araus Sieber
SDCELAR, British Museum

Lilo Web Design
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Image credits

We would like to thank the following organisations and individuals for gifting materials and copies of materials that have been used in this exhibition:

Ivan Alechine

American Museum of Natural History Library for gifting prints from the Carl Lumholtz Collection to the CHAC Archive

Archivo General de Indias
[General Archive of the Indies]

Archivo Histórico de Jalisco
[Historical Archive of Jalisco]

Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan José Arreola” de la Universidad de Guadalajara
[Public Library of the State of Jalisco “Juan José Arreola” at the University of Guadalajara]

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

CHAC Archive: Conservación Humana AC

Catholic Church Records, 1590-1979, Mezquitic, Jalisco, Mexico
[Registros Parroquiales, Mezquitic, Jalisco]

Fundación Cultural Armella Spitalier

Museo Zacatecano – Instituto Zacatecano de Cultura Ramón López Velarde


Universidad de Guadalajara

Publications related to women’s and maternal health with Wixárika communities by the author of this exhibition


Gamlin, Jennie B. (2013)
Shame as a barrier to health seeking among indigenous Huichol migrant labourers: An interpretive approach of the “violence continuum” and “authoritative knowledge”
Social Science and Medicine 97 75-81

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2023)
Wixárika Practices of Medical Syncretism: An Ontological Proposal for Health in the Anthropocene
Medical Anthropology Theory 10 (2) 1-26

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2020)
“You see, we women, we can’t talk, we can’t have an opinion…”. The coloniality of gender and childbirth practices in Indigenous Wixárika families
Social Science and Medicine 252, 112912

Jennie Gamlin and David Osrin (2020)
Preventable infant deaths, lone births and lack of registration in Mexican indigenous communities: health care services and the afterlife of colonialism
Ethnicity and Health 25 (7)

Jennie Gamlin and Seth Holmes (2018)
Preventable perinatal deaths in indigenous Wixárika communities: an ethnographic study of pregnancy, childbirth and structural violence BMC
Pregnancy and Childbirth 18 (Article number 243) 2018

Gamlin, Jennie B. and Sarah J Hawkes (2015)
Pregnancy and birth in an Indigenous Huichol community: from structural violence to structural policy responses
Culture, health and sexuality 17 (1)