Deborah Miranda

“Queering the Missionary Position:  Sexual Outlaws in the California Indian Testimonio of Isabel Meadows”

Carmel Mission survivor Isabel Meadows left behind stories about women she called “joteras,” which is derived from the Spanish “joto” for “queer” or “homosexual,” – but she went out of her way to clarify her word choice not as the female/lesbian version of “joto,” but more as “tough old broads” whose sexual agency rested within themselves and their desire to resist Catholic colonial restrictions on women’s bodies and lives. Isabel initially identifies one of the women in her stories, Estéfana Cholom Reál, as a “jotera” because, she says, Estefana’s son Victor was a joto. Later, Isabel redefines “jotera” to mean a woman who has many sexual partners in the free manner of a lawless man. In this paper, I examine Isabel’s narrative of associative queerness that seems to be transferred between mother and son. Is the mother of a queer man then queer by association? Did Victor’s queerness queer his mother’s sexuality? Or were both mother and son regarded as queer because of the narrowness of Catholic missionary definitions of acceptable intercourse? In other words, which came first: the joto son or the jotera mother?

For the Spanish and Mexican Franciscan missionaries in the 1770-1836 Mission Era of California, the definition of “queer” or forbidden sexual practices was much broader than contemporary scholars seeking to examine intersections between Queer Studies and Native Studies typically acknowledge. Any sexual activity that was not strictly between a normative man and normative woman married in the Catholic church, utilizing the “missionary position” of male on top, female facing (passive) beneath him, was regarded as outlawed. Forbidden sexual activity included not just heterosexual partners outside of Catholic marriage ceremony, but heterosexual partners who refused to have frequent sex, who limited sexual activity in order to space children or allow women to recuperate from pregnancy and childbirth, extramarital heterosexual contact even with partner permission or acceptance, as well as same-sex partnerships or partnerships between normative men and California third-gender “joyas,” or single women who (openly or clandestinely) chose their own male partners without Church ceremony. In this paper, I examine the connections between queer or outlawed sexual activity and resistance to violent colonization of Indian bodies, culture and language as described in the testimonio of Isabel Meadows, one of my own ancestors whose own refusal to marry, and choice to remain childless, also speaks to a kind of outlaw sexuality that may have been a conscious strategy allowing her to survive a nearly 80% decimation of the California India population.