Mexican Midwives: The Legacy of Ancestral Wisdom
This article explores how midwifery has been practiced and perfected over time by women, and how midwives have contributed to the healthcare system in Mexico. Learn about their ancestral wisdom and the challenges they faced in a patriarchal society.
In this story, you'll learn about the history of midwifery in Mexico. Midwifery is an ancient medical field that women have developed and improved over time. It has saved many lives. For hundreds of years, women have practiced and studied midwifery. This is because patriarchal society in the past made it taboo for men to study and care for the physiology and diseases of the female body, like breast cancer, menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth.
In some cultures, midwives are also known as great healers. They had and still have a lot of experience and knowledge about pregnancy, labor, the postpartum period, and taking care of newborns. They have even saved the lives of both the mother and the baby by stepping in when both were in danger. The knowledge of the first midwives was passed down from generation to generation since most of the people who helped with births were grandmothers, sisters, and friends. Later, their jobs grew to include more than just one family.
In the case of Mexico, the first records of midwives date back to pre-Hispanic times. During that time, they gained a lot of respect from the native people because their rituals had to do with religion and fertility. During the conquest, midwifery became more like what was done in the West, and some practices and knowledge of ancient Mexican medicine were outlawed. This hurt the reputation of the indigenous midwives because, in the Catholic religion, childbirth was seen as a dirty state or disease. Remember that in the Old Testament, God punished women with increased discomfort and pain during pregnancy and childbirth because of original sin.
Many of the women who became midwives were from lower social classes, so they were indigenous, Afro-descendants, or mestizos. They kept some of their ancient beliefs or ways of doing things to reduce the pain and length of labor, and they didn't care about the ideas that were pushed on them by Western authorities, like the idea that the suffering and even death of the pregnant woman or the baby was natural and meant by God to purify women.
Even though the Inquisition was against it, some midwives used witchcraft and sorcery to get more customers. They did this because they believed in old beliefs and superstitions. In this way, Ana Morada, a midwife, gave Juana de Castillo a root to calm her husband's anger and help her win at the card game. In the end, the woman who had requested Ana's services confessed everything that had happened to the authorities to relieve her conscience.
The relationship that certain midwives had with sorcery, witchcraft, and superstition caused the medical authorities of the viceroyalty, such as the Tribunal del Protomedicato de la Nueva España, to demerit this traditional profession and consider that midwives lacked total knowledge, study, and healthiness. However, they knew that these women were necessary since there was no public health network that could cover all the births that occurred throughout the New Spain territory, even in 1794. Due to the lack of physicians and surgeons, these women were authorized to assist seriously injured people without the need for the authorization of a judge.
Midwives were very important in the novo-Hispanic legal system. For example, they could be the main witness to report the birth, death, or abortion of a baby and the health of a pregnant woman. Also, Las Siete Partidas said that midwives had to help in court cases to prove that a child's father was still alive, even if the father had died.
As time went on, the public and private health sectors grew by adding new medical institutions. These new institutions included obstetrics as a core part of their services. Nevertheless, it is a reality that midwifery continues to be present in Mexican society, especially in the most remote population sectors of the country, as well as in some communities that prefer to keep their traditional health services due to the distrust that modern medicine or the professional doctor may represent.
Full Citation: Nación, Archivo General de la. “Las Parteras Mexicanas, Sabiduría Ancestral.” gob.mx, 14 Mar. 2023, www.gob.mx/agn/es/articulos/las-parteras-mexicanas-sabiduria-ancestral?idiom=es.