De Marica a Maricon: Following Definitions of Marica, Maricon, and Sodomia with the Real Academia Española

I’m currently writing a chapter for my book on the events surrounding the establishment of local ruling juntas in Quito in 1809 and 1810. In chasing down a few citations a couple of days ago, I came across a classic, but long forgotten (at least by me) book chapter by Johanna Mendelson on the portrayal of women in the periodicals of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Spanish America. The piece was included in the first significant collection of essays on women in Latin American history– Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives, ed. by Asunción Lavrin (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978). The piece itself is fine- an overview of the treatment of women in articles that appeared in publications like the Mercurio Peruano, the Seminario Ecónomico (Mexico), Diario de México, and Telégrafo mercantil (Buenos Aires).

Mendelson made an almost off-hand comment on the inclusion in the Mercurio Peruano of a piece that ran in November 1791 on the problem of maricones:

It is significant that the Mercurio printed an article on “maricones” (homosexuals). Included in the article is a discussion of women, since the description of those “raros fenémenos” may be an accurate picture of feminine mannerisms. Although the review speaks of the way such men dressed, talked, and walked, one feels that it is women who are actually being satirized.

“They appear in the streets dressed in extravagant outfits. Their hands on their hips, they disguise themselves in a cape. With a definite feminine air they proceed with their head erect and their shoulders swaying from side to side like windmills as they, in time to this movement, make a thousand ridiculous swaggers with their bodies, directing their stares in al1 directions.”

The second bit is a quote from the Mercurio. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. I’ve been working for a while on a piece that compares two prosecutions of sodomy—one of two a group of young men, and the other of a pair of young women—from the late 1780s. Neither of the cases rose to the legal bar of flagrante delicto evidence of sodomy. In both cases, the convicted individuals were tried on the weight of circumstantial evidence—evidence based on their performance of public gendered behaviors. From the perspective of the history of sexuality, this was a innovative maneuver. Above,  Mendelson translates maricon as “homosexual”, the current meaning of the term. This is problematic, though, for the colonial historian. There is really quite significant evidence in the literature that sexual identities are a recent invention—even though the sexual desires we associate with those identities are ages old.

The Mercurio quote is interesting in this context. What did the term maricon mean in the eighteenth century? In the Real Academia Española’s first dictionary (1726-1739), a maricon was an “effeminate and cowardly man”- a synonym for marica. Marica was the root for maricon, and carried with it a couple of performative meanings. It was a synonym for (h)urraca—a song bird and a term used to lampoon women’s and children’s styles of talking. It also meant an effeminate man who lacked the energy or capacity (de pocos brios) to subjugate, rule, subordinate as he should (que se dexa supeditar y manejar.) There is no explicit indication of sexual behavior in these early definitions, but rather gendered comportment.

The definitions held constant till the early years of the 19th c., when marica was defined in the 1803 RAE dictionary as 1. the same as the name María; 2. a synonym of urraca; and 3. an effeminate man lacking energy and strength (ánimo y esfuerso).  Maricon at this point was simply an effeminate and cowardly man. It was not until the 1899 edition of the Royal Academy’s dictionary that maricon was defined as a sodomite (sodomita)—the first mention of or association with sexual behavior. I think it is interesting that the word marica, which was associated clearly with an effeminate man came also to be associated the Maria, ie Mary, ie… “are you a Mary, a friend of Dorothy?” Is it a universal that Mary was a code word for the performative effeminate? The equation of marica/maricon with urraca- the song bird that can imitate human voice- is also interesting in that manner of speaking operates to delineate masculinity and femininity.

Finally, and most importantly I think, there is significant slippage in associating the terms with sodomy—ie, the sexual act itself. The definition of sodomy also evolved over this period. Originally, it was defined as a sexual act between two members of the same sex (concúbito entre personas de un mismo sexo), and particularly involving penetration of the “improper vessel” (vaso indebido – which could also mean the unlawful vessel, according to the 1739 RAE).  This definition didn’t change until the 1843 RAE Diccionario, which changed “in the improper vessel” to “against the natural order” (contra el orden natural). The shift indicates a change I would suggest relates to the medicalization of bodies and the rise of “scientific” commentary on sex.

It is very easy to read too much into dictionary definitions. I have certainly marked down more than one student in my classes for starting a paper or essay with, “The Dictionary defines ______ as….” Still, together with evidence from criminal prosecutions the etymology of marica, maricon, and sodomia provide good evidence that, regardless of perspectives on sinfulness, sodomy, effeminacy, and the historical association of between gendered behaviors and sexual acts did not begin to solidify until the 19th century, though the roots of that relationship date to the enlightenment.



*Mendelson, Johanna S.R. 1978. “The feminine press: the view of women in the colonial journals of Spanish America, 1790-1810.” Pp. 198-218 in Latin American women: Historical Perspectives, ed. Asuncion Lavrin. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Gender and Sexuality, Latin American History
4 comments on “De Marica a Maricon: Following Definitions of Marica, Maricon, and Sodomia with the Real Academia Española
  1. BQ says:

    Chad, very interesting.

    This brings to mind some of the images I have been noting on some of my work on the representation of sexual categories, particularly male cross-dressing. I’m currently sketching a piece on the additional identity categories of cross-dressing. Some instances seem to carry a particular identity with them that perhaps surfaces because of the relatively open opportunities that colonial life provided.

  2. parezcoydigo says:

    Benito- So, are you seeing explicit or implicit connections between gendered representations and sexual desire/sexual acts? I ask, and in that way, for two reasons- the literature on medieval sexuality is moving further and further away from seeing in sex acts the construction of an internally identified sexual identity. Second, I’m increasingly wary of the use of the term identity (though I do find myself still using it) for the late medieval/early modern world.

    I think we have a potential for anachronism in using a term like identity, which as come to mean something beyond self-representation to a internalizing, naturalizing category that is problematic- in large part because of the tendency to see identity categories as bifurcating.

    One last thing– I also wonder to what extent, as the colonial period developed over hundreds of years, there were more open opportunities than in the metropole. If you look, for example, at the work of Allyson Poska, our ideas of Spanish/Counter-Reformaiton gender and sexual prescriptions had very little resonance in Galicia, in ways I find all the time in the Andes. As another example– Lisa Sousa’s important chapter on Mixtec women using the courts to protect, as she sees it, legacies of gender parallelism turns out describe legal actions I find Spanish (creole and chapeton), casta, and indigenous women engaging. This suggests to me that the imperial history of the “Spanish Monarchy” may be less divided by the colonial/metropole split than we’ve traditionally perceived.

  3. BQ says:

    Chad, (apologies for the long wait on this, but that is the nature of asynchronous communications). Yes, I see at least an explicit connections between gender representations and sexual desire. At least with some of the texts I’ve been working with.

    I agree with you that the term identity is anachronistic. It is, for our needs, mighty handy, however.

    Case: in María de Zayas’s _Desengaños amorosos_ there is one story that comes to mind (but can’t seem to remember the title of it) where a male (lower class) desires a noble woman and finds that his only chance to approach her and court her is to enter the service of the household cross-dressed as a woman.

    He succeeds in the impersonation to the degree that all his attempts to convince the young woman that she/he loves her, are reduced to expressions where he asures her that love comes from the soul and that gender does not matter. At the same time the father of the noble lady begins to chase the cross-dressed lover and frequently accosts her/him when they are alone since he has develop strong sexual desires for her/him. The young lover will eventually reveal his true (male) identity to the noble woman and manage to convince her to flee with him and have sex, only to abandon her and reveal yet another layer of lies about who he is.

    I think that is quite clear that the character sees that the gender that he chooses to represent (female) limits his access to another female, while at the same time his male self is bothered constantly by the other male (the father) that constantly chases him around making him realize, to a certain degree, the difficulties which women are constantly going though. An even more interesting example is in Sor Juana’s _Los empeños de una casa_ where the gracioso not only cross-dresses as a woman, but seems to actually enjoy it and identifies with his adopted gender.

    I am not familiar with the two references you mention, but I also wonder if colonial life allowed for a more relaxed form of sexual and gender identity that was otherwise more severely restricted in Spain.

  4. […] couple of years ago, I wrote a post on the etymology of the term maricón, following marica, maricon, and sodomita through the […]

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Deducir ante el Juez la accion ú derecho que se tiene, ó las excepciones que excluyen la accion contrária.

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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