Indigenous Female Criminal

Date: 1920
Owner: Ethnos
Source Type: Images

This drawing of an Indian woman reflects two overlapping concerns of Latin American criminology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: race and gender. Indians, blacks, and people of mixed race had been the subjects of suspicion and subjugation since early colonial times, but positivists like Mexico's cientificos and Argentina's Generation of 1880 brought new legitimacy to such racist ideas by using "objective" observations, like nose shape and head size, to determine those most prone to crime. In most cases, criminologists reiterated the pervasive fear that such degenerates would corrupt society and hinder Latin America's quest for modernity.

Women, as mothers and wives who nurtured the young men necessary for modernizing their countries, had an especially important role to play in this project, thus their degeneracy became a central concern. (Also, female criminals were a favorite of sensationalist writings; the public ate-up stories of women driven to murder by their passions). Women who deviated from the prevalent gender role were a threat and, as the biological fount of more citizens, it was considered extremely important to identify the roots of female degeneracy and to isolate and rehabilitate deviant women. Thus institutions like Argentina's "Houses of Deposit" allowed husbands or other dominant males to "deposit" women into correctional houses for such offenses as homosexuality, infanticide, or "bad temperament." The ongoing interest in women and race among Latin American criminologists underscore how prevalent pseudo-scientific theories, especially those stemming from Darwinian evolution, had become to social reformers c. 1900.


Buffington, Robert M. Criminal and Citizen in Modern Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Rodriguez, Julia. Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and the Modern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

CITATION: Drawings by Francisco Goytia from an article by Lucio Mendieto y Nunez, "Influence of the Physical Environment on Primitive Peoples," in Ethnos.