Forum

Thesis Spotlight: Ursula Rall

A new addition to the Forum section of the Bates Student is called “Thesis Spotlight”, and in these types of articles, I hope to use my platform to highlight the incredible research Bates students are conducting their senior years. I hope that this will not only motivate seniors to continue their work, but also encourage underclassmen to start generating questions for their senior research projects. The first ever thesis spotlight will focus on Ursula Rall. Ursula is a history major, and she sat down with me this week to answer some questions I had for her.

So Ursula, what is the title of your thesis?

Well, right now I have a working title, which means it will eventually change. But for right now my thesis is called “Shrouded Voices: The Social Networks Afro-Mexican Women in the 17th Century in Mexico and Veracruz.”

What is your thesis about?

The title kind of gives it away. I’m looking at the social networks amongst women of African descent. Basically, I’m seeing how race, ethnicity, and gender impact the lives of these women. I’m hoping this could contribute to this area of study considering how relatively new this subject matter is.

So, when you say women of African descent, are you talking about women of all ethnic backgrounds or are you focusing on one specific ethnicity?

I’m looking at colonial Mexico, which has historically used multiple ethnic labels to describe women who are Afro-descent. I choose Afro-descent because it’s a bit more inclusive than the terms Black or Afro-Mexican. However, I will say that most of the women I’m learning about are racially categorized as Negro and Mulatto, with there being some more ambiguous terms in the middle.

Personally, I can’t speak on this as much as you can, but I heard that Mulatto is a derogatory term. So, why do you use it in you research? What are the implications?

Mulatto is actually derived from the word “mule”, so it was obviously meant to be derogatory. However, according to my primary sources, it is the term that these women referred to themselves as, and it’s how they were classified in many official documents. You know if a white man called me Negro today, I would be like “excuse me.” But, it’s important to note that these are some of the terms people used in a certain time period in the US and nowadays these terms wouldn’t be as accepted.

Why do you feel like this research is important?

I feel like it’s important because, in general, Afro-Latin American studies is an expanding field, and the more we learn about the African diaspora, the more we can make sense of the various experiences Afro-descent people have in the Americas. I think history helps us bridge the gap between our numerous ways of understanding Blackness, and also lets you look back and say “hey, this person made a huge impact or was an active member of the economy.” And, although there are some race scholars looking at Afro-Mexico, it’s a relatively younger field. Not to mention, there has been little conversations surrounding gender as well. I mean I not so arrogant to think that my thesis will change the world and make it seem like people aren’t racist anymore, but I do think historical research can show how integral the Black experience is in Mexican culture.

What specifically attracted you to this type of research?

Before I started my thesis, I knew I wanted to focus on colonial Mexico because through the history courses I’ve taken, I noticed that when it comes to Latins America, it’s usually a tiny bit about Cuba and maybe some vague stuff about Mexico and a little bit about Brazil. I chose to explore Mexico more. I also think that being bi-racial, I had a unique journey in defining my Blackness, so I wanted to see how other people discover that identity or answers those same questions I had about racial and ethnic identity.

What is one interesting finding?
I don’t know how much of this will be incorporated into my thesis, but one case was a woman who was born in Spain. Her mother was a slave born in Africa and traded to Spain, while she believed her father was a part of powerful Spanish family. She moved to the New World with her first husband, but after she was widow, she remarried an upper class gentleman (a Spaniard). I thought it was fascinating because all of these Spanish women accused her of witchcraft because they believed she used love potions on her husband to get him to marry her. This took place in 1627.