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by Lena McQuade
In Spanish partera means midwife or a person who assists women during labor and delivery. In New Mexico, parteras are usually Spanish speaking, empirically trained, midwives. It is estimated that between 800 and 900 women practiced as parteras in the early 1900s. By 1951 there were 352 parteras officially licensed by the state health department and many others still operated without a formal midwifery certificate. Some parteras assisted at only a few family members’ deliveries while others maintained busy practices, such as partera Jesusita Aragón who delivered 12,000 babies during her lifetime. Historically, parteras served a crucial role in maintaining the health of women and infants in New Mexican communities. They provided birth assistance to women living far from hospitals and to women who could not afford or chose not to access a physician. Many factors contributed to New Mexicans’ preference for parteras including shared linguistic, cultural, religious, and even familial ties. Parteras spoke Spanish and evoked Roman Catholic saints, such as San Ramón or Santa Liberdad, to ease deliveries. Through their skills as birth attendants, parteras helped to maintain the cultural and economic independence of many Hispano villages and Mexican American communities throughout New Mexico.
Parteras and the Hispano and Mexican American families they served held certain beliefs about pregnancy and birth. For the most part, parteras did not see birth as a medical emergency requiring extensive intervention. Rather, they understood birth to be a natural, if difficult, process that could be handled by the laboring woman’s family and the assistance of a skilled partera. At the onset of labor, the husband or another family member secured the services of a partera, bringing her to their home. Once there, parteras utilized a number of techniques to monitor and ease the labor process. Some parteras insisted that the laboring woman remain on her feet, walking until the delivery was near. Others used a variety of herbs and teas to sooth the laboring woman and ease or speed up the delivery process. Since parteras did not have modern medical equipment, many used their hands to determine the position of the baby. During delivery, parteras such as Jesusita Aragón, used olive oil to massage the perineum and avoid tearing. Throughout the birthing process, parteras worked to keep the laboring woman happy and avoid frightening or upsetting her.
Once the baby was delivered, parteras would cut the umbilical cord and used sterile dressings (if they had them available) or cloth to wrap the baby. Following birth, some parteras insisted that women follow the díeta, or special diet. Postpartum women were fed certain foods such as blue corn atole and lamb while other foods like chili were to be avoided for up to forty days. Some older partera practices included keeping the mother of a newborn in a draft-free room with limited light for a proscribed period of time. Some believed that the infant’s eyes were not fully developed at birth, thus bright light might harm the baby. This sequestering technique might also have protected infants and new mothers from flies, which were later discovered to be carriers of bacteria that caused intestinal illnesses, a major cause of death to infants in New Mexico. In some instances, parteras were asked to become the godmother or madrina of the children they delivered. This practice increased interconnections among villagers and was a way of recognizing the integral role of parteras in New Mexican communities. Parteras accepted many types of payment for their service including food or labor in addition to money.
Parteras learned their skills through apprenticeship and empirical training. Some parteras were taught and mentored by older family members. For example, Delfina Cordova, a partera from Gallina, described first learning about “remedios mexicanos” or Mexican remedies from an aunt and later was instructed in midwifery by an older partera named Librada. Once Librada was too old to practice, Cordova replaced her becoming the sole partera for her village. Perhaps the most well known partera, Jesusita Aragón, learned midwifery from her grandmother who, in turn, had learned from her mother. Aragón delivered her first baby when she was only fourteen and then began accompanying her grandmother on all of her subsequent deliveries. Some parteras picked their successors when they felt they were getting too old to practice. In these cases, the younger partera would accompany her mentor to a number of births. After watching and assisting at several births, the older partera would allow her protégé to begin practicing on her own. Often parteras delivered relatives and gave birth themselves drawing on these experiences to enhance their knowledge of the birthing process. Another partera, Frenanda Pacheco, recalled assisting her sisters and close relatives during birth. Once word spread that Pacheco was a good partera, people outside of her family began to request her services.
Once the public health department was established in New Mexico in 1919, health officials worked to reduce infant and maternal mortality in the state. Towards this end, the public health department implemented a number of regulations that affected the practices of parteras. The first were a series of midwife regulations that set parameters for labor and delivery practices of parteras. These regulations also institutionalized certification procedures for parteras, which included attending midwifery classes, passing an exam, and a physical. Starting in the 1920’s and increasing through the 1930’s and 1940’s, the public health department sponsored midwifery classes, institutes, and clubs lead by public health nurses. For example, 317 parteras attended midwifery classes during the year and a half period from January 1925 through July 1926. By 1938, there were 1,454 attendees in midwifery classes and meetings. Midwifery classes were often quite popular and gave parteras the opportunity to learn new skills and obtain certificates. However, incorporating parteras into the public health infrastructure meant that communities lost some authority in determining who could be a partera and how they should practice. Nevertheless, parteras continued to deliver babies, combining knowledge from public health classes with traditional mentorship and empirical skill, thus serving a vital role as health practitioners in many New Mexican communities.
Primary Sources Used
Ann M. Smith Collection, box 3. Parteras. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.
Supreme Court Law Library Collection, box 51. Regulations Governing the Practice of Midwifery. November 20, 1922. New Mexico State Records and Archives Center.
Supreme Court Law Library Collection, box 51. State of New Mexico Bureau of Public Health Annual Reports. 1923-1934. New Mexico State Records and Archives Center.
Supreme Court Law Library Collection, box 51. New Mexico Health Officer. 1935-1947. New Mexico State Records and Archives Center.
Supreme Court Law Library Collection, box 52. Midwives Registered in the State of New Mexico. February 1, 1951. New Mexico State Records and Archives Center.
WPA New Mexico Collection. Parteras Midwife. February 25, 1941. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.
Secondary Sources Used
Anderson, Dorothy. “Why New Mexico Nurses Cooperate in Maternity and Infancy Work.” American Journal of Public Health. 16 (1926): 473-475.
Buss, Fran Leeper. La Partera: Story of a Midwife. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
García, Nasario, ed. Comadres: Hispanic Women of the Río Puerco Valley. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Greenfield, Myrtle. A History of Public Health in New Mexico. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1962.
Elsasser, Nan, Kyle MacKenzie and Yvonne Tixier y Vigil, eds. Las Mujeres: Conversations from a Hispanic Community. Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1979.
Peña, Abe M. Memories of Cibola: Stories from New Mexico Villages. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Spidle, Jake. Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico: A History of Health and Medical Practice, 1886-1986. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.
Van der Eerden, M. Lucia. Maternity Care in a Spanish-American Community in New Mexico. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948.
Wills, Louise. “Instruction of Midwives in San Miguel County.” Southwestern Medicine. 6 (1922): 276-279.