COOL CLASSES: “Gender Dissidence in Hispanic Writing”

This year, Israel Burshatin’s comparative literature course on the dissenting voices of gender and sexuality in Spain and Spanish America is buoyed by a related exhibition in Magill Library around the Inquisition trial of a F-to-M trans surgeon born into slavery.

Class name: “Gender Dissidence in Hispanic Writing”

Taught by: Barbara Riley Levin Professor of Comparative Literature Israel Burshatin


Here’s what Burshatin had to say about his class:

The idea for my class first originated back in 1993, in connection with my archival research into an extraordinary case of an F-to-M [trans] surgeon, Eleno de Céspedes. I had been studying the rather large dossier of Eleno’s Inquisition trial (Toledo, 1587) and was struck by the compelling life-story we can extract from the trial documents and, especially, by the confluence of notions of genders in transition and of the ethnic and religious filiations that gathered around—or were expressly crafted by— a person who was born female (initially named Elena) and a slave of African descent. In order to help me contextualize Eleno’s narrative in the history and cultures of post-Reconquest Spain I decided that an undergraduate seminar would be the ideal setting to develop my thinking about Eleno and his time, as well as providing a vivid life story to aid our students’ understanding of the “culture wars” raging in early modern Iberia. The important work of contextualization aside, Eleno’s trajectory, across genders, occupations, and social class, is a fascinating one — s/he rose from slave status at birth to weaver, tailor, soldier, and licensed surgeon. Following his transition to male (he argued in court that he was a hermaphrodite) he married a woman—and that’s when the Toledo Inquisition intervened. While some of the course content —and especially the theoretical apparatus we draw from in gender and sexuality studies — has changed over the years, we still focus on some of the same foundational texts, including, of course selections from Eleno’s trial dossier.

My goals in the course are several, but at minimum I hope my students come to an understanding of the rather different notions of gender, embodiment, and sexuality that inform not only Eleno’s narrative, but also a number of important literary works of the period. We also study contemporary literary works, mostly by Latin American authors, that include such themes as cross dressing or queer gender identity. In the context of our historical readings we can more fully appreciate both the distinctiveness of early modern concerns, as well as recognize some startling continuities. Chief among the latter, I would say, are the evolving forms in which gender is imbricated with other aspects of social life.

This year’s iteration of the class has been greatly enhanced by the visit of two distinguished Madrid-based artists who work collaboratively as Cabello / Carceller. They showed in the Spanish Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale in 2015. We are fortunate to exhibit in Magill Library their mixed-media project  “A/ O (Céspedes Case),” which was first shown in Seville in 2010. Beginning on Nov. 3, Cabello / Carceller’s “A/ O ” has been on view in the Alcove Gallery and Rufus Jones Study, both at Magill. Here is one extraordinary instance of the continued cultural significance of the traces of the life of Eleno de Céspedes as preserved in the archives of the Inquisition and in a few other contemporary sources. My students have had the opportunity to discuss both the case and the themes of the class with the visiting artists, who spent a week on campus.


See what other courses the Comparative Literature Department is offering this semester.


Photo: Madrid-based artist team Cabello/Carceller speak at the opening in Magill Library. Photo by Lily Xu ’19.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.