SACRIFICIAL MOTHERHOOD AND BODILY AUTONOMY
Deolinda Correa trudged across the arid Cuyo Valley in search of her husband, her infant son in tow. While her initial goal was the pursuit of her husband, who had been forcibly conscripted by a regional caudillo — a strongman who rules by force and a cult of personality — to fight in the ongoing Argentine Civil Wars (1814-1876), her focus soon shifted to finding a source of water. Miles from the city of San Juan, Correa summited a small hill to see if there was any water nearby. When she found none, she lay down and placed her child at her breast to feed. This was where she died, likely of dehydration or exhaustion. Days later, muleteers came across her corpse and were shocked to discover that her child was still alive. Miraculously, Correa’s fecund breasts had continued to produce milk postmortem, allowing her child to nurse. This is the foundational legend of Argentine popular saint, la Difunta Correa.
Since her death in the mid-19th century, Correa achieved a devoted following despite a lack of formal canonization. La Difunta’s devotees celebrate her unearthly postmortem lactation and, even more so, her Virgin Mary-like sacrifice for her child. This glorification of maternal sacrifice is not unique to the legend of la Difunta Correa; women are expected to sacrifice their personal goals, time, employment, and bodily autonomy for their children.
Artist Marcela Correa’s 2014 exhibition, “La Difunta Correa,” at the Galería AFA in Santiago de Chile presents an interpretation of disembodied breasts. In the context of a factory-like setting and with agro-industrial materials, “La Difunta Correa” shows women’s body parts as vehicles for rearing children. While a womb would be the most obvious metonym for women-as-child-bearers, in the case of la Difunta, the breasts become more salient.
In the process of sacrificing her body and her life for her child, la Difunta is not merely disembodied, but also dehumanized.
Within the sparse, nearly industrial, gallery space, three long iron bars in the ceiling support seven hanging sacks, each measuring about 10 feet tall. The sacks bear jagged seams, revealing the smaller parts that are behind the manufacturing of the almost conical shape of the superior structure. From the bottom of each cone emanates a hollow, shriveled tube of the same material, on the verge of touching the gallery floor. Considering the name of the exhibit, “La Difunta Correa,” these abstract forms bring to mind the shape of la Difunta’s infamous breasts. Without anything to represent the rest of la Difunta or her body, her breasts stand in as a dismembered allusion to the maternal body generating milk to nourish her child.
However, Correa doesn’t describe the sculptures as breasts: “Son ubres.” (They’re udders.) In the process of sacrificing her body and her life for her child, la Difunta is not merely disembodied, but also dehumanized. She transforms from a woman with breasts to a cow with udders, a metamorphosis enhanced by the gallery having, “[L]a sensación de algo industrial, de como podría una lechería.” (The sensation of something industrial, of how a dairy might be.) Rather than lactating solely to nurse her baby, who is notably absent from the art piece, la Difunta produces milk in an industrialized dairy factory, a space removed from any sense of humanization.
The artist, in an interview for Visioneer TV, calls the original material for the sculptures, “[M]axi sacos que son donde se transportan los granos.” (Maxi sacks that are where grains are transported.) The use of grain sacks to construct giant breasts evokes the nourishing function of a mother’s breast in the rearing of a child. These seven sculptures made of molded feed bags are filled with artificial cotton and rice, highlighting the purpose of the bags, and therefore the breasts, in carrying goods for others’ consumption. Within the context of Argentina, this choice of material becomes significant. Agricultural goods distributed within the country and exported internationally make up the largest portion of the Argentine economy. Symbolically, women are not only providing the care and nourishment to the country’s youth, but also providing the material goods that fuel the economy.
The disembodiment of la Difunta’s breasts in conjunction with the industrialized, yet particularly Argentine, setting demonstrate that the expectations of good mothering exploit the maternal figures they aim to celebrate.
Correa’s exhibit draws a parallel between maternal abnegation, typified by breastfeeding, and an agro-industrial system that dehumanizes and undervalues its producers. Others, like Correa, have drawn this comparison, noting the exploitative nature of conventionalized sacrificial motherhood. NiUnaMenos, a major activist collective in Argentina and throughout Latin America that fights against machista — male chauvinist — violence, noted that this type of “[V]iolencia sobre los cuerpos se sostiene y trenza con la desigualdad social, la lógica de la acumulación de riquezas, las condiciones de trabajo, las instituciones y el Estado.” (Violence on the body is sustained by and entangled with social inequality, the logic of wealth accumulation, labor conditions, institutions, and the State.)
These separate yet interwoven issues in contemporary Argentina are rooted in struggles for women’s agency that emphasize their importance beyond mothers whose wombs and breasts belong to their unborn/newborn children. The disembodiment of la Difunta’s breasts in conjunction with the industrialized, yet particularly Argentine, setting demonstrate that the expectations of good mothering exploit the maternal figures they aim to celebrate. La Difunta becomes economized, only celebrated for her body’s ability to produce and reproduce.
Madison Felman-Panagotacos is a doctoral student in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received an MA in Spanish. Her areas of research include the cultural productions of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Mexico and Argentina, and focus on studies of feminist social movements, maternity and non-patriarchal parenthood, and abortion rights. Currently, she is preparing a course about Queer Historiographies in Argentina and writing about fiction representations of the Argentine folk saint la Difunta Correa. You can find more information at her website.