Mary-Rose Abraham: This is Chatroom 13, your bonus episode of Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. This time, we’re in Guatemala, a small mountainous nation in South America. We’re going to hear about a gruesome crime and its links to harsh policing and racial profiling in the 19th century. This episode is produced by students at Yale University who are interning with us.
MRA: Also — a warning — this episode features acts of dismemberment, so it’s not suitable for young children! And finally, a small request — If you’re liking what you hear, why not consider donating? Details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com slash support.
Alexa Stanger: We’re in the heart of Guatemala City, near the Plaza del San Francisco where the rich and powerful live. It’s July 1st 1800 … shortly after six in the morning.
AS: Servants are already making breakfast, shaping wet maize dough into tortillas, and gossiping quietly. Don Cayetano Diaz opens his window to let in the fresh air … and sees something … strange … on his window sill. There are drops of blood on the cold gray stone … and placed on a lily pad, as if served on a plate, is a woman’s breast. This is from the book The Woman on the Windowsill: A Tale of Mystery in Several Parts, by Sylvia Sellers-Garcia. I’m Alexa Stanger …
Sasha Semina: And I’m Sasha Semina …
AS: This crime makes me shiver, the perverseness of it, the careful display on a lilypad to create a spectacle … About ten years ago, Sylvia, a historian of Latin America, became interested in policing in Guatemala City, which has a reputation for violent crime. In August 2012, Sylvia was in the Archivo General de Centro América looking up police records….
Sylvia Sellers-Garcia: I was just sort of skimming the pages. And then, in one particularly long case, I turn the page. And on the second page of the case, I saw this drawing in the margin. And here was this really small, beautifully made rendition of something. It was just the sort of clump of shapes. So I started reading — the window, this, that and the other — and then the line that these were severed breasts. And that’s when I thought, Okay, I have to slow down and actually read this case, and figure out what it’s about.
AS: And she managed to do just that. Today, she’ll take us through how she solved the case of the severed breast on the windowsill 200 years after it happened.
SS: This case is especially relevant to our present day. It shows us how policing that targets marginalized groups can lead to unexpected forms of resistance. These days, we’ve seen examples of police brutality all over the globe …
AS: Hours after the breast appears on Don Cayetano’s windowsill, the authorities begin searching the area for mutilated corpses. They notify nearby towns to also be on the lookout.
SS: The news of the gruesome find spreads quickly. The city literally pauses in horror. But people are not going, “Oh this poor woman” … the breast clearly belongs to a woman who isn’t white, so is seen as having a lesser social status … and therefore she cannot really suffer. She cannot be a victim…
AS: Rather, people — the gentlemen and women — are horrified because … how can someone violate a public space using human remains? … How could this happen in our city? What is this vandalism?
SS: Within hours, a young constable thinks he has a lead …
SSG: He ran into this woman who said that her daughter had disappeared the night before. So they very much thought that this might be the victim. And so they sort of swooped up everyone who was connected to this family. It was like almost a dozen people and they all ended up in jail even though it was not really thought that they in particular had done something wrong. And they waited and waited while the inquiries were undertaken to see if she had actually disappeared or not.
SS: A few weeks later, the police have rounded up and thrown a dozen suspects in jail without due process …. The case seems to be progressing when…
AS: … on July 26th, a thirteen-year old boy walking home from the city market sees a swarm of flies next to a window … He moves closer, and sees there… on the windowsill… a pair of hands! This house is across the street from Don Cayetano. Four days later, someone finds a pair of ears … again on Don Cayetano’s windowsill. Doctors describe the ears as looking rather “dry”… So it’s obvious the perpetrator is not sitting in jail. The police are getting frustrated — is this person mocking them? Trying to make them seem inept?
SSG: A series of exhumations are ordered by the court.
SS: They dig up graves to find the woman or women that these body parts belong to … On July 28th, the investigating doctor rose early to examine one corpse exhumed from the cemetery of Los Remedios that seemed to match the description. The corpse was in advanced stages of decomposition and the breasts and hands had been cut away …
SSG: Dr. Narciso Esparragosa, one of the leading surgeons of the time period discovered the body of one woman who had been mutilated in this way.
SS: Her name was Simona Villagrán, and her decomposing corpse was missing hands, ears and breasts.
SSG: She had been buried whole by her family members — after a long illness — it was clear that the perpetrator had mutilated her after burial.
SS: These crimes were not homicides. Rather, these were cases of corpse mutilation.
SSG: I could only find one other crime that involved a homicide with mutilation in it. So it’s very unusual.
AS: Violence is familiar to the residents of Guatemala City… but mutilation is not. Especially of a buried corpse, laid to rest in a sacred place. This is considered sacrilege.
SSG: The act of desecrating a corpse is a way of taking away the power of a community of treating its dead. And taking away that power is an incredible theft, you know, it’s a way of taking away the things that are most dear to a community
AS: Sylvia thinks the manner of the mutilation suggests the person hated women …
SSG: In my mind, there’s no doubt that there is misogyny in this crime. There’s no question that there’s a reason why women’s bodies were targeted.
AS: The last mutilation related to the windowsill crimes happens a month later … on Sept 8th … It’s —
SSG: The very sort of heavy handed disfigurement of a woman’s body in the San Juan de Dios hospital morgue. And in that case, her, her genitals are slashed, and just sort of left in pieces. And I don’t think that that kind of act can be committed without misogyny.
SS: Getting back to the exhumed corpse of Simona Villagrán … her relatives tell the authorities that she was at the Hospital San Juan de Dios for a long time … and died on July 21st. This was 21 days after the breast first appeared on Don Cayetano’s windowsill. So even if the hands belonged to Simona’s corpse, the breasts were clearly not hers. The police are perplexed. But the Doctor Esparragosa is stubborn — Simona is the source of both the breasts, the hands and the ears. He wants the police to close the matter. And they do …
AS: The police never find the villain … But Sylvia is not satisfied. Transfixed by the two century old case notes, she wonders — whom did the breasts belong to? Maybe the clue lies in hospital records — Simona had been admitted to a hospital before her death … Sylvia scours pages and pages of hospital logbooks … reads the records of every individual who was treated that year. And that’s when she comes across an entry from July 1st 1800. It was about a patient named Manuela Trujillo. The entry detailed that she was “a poor woman” and a “natural of Guatemala”. She was the only woman who’d died on that day in the hospital. And she was a mestiza, a woman of mixed race — half Spanish, half indigenous — her skin tone would have matched the severed breasts. Could it be that the breasts on the windowsill came from Manuela?
SS: So why did the perpetrator mutilate women and display their body parts? To understand this act, I have to tell you briefly about Guatemala City’s police force. The city had been reeling from crime. In 1791, the city was divided up into neighborhoods. And each neighborhood was assigned a police patrol after dark. But, of course, the patrols had a strange way of keeping public order. They didn’t look for crimes but rather targeted people that were seen as the lowest classes of society. Poor people, indigenous people … It was racialized policing … Take this example …
SSG: A woman named María Desidora was stopped at night by the police patrol. And they brought her in, they asked her what she was doing on the street, she couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation. She turned out to be 16 years old, not really even a full adult and recently arrived in the city from outside of it, she worked as a servant in one of the nearby households. And the crime that she was brought in for was walking at night. She wasn’t really doing anything particularly criminal. But the laws of the period allowed the police to apprehend her simply for doing that.
AS: People began challenging these brutal and discriminatory laws. Sylvia thinks the windowsill crimes, too, were a form of protest — a way to show the discontent of the marginalized against those holding the keys to the city. Don Cayetano, the man whose windowsill was desecrated, was the brother of a city magistrate …
SSG: And so I think that in some ways, my theory is anyway, that the windowsill crimes were actually a response to this intense policing. We see a great deal of activity of that kind, we see a lot of people pushing the limits of what they feel is, I guess you would say, their liberty, you know what they would like to do — their free behaviour in the city? And the police responding to that.
The perpetrator was less trying to do terrible things to women and, and more, at least, explicitly trying to use those terrible things in order to communicate with the city and with the police
AS: As someone who has witnessed the protests over excessive policing in the recent past in the U.S., the case of the severed breast on the windowsill presents a note of caution. And the story means a lot to me for another reason — we often don’t hear about how the poor and marginalized people lived centuries ago. So it’s rather profound that, 200 years after they died, Simona Villagrán and Manuela Trujillo have taken on new life.
MRA: You were listening to Alexa Stanger, Sasha Semina and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia on Chatroom 13. For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com/chatroom13. Follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another chatroom, this time about the evolution of Desi Hip Hop. Stay tuned!