After a century and a half, Julia Pastrana has come back home. Born in 1834 in the the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa in Mexico, she suffered from hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia, rare genetic disorders that resulted in her having excessive amounts of facial and body hair and a protruding jaw. In 1854, a Mexican customs administrator bought Pastrana and began to show her as an “ape woman” or “bear woman” in traveling exhibitions of human “oddities” — what we would today say are disabilities or diseases.
Thanks to the efforts of a New York-based visual artist, Laura Anderson Barbata, Pastrana was finally buried on February 12 in a cemetery in Sinaloa de Leyva, a town near her birthplace. The repatriation of Pastrana’s body is part of a larger movement that began in the 1980s, when anthropologists, archeologists and curators began to face up to “the colonial legacies of their disciplines,” says the Guardian. It is a heavily symbolic gesture, but one that is certainly necessary to atone for a disturbingly recent practice of exhibiting human beings like objects.
“Today, it’s almost incomprehensible that a circus used corpses for entertainment purposes,” says Jan G Bjaalie, head of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at the University of Oslo, in the Guardian. We might rather say that it’s simply incomprehensible to think of anyone displaying dead human bodies for such purposes. More and more of us are also becoming wary of the idea of the circus, period, and of seeing animals forced to perform tricks and possibly abuse.
A Human “Exhibit” During Her Life and After Her Death
While slavery had been abolished for decades in Mexico before Pastrana’s birth, circus performers were still often sold, says the New York Times. In 19th-century New York, Pastrana met and married an impresario, Theodore Lent. He became her manager, married her and took her to tour in Europe. Noting that Pastrana was “definitely in love” with Lent, Jan Bondeson, author of a book that discusses Pastrana, “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities,” also says that “I am certain the reason he married her was that he could keep control of her and the not unconsiderable earnings.”
Newspapers described Pastrana as “revolting in the extreme” and the “ugliest woman in the world”; an 1854 advertisement in the New York Times said she was the “link between mankind and the ourang-outang.” She also sang and danced (or was made to). Pastrana died in 1859, five days after giving birth to Lent’s son in Moscow. The baby had inherited her hypertrichosis and died a few hours after birth.
The gingival hyperplasia that thickened Pastrana’s lips and gums was not diagnosed while she was alive. Today, severe and chronic cases of gingival hyperplasia can be treated with medication and reconstructive surgery.
After Pastrana’s death, Lent continued to tour, exhibiting her embalmed body and that of their son. He married a German woman with facial hair and called her “Zenora Pastrana,” claiming her to be Pastrana’s sister; the two toured Europe with Lent’s second wife performing beside the bodies. In fact, bolts and metal rods were inserted into Pastrana’s body to exhibit her. She was treated not only as a “freak” but as an object, a thing.
Pastrana’s body was still exhibited after Lent’s death, most recently in the 1970s by a fairgrounds operator in Norway. In 1976, thieves stole her body and her baby’s from a warehouse; when Norwegian police found them in a trash bin, one of Pastrana’s arms had been dismembered and her son’s body was disfigured beyond repair. Pastrana’s remains were placed in a climate-controlled room of anatomical specimens at the University of Oslo’s Institute of Basic Medical Sciences.
She might still be in a basement freezer, if Barbata had not petitioned for her repatriation in 2005. Barbata had grown up in Sinaloa and made costumes for a play about Pastrana by Shaun Prendergast, “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World.” Barbata had a Roman Catholic mass said for Pastrana in Oslo and placed a death notice in a newspaper about her. Things stood like that until last year when the current governor of Sinaloa, Mario López Valdez, petitioned for Pastrana’s repatriation. Norway agreed to do so last August and Pastrana is now, at long last, at rest.
As Saul Rubio Ayala, Sinaloa de Leyva’s hometown, proclaimed, “Julia has been reborn among us. Let us never see another woman be turned into an object of commerce.”
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