Raúl Necochea López: When Historians’ Sources Get Demanding


We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Raúl Necochea López, author of A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru. Adding to the burgeoning study of medicine and science in Latin America, this important book offers a comprehensive historical perspective on the highly contentious issues of sexual and reproductive health in an important Andean nation. Necochea López approaches family planning as a historical phenomenon layered with medical, social, economic, and moral implications. At stake in this complex mix were new notions of individual autonomy, the future of gender relations, and national prosperity.

In a previous post, Necochea López highlights new laws regulating therapeutic abortion in Peru. In today’s post, he shares a story about the struggles and rewards involved in obtaining information from reluctant sources. The materials obtained from this meeting can be found in chapter six of his new book


“Lord, give bread to the hungry, and make the sated hunger for you,” said the woman praying across the table, Señora Carmen, my reluctant source. Did she mean for her prayer to reach me, a godless aspiring historian? I could not put it past her to aim a cagey barb at my attempt to enlist her help. She saw through it, as I saw through her calm piety, right up to her turmoil upon witnessing a stranger air out the metaphorical skeletons in her closet. Or did she mean the prayer for herself? After all, everything she had shown me over the last few days strengthened the case for seeing the Catholic Church’s officers and lay leaders (herself included) in 1960s Peru as strong proponents of the use of the contraceptive pill. By making her personal papers available she became my unwilling ally, a traitor to her church or, rather, to the carefully whitewashed image the Latin American Catholic hierarchy now spins as the only position it has ever espoused regarding contraception.

Of the two of us, I suspect she thought herself the greater sinner, a Judas who would make others view her church as hypocritical. There is a saying back home about God forgiving sinners, but not those who lead the innocent to sin. After all, she had kept the records. What was this weakness that led her to save the evidence? Perhaps she had not hungered for God enough. Perhaps this is why she never faulted me for disturbing the restful winter of her years. Not only that: Señora Carmen peppered the many conversations we had over the course of several days with clues about her ambivalence: what a wonderful thing the pill had been, for example, how shocked she was when Pope Paul VI commanded Catholics not to use it, and the lengths to which she and her husband had gone not to have any more children.

Señora Carmen was a kind and wily widow, immensely proud of the lay Catholic movement she had led fifty years ago: the churches they filled with devoted volunteers, the way wary bishops consulted them before making decisions. Are you writing about that, hijito? I had already done my homework. The pill distribution program had been real and popular, and I wanted to hear about how she was involved. It sent shivers up my spine me to see her mood change, from grandmotherly to ruler-wielding Mother Superior. She denied any involvement on her part, and spoke bitterly of friendships ruined because of that program, of a once strong house divided and adrift, all because of the pill. But yes, she knew about the program, and she kept all the papers.

My “jackpot!” moment was brief. Over the next few days, I spent part of my visits copying down the contents of her archive, and part of them talking with her about this and that: her pregnancies, my studies, our families, my being a man discussing women’s sexuality. Our surprising ritual was not about becoming friends, but about speaking truths about why we had become the people in this situation. She desperately wanted to know why I was after this painful story, and I why she thought the pill was alright only for the white and wealthy set to which she belonged. Neither was persuaded by the other’s explanations, and so we danced on, posing the same questions in different ways. It was an emotionally draining week, during which I often felt on the brink of breaking down in her living room. I could not wait to be done. On our last day, I knew she felt the same way when she did not invite me back.

The way in which bullfighters put themselves repeatedly on the path of a half-ton of rage, shifting at the last moment, is shocking. I am especially awed by the tribute of the bits of their own flesh left on those horns. It makes me wonder what we historians are increasingly giving up by finding our sources in air-conditioned rooms with lockers and vending machines, where the only tribute we pay is a cordial email to a helpful archivist, who then gets a credit in the standard acknowledgements page. Remotely accessible digitized collections are already making some of our work possible from the convenience of coffee shops with Wi-Fi. The generous support of scholars’ culture of learning, institutionalized in publicly accessible libraries and formal document repositories, makes continued historical insights possible.

But I am starting to worry that we prize our storage media, our knowledge of dead languages and paleography, our capacity to reveal and shed light on this and that, above respect for people in the past and their mysteries, their reasons for not wanting to speak. It bothers me even more to imagine how these conveniences could turn into the Weberian iron cage that desensitizes us to the enormous privilege that is to poke in someone else’s closet, to learn things that were hidden even to people who knew our historical characters a lot better than we ever will.

Unlike journalists and anthropologists, historians are at risk of developing the soul-crushing habit of making no concessions to our sources. Señora Carmen taught me to not take easy access for granted. She reminded me of the importance of leaving bits of our exhausted selves as tribute to our sources’ parting with disclosures that help us understand the world a little better. There is something deeply unfair about simply taking things from archives, with little consequence or ceremony, and it needs to be acknowledged, even if no remedy can be forthcoming. We are not meant, I hope, to become net takers, giving little of our own in pursuit of a book or an article. I owe that lesson to an octogenarian gatekeeper.

Raúl Necochea López is assistant professor of social medicine and adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His new book, A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru, is now available.