Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) once performed in the U.S. and all over Europe. An indigenous woman from Mexico, Pastrana spoke several languages, danced, and sang. In spite of these accomplishments, the majority of people came to see her because of her physical appearance. Her body was covered with hair and she suffered from hypertrichosis. She was sometimes advertised as “The Bear Woman” or “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” Nevertheless, frequently those who saw her perform described her amiability and intelligence. Pastrana also had a life kept secret from her audience. Although she sang songs about wanting to be loved and fearing that she would always be alone, secretly Pastrana was married to her manager, Theodore Lent. She became pregnant with their son but died during childbirth. Sadly, her son died as well.
Much of the interest in Pastrana stems from what happened after her death. Pastrana’s husband had her body and that of their son embalmed and stuffed. Their bodies continued to be displayed into the 1970’s. After being stored in a basement of a hospital in Oslo, Norway, her body was finally returned to her homeland, Sinaloa Mexico, due to the efforts of artist Laura Anderson Barbata. Pastrana was buried February 12, 2013.
Over the 156 years since Pastrana’s death, academics, writers, doctors, playwrights, musicians, artists, and fans have written about and created art in her memory. Pastrana’s story has inspired the sympathy and interest of many. However, I have several concerns about work devoted to Pastrana. First, some projects focused on her appearance and/or the fate of her corpse rather than engaging with Pastrana as a human being. It seemed to me that this obsession with her body perpetuated a commodification of Pastrana. Second, I found that too often sources about Pastrana recycled the same misinformation about her life that originally came from a promotional brochure (note: there are some exceptions to this which I’ll write about in future posts). I began to wonder what documents could be uncovered relating to her life.
Over the years, I’ve been researching Pastrana’s life and am currently in the process of creating an online database to share what can be documented. My hope is that other scholars and people who are interested in Pastrana will use these documents to create work that honors Pastrana’s extraordinary life. The website where you can find these documents is called “Julia Pastrana Online.” I’ll be adding to this site regularly over the next six months.
I’ll also be blogging about my process, decision making, challenges, and problem solving as I create the database. Because digital humanities (DH) is a new initiative at my university, I’ll be writing here about how I’ve created a digital repository in hopes that other faculty and Fresno State students will be inspired to get started on their own projects.