Little Mothers: Precocious Puberty in 20th-Century Peru and Beyond

Friday, January 6, 2017: 9:10 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Bianca Premo, Florida International University
On December 16, 1957, Time magazine reported the amazing case of a “Little Mother,” a nine-year old girl who the week before had given birth to a baby girl in Lima, Peru. US readers were invited to marvel at the fact that the little mother had recently worn cardboard wings to play an angel in her third-grade play. But readers were also provided another amazing fact: this little girl was not the youngest Peruvian mother on record. In 1939, another girl-- Lina Medina from an indigenous southern district in Peru—had also delivered a baby in Lima. Lina was only five years old when she became a mother.

This paper examines the multiple scales of representing Latin American child mothers in the twentieth century. It explores the development of popular fascination with Lina Medina in particular, from stories about her in Spanish, English, and even German mainstream presses, to her appearance in sensationalist, sideshow venues in the 1950s and 1960s, including the book Amazing but True. Simultaneously, it considers the way that she and girls like her appeared as scientific “case studies” of precocious puberty in the medical community. 

Besides comparing popular and scientific scales of representing Lina and other “little mothers,” the paper explores how the girls’ pregnancies operated at national and trans-national scales of racialized obstetric knowledge. Peruvians struggled to explain “little mothers” by blaming their pregnancies on backward sexual perversions of rural, indigenous populations in their country. At the same time, Peruvians used these girls as objects of medical expertise, touting in French journals the advanced work of Lima physicians in performing successful Caesarians or understanding the phenomena of young pregnancies—all the while aware that the Western medical community was coming to believe that precocious puberties were a special problem among non-white people of the world.