Honor in the Past: The Case of Mexico

Honor in practice: The Case of the Galicias

Historians can provide an insight into how honor was lived in practice by looking at conflicts documented in the archives. When elite Mexicans fought over the desirable positions in a procession, or when more plebeian Mexicans fought over insults, they were defending their honor to the larger world. Their struggles reflected a need to present themselves externally in a manner that would be recognized as honorable and protect their reputation. Also, at times, the documents provide a glimpse into how families tried to hide conduct that, if made public, would stain their honor.

The preoccupation with honor motivated an indigenous family in the town of Xochimilco, just outside Mexico City, to attack their son’s pregnant girlfriend. Although he was indigenous, Abad Galicia could claim honor within the plebeian world. He was clearly a member of the native elite because he used the honorific don which was associated with the lower nobility. It was a fairly common honorific that implied membership in the class of hidalgos. He also had a position as governor of the town, and so, in addition to having an honorific, he could also lay claim to the honor derived from being an official. Don Abad Galicia and his family evidently considered themselves to have honor. They derived this sentiment not just from their obvious status but also because they believed themselves to be virtuous. Yet this honor, which was so apparent to the Galicias, would not have been recognized by contemporary Mexicans with even higher titles such as Counts or Dukes or with certificates of limpieza de sangreto attest to their genealogical purity. Even so, within Xochimilco, people recognized their status, which they reinforced by their actions. They defended their honor against any damage to their reputation. The Galicias’ actions can provide some insight, perhaps, into the ways that people in the 21st century relate to honor. Without a formal apparatus of noble titles or artificial distinctions of rank, individuals who aspire to honor have to defend themselves more forcefully against any potential stain to their reputation within their own social network.

It was perhaps because of the need for popular endorsement and sanction of their honor that the Galicias reacted with such violence when they discovered that their son had impregnated doña Manuela Morales. In this period, children born out of wedlock were not unusual. Colonial Latin Americans had a very high rate of illegitimacy, but generally those who wanted to maintain their honorable status had means to hide unsanctioned pregnancies (Kuznesof, 2001). Women in this situation went away to give birth and either gave away their babies to institutions, other persons, or passed them off as adopted orphans or the children of distant cousins. In some instances, mothers did not hide these illegitimate births but, later applied to have them regularized (Twinam, 1999).

Essentially, there were many less drastic ways to get around the stain of an illegitimate birth. But, these tactics demanded secrecy. Doña Manuela Morales, however, was not discrete. The witness, José Castro, reported that, despite her obvious pregnancy, doña Manuela Morales operated a stall at a local festival not long before the attack. It was at this festival that it became clear that her behavior was infuriating the Galicias. Don Abad Galicia’s daughter, María, insulted doña Manuela Morales publicly, calling her a shameless whore who came out in public to show off her big stomach. María Galicia threatened specific violence: to pull the baby out in pieces. A few nights later, the Galicias made good on these threats. They broke into doña Manuela Morales’s house at night. They pulled her out of bed, beat her, bit her, and scratched her vagina and cervix in an unsuccessful attempt to abort the fetus. The Galicias’ actions were directed at the person who threatened their reputation and their honor. They took violent action because they could not hide her pregnancy, and the existence of an illegitimate baby jeopardized their claim to honor by virtue. It also shows how the two aspects of honor—status and virtue—were intertwined. The Galicias had status as indigenous nobles and officials, but they could lose their claim to virtue because of their association with an illegitimate child. Without virtue, their status did not assure them honor.

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