Honor in the Past: The Case of Mexico

This episode provides information about how honor was actually lived and experienced. It shows how plebeians conceived of their own honor and were willing to defend it. The incident also demonstrates that the contested identities that individuals or families presented were bound up in their own self-perceptions of honor. In this case, an indigenous family within the indigenous nobility and official class, took on a poor Spanish woman who, although she went by the honorific doña, only had a brother and a sister to defend her. She could neither marshal the forces of family connection nor call upon a community willing to shield her. While more elite women could pull off an illegitimate pregnancy, doña Manuela Morales was not in this league. And although some people sided with her and challenged the Galicias’ authority, and even identity as indigenous nobles, the Galicias ultimately prevailed because their status was more secure and their actions showed a desire to remain virtuous. Ultimately, the community’s verdict is shown in actions rather than words. In the end, it was doña Manuela Morales who was jailed, not the Galicia family. The logic behind the Galicias’s actions might find some echoes in the events reported regularly in the press that link violence at the behest of honor. When twenty-first century men attack daughters or wives whose conduct is in contravention with ideas of honor, they are protecting their reputations within a small social network that matters to them just as the Galicias did.

Patterns and Honor

This particular incident is very telling, but is it representative? Historians debate whether the deep analysis of one episode can be considered typical. Some seminal books (Davis, 1983, Ginzburg, 1980), despite being based on one court case, were widely read and very influential. Yet these studies had their critics because of their narrow focus (Finley, 1988, Davis, 1988). In their defense, the authors used their vast experience in reading the archives in order to create an exceptional analysis of these documents. So, in a sense, they used one example to reflect the patterns that they discovered in the larger corpus of material. Other historians prefer to base their interpretations on documents containing information on large groups of homicides, fights, rapes or beatings. By doing so, we highlight the commonalities between the various incidents rather that the particularities of one case. We look for patterns rather than exceptions, and we build models of behavior based on common actions rather than individual actions.

Not all plebeians defended honor in the same way as the Galicias. In fact, theirs was the only case that I found in which people tried to cause a miscarriage. But, their actions do reflect a pattern found in the actions of many other Mexicans: using violence to defend honor. Plebeians differed in their conduct from the elites who tended to use written forms of defense such as petitions, memorandums, or lawsuits. What ties the plebeian class together in all their gradations of status is that they used their fists and their weapons to defend their honor, rather than resorting to the courts. Just as the elites understood subtle insults to their honor when they were, for example, refused the right to bring a velvet cushion to sit on during mass (Cañeque, 2004) or given an inferior seat at the official bullfights (Viqueira Albán, 1999), plebeians understood what constituted an affront to their honor. The difference lay in their responses; they used physical weapons rather than written ones.


Although honor may seem quite insubstantial to us, something for which it is not worth killing or dying, it is clear from the documentary record that people have believed in its importance and its substance. They judged it vital to defend their reputations because, if honor was your very being, without it, you were nothing. In the case of the Galicias, it is obvious that they considered an illegitimate baby to be a very real threat to their family's reputation. The child’s presence could not be hidden, and thus would devalue their collective virtue. The actions taken by the Galicia family represented a way to guard against any stain to their reputation. In some ways, it would seem their strategy backfired, as it attracted even more attention to their predicament. Yet, in the end, the community supported the Galicias. Their honor was restored and their actions endorsed. What is clear from the historian’s point of view is that actions taken explain more about honor than the theory that can be found in treatises. It is from an examination of patterns that we can discern what honor really meant to people and how they lived it. And perhaps by looking to the past, we can also look forward to understanding the way ahead in terms of honor in the twenty-first century.


Cañeque, A. (2004) The King’s Living Image; The Culture and Politics of Viceregal Power in Colonial Mexico. New York: Routledge.

Cope, R. D. (1994) The Limits of Racial Domination; Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Davis, N.Z. (1983) The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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