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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 363-364

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Book Review

The Faces of Honor, Sex, Shame, and Violence in Colonial Latin America

The Faces of Honor, Sex, Shame, and Violence in Colonial Latin America. Edited by Lyman L. Johnson and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. 240 pp., illustrations, introduction, glossary, index, contributors.)

Editors Lyman L. Johnson and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera have compiled an interesting collection of essays in The Faces of Honor that address historical definitions of honor across colonial Latin America. The authors use a range of historical sources–divorce proceedings, criminal cases, and other types of legal and bureaucratic records–to analyze and discuss premarital sex, single motherhood, unwanted pregnancy, and the use of physical violence by both men and women in defense of honor in colonial society, and how these issues varied among different social groups in different regional and historical contexts.

Mark A. Burkholder gives a general overview and historical background for the culture of honor in reconquest Spain and its transfer to Spanish America. Burkholder analyzes how concerns specific to New World experiences, such as race, the religious conversion of indigenous peoples, and new contexts for labor and occupation, reshaped cultural notions and practices of honor and dishonor among the colonial Spanish elite. Geoffrey Spurling focuses on two late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century court cases that accused the Canon of La Plata Cathedral of committing sodomy. Spurling’s insightful examination of the scandal shows how public perceptions of men’s sexual behavior formed a key component of honor, and convincingly demonstrates how accusations of dishonor acted as important political tools among the colonial elite.

Ann Twinam provides another example of how honor and politics intertwined through an analysis of a 1786 local election in which Havana’s city council threw out the winning candidate’s victory when his opponent exposed the illegitimate birth of his mother. Twinam analyzes a fascinating twist to this account when the losing candidate petitioned Spanish officials to legitimate his mother’s birth, and thus restore his and his family’s good name, in the process demonstrating the flexibility of honor in colonial society. Muriel Nazzari examines the double standard of morality for [End Page 363] men and women in colonial Brazil, and argues that the system of honor and shame, especially attitudes toward women’s sexuality and the importance of the appearance of an honorable life, reinforced economic hierarchies there. Using accounts of insults and physical violence between men in late colonial Buenos Aires, Johnson analyzes how alcohol consumption in public places played a key role in shaping challenges to male honor in plebeian society. Richard Boyer adds to this discussion of honor among plebeians by using court records to flesh out how concepts of honor among slaves, Indians, Blacks, and castas were different from, yet equally as complex as, honor among the elite in late-colonial Mexico.

Lipsett-Rivera addresses the gendered nature of honor in colonial Mexico, emphasizing the centrality of public perception for the maintenance of women’s reputation, and the use of gossip as a dishonoring tool. She then adds texture to this analysis by showing how women’s strategies used to defend their public reputation, such as the concealment of illicit sexual activity, participation in the court system, and physical intimidation and violence, varied by social status. Finally, Sandra Lauderdale Graham adds further evidence to how concepts of honor in colonial society varied by race and social status through the examination of a divorce proceeding of a former slave couple in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. Lauderdale Graham argues that honor among slaves and former slaves reflected their daily lived experiences, and had less to do with sexual fidelity and more to do with problems of poverty.

This volume, part of the Diálogos series at the University of New Mexico Press, is specifically designed for classroom use. While the essays will interest any serious historian of Latin America, the informative introduction, accessible and clearly written chapters, and illustrations throughout make it excellent for class discussion. In addition...