- Runaway Daughters: Seduction, Elopement, and Honor in Nineteenth-Century Mexico
Kathryn Sloan tells tales of working-class men and women who, in courting, loving, using, and abusing each other, were caught up in the legal system of nineteenth-century Oaxaca, Mexico. The 1871 Mexican Penal Code defined rapto as “the abduction against her will by the use of physical violence, deception, or seduction to satisfy ‘carnal desires’ or to marry,” a charge that applied to young women between thirteen and twenty-one years of age (1). As Sloan acknowledges, the cases provide little insight into upper-class lives, wherein people tended to resolve such disputes privately. Taken together, the legal cases, love letters, and penny press illuminate [End Page 191] norms of sexuality, aspects of popular culture, and individual interaction with the legal system in nineteenth-century Oaxaca.
Individuals learned to utilize the legal system to their advantage, according to Sloan. If a man agreed to marry a woman he had abducted or seduced, he could not be charged with rapto (178). A young woman or her family might press a legal suit in order to force a man to marry the young woman and in so doing repair her honor and that of her family. Cases landed in court for a wide variety of reasons, however, including as attempts to force the hand of parents who objected to their children’s choice of mates, as ritual steps toward marriage, or as methods of women’s emancipation from their families. Parsing out legal statutes, Sloan detects how women used language to curry favor with the courts, careful to mention force (or not), their own willingness (or not), and how, where, and when they may have acted.
Testimony reveals that community played a pivotal role in courtship and sexual relations as well as in the ferreting out of evidence for legal cases. Judges called on neighbors as witnesses, and litigants brought their own witnesses to attest to an individual’s reputation and conduct. A man’s relationship with his family and his behavior with women in the village and a woman’s social habits and her prior interactions with men all became factors in the evaluation of a litigant’s position. Sloan’s findings dovetail with previous scholarship when she identifies the contours of gendered divisions of labor and norms of comportment: men were expected to provide economically for the family and eschew extraordinary violence in their treatment of women and children; women were responsible for caring for the home and children and ought to behave modestly in public and in the presence of men. Deviant behavior was a concern not only for individuals but for the family and the entire community.
Love letters served as prendas, or tokens of affection that indicated a certain level of commitment and so often became part of a legal case. The words contained in those letters revealed the nature of that commitment: sincere love, unrequited love, plans to elope, pleas for a sign of affection. Sloan also draws on the popular penny press, most notably the work of Antonio Venegas Arroyo and José Guadalupe Posada, filled with filial disobedience, passion, betrayal, and murder. Sloan understands the stories and news of the bizarre as cautionary tales that delimited acceptable behavior. Young women were warned not to cross certain boundaries of physical and social space and young men to obey and love their parents.
Runaway Daughters offers geographies, gestures, economies, and physical evidence of courtship. The geographies include markets, streets, private space, and liminal spaces on the edge of town. Men expressed their intentions by making gestures: love letters and gifts of cloth, food, candles, and other items. The exchange of money, however, signified not love but a woman’s impurity and would imply she was not worthy of state protection. [End Page 192] Some men argued that after having sex with a woman they found her to be impure, so they paid her a few coins and considered the relationship terminated. Other courtship practices...