history7B –chapter question : Course Help Online

Discussion Question(s)

I’m interested in the role of women– in the colonial family, in colonial society, etc. Based on what you’ve read in the book (and in lecture), how much power do you think women had in colonial Latin America? what kind of control were they able to exert? (keep in mind two things: the patriarchal system, and the fact that patriarchy does not equal one-sided dominance.) 

Lecture 9

Your author for this course, Burkholder (et. al.)*, states from the outset of the chapter we are reading this week that the Family is the foundation of colonial society (p. 216). That is a bold statement, especially since so much of colonial Latin America is built on violence, religion, labor, and the construction of Spanish political structures once Spaniards started settling in the Americas. However, he states it more clearly than I can when he says, “while race, wealth, occupation, and gender all helped to identify an individual’s position in the social structure, these elements were usually evaluated in the framework of a broadly defined family” (p. 216). 

Think about some of the issues that we talked about last week concerning race (which I know is still fresh in your mind!). Among the issues that the lecture, the reading, and all the rest of us in this class discussed was how race was a bit more slippery than we usually think about it in the United States (this of course does not make it any less harmful, just different). Nonetheless, if we think about all the moves that some people were able to make racially– up or down the ladder/hierarchy, depending on the situation– a lot of those moves were not only based on the ideology of the family, but they were also decided on those terms as well. In other words, the ideology of the family helped organize colonial Latin American societies– not just husband, wife, kids, grandparents, etc. Families were more than blood relations, but rather a collective of biological and fictive relationships that offer a means for people navigate colonial society both economically and politically. 

"family" in Latin America

Family meant a lot of different things, but most of all, it is important to remember that being a member of a family was certainly about marriage and blood relations, but it was also kind of like being a member of a “crew” (is that a word that people use these days? Yes? No? I’m a little old, so maybe there is a new word). Anyway, marriages, parentage, god-parentage, and even simply being close enough to a family to be considered part of it almost always had political implications. Like I said, it was how people made their moves. 

Let’s take marriage as an example. Because the population of colonial Latin America was diverse from the beginning (marriages or coupling between native folks and Spaniards in the early years of conquest and settlement started the ball rolling on a rather mixed population), people in different castas, (or “racial castes”– people who were of mixed descent/race) would use marriage and fictive (Links to an external site.) forms of kinship to establish themselves and move up the social ladder (if this sounds like it is connected to last week’s lesson, that’s because it totally is!). For example, let’s look at this picture from last week again:

espanol e india produce mestizo Now, on the one hand, we can look at it as a piece of art, and say that it represents one of the ways in which the colonial government tried to create and reinforce racial different. But now let’s look at it from the point of view of the characters in the picture. For the Indian woman depicted, marrying a Spanish man actually had a lot of perks. Obviously it meant that she had access to more things/people/opportunities than the average Indian woman who did not marry a Spaniard (there were limits, of course). Also, by marrying a Spaniard, she became part of a family that might have had connections. Legally, it is an opportunity for her to become one of them, even if she might not have all of the same rights as her Spanish/white in-laws. 

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, the family unit was the basis of colonial society, which meant that it wasn’t just about going home for Christmas (ha!), it was also about creating a strong political unit that would survive and maybe even thrive in the larger colonial system. Therefore, marriage or family was not necessarily about love, it was about politics and connections.

(Actually, Fry, they just wanted family connections). And it wasn’t just about the person that was getting married, but rather the whole family– entire families would join through marriage and make alliances in order to move up even further socially and economically!

Differences In Marriage Practices Between Castas, Indigenous, and Spaniards (Peninsulares/Criollos)

There were lots of differences! The numbers and comparisons are all in the reading, breaking down the differences between the three groups (which we know is much more diverse than just three groups, but for the sake of our sanity, we will just call all of the mixed race folks castas, as the book does), including the average age at which each got married, who they married, and why.

There are some really interesting examples in your reading (particularly the “murder for hire” example, p. 223), but what I thought was most interesting in this portion of the chapter is the relationships between husbands and wives, and how they worked. I mean, for regular people (not the richest of the rich white folks, how did a marriage work?

Well, obviously every individual marriage works in its own way, and truthfully, there is very little by way of evidence that can tell us anything conclusively–


This is what makes history really interesting: historians who want to find out what marriage was like 300-400 years ago, where do you go? You can’t Youtube it! You can’t get the DVD, and I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Vines did not exist back then (that was a joke, people. I know they didn’t exist. Ha!). Instead, historians have to look for different parts of a story, since the entire story of a marriage will not be available.
So where does the historian go? Well, they can check out marriage records at the local church. With those records, we can figure out who got married, which families got married, and we can also get an idea of where they lived, based on the location of the church. You can also get a sense of who their friends might be– who signed as a witness, for example. 

Historians also look at court records. If you are lucky, there are transcripts, and you can read testimony. If not, you can still figure things out based on the reasons why people went to court. You collect enough of those, and you start to get a sense of how often people went to court and for what reason.

You get enough of these documents together, and you just might be able to create a narrative– which is just what historians do! 

Colonial households

There were a lot of different kinds of colonial households, just as there were many different kinds of marriages. However, one thing remains constant in all of them, believe it or not: patriarchy. 

Now, what is patriarchy (Links to an external site.)? The link to a quick Google definition does a good job of defining it, but I would add that patriarchy is a system of control, first and foremost, and it is one that male-centric, which is to say that it revolves around male power.

However, one of the mistakes that we do not want to make is to think that patriarchy is only about male dominance. It’s an easy trap for us to fall into, because if we look at colonial Latin America (heck, if we look all over the world pretty much), those societies were clearly male-dominated. Women rarely, if ever, were able to exert any kind of public control over the family, business, money, or her husband. The key word in that sentence, however, is public.

Inside the home, and in private, women were able to exert at least some power in their marital relationship, and they did so quite often!

I know what you are thinking:


Well I’ll tell you! There is this great historian, his name is Steve Stern, and back in 1995 he wrote a terrific (but lengthy) book called The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men, and Power in Late Colonial Mexico.

(You don’t need to know that title, or read that book– you’re welcome!)

One of the arguments he made was that although in public women rarely had power, within the domain of the home, things might be a little different. Check out this story that Stern talked about between Jose and Maria (as told by a different author speaking on Stern’s book):

The book employs some 800 incidents involving assault or moral transgressions, but begins with the case of one Indian couple in 1806, Jose Marcelino and Maria Teresa. Jose, probably to his eternal regret, spent a Wednesday in October of that year drinking instead of working. He did not go home for lunch and when he did return for dinner, smelling strongly of rum, Maria Teresa stalked out and spent the night with her mother. Jose was so angry over having no wife, no food, and no authority that he thrashed Maria Teresa’s kitchen. Maria returned the next day to find it in ruins. When Jose returned there inevitably was a fight and he bashed her with a rock. She fell into a coma and died, and he was arrested. 

When the case made its way to court, it took a strange turn. Jose’s mother in-law appeared to say that she had forgiven him. In fact, she he had forgiven him from the moment of the crime! Others came forward to testify to his usual exemplary treatment of his wife. In short, the killing was to be regarded as an anomaly.

 Now, why such an outpouring of compassion? Dr. Stern theorizes that, “the community elders had decided that the time had arrived to lift Jose Marcelino off the criminal hook and to reintegrate him into the structure of community life and labor. Like other land-poor peasants, Jose Marcelino was customarily advised by the elders where he could find day work in agriculture and was counted on to contribute to the community’s tributary obligations to state and church. Few peasants of modest means, let alone an apparent widow like Micaela Maria [the mother-in-law], could withstand for long pressure to reestablish the facade of harmony that would draw an able-bodied man back into community service after a respectable interval of punishment.” (p.6) Jose Marcelino received a pardon and went free. (H-Net review)

There are a few things that we can take from this story, but let’s just touch upon two: first, there are two spheres that Stern is talking about– the public and the private. And in the example above, we can see the ways in which they mingle a bit. The second issue, and for me, this is the most important (and interesting) one– there existed between husbands and wives during the late colonial period in Latin America (and presumable before and after) something called a “patriarchal pact.” In other words, sure– the male is the head of the household, and he actually exerts a great deal of control, but it is not just pure dominance. In fact, to be able to exercise his power over his wife, he had responsibilities that he had to live up to– and if he didn’t, his wife could and would do any number of things, such as leave the home for a bit, stop cooking, lock him out of the house, or even withhold sex.

Throughout much of the world, no matter how much feminists like myself may not like it, the idea of equality between men and women is still something that we have to fight for, even today. To be sure, patriarchy is a powerful system to overthrow, because it exists in the small things in our daily lives, and in the ways in which social, economic, and political systems operate. Patriarchal pacts are not a substitute for equality, but rather they are a means by which women were able to resist, or at least find a way to get at least some footing on a playing field that was never level. 

*”et. al. = “and some other people too”

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