In all agrarian-urban societies, honor codes of varying degrees of severity regulated social relations. Precolonial Latin America was no different; with the Creoles at the top of the social hierarchy, this code demanded severe retribution against anyone besmirching the honor of its members, but members of lower-level strata were no less vigilant in the protection of their members. What happened when the honor codes of people from different social strata clashed? The following court case occurred in a Mexican city in 1782. Unfortunately, no settlement of the case is recorded.
The Court Case
17.1 Alcalde Mayor Don Thomás Velasco Receives the Criminal Complaint
Criminal proceedings as a result of the denunciation by José de Álfaro against doña Teresa Bravo, her daughter Teresa, and her sisters Francisca, as well as a woman deposited in their home, and don Diego Fernández, the husband of doña Teresa, for the mistreatment of his wife, Joséfa Cadena. All are vecinos [residents] of this town. The presiding judge in this jurisdiction is don Thomas de Velasco, alcalde mayor and commissioner…
In the town and cabecera [municipality] of San Juan Teotihuacán, on October 16, 1782, before me, Captain don Tomás de Velasco, alcalde mayor [regional magistrate] of this jurisdiction for His Majesty, may God protect him, this petition and its contents are presented, in the presence of witnesses and in the absence of a notary.
17.2 The Petition and Criminal Complaint of José de Álfaro
I, José de Álfaro, resident of this town ... say that on Sunday the thirteenth of this month, my wife, Joséfa Cadena, was coming [out of church] after mass and passed close to doña Teresa Bravo, the wife of don Diego Fernández, cobrador de las rentas de alcabalas y pulques [official in charge of the collection of sales taxes and taxes on pulque]. Doña Teresa, using the pretext that my wife had brushed against her, which was not true, sprung forward, saying to her, “Oh, you black whore, you dare to brush against me.” And throwing her to the ground, not only doña Teresa, but also her daughter, her sister, and the woman who was deposited with them and was in their company, hit her [Joséfa] many times. Although don Diego was present, instead of trying to calm them, he said, “Give it to that black whore again.” In this way, my wife came out of this attack with marks on her face and a big scratch. She has bruises all over her body because of the beating, and since she is pregnant and now she is bleeding, we are worried about the unfortunate consequences of this encounter and that she might lose not only the baby’s life but her own.
In the above related events, doña Teresa and her husband, as well as the other accomplices, insulted my wife and me in a very grave manner, and in all the ways imaginable. To a married woman, no insult is greater than to call her a black whore, since this offends her fidelity and her calidad [here: race]. Her honor is publicly known, and she is not a black but rather a castiza [three-quarters white, one-quarter Amerindian]. In regards to actions, none is worse than to have hit her all over her body and to have marked her face. What makes all this much worse is that the insults occurred in public and in the presence of a numerous crowd who were leaving mass. Don Diego is a participant in this crime, not only because he did not prevent it as he should have and as would have been easy for him due to the power vested in him as a husband, but also because he encouraged his wife and the others who insulted my wife, to consummate the humiliation…
[José de Álfaro] does not know how to sign.
Signed by Licentiate Manuel Cordero
- 3[The Alcalde Mayor orders that information on the petition be collected and that two surgeons examine Joséfa Cadena.] 17.4–17. 5 [Two surgeons examined Joséfa Cadena and testified that she had a scar running from her right eyebrow to her hairline apparently caused by fingernails, and while six months’ pregnant had suffered injuries to her hips, thighs, and groin and had been hemorrhaging through her vagina since the previous Sunday and so was at risk of miscarriage]. 17.6 [The Alcalde Mayor Orders José de Álfaro to Present His Witnesses.]
17.7 Testimony of Don Manuel Delfin
On October 18, 1782 … José de Álfaro presented as a witness a man from whom I took the oath that he made to God and the holy cross in accordance with the law. He said that his name is Manuel Delfin, that he is married, of Spanish calidad, and forty years of age, and is a resident of this cabecera. He knows the person who presents him as a witness. And it is true that on Sunday, the thirteenth of the present month, he was leaving early mass in the company of don Diego Fernández … they heard shouts and turned around to see that Joséfa Cadena was seated on the ground, in the company of her sister, and that doña Teresa Bravo and her daughter Teresa and her aunt Francisca, as well as a woman deposited with them and many other women who he does not remember, were mistreating her with words. Joséfa Cadena got up and tried to hit them, and the young Teresa threw her onto the ground. He saw this because he went there to separate them, which he was able to do. But the others continued to mistreat her with very indecorous words and indecent expressions. And Chepa’s [a nickname for Joséfa] brother arrived and tried to defend her with indecorous words, and it was then that don Diego Fernández answered them with the same impurity and without stopping. And then near the house of don Diego, the witness revealed that Joséfa had said to doña Teresa that she was a whore and that no one had found a friend under her [Joséfa’s] bed. It was then that the fight began. All who participated were hit and scratched, but there was no use of arms …
[Ratifies and signs].
Source: Excerpted and adapted from Sonya Lipsett Rivera, “Scandal at the Church: José de Álfaro Accuses Doña Theresa Bravo and Others of Insulting and Beating His Castiza Wife, Joséfa Cadena (Mexico, 1782),” in Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents in Latin American History, 1550–1850 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 216–223.