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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. x + 246 pp. $40.00 paper.

This important anthology collects recent research from the growing area of studies of honor in Latin America. The authors investigate new themes, such as the political implications of honor codes and their meanings among plebeians, in addition to building upon the existing literature that has focused on marriage, sexuality, and race mixing. The articles fit together well, examining similar issues from a variety of perspectives. The target audience, however, is less clear and consistent. Some essays provide new insights for scholars, while others (and the numerous illustrations) seem aimed primarily at students. Further, while the contributions implicitly reflect the aim of the volume to examine the historically specific ways "that the culture of honor was modified over time in response to the development of distinctive regional cultures" (6), only Ann Twinam's essay directly addresses the question, proposing that the honor code was particularly restrictive in the Caribbean and northern South America and increasingly so during the eighteenth century.

The most intriguing new avenue of investigation, in the opinion of this reviewer, is into the relationship between honor and colonial governance. Previous studies of marriage and race have rightly emphasized the public rather than private nature of honor, but two essays in this collection go a step further to examine the political implications of the honor code. Mark A. Burkholder provides a helpful overview of the meanings of honor among the Spanish nobility and colonial bureaucrats and elites. Twinam's carefully researched and subtly argued essay, "The Negotiation of Honor: Elites, Sexuality, and Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Spanish America," is the gem of this anthology. Rather than generalizing from anthropological models, she is particularly sensitive to the contemporary meanings of honor, pointing out, for example, that while scholars may distinguish between status and virtue, for colonial elites these concepts were indivisible. Twinam analyzes 244 petitions to the crown for legitimation (gracias al sacar), primarily motivated by the desire to hold office, in order to determine both the legal bases for establishing one's public status as well as the varying applications of the standards for "passing" into the upper ranks by local elites throughout the empire.

The church makes relatively few appearances in this volume, compared to the existing scholarship on honor and marriage, but readers of this journal may find the essays by Muriel Nazzari and Geoffrey Spurling of particular interest. Nazzari provides a Portuguese parallel to an earlier article by Twinam on secret pregnancies among elite women, but unlike Twinam's focus on the role of the Spanish crown she reveals the active role played by priests in protecting both the physical safety and the public reputation of these women. Surprisingly, "[t]he confessor's manual told priests that they could absolve a penitent married woman who bore an adulterine child while cohabiting with her husband" (119). Moreover, although it was against ecclesiastical rules, some parents secretly served as godparents to their own biological children. Such examples would seem to support an interpretation of the Brazilian church as more lenient than its counterpart in Spanish America. Spurling's article on sodomy charges against the cathedral canon of La Plata (in present-day Bolivia) at the turn of the seventeenth-century subtly explores similar dilemmas for ecclesiastical authorities. As in the cases examined by Nazzari, discretion was of the utmost importance. His colleagues repeatedly attempted to resolve the problem themselves before turning the case over to the courts. In the end the canon was convicted not of sodomy itself, which was difficult to prove, but of publicly tarnishing the honor of the institution, because those who "preach the word of God are obliged not only to be good and perfect but to appear to be, avoiding any occasion that might create scandal" (61). Spurling's essay is also noteworthy for its subtle analysis of the complex interactions of honor and power. The canon's honor was protected to a great degree by his elite standing, but he also undermined the social hierarchy by conferring symbolic honors on his alleged partners, who were of lower status.

The final four essays in the collection further explore the intersections of honor and power by focusing on members of the middle and lower strata of society, who were officially excluded from honorable status but nonetheless defended their reputations on their own terms. The contributions by the editors, Lyman L. Johnson and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, make a particularly interesting counterpoint that reveals important regional differences. In his research into colonial Buenos Aires, Johnson found few plebeian challenges to the hierarchical definitions of honor, or their appropriation of the term "honor" "even while imitating the values and behaviors associated with this cultural system" (129). By contrast, Lipsett-Rivera proposes that in the provincial cities and towns of Mexico, away from the shadow of the capital's aristocracy, status was more fluid and contested. Further, while Johnson moves beyond stereotypes of machismo to add to historical understandings of masculinity in Latin America, Lipsett-Rivera provides evidence of women actively protecting their own honor in contrast to more passive models of female shame.

The essays highlighted in this review add important new insights to the study of honor, which should be of interest to scholars. Taken as a whole, moreover, the volume provides both serious historical material and intriguing stories that ought to be successful in teaching.

Sarah C. Chambers University of Minnesota
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Author:Chambers, Sarah C.
Publication:Church History
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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