Marriage in Colonial Mexico: Patriarchy and Economy

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Marriage in Colonial Mexico: Patriarchy and EconomyIn To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico, Patricia Seed argues that the Bourbon Century drastically changed the view of marriage in New Spain. She suggests that the emphasis on virtue and free will in marriage gave way to a new quasi-bourgeois family unit based upon status and patriarchal control. While this is true for the elite of eighteenth century New Spain, this could not have spread to the urban or rural poor. They did not have an overwhelming emphasis on economic prosperity or status and did not have a necessity for strict patriarchal order.The Bourbon order prompted changes in family structure. From the outset, there was a stringent focus on patriarchy and male dominance. Marriage was a decision not left for the to-be-married to decide out of love and desire, but an issue with which the entire family, especially the father, was involved.

Instead of marriage being simply an expression of the mutual feelings of man and woman, it was a system of social and economic status in which the honor of patriarchal lineage was at stake. Children and parents alike had distinct visions of social moralities, but those of the father prevailed. This was the change, as described in Seed’s text, of the Bourbon century in New Spain. However, this change was not fully encompassing.

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The urban and rural poor would not be affected nearly as much by patriarchal domination or the evolving status of honor. As social hierarchy began basing itself more upon economic ideas, New Spain’s poor population became increasingly disenfranchised. Members of the upper class were responsible for the elevated value of status.

It was the fathers of well-off families in New Spain that were encouraged to marry “honorable” spouses as to not bring “dishonor” to the family name. The daughter of an elite family would be prodded to marry and an elite man simply because of his honorable status, not his honorable sense of rectitude or moral consciousness. The church was once a sanctuary to marry those who felt bonded by an unworldly devotion, but now the church served as administrator for the will of elite patriarchs. The lower class, being void of elites, the high status of honor, and overbearing patriarchy was exempt from this defiling of sanctity. For the urban and rural poor there was no vested interest in retaining status.

They were at the bottom of what had become the class system of eighteenth century colonial Mexico. It is because of this that marriages among the lower classes perhaps remained graceful and sacred. Not tainted with economic avarice, poor children were most likely free to marry not bound by their fathers’ ulterior agenda. On the other hand, there was still a system of patriarchy present within the lower tiers and it may have had some influence over marital decisions. That is, perhaps lower class fathers were more interested in the virtue of honor instead of the status. Perhaps the church was seen within poor circles as a holy venue for the uniting of devotion and not as means for elite domination. While Seed does not discuss it, maybe the Bourbon century reforms leading to the economic elitism and patriarchal oversight of marriage did not affect the poor sector in the least. Not only did they not subscribe the ideas of honor-as-a-status, but they barely thought about it.

Bourbon rule did propagate a change in the ideas of love, honor, and marriage in colonial Mexican society. Patricia Seed argues this in her book and cites substantive examples within the elite families of Mexico City. What she does not examine is the role urban and rural poor played in this change. Given the motives for the elite’s transition of the church and of the sanctity of marriage – economic status, it should be asserted that the lower classes were not treated similarly and did not view or interpret honor and religion in the same fashion. Perhaps urban and rural poor still held honor as a virtue in high esteem and were not affected by the changing views of society. Perhaps there was a complete Urban & Elite Bias.


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